Air Conditioner (2020)

I think of myself as someone who doesn’t need much story or overtly stated themes to fall in love with a movie. Cinema is such an immersive sensory experience that just the juxtaposition of powerful images & sounds should alone be enough to fully grab my attention, with narrative & thematic purpose falling to the side as secondary concerns. That personal resolve is routinely tested to its limits at film festivals, though, where I’m used to seeing exciting experiments with image & sound in movies that just . . . meander, never really arriving anywhere in particular. This challenge to my presumed comfort with a high-style/low-story imbalance apparently extends to the at-home, online film fests that have cropped up this summer thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, most notably the We Are One festival’s recent presentation of the film Air Conditioner.

Thematically, Air Conditioner is very up-front about what its central conflict is meant to represent. It even opens with dictionary definitions of “air”, “conditioning”, and “air conditioner” to sketch out allegorical battle lines between natural living conditions and an artificially controlled society. The simple household appliance of the air conditioner is positioned to represent some kind of unnatural, man-made distortion of how we’re supposed to naturally live as a community. Story-wise, there’s even a clear central protagonist deployed to give this vague metaphor practical in-the-moment meaning, especially in relation to societally constructed & enforced class divisions in Angola, Africa. We watch a quiet, calm handyman travel between small jobs & customers in the middle of an air-conditioner related phenomenon in his city, while endless grids of window-unit ACs hanging above him out of every apartment window. He mostly keeps his thoughts to himself, so you have to infer his reaction to the sights & sounds of the bizarre air conditioner crisis yourself. Mostly it just seems like he’s trying to minimize being hassled while the world around him is falling apart, which is at least a universally relatable impulse.

The hassle of the day in this instance is a big one. All air conditioners in the city are malfunctioning and falling from their windowsill perches to the ground, threatening the lives of pedestrians below and drastically raising the temperature of the rooms they’re meant to cool. The closer you live to the Equator the more that premise will sound like a horror film to you, as even just in New Orleans I can tell you that a summer without an air conditioner is miserable (if not borderline life-threatening). While this premise could have easily been molded around a sentient killer-objects horror genre the way of Rubber, The Lift, or Death Bed: The Bed that Eats, however, Air Conditioner takes a much more esoteric route. Our handyman takes a customer’s fallen air conditioner to a repair shop, where a mad scientist converts it into bizarre machinery that projects working-class people’s memories onto video screens and conjures their visions of the future. Elsewhere, working-class men converse through telepathy in the alleys between the buildings the ACs are falling from. A sparse, jazzy score punctuates the handyman’s travels between these mysterious figures and his far less interesting bosses above. It’s all very loose, observational, and aesthetically pretty.

The opening credits of Air Conditioner include a montage of still photographs, including one where a subject is wearing a dress that declares “Art is resistance.” Maybe the point of the movie was not to say anything particular about class disparity in Angola, nor to stage a narratively satisfying story around that theme, but to simply point out that it exists. Maybe illustrating class disparity through something as ubiquitous as air conditioners was the intended resistance. If that’s the case, the film might have fared better as a short than a feature, as the themes & narrative were so loosely defined that all I could really focus on was how eerie the score could be in its better moments and how well the film functions as fine-art portraiture of Angolan locals. I’d usually like to think that kind of pure sensory immersion is enough to fully leave me satisfied, but it ended up testing my patience by the time it fully settled into its groove. There’s something alluring about the idea of common household appliances rebelling against their duty and inciting a class system rift through abandonment of their post, so much so that I wish that this particular movie had taken a more straight-forward path in exploring that idea. I’m a little ashamed to admit it, but I wish it were a little more grounded & basic.

-Brandon Ledet

Electric Swan (2020)

One of the more uniquely impressive strengths of cinema as an artform is its ability to mimic the loopy, transcendent quality of dreams like no other medium. My favorite films tend to be the most highly-stylized, shamelessly artificial indulgences in cinematic fantasy, the ones that disregard the limitations of real-world logic to instead achieve something distinctly subliminal & surreal. The 40-minute mini-feature Electric Swan taps into that subliminal dream space with an impressive sense of ease. It’s a quiet, low-key drift through a retro-futurist dystopia that’s just as mesmerizing & frustratingly unresolved as any nightmare you’ve had during a mid-afternoon nap. It doesn’t have anything especially novel or pointed to say about the class disparity conflicts that give shape to its story, but the hypnotic, dissociative filter it processes those themes through help them to upset & resonate in a way only a movie or a nightmare could allow.

Almost the entirety of Electric Swan is confined to a retro-futurist apartment building in Buenos Aires. Like in a lot of dystopian sci-fi, the wealthiest residents live on the top floor of the building, with levels of class descending with the floor levels all the way to the basement – where the building’s Indigenous, impoverished security guard lives alone. We mostly watch the guard make his daily rounds, acting as a doorman, handyman, therapist, and babysitter at the beck and call of the building’s residents. Both the wealthy and the working class children he serves describe their dreams to him while he struggles to keep up with his daily duties without assistance. Meanwhile, the building itself takes on a menacing presence, as if it were literally haunted by the class divisions it upholds. The wealthy on the top floors become mysteriously nauseous with motion sickness as the building sways; the security guard’s humble basement dwelling floods from an unknown water source; and everyone in-between acts as if the world’s about to end at any minute. Then, same as if in a dream, their shared reality abruptly shifts entirely in a way that cannot be explained by logic or by narrative tradition.

Electric Swan might only get away with its subliminal loopiness because it’s so firmly tethered to familiar genre tropes. The whole thing plays as if someone explained the plot of High-Rise to you as a bedtime fairy tale and then you scrambled all the details in a half-remembered dream. The ease in which it distorts its matter-of-fact portrait of class disparity through a surrealist dream lens is only really paralleled in recent post-Buñuel oddities from South America like Zama, Icaros: A Vision, and Good Manners. Its style vs. substance balance is more befitting of a music video than a feature film, which is likely to agitate anyone who looks to movies for “a good story” rather than a transcendent sensory experience. If you’re typically drawn to movies that play like dreams or to the eerie space where dystopian sci-fi meets fairy tale fantasy, this is one of the most vivid class allegories you’re likely to find this year. And even if you don’t fall under its spell, it’s too short to truly waste your time.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #110 of The Swampflix Podcast: The Matrix Sequels vs. The Animatrix (2003)

Welcome to Episode #110 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, James & Brandon revisit the nu-metal era cyberpunk Matrix franchise for the first time since their youth, half of which they’re watching for the first time. They also take a computer-animated detour into The Animatrix (2003), comparing it extensively to the live-action sequels.  Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, YouTube, TuneIn, or by following the links below.

-Brandon Ledet & James Cohn

Episode #108 of The Swampflix Podcast: The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) & A Quarantine Grab Bag

Welcome to Episode #108 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, James & Brandon catch up with each other on how living in quarantine has been affecting their viewing habits and daily routines over the first couple months of pandemic. They also share their favorite movies they’ve discovered since the stay-at-home orders took effect, starting with the Atomic Age sci-fi classic The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, YouTube, TuneIn, or by following the links below.

-James Cohn & Brandon Ledet

Bonus Features: Playtime (1967)

Our current Movie of the Month, Jacques Tati’s Playtime, is a dystopian farce that clashes futuristic sci-fi sterility with the slapstick chaos of Silent Era comedies. Playtime isn’t as screamingly funny from gag-to-gag as its Silent Era sources of inspiration; it’s more of an intellectual exercise that drolly pokes fun at the absurdity of Modern Living. In that respect, the film is undeniably genius. It’s a patient, nightmarish vision of the way that technology worship is slowly homogenizing all culture & art into one amorphous, spiritless Hell. The minor laughs along the way only soften our frustrations & despair over Capitalism’s momentum towards that inevitable global monoculture, in which new product is more valued than natural humanity.

My initial impulse for recommending further viewing to audiences who want to see more films on Playtime‘s wavelength was to dive deeper into the Monsieur Hulot catalog. Tati directed himself as Hulot in four feature films, most of which overlap thematically with Playtime‘s humanity vs. technology themes. Watching the entire Hulot saga in one go would likely be a bit draining, though, since most of Tati’s directorial work operates with the same low-key tone. Instead, here are a few suggested titles if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to experience more cinema that touches on its themes & charms without repeating them wholesale.

Jour de fête (1949)

Part of the reason I expected bigger laughs out of Playtime is because the only other Tati movie I had previously seen was his debut feature, Jour de fête. It’s a much, much funnier movie than Playtime in terms of staging laugh-a-minute gags. It’s also a much less distinguished movie, creatively speaking, as it merely feels like Tati emulating the Silent Era comedy stylings of Buster Keaton & Charlie Chaplin without adding much innovation of his own. Like Picasso learning to paint naturalistically before he devolved into Cubist mayhem, Jour de fête feels a lot like Tati earning the right to play with the purpose & structure of traditional, vaudevillian comedy by proving he knows how to effectively play it straight.

In terms of setting & atmosphere, Jour de fête is the total opposite of Playtime. Tati stars as a bicycle-equipped mailman in a tiny French village who’s overwhelmed by the sudden influx of work that accompanies a traveling carnival arriving on the scene. Eventually, though, the film adopts the same skeptical eye that Tati’s later work would have for modern innovation, as the mailman attempts to deliver mail in a rapid, new-fangled “American style” that causes exponential chaos on his delivery route. Modern techniques & innovations disrupting the simplicity of daily living was apparently something Tati was interested in exploring from the start of his career, and it’s refreshing to see him pull that off in such a stripped-down, deeply silly context (as opposed to the massive, Parisian-scale sets he built for Playtime).

If you want to see Tati in full, unrestrained goofball mode before his work got more intellectually heady, Jour de fête is a wonderfully funny film from start to end. It’s not as memorably grandiose or artistically mannered as Playtime—so it’s not nearly as essential—but comedies don’t need to be astounding achievements in craft to be worthwhile.

Modern Times (1936)

Chaplin’s Modern Times obviously shares a technophobic sensibility with Playtime in its basic themes, but it’s also stubbornly old-fashioned in a similar way in terms of its form. Made in the post-Depression 30s long after talkies had taken over filmmaking as the industry norm, Modern Times is just as nostalgic as Playtime for Silent Era artistry. There’s minimal spoken dialogue in the film, and it’s mostly sidestepped through the intertitles & pantomime that Chaplin was used to working with – a stubborn nostalgia for filmmaking tradition that Tati would pick back up decades down the line.

Like Playtime, Modern Times is highly skeptical of the convenience that modern tech is supposed to afford our daily lives. Instead of mocking the pointless, homogenizing consumerism that Tati’s film spoofs, however, Chaplin instead warns of the way technology will be used to further exploit working class labor. The film’s most iconic gags are anchored to its opening stretch, wherein factory workers on an assembly line are surveilled & tormented by their supervisors in a series of escalating indignities. This culminates in a few key images from a near-future automated dystopia: Chaplin being admonished via video screen for taking a breather in the company restroom, Chaplin being force-fed a meal via robot to cut down on lunch-break productivity dips, and Chaplin being consumed by the machinery wholesale – whimsically traveling through the assembly line cogs & gears as if it were an amusement park ride.

Overall, this is a much angrier picture than Playtime. Instead of bumbling through absurdly contrived machinery meant to streamline modern life, Chaplin’s tramp character is a chaotic agitator who breaks down the very machines that was were designed to exploit his labor. It’s also a much funnier picture than Playtime and, not for nothing, a masterpiece in its own right.

Sorry to Bother You (2018)

The dystopian warnings of Playtime & Modern Times were fairly accurate to the nightmare we live in now all these decades later, but it still wouldn’t hurt to pair them with a more modern update. The 2018 Boots Riley comedy Sorry to Bother You is a gleefully overstuffed sci-fi satire that taps into the Amazon Prime-sponsored hellscape we’re living in today like no other film I can name. Just as angry about class disparity & economic exploitation as Modern Times, Sorry to Bother You is bursting at the seams with things to say about race, labor, wealth, and the art of selling out in every over-the-top gag. Unlike the even-tempered, carefully curated confection that Tati achieved in Playtime, Riley’s film is never satisfied with exploring one idea at a time when it could just as easily flood the screen with thousands all at once, subtlety & restraint be damned. Where the films differ in tone, however, they greatly overlap in their fear of an inevitable, homogenized monoculture – a world without any recognizable sense of genuine humanity or localized community.

Overall, Sorry to Bother You‘s concerns are more aligned with the labor exploitation fears of Modern Times; this becomes especially evident in the film’s back half when its corporate villain, the fictional Amazon surrogate Worry Free, redesigns the human body itself for maximum labor efficiency. Worry Free’s insidious mission does overlap greatly with the monotonized, spiritless dystopia of Playtime for much of the film’s runtime, though. Their preference would be that the entire working-class population live on campus at their factory jobsites, six workers to each bunkbed slumber cubicle. Billboards with cheeky slogans like “If you lived here you’d be at work already” and desperately “chill” MTV Cribs episodes advertise these uniform live-at-work cubicles as a convenience that’s too tempting to pass up, but for the audience at home it’s easily recognizable as a nightmare vision of our not-too-distant future under the rule of Emperor Bezos.

While Riley’s film is much more tonally & politically chaotic than Playtime at large, it does have its own touches of carefully curated twee whimsy when it’s in the mood (including an out-of-left-field Michel Gondry gag). Both movies also share a bumbling protagonist who’s just trying to get through his day while a rapidly modernizing world around him makes every decision feel like a complex puzzle – whether one of morality (Sorry to Bother You) or one of practicality (Playtime). As you can likely tell by this group of recommendations, I tend to gravitate more towards Riley’s chaotic, messy sensibilities over the restrained subtlety of Playtime, but I still found a greater appreciation for both titles through the comparison.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Playtime (1967)

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 Hanna made Britnee, Brandon, and Boomer watch Playtime (1967).

Hanna: My taste in film—especially comedies—was heavily influenced by the movies my dad watched.  He seemed to be especially enamored with movies about men successfully and improbably bumbling their way through circumstances that are totally beyond their comprehension with fantastic bouts physical comedy (Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator and Peter Sellers The Pink Panther are notable favorites).  Those films helped foster a love for absurd comedy in general, especially in relation to everyday helplessness in the face of bureaucracy (I am a big fan of The Trial and Brazil) and our attempts to convince ourselves that the world isn’t totally confounding most of the time.  About a year ago I stumbled onto Playtime (1976) while perusing through the Kanopy website, and it managed to unite all of those wonderful threads—a hapless man shuffling through confounding obstacles, the unsettling prospect of navigating inhuman systems, and the natural delights of an good old-fashioned goof—into a gorgeous comedy that shimmers up into my mind at least once a month.

Playtime, directed by Jaques Tati, follows an assortment of characters—namely, a Parisian in his mid-50s named Monsieur Hulot (played by Tati) and an American tourist named Barbara (played by Barbara Dennek)—ambling through a variety of settings in a grayscale Kraftwerk version of 1960s Paris. The film begins in an airport (which is so devoid of identity that I mistook for a hospital for the first few minutes) as groups of tourists leave and enter Paris, and follows them into an absurd rendering of downtown Paris, a giant gray set populated by tourists and businessmen and an sea of monolithic steel and glass structures. It is here that we meet Hulot, who seems to be in the city on some sort of business, but is so completely baffled by the city that he’s not really capable of accomplishing much of anything.  Next, we follow Hulot into a bizarre gadget trade show, then out of Paris’s commercial center and into a domestic one; he runs into an old friend, who invites him to see his “ultramodern” apartment complex, a sleek set of gray cubes with glass walls facing the street (very modern, and a voyeur’s delight). Once Hulot leaves the apartment, we follow a group of young American tourists to the disastrous opening of The Royal Garden, an upscale restaurant and club with such shoddy and poorly planned construction that it begins to fall apart before the guests arrive. The film ends on the morning of the following day, as tourists prepare to leave for their homelands and Parisians prepare for work.

These distinct environments, which connect to form the absolute heart of the film, were part of an elaborate set built for Playtime called Tativille, which covered six acres of land in southern France; its construction added significantly to the film’s production period (three years) and budget ($15.4 million euros today), and was burned down after production ended.  Tativille radiates a kind of colorless disorientation through its impenetrable grayness, its blocky monotony, and its perpetual electric buzz that perfectly illustrates the surreal experience of living in a world that opposes organic engagement.  The comedy in Playtime rests on the tension between existing in and navigating vast technological and bureaucratic systems, which are both unnecessarily complex and hopelessly illogical. In an early scene, for instance, Hulot carefully considers a map containing absolutely no helpful information in an attempt to orient himself in an office building, only to find that he is standing in an elevator that is quickly rising many, many floors away from the man he’s supposed to be meeting.  In one of the film’s most iconic moments, he witnesses a terribly inefficient file transfer in a perfectly arrayed rat maze of cubicles.

What I like most about this tension, though, is that human connection does persevere sometimes, especially in the latter half of the film: restaurant patrons sing old songs together amid the restaurant’s wreckage, pipelayers collaborate to sneak a glass of beer in the morning, and life goes on.  It’s nice (and naïve, given the current moment) to imagine that technological, bureaucratic, and capitalist systems around us might just be baffling, as opposed to actively toxic and harmful.  Britnee, how did you feel about the environments in Playtime?  Do you think the world Tati built is still relevant?  How do you think those environments would have changed if Playtime was made today?

Britnee: It took me a while to realize that the film wasn’t set in a hospital, so I was relieved to read that you got the same hospital vibes in the first scene.  Everything about each environment felt so sterile.  I would usually find nothing but discomfort in such plain and ultra-clean environments, but given the current COVID-19 circumstances, I felt at ease.  I’m also surprised by how interesting the each environment turned out to be.  I was fascinated by the restrooms in the airport (Confession: I love exploring different types of public restrooms in general).  They were built just like an office cubicle, and offered no privacy for the men walking in to use it.  That’s the thing with the cubicle structure that is ever so present in this movie.  While it seems like a cubicle offers privacy, it really doesn’t.  It gives you just enough privacy to think you’re hidden, but you aren’t.  Parts of you are still seen and your movements and discussions are still clearly heard by others.  You’re just contained in a place where everyone knows where to find you, sort of like a lab rat in some sick experiment.  I work in a cubicle, so I’m speaking from experience.  It’s the worst.

I’m also just finding out about Tativille, and I’m so blown away.  An entire city built from scratch, only to be burned to the ground and never seen again.  RIP Tativille.  Whether Tativille would still be relevant today is a tricky question.  Modern office spaces are moving towards having more open work spaces, with no more cubicles and glass walls and doors.  Even modern homes are typically built or renovated with an open floor plan, where walls are being torn down to create more opportunities for togetherness.  The separated style of the airport, business office, and trade show of Tati’s world would be a bit different today.  However, the minimalistic look of the building’s interior and exterior would most definitely be relevant.  I can’t help but think of the overpriced, cheaply built homes, apartment buildings, and office buildings popping up all over New Orleans.  They appeal to many—mainly newcomers to the city—with their modern, lifeless look.  So much so that a plain three-bedroom shotgun home can easily go for half a million dollars within a week of popping up out of nowhere.  Even modern restaurants popping up around New Orleans are similarly styled to the one in Playtime, with a bar that looks like a science lab instead of an actual bar.  I truly think that a modern day Tativille would not look that much different than the one from 1967.  It would be a little more open but still just as soulless in design.

I found a lot of humor in the group of American tourists. It made me think about my trip to Paris a few years ago that I took with a group of people. There was a time where the majority of the group almost passed out with joy at the sight of a Starbucks, which I couldn’t understand at all.  Why would anyone go to Starbucks while in Paris, surrounded by so many unique cafés that aren’t found anywhere else in the world?  These were the same folks who were amazed by the huge steel buildings in the business district while bored with the charming cobblestone streets of Montmatre.  This is one of the many reasons why I travel solo nowadays.  Brandon, were there any particular characters or groups that you found to be funny?

Brandon: Honestly, judging Playtime‘s merits as a comedy is where I struggle most in my appreciation for the film  overall.  It reminds me a lot of over-budget American comedies of its era like What’s New Pussycat? & It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World that packed gigantic casts into sprawling runtimes, drowning out their intended madcap humor in a flood of flop sweat.  As a comedy, I am not convinced that Playtime is as screamingly funny as it needs to be to justify the effort that went into constructing it (or the effort that goes into watching it).  Every single gag is precisely designed & picked over so that no hair is left out of place, yet the overall comedic payoff amounts to the polite chuckles of recognition that East Coast Intellectuals get out of reading New Yorker cartoons.  On one hand, I do believe that was the intended effect of the piece — to stimulate the intellect of its viewers by drolly poking fun at the absurdity of Modern Living.  After all, Chaplin had already utilized the same cinematic slapstick medium to attack the same satirical target decades earlier for full-bellied laughs in Modern Times; it makes sense that Tati would want to push the artform into a new, exciting direction in his own revision.  Still, I found myself struggling to adjust my personal metrics of what makes a successful comedy while watching Playtime, since I’m trained to expect laugh-a-minute gags from the genre — something this movie isn’t particularly interested in providing.

If there is any one sequence that I found especially funny, it’s the hip, modernist restaurant’s disastrous opening night.  There is something incredibly satisfying about watching a pristinely mapped-out, designed-to-death space gradually break down into drunken chaos as that sequence progresses.  As Hanna mentioned, it is one of the few instances of the film where the natural disorder of humanity actually breaks through the monotonous control of technology that makes most of the film feel so sterile, and that payoff was a huge relief.  I don’t know that any one character within that sequence stuck out to me as a favorite, because this is a film that generally follows the progress of commotion rather than following the progress of particular characters.  Monsieur Hulot himself doesn’t enter the restaurant until well after the wheels have already fallen off among other diners and the staff, and he’s ostensibly the film’s protagonist.  I did find a lot of humor-of-recognition chuckles in the predicaments of the anonymous restaurant staff, however: the bartender having to work around an ornamental wall hanging that impeded the practical motions of his job; the waiter whose uniform gradually breaks down as the unfinished jobsite slashes at his armor; the doorman who continues to pretend that nothing is amiss hours after the glass door he is in charge of shatters, etc.  The restaurant sequence reminded me a lot of the specific indignities & absurdities of my own years working in the service industry, which combined with my general thirst for unstructured chaos to elicit most of the film’s biggest laughs.

I might struggle with assessing Playtime as a comedy, but as a dystopian vision of the way that technology worship is slowly homogenizing all culture & art into one amorphous, spiritless Hell, the movie is absolutely genius — undeniably so.  Although most of the film’s characters are playing tourist throughout Paris, we only see famous monuments like the Eiffel Tower & the Arc de Triomphe in the reflections of mundane skyscrapers’ endless grids of windows.  The sterile airport’s lobby advertises travel posters for other exotic, romantic destinations — each with the same uniform super-buildings waiting to bore & confound visitors in a new climate.  There are many ways in which technology is incredibly helpful in connecting the world as a communication tool, but it’s also aiding capitalistic forces that would prefer the world entirely homogenized so that it’s easier to control & market to.  In some respects, this dystopian vision of Paris is no different than would be if it were set in Tokyo or São Paulo or downtown Houston, Texas.  All distinguishing cultural features have been effectively, systematically erased, which is a loss that all major cities’ populations are currently fighting to prevent — lest their communities transform into endlessly repeating grids of skyscrapers & condos.  If this is a work that relies on the humor of recognition, it’s a success in how it reflects my own fears of New Orleans’s trajectory towards corporatized monoculture in the post-Katrina years (a disturbing trend Britnee already noted earlier).  Except, I feel just as much frustration & despair in this seemingly inevitable arc towards global singularity as I do humor in its relatable minute-to-minute absurdities, if not more so.

Boomer, how did you find Playtime‘s balance between humor and despair?  Were you more affected by its dystopian vision of a globally homogenized future or by its optimistic assertion that the quirky disorder of humanity will always find a way to burst through the seams (as in the chaotic restaurant opening)?

Boomer: I like that Hanna mentioned Brazil in her introduction, because that was the first thing that came to mind during the scene in which Hulot waits as one of the people with whom he is meeting walks towards the camera from very far away, moving at a rapid place but taking a nearly interminable time to reach the foreground destination.  This film is dystopian, but I never would have defined the film that way if the pump had not been primed, so to speak.  I tend to conceptualize dystopias—Oceania, Panem, the Cardassian Union—as monolithic and oppressive by nature and intention; the bureaucratic nature of dystopia is an effect and not a cause, a consequence of the indifference and pragmatism needed to prop up and propagate malice, to give it credibility through structure.  Playtime is the story of the opposite, where bureaucracy gives birth to depersonalization rather than the other way round.

As for the humor . . . Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is (not quite accurately) cited as the first feature-length animated film, and the Disney-propagated narrative is that the majority of resistance to the film’s creation was the idea that no one would want to watch a feature-length cartoon.  To an extent, Playtime is that feature-length cartoon that a standard audience would find difficult to complete — cutesy sound effects accompanying the movement of actors filmed on a Synecdoche, New Yorkian labyrinth film set that evokes a depressed Tex Avery.  At nearly two hours, it’s perhaps slightly too long for me to enjoy.  Unusually for me and my normal tastes, the film’s narrative actually acts against it, as I enjoyed the individual vignettes well enough in and of themselves (give or take a few), but forcing an interconnectedness between them extended the length unnecessarily.  For a film that foregoes “plot” so much as it does, what filaments of story that exist strangle much of the comedy for me.  I would have preferred if we had cut straight to Hulot’s visit with this old friend in his ultramodern exhibitionist apartment rather than having the two run into each other and Hulot having to be convinced.  There are so many fun and enticing images in that section: the different television sets bathing two households in identical light, the way that each family and their guest(s) seem to be starting at each other at certain moments as if in a conversational lull, the framed, boxed-in portrait of home life that may be a commentary on the banality of the domestic sitcom, for which it could easily be mistaken.  But the bracketing of this sequence with Hulot’s reluctance to arrive and his desperation to leave reduces it to be less than the sum of its parts.  So I was equally affected by its quirky humanity?

I don’t want to be down on Playtime or unnecessarily critical, because I’m glad I’ve seen it.  My favorite gags were the aforementioned filing sequence, Hulot and his colleague seeing each other reflected in the glass of a different building and mistaking their positions despite being within feet of each other, and every time poor Barbara got harassed by her clingy friend while just trying to enjoy Paris (there’s not that much dialogue in the film, but 25% of it consists of “Come on, Barbara! C’mere, Barbara!”).  I just feel like I got shuffled about in it, which I suppose could be the point.

Lagniappe

Boomer: I was terribly disappointed that the electronic broom only had headlights. I was imagining a Roomba on a stick.

Britnee: The Royal Garden restaurant scene is both one of the longest and one of the funniest scenes in Playtime. A turbot à la royale is being prepared and seasoned tableside for several diners, but it never gets eaten. It’s wheeled around the restaurant while getting salted and peppered numerous times, and for some reason, I found it to be so funny while also being very anxious about it at the same time.

Hanna: There’s a moment in the beginning of Playtime where an American tourist essentially forces an older woman selling flowers on the street to pose for a photo. The woman’s flowers are one of the only sources of organic color in the movie, and the photo-op is ostensibly an attempt to capture the rustic essence of Paris. The shot is repeatedly interrupted by other tourists, businessmen, and young Parisian ne’er-do-wells walking through the frame. When they’re finally gone, a man in military garb approaches the two women and asks them both to pose in his photo. This scene reminded me so much of tourists in the French Quarter, especially in the context of the city’s gentrification and the homogenous gutting of shotguns across the city; people will continue to document the vestiges of a city’s cultural identity as if they’re ubiquitous, even when they’ve been reduced to purely cosmetic touches on an anonymous backdrop.

Brandon: The only other Tati movie I have seen to date is his debut feature, Jour de fête.  It’s a much, much funnier movie than Playtime in terms of staging laugh-a-minute gags.  It’s also a much less distinguished movie, creatively speaking, as it merely feels like Tati emulating the Silent Era comedy stylings of Buster Keaton & Charlie Chaplin without adding much innovation of his own.  Like Picasso learning to paint naturalistically before he devolved into Cubist mayhem, Jour de fête feels a lot like Tati earning the right to play with the purpose & structure of traditional, vaudevillian comedy by proving he knows how to effectively play it straight.  If you want to see Tati in full, unrestrained goofball mode before his work got more intellectually heady, it’s a wonderfully funny film from start to end.  It’s just not as memorably grandiose or artistically mannered as Playtime, so it’s not nearly as essential.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
June: Brandon presents Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)
July: Boomer presents Marjoe (1972)
August: Britnee presents Three Women (1977)

-The Swampflix Crew

The X from Outer Space (1967)

The standard complaint about most kaiju movies is that they feature too much human-to-human interaction and too little Giant Monster action. There has never been a single Godzilla movie that hasn’t suffered complaints that there wasn’t enough Godzilla in it, regardless of how that true that is in its specific case. What a lot of people don’t realize is that a pure 100% Monster Action kaiju movie would almost certainly be a repetitive bore. Yes, the heavy metal imagery & cheap-thrills payoffs of watching a giant creature smash buildings to crumbs is inherently more exciting than listening to scientific government types cook up a plan to stop it (expect maybe in the brilliant bureaucracy satire Shin Godzilla), but if kaiju movies didn’t break that mayhem up with something, the spectacle would quickly become a monotonous bore.

What I love most about The X from Outer Space is that it breaks up its Monster Mayhem spectacle with so much on-the-ground human drama that it feels as if it’s actively trolling its audience. If it weren’t for the monster on the poster, there’d be no implication that this was a kaiju movie during its opening hour, two-thirds of its total runtime. In the meantime, the movie putters around outer space to a snazzy samba score – like a hip, jazzy update to vintage Flash Gordon radio serials with a (mostly) Japanese cast. There are a few run-ins with “space sickness,” love-triangle melodrama, and a UFO that’s shaped like a glowing pot pie to drum up some conflict before the monster arrives, but it all registers as lighthearted fluff – deliberately so. By the time the film’s doomed space crew pauses their mission for a fun, carefree holiday at their company’s moon base it’s clear no one is in a rush to fight off any giant monsters, at least not while the party vibes are still alive.

Once “the space monster Guilala” does hatch from its space-spore incubator, he does go full Monster Mayhem on any and all Japanese infrastructure he can smash by hand, laser beam, and fireball. By saving all its kaiju spectacle payoffs for its final half hour, The X from Outer Space can afford to allow Guilala to rampage on uninterrupted for long stretches, as there’s little time for his mayhem to backslide into monotony. Even then, the character design for Guilala has too much Big Goofball energy to be taken fully seriously – falling somewhere between the dorky giant-bird looks of Big Bird, The Giant Claw, and Q: The Winged Serpent. His motivation for smashing up Japanese infrastructure is that he’s just a little hangry. The fictional compound the space cadets synthesize to stop that temper tantrum is somehow even sillier than his motivator: guilalanium. Watching Guilala smash the miniature sets beneath him is absolutely adorable, which might not be the exact effect most kaiju movies are aiming for.

The X from Outer Space is too purposefully, flippantly campy to be taken seriously as the pinnacle of the kaiju genre (at least not while Godzilla vs. Hedorah outshines it in every conceivable way). Between its adorable miniature space rockets, its goofball bird monster, and its willingness to pause any conflict for a jazzy soiree, the movie’s overall tone is decidedly Cute. The movie only makes vague gestures towards the Horrors of the Atomic Age that usually concern the genre, while it mostly busies itself by having a swinging good time. Still, I do think there’s something to the peculiar way it withholds all of its kaiju action for its third act, where it unloads its rubber-suit monster mayhem in one continuous, concluding flood. That choice sidesteps the usual complaint about lack of kaiju action in kaiju movies by leaving the audience with the strongest dose of the stuff at the very end, making for a potent final impression. This particular kaiju action just happens to be very, very goofy – adorably so.

-Brandon Ledet

Dark City (1998)

I stumbled into the late-90s sci-fi curio Dark City with the best contextual background info possible: none. I picked up a used DVD copy of its Director’s Cut from a cat-rescue thrift store in Metairie, knowing only that it’s a divisive work from a director I don’t typically care for: Alex Proyas (Gods of Egypt, The Crow). I didn’t even know what decade the film was initially released in, assuming that it must have arrived at least five years later than it had – if not twice that. In retrospect, it was incredibly rude of this shameless decade-late Matrix rip-off to arrive a year before The Matrix, further confusing my understanding of what I had watched. Dark City is an infinitely faceted mystery. It initially establishes the mystery of what’s even happening in its futurist-noir plot, something that doesn’t become fully apparent until a third of the way into its runtime. Once its worldbuilding cards are all on the table, the questions only snowball: How is this much parallel thinking with other sci-fi works of its era even possible? Is it a masterful work of speculative fiction or just a fascinating mess? How did Proyas, of all people, stumble into creating something so worthy of continued personal interpretation & debatr? These mysteries are best experienced in a contextual vacuum, a self-discovery blind-watch. In other words, you should not be reading this review if you haven’t already seen the film for yourself.

Oddly, the audiences least equipped to see Dark City with the necessary blank slate were the people who caught it during its initial theatrical run back in 1998. At producers’ insistence, the initial theatrical cut of the film opened with a narration track that spoiled the central mystery of its sci-fi premise – dumping key information that’s carefully trickled out in the Director’s Cut with one intense flood. I’m genuinely glad I waited the twenty years necessary for the film to find me in the wild, rather than jumping on it in a time when it was less special and, apparently, self-spoiled. Whereas Dark City feels like a bizarro anomaly in retrospect, it was a victim of a crowded field of parallel-thinkers in the late-90s. Remarkably similar titles like eXistenZ, The Thirteenth Floor, and The Matrix (a movie that, like Dark City, was curiously an American-Australian co-production) were all released within a year of Proyas’s curio. It’s tempting to blame Dark City‘s financial failures on New Line Cinema’s decision to open it on the same weekend as James Cameron’s cultural behemoth The Titanic, but the truth is that only one of these films succeeded in their time, regardless of their opening-weekend competition. Contemporary audiences seemingly only had the capacity to love one simulated-reality sci-fi spectacle in that era, allowing the test of time to sort out the rest to varying results – eXistenZ rules as a video game era update to Videodrome; The Thirteenth Floor is a “You Had to Be There” snoozer; and Dark City is a confounding headscratcher that’s equal parts glaringly Flawed and mesmerizingly Ambitious.

If you haven’t guessed by all this repetitive Matrix referencing, this is a science-fiction film about simulated reality. Whereas the Wachowskis approached that topic through a cyberpunk lens, however, Proyas dialed the genre clock back to 1940s noir. The titular Dark City looks like a physical recreation of Gotham City as it appears in Batman: The Animated Series. Only, the towering metropolis shifts & reconfigures like a malfunctioning Rubik’s Cube, controlled by an unseen force that only reveals itself to the audience once they lose control of the game. The characters shift around just as easily as the buildings. That’s because an alien race known only as The Strangers have abducted an entire city-sized population of human beings and quarantined them in a human-scale rat maze, a closed-off city with no exits. Their experiments on human behavior are hinged on nightly resets where The Strangers transplant memories from one human test subject to another, reassigning different personalities & roles to arbitrarily selected specimens as if they were a rotating theatre company cast instead of “real” people. The goal of the experiment appears to be settling the Nature vs. Nurture debate, determining whether a person’s life path is defined by their lived experiences or their set-in-stone soul. The undoing of the rat maze simulation is very similar to the one in The Matrix: one of the rats gains the seemingly magic ability to alter the physical environment that contains him, becoming just as powerful as his captors, if not more so. We watch a confused protagonist start off as a Hitchcockian archetype who’s wrongly accused of murder discover an even greater mystery in the effort to clear his name: Nothing is real.

Since it understandably takes a while for this high-concept premise to fully reveal itself (at least in its narration-free Director’s Cut), Dark City‘s strongest asset is its creepy mood. Not only does it borrow the late-hour, back-alley atmosphere from the noir genre, it pushes that stylistic influence to the point where the only sunlight depicted onscreen is in billboard advertisements. Characters half-remember sunlight being A Thing, just like they remember trains that actually leave the city and childhoods that were entirely fabricated by The Strangers. Watching them grapple with the slow realization that everything they see & know is Fake is genuinely disturbing, no matter how many times that theme was echoed in similar contemporary works. It helps that The Strangers themselves make for deeply creepy foes, chattering their teeth when agitated and dressing up like Nosferatu G-Men. Those alien super-creeps are maybe the only truly idiosyncratic element at play visually, as the film blatantly borrows a lot of influence from the production design of preceding works like Brazil & City of Lost Children. Dark City mostly distinguishes itself in how its familiar noir archetype characters and retro-futurist cityscapes shift around—both physically and spiritually—into chaotic, unstable configurations. It’s a continuous sensation of having the rug pulled from under you as you attempt to get a sturdy footing in established, solid reality. That sensation has its thematic justifications rooted in an Early Internet era when online personae & communication were starting to supplant The Real Thing, which might explain why so many of these simulated-reality sci-fi pictures all arrived in the same year. More importantly, it’s effectively creepy, at least enough so to carry you through the mystery of its plot.

Unfortunately, I can’t quite match the enthusiasm of Dark City‘s most emphatic defenders (most significantly Roger Ebert, who repeatedly declared the flop his favorite film of 1998). Besides suffering the same Macho misinterpretation of noir that most of the genre’s throwbacks perpetrate (sidelining Jennifer Connelly of all people and mostly casting women as half-naked prostitute corpses), the movie also makes a major mistake in how it unravels the rat-maze experiment of its premise. I don’t know that I needed a fatalistic worldview where there’s no escape from The Strangers’ wicked manipulations of their victims’ memories, but that option certainly would have fit the mood of the piece better than transforming its running-from-the-law protagonist into a Chosen One superhero archetype. The more our amnesiac anti-hero uses his newfound superpowers to bend his rat-maze surroundings to his will (materializing doorways in brick walls, shaping the geography of the buildings to his convenience, fighting off The Strangers with his Professor X mind powers, etc.), the more they deflate the film’s creepy mood. It doesn’t at all help that Dark City accurately predicted the very worst impulses of the 2000s-2010s superhero blockbuster in its abrupt climactic battle, where our hero squares off against the top Stranger in mind-powers combat while the city crumbles around them in shoddy CGI. This genre shift from atmospheric noir to superhero spectacle isn’t a total mood-killer, but it does fall just short of “It was all a dream” in the least interesting paths the movie could have chosen. At least, that’s how it feels watching this after a solid decade of MCU dominance over mainstream culture.

The benefit of watching Dark City for the first time all these years later is that it doesn’t have to be perfect to be interesting or worthwhile. Its need to compete with contemporary triumphs like The Matrix or eXistenZ continues to fade with time, even if its year-early arrival before those sci-fi classics remains a mysterious curiosity. I found the movie glaringly flawed & confounding from start to end, and yet I’m increasingly fond of it the more I puzzle at it. It’s a deeply strange, beautifully hideous film that’s totally dislodged from its place in time.

-Brandon Ledet

The Platform (2020)

“There are three types of people: those at the top, those at the bottom, and those who fall.”

Last December, James and I recorded a podcast episode on what we called “Vertical Class Warfare.” We discussed three genre movies that illustrated their class-based conflicts through an excessively blatant, literal metaphor in which the working class had to physically fight their way up a vertical structure to take down the upper-class oppressors who towered above them. The three movies that anchored the episode were Parasite, Us, and C.H.U.D., while High-Rise & Snowpiercer (a horizontal deviation on the theme) naturally came up in conversation. I would now like to add the Netflix-released sci-fi picture The Platform to that growing list, which is may even be more dutifully committed to its Vertical Class Warfare gimmick than any other movie mentioned. While the two films from last year that inspired the episode—Parasite & Us—invest time in developing the characters & interpersonal relationships staged in their Vertical Class Warfare scenarios, The Platform is almost singularly obsessed with the actual structure of its geographical class divide and how it is policed. It’s so into Philosophy & economic theory that there’s room for little else, ensuring that the movie is almost 100% worldbuilding – a guided tour of an already established dystopian hellscape. Luckily, it has more than enough Big Ideas & gory catharsis to pull that indulgence off.

A man with no established background or goals awakes in a concrete tower that resembles an impossibly tall prison. We learn the circumstances of this tower (“The Vertical Self-Management Center” in the official corporate-speak) along with this new resident/prisoner as he finds his own bearings. A viciously unhelpful, mysterious cellmate dodges his endless flood of questions and allows him to discover the rules of their confinement in his own time. As the stranger puts it (and as the rules of this growing subgenre dictate), there’s no need to explain these things because, “It’s obvious” – a phrase that’s repeated so often it effectively becomes the film’s self-parodic mantra. Gradually, we learn that prisoners are randomly assigned floor numbers at the start of each month, counting down from Floor #1 at the top to the seemingly bottomless number of higher-numbered floors hundreds of levels below. Every day, a platform lowers down each of these levels with an overflowing banquet that offers more than enough food to feed everyone housed in the facility. Except—and it’s obvious—the arbitrarily privileged gluttons on the upper floors gorge themselves on as much food as they can stomach, leaving little to nothing for the peasants below (despite having tasted the raw end of that deal themselves many, many months prior). Once this preposterous scenario is established, all there’s left to do is contrive a way for that cycle to be broken. How to achieve that systemic change, it turns out, is the one thing that is not Obvious.

The most rewarding thing about these kinds of movies is that they’re excellent conversation starters. The entire struggle of the movie is rooted in the frustration that the prisoners are wholly committed to their arbitrarily assigned class divides, abusing their temporary power over one another rather than seeking solidarity or inciting a prison-wide riot. It’s the same compromise most of us make every day in a rigged-to-exploit, Capitalist hierarchy: the need to comfortably survive another day outweighs the huge risks & efforts it would take to positively change the system forever. The way The Platform applies its titular metaphor to topics as wide-ranging as worker solidarity, the fallacy of “upward mobility,” and the cruel frivolity of fine dining in an age where people who cannot access it literally starve to death all serve to provoke the audience into active debate with its themes. Even the questions left by its constant worldbuilding (basically, what any aspect of society looks like outside the jail cells or the haute cuisine kitchen where the banquets are prepared) seem designed to provoke further discussion after the credits roll. Yes, the function of its central metaphor is brazenly Obvious, but the movie digs far enough into each logistic of its dystopian hierarchy that it keeps itself plenty busy after the rules of its world are initially established.

Luckily, heady ideas about economic inequality aren’t all that’s being offered on a platter here. The Platform is also committed to serving up horrific, stomach-turning violence in a full-on practical gore spectacle. The Platform pursues a “Eat or be eaten” cannibalism metaphor just as literally & extensively as it explores the logistics of its vertical food distribution contrivance. That way, your eyes are dazzled by traditional, gross-out genre payoffs in the forefront while your mind prods at the meaning & shortcomings of its Obvious political provocations in the background. This is an incredibly nasty slice of schlock with a deviously wicked sense of humor; it’s also a politically engaged provocation that’s obsessed with understanding & undermining the systemic power imbalances that keep us all stuck in place and at each other’s throats. It’s a perfect film to watch in these increasingly bizarre, dysfunctional helltimes where it seems like those very systems are crumbling before our eyes. It feels like there might be a chance that we’ll all soon break out of our own arbitrarily cruel rut and tear this prison down any day now – as long as we don’t eat each other alive before we achieve that solidarity.

-Brandon Ledet

Color Out of Space (2020)

Richard Stanley is back, baby. After decades of Film Industry exile (documented in the bizarre saga Lost Soul), the witchcraft-obsessed genre freak has re-emerged fully charged and ready to explode. It would be inaccurate to claim that Stanley’s comeback feature hadn’t missed a beat since his early-90s nightmares Hardware & Dust Devil. The director seemingly also hasn’t been keeping up with modern filmmaking trends & aesthetics either, though. If anything, Color Out of Space finds Stanley regressing back to the grotesque 1980s sci-fi creep-outs of horror legends like David Cronenberg, Brian Yuzna, and Stuart Gordon. His comeback’s practical gore effects, neon lighting, and ominous synth score all harken back to an era before Stanley’s own heyday. He even mines Stuart Gordon’s pet favorite source material to achieve the effect: public domain short stories penned by H.P. Lovecraft. The only blatant difference between Color Out of Space and its 1980s predecessors (beyond its casting of a post-memeified Nicolas Cage) is that Stanley appears to be a true believer in the spooky, occultist forces that his imagery conjures – opening the movie up to some genuinely heartfelt moments of supernatural familial trauma.

To oversimplify Lovecraft’s fifty-page short story, Color Out of Space is about a horrific, unearthly color that crashes to Earth via a meteor and puts all of humanity in potential peril. In classic Lovecraftian fashion, this unfathomable hue (represented onscreen as a searing neon purple) drives anyone who gazes upon it absolutely mad, representing a kind of forbidden, otherworldly knowledge the puny human mind cannot handle. This global-scale phenomenon is presented in Stanley’s adaptation as an intimate drama among a nuclear family unit, with an increasingly unhinged Nicolas Cage centered as its figurehead. Cage’s family lives on an isolated alpaca farm (a Mad Libs-style variation on the source material’s story template), driving each other into a sweaty, self-cannibalizing mania as the titular cosmic hue spreads from its meteoric landing pad to the plants, animals, and other wildlife who share the farm with them. The prologue before the meteor crash is a little creaky & awkward, recalling the tone of a VHS-era fantasy movie that never quite earned the forgiving lens of cult classic status. Once the horror of the Evil Color fully heats up, however, the movie is genuinely just as disturbing as anything Stanley accomplished in Hardware – if not more so.

Most audiences are going to treat Color Out of Space as an excuse for yet another memeable Nic Cage highlight reel to pass around via YouTube clips. The movie’s exponential mania setup provides more than enough fodder for that kind of ironic mockery, eagerly leaning into the humor of Cage’s patented freak-outs. If all you want from the film is some classic Nic Cage stunts, you’ll get what you paid for: Nic Cage milking alpacas, Nic Cage ferociously gnawing on vegetables, Nic Cage foaming at the mouth while repeatedly firing a shotgun. He even revives his classic Vampire’s Kiss accent fluctuations to update them with erratic backslides into Donald Trump parody. When his petrified children ask each other, “Dad’s acting weird, right?,” it’s a hilariously cautious understatement. This movie totally delivers on the Nic Cagian absurdity that ironic goofs recently searched for in the much more somber Mandy, only to find it in isolated scraps. I just think framing Stanley’s film as a pure indulgence in over-the-top buffoonery is selling its merits short. As consistently fun as the Nic Cage Freak-out is as a novelty from scene to scene, the movie at large registers as a genuine, heartfelt nightmare. The thing about Stanley’s 90s films is that they were always a little cheesy & over-the-top, but they were also legitimately scary. So is his decades-delayed comeback.

The Lovecraftian theme of forbidden, maddening knowledge can be (and has been) applied to a wide range of metaphors, from the philosophical to the psychosexual to the purely surreal. As I took it, Color Out of Space finds deeply personal resonance in the source material specifically as an illustrative metaphor for the spread of cancer. Mirroring Stanley’s mother’s death by lymphoma in real life (as well as bit player Tommy Chong’s real-life struggle with prostate cancer), the nuclear family unit at the film’s center immediately starts the story off in a grim mood, suffering the aftershocks of their mother figure’s battle with breast cancer. The supernatural, maddening growths that later mutate from the purple meteor crash site aren’t entirely contained to the plants & animals in the area. They also scramble the cells of the family’s cancer-survivor mother figure so that she’s an unrecognizable, difficult-to-stomach burden on her family. Meanwhile, her loved ones devolve into increasingly hostile maniacs, unable to maintain their cool as the mutinous growths resulting from the meteor tear their bonds to shreds. On the surface, Color Out of Space is a genre film throwback to Lovecraftian horrors of the 1980s like Society, Possession, and From Beyond. What really enables it to terrorize its audience, however, is that it’s also a fucked-up family drama about cancer wreaking havoc on a household. It’s just as heartbreakingly grim as it is colorful, Nic Cagian fun.

I was genuinely horrified by this film’s total nightmare of a third act; it’s the same lingering chill I picked up from Hardware, Stanley’s powerful debut. He may not know how to construct a recognizably human prologue before his supernatural plots take off. Nor does he know how to conduct a Normal conversation, if his recent interviews and past clashes with potential financiers are any indication. He sure does know how to deliver an upsetting, fucked-up horror show, though, and I hope it doesn’t take another two decades before he’s allowed to stage another one.

-Brandon Ledet