Empathy & Politics in Shock Value Puppetry

Part of what’s so frustrating about our Movie of the Month, the 2006 stop-motion musical Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, is that it could be a truly transgressive work of comedic art. A cartoonish musical about the horrific crimes of The Manson Family certainly sounds like the kind of premise that can only lead to hack #edgy humor, but John Waters was making jokes about Charles Manson & Sharon Tate in Multiple Maniacs to great artistic success while the real-life story was still developing in the headlines. The difference there is that Waters’s Manson Family humor had strong political implications as both a challenge to actively-policed censorship & as a reflection of the nasty undercurrent of 1960s counterculture; Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, by contrast, plays as for-its-own-sake shock value entertainment with no clear political purpose. Multiple Maniacs at least proves that citing Charles Manson as a humorous subject can lead to substantive thematic territory, so it might be worth considering that it’s Live Freaky! Die Freaky!’s choice of medium that leaves the film artistically impotent. Using stop-motion animation, traditionally a children’s medium, to recreate Manson’s crimes in comedy-musical form does suggest that Live Freaky! Die Freaky! might have been too glib & self-amused from conception to genuinely engage with the politics & emotions of its sensationalist subject. There are exceptions that prove that theory untrue as well, however. Nearly two decades before Live Freaky! Die Freaky!’s release, Todd Haynes staged his own sensationalist, real-world tragedy with children’s dolls in a campy, over-the-top cult film – and managed to do so with genuine emotional impact & political messaging.

1988’s Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story is perhaps most infamous for its illegality. Depicting The Carpenters singer Karen Carpenter’s tragic death from anorexia in the early 1980s in a mixed media artform, Superstar was sued out of existence by Carpenter’s family, ordered to be destroyed by the courts for its use of uncleared music & archival footage. Bootleg VHS tapes & low-quality transfers on sites like YouTube have kept the film alive, however, affording it automatic cult status. Live Freaky! Die Freaky! posits itself as an act of punk-flavored subversion, but has no legal or moral censorship actually challenging its existence; Superstar, by contrast, is literally a work of illegal art. Its political subversiveness reaches far beyond uncleared needle drops too. The surface-level details of Superstar seem like they belong to the glib, uncaring, Politically Incorrect brand of humor perpetuated in Live Freaky! Die Freaky!: most of the narrative is acted out by Barbie dolls, the dialogue & narration are deliberately over-the-top melodrama, its initial warnings of the dangers of anorexia directly parody the tones & tactics of old-fashioned After-School Specials, etc. What makes Haynes’s film so enduringly effective is that he clashes that sense of self-aware camp with deeply cutting feminist politics & genuine tragedy. Self-described as “an extremely graphic picture of the internal experience of contemporary femininity,” the film finds grotesque evil in the calm, straight-laced surface of the Nixon era in which The Carpenters’ wholesome sound was meant to counterbalance the sexuality & anti-war protest of hippie music & “hard rock.” In tandem with a birth-to-death musician’s biopic of Karen Carpenter’s life & career, the film explains in documentary terms the symptoms & causes of Anorexia Nervosa, pulling no punches in its attacks on Carpenter’s family & society at large for the controlling, impossible standards they placed on her as a young woman in the public sphere. Her medical condition & subsequent death are explained to be a direct result of patriarchal evils in clear, direct, certain terms – which is automatically more of a genuine political & emotional approach to the subject than anything you’ll see in Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, all while its campiness earns better, more consistent laughs.

Todd Haynes’s approach to puppetry in Superstar is partly what alleviates the film’s potential glibness. Like in his other swing-for-the-fences multimedia works (Velvet Goldmine, Wonderstruck, Poison), it’s just one tool in his arsenal among many – including rear projection, archival footage of live performances, human actors, and on-the-street interviews. He also challenges the initial quirk-humor of the Barbie puppetry by shaving down the Karen Carpenter doll’s limbs as her condition worsens, finding genuine horror & tragedy in what starts as a tongue-in-cheek conceit. There is no such subversion in Live Freaky! Die Freaky!. That film remains so glib throughout, in fact, that it “ironically” participates in the same misogyny that Todd Haynes’s film condemns. While Superstar refuses to shy away from challenging the real-life evils that inspire & “cure” anorexia (including condemnations of Carpenter’s controlling brother/music partner & the practice of force-feeding anorexic patients as “treatment”), Live Freaky! Die Freaky! finds empty humor in Charles Manson physically & verbally abusing women: a supposedly hilarious subversion because he’s played by a doll. Long before Live Freaky! Die Freaky! was made, Todd Haynes proved that the same Charles Manson doll could have been deployed for much more potent political & emotional purposes, that its choice in medium wasn’t holding it back from being a substantial work of cult cinema artistry. There was nothing holding it back in either form or subject, just in limitation of imagination & political conviction – a void of artistic purpose or necessity.

For more on September’s Movie of the Month, the stop-motion animated Charles Manson musical Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, our look at the director’s follow-up, the Green Day documentary Heart Like a Hand Grenade, and last week’s exploration of how its political context differs from John Waters’s own Manson Family humor in Multiple Maniacs.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Live Freaky! Die Freaky! (2006)

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 Boomer made CC, Britnee, and Brandon watch Live Freaky! Die Freaky! (2006).

Boomer: I first saw Live Freaky! Die Freaky! nine years ago at a friend’s house while his wife (who is one half of the duo behind the on-hiatus podcast Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Undead–and yes, I gave them that title) and daughter were out of town. They’re just my kind of good people: both of them grew up in fundamentalist Christian households like I did, both rebelled and escaped that lifestyle, both are horror nerds like me, and they even got married on Halloween. My cat used to be their cat! I found the movie to be pure, unadulterated trash, but also hypnotic and impossible to ignore. I immediately went online to see what information was floating around the 2009-era internet, and there wasn’t much. There were a few Amazon reviews, but all of them had the same tone: if you liked this movie, you are a sick and twisted individual, and should probably seek medical help. While that’s certainly a valid point of view, nothing about Live Freaky! Die Freaky! really feels sinister, at least not in comparison to other films that interpret history through a rose-colored lens. We’ve certainly seen more than our fair share of historical epics that paint over the true history of slave masters as being honorable “men of their generation” and not traffickers in human misery acting with complicity and for their own gain as part of a centuries-long grievous crime against humanity, or action flicks set in places like Pompeii where, yes, real people died. The difference here is that serial killer Charlie Manson, whose little cult murdered ten people over the course of single year, is being glorified, but that’s kind of the point.

Director John Roecker said in an interview over a decade ago that he went to thrift stores all over L.A. and everywhere he looked he saw dozens of copies of Helter Skelter next to a copy or two of the Bible or the scripture of another religion. He wondered, with so many copies of the book in print, what would happen if someone in the distant future, far divorced from the murders of the LaBiancas and Sharon Tate’s cohorts, came upon a copy of Helter Skelter and considered it a religious text in and of itself? It’s not that strange an idea: the American Civil War was barely a century and a half ago, and yet even in such a short time the rise of Lost Cause theology and rapid countering of historical fact by Confederate survivors and their families means that, in 2018, we’re still dealing with the racism of the antebellum world, as anyone watching the news in slack-jawed horror can attest.

In the film, a nomad in the year 3069 discovers the aforementioned true crime book that detailed the rise and fall of the Manson Family. Mistaking it for scripture, the man reinterprets the text through a lens that is sympathetic to the Mansons and antagonistic towards their victims. (This is a concept that seems alien, but consider the Old Testament from the point of view of the Canaanites, who had a bunch of nomads show up in their land and say “God says this is ours now, get out!” then got slaughtered for not doing so. Virtually all religious doctrines have documents that give them permission to commit genocide somewhere in them under the guise of divine permission and forgiveness; the only difference is that these killings, unlike those of the Manson family, are far gone from living memory. That, and the scale of the Mansons’ destruction is a lot smaller.)

I feel like I might be coming across as too sympathetic of the Manson Family here, and that’s certainly not my intent. I just find it curious that the psychology of the general audience member allows them to frame the Manson murders as horrible crimes while ignoring other social issues. Live Freaky, Die Freaky is a purely satirical film, but I also understand that I might be a sick fuck. CC, most of the outrage that I’ve found on the internet regarding this film has to do with the fact that the villains (at least in this contextualization) are real people who were victims of a real series of heinous crimes. Do you feel like this pushes the movie over the edge into “too far” or “too soon” territory? Would this have worked better if the names were entirely fabricated and divorced from the real people who inspired the film?

CC: Ah, Boomer, this movie isn’t offensive because it is based on real-life tragedy – no, it is offensive for so many other reasons! I think the thing that I was most uncomfortable with (well, after the scenes of claymation fucking where the vaginas are literal slits cut into the puppets and you could see them fall apart from the force of said puppet-fucking) was that I couldn’t tell who the “bad guys” were. Sure, the victims were terrible – “Sharon Hate” hates trees and her Sassy Gay Friend™ has non-consensual sex with the developmentally disabled – but “Charlie Hanson” calls all women “Woman” (or worse) and is obviously a megalomaniacal abuser. Who am I supposed to root for? Better yet, who was the director rooting for? I’m really put off by the idea that some people watching this could see it as a pro-Charles Manson propaganda piece, start wearing “Free Manson” shirts unironically, and try to lecture me on why “Charles Manson was really quite innocent of the crimes he is incarcerated for – another example of the unjust American justice system” the next time I accidentally wander into the wrong social environment. Charles Manson was a really bad person, y’all. He preyed on vulnerable people and manipulated them into giving up their individual identity to better serve his racist, misogynist, homophobic agenda. You could argue that the whole thing is satire, but I feel like in order to be satire and not a long slog through a string of loosely related, offensive “jokes” it needs to have a strong point of view. What exactly is John Roecker’s point of view? I mean yeah, it’s fun saying things that upset everyone – I think overall he managed that task – but in interviews he mumbled something about trying to show the pitfalls of following any strong leader [a vaguely post-9/11, anti-Bush message several years late to the party]. Watching this film I don’t know if I would have picked up the message to beware leaders with a messiah complex, especially in light of the framing device. Overall, Roecker may have had an easier time getting that message across if he had used a fictional story, but I probably would have still been offended.

This movie arrived in a post 9/11 cultural climate, where mistrust of government leaders was high on both sides of the political divide and the seeds of the Tea Party movement were finding fertile ground. Other works from that era like Team America, That’s My Bush, and (too) earnest albums like Green Day’s American Idiot similarly vented frustration & anger filtered through satire & metaphor. Brandon, how do you think Live Freaky! Die Freaky! fit in with this cultural milieu? Did it arrive too late to find a place at the table?

Brandon: Given how long & arduous the stop-motion animation process is, it’s highly likely the edgy humor of Live Freaky! Die Freaky! felt a lot fresher at the start of production than it did by the time the film saw a minor theatrical release. The casting of Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong as Charlie Hanson likely seemed like a huge get when the film was first pitched, presumably around the time his band’s American Idiot album rode anti-Bush sentiment to the largest boon of their already decades-long career. Bush was still in office by the time the film was released, but the huge wave of protest-art pop records from major alternative artists like The Beastie Boys, Le Tigre, Bright Eyes, Kimya Dawson, and The Thermals was already starting to die down. Hell, even The Dixie Chicks’ moment of on-stage Bush dissent was years in the past. The major protest-art sweet spot may have been in 2004, the year of Team America, American Idiot, and Fahrenheit 9/11; but I’m honestly not convinced that this film would have been any more politically effective even if it had arrived earlier in the anti-Bush protest era. If likening George W. Bush to Charles Manson was Roecker’s original intent with the film, then he was incredibly subtle with the metaphor, so much so that it went over my head completely. I’m having trouble believing that to be the case, since literally nothing else in the film is handled with subtlety.

What hasn’t aged well about Live Freaky! Die Freaky! isn’t the timing of its supposed anti-Bush politics; it’s, as CC points out, that it seems to have no discernible politics at all. The closest the film comes to making a clear political point is in the framing device of a possible (if not probable) future where mass pollution had completely obliterated the ozone layer by 3069, leaving Earth practically uninhabitable. The rest of the film’s political jabs are frustratingly vague, typified by snide references to The Moral Majority, depictions of cops as anthropomorphic pigs, and the transformation of a crucifix into a swastika made of dicks. Without any careful attention paid to its selection of targets, the film’s central political attitude appears to be for-its-own-sake Political Incorrectness. It’s the same “Nothing is offensive if everyone’s offended” ethos that informed the comedic approach of aughts-heavyweights like South Park, Howard Stern, and Bill Maher. The further we get away from pop culture’s Gen-X apathy hangover and instead reach for radical empathy & sincerity in more modern works, the worse these “politically incorrect” lash-outs have aged. Everything from its performative Political Incorrectness & surface-level co-option of punk counterculture to its basic understanding of sex & the female body is embarrassingly juvenile. The most embarrassing part (besides maybe its squeamishness with menstruate) is the age range of the Los Angeles punk scenesters who participated in the film’s production & voice cast, including members of Green Day, Rancid, X, Blink-182, AFI, Black Flag, and the list goes on. Based on their aimless rebelliousness & juvenile need to shock the uptight masses with their political incorrectness, you’d think the movie was made by those groups’ evergreen legion of teenage mall-punk fans, not considerably well-off musicians approaching middle age.

The only times Live Freaky! Die Freaky!’s performative subversiveness worked for me was in its small selection of novelty songs (which likely shouldn’t be a surprise, given the number of musicians involved). There was something about the clash of the film’s crude animation & aggressively Offensive villainy with its weirdly wholesome, vaudevillian novelty songs that I found genuinely funny in a way I struggled to match in any scenes of spoken dialogue. Britnee, were the song & dance numbers that broke up the politically incorrect dialogue exchanges also a highlight for you? Might you have been more charmed by the film if it were more of a full-on, traditional musical (while still remaining animated with stop-motion puppetry)?

Britnee: Live Freaky! Die Freaky! made me sick to my stomach for almost its entire runtime. Unfortunately, it wasn’t just the gross, demeaning clay puppet sex scenes that churned my stomach. Watching the movie brought me back to a time where I was an ignorant teenager desperately trying to fit in with the cool crowd of punk kids at school. I watched the film with Brandon and CC in their lovely home, but mentally I felt like I was in my old best friend’s garage bedroom with walls covered in signatures, cartoon drawings, and offensive sayings – all written with black and red Sharpie markers. We all had grungy Converse shoes that looked similar to the walls and would blare Cheap Sex until the early morning hours. Most of the punk guys that would come over to hangout would rave about how brilliant and misunderstood Charles Manson was, and I always believed what they said because they were so much “cooler” than I was. If we would have come across a copy of Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, watching the film would have been a weekly ritual. Thankfully, a few years later I would get a mind of my own and realize how big of a piece of shit Manson was.

Despite the emotional torture I went through watching the film, I found the songs to be really catchy. I even sang along to parts of “Mechanical Man” because I was so entranced with the music. “A half a cup satanical, a teaspoon puritanical stirred with a bloody hand. A quarter cup messiahcal, a sprinkle of maniacal and now I’m a mechanical man.” The “Strangle a Tree” musical number performed by Sharon Hate where Sharon sings about how much she hates Nature while tapdancing on the hood of her moving convertible was actually my favorite part of the film. If more of the musical numbers were like “Strangle a Tree,” the film would have been much more tolerable. It’s so strange how Live Freaky! Die Freaky! is marketed as a musical and contains a full-length musical soundtrack, but doesn’t feel like an actual musical. Maybe it’s the overall lack of dancing?

I feel like I’m complaining too much about Live Freaky! Die Freaky!. Yes, I did find it to be very unpleasant, but as a fan of claymation, the rough style of the clay figures was very interesting to see. I liked how the styles of each clay character looked different. Sharon Hate and Charlie Hanson were both very detailed, while Hanson’s crew looked like they were created in an elementary school art class. Boomer, do you think the lack of consistent quality between different clay figures was intentional?

Boomer: My roommate has been studying a lot of music theory lately, and we had a discussion the other day about guitar and how, essentially, you can learn to play anything on guitar with a knowledge of a minimum of four hand shapes, just moving them around a little bit. This is reductive, but nonetheless accurate, although it ignores some of the more experimental and radical things that truly great musicians can do with the instrument. I asked him: “Oh, so that’s why so many fuckbois learn to play the guitar?” Not that everyone who learns the guitar and has three chords and the truth is a fuckboi, but it led us to the discussion that (ignoring the fact that the guitar is generally considered the defining instrument of rock and roll, for better or worse) there is a reason that the punk music aesthetic is based on guitar and not a more difficult (but rewarding) instrument like, say, piano, which requires a lot more flexibility and forethought. As much as I can look back on my younger self and consider past!me to have a tangentially punk anti-authoritarian ethos (if not a punk aesthetic in manner or dress), I was always distant from that scene strictly because so much of it was predicated upon Roecker and his ilk’s tendency to promote that identity and ideology through being, for lack of a better term, dweeby edgelords. If there’s anything that defines Live Freaky! Die Freaky!‘s presence in the history (or dustbin) of pop culture, it’s the film’s attempts at being “edgy.” It’s the same reason that I and most people outgrew South Park (which I have other larger social issues with, not least of all that its content normalized antisemitism for an entire generation, the effects of which we see in our current political climate): there comes a time where you just have to accept that there’s a line between satire and attempting to, as Brandon noted, offend everyone along the political and cultural spectrum. The sad thing that most punks don’t recognize is that every successive generation is going to take the progress of the previous generation for granted and push for something more. Attempting to graft the grungy, D.I.Y. dirtiness of anti-authoritarian movements past to current progressivism ends up creating something like Live Freaky! Die Freaky!: it’s not an architectural artifice upon which we can hang new ideas; it’s an artifact of attempted subversiveness, a relic of a different time.

Artists tend to get quite defensive about being surpassed by the next generation, and instead of making continual strides forward or growing and evolving, they can get stuck in doing the same old thing. The punk scene is particularly subject to this weakness, as were other modernistic art movements before them, like Dadaism. When your entire body of work is structured around the single concept and conceit of attacking and removing the mask of “the establishment,” becoming that establishment generates an existential identity crisis. Compounding this problem is that the proponents of these genres pride themselves on rejection of cultural norms, meaning that any kind of maturation or progress is automatically deemed “selling out.” With regards to examples in film, take comic book artist (and general lunatic) Alan Moore’s hatred of the 2005 film adaptation of V for Vendetta. Since he wrote the original graphic novel as a screed against British Thatcherism, seeing it turned into a film that took aim at the policies of the then-contemporary Bush administration upset him, but this is nothing new. There have been several adaptations of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, all of them as criticism or proponents of certain political ideologies of their day (from anti-communist sentiments, to post-Watergate paranoia about observation and otherness, to fear of biological terrorism in the wake of 9/11); that’s a good thing. Making an anti-Thatcher film in 2005 would be ridiculous, but Moore’s disgust for the way that his source material was adapted to fit contemporary global politics is not a mark in his favor, but rather a demonstration that he, like many others whose political and personal identities were shaped by the politics of the past in a way that they cannot surmount, has not found a voice that transcends a particular time and place.

I’m not saying that this excuses or even necessarily explains Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, although I know I’ve gotten pretty far from your question and I promise that I have a point; I’m not apologizing for the movie either or trying to make the argument that there was ever a time when it could have been considered inoffensive or appropriate (it never was and never will be). The issue that I’m discussing here is that the potential for irrelevancy and the possibility of being left behind is something that all artists face, and I occasionally worry about this with my own writing. I’m sure that, one day, if anything I create survives, there will be those (in my self-aggrandizing fantasies, they are academics) who consider my work to be antiquated, problematic, or harmful. They’ll note elements in my work that are backward and outdated from their perspective. I consider myself to be progressive, but I also know that, if one day someone looks at something I wrote and says “Yikes, this is kinda [whatever]ist, but it was progressive for its day, I guess,” that’s also a good thing, because it means that society kept moving forward and not backward. I really hope that one day my work is considered “fair for its day,” although I also hope I’m dead by then because I don’t handle criticism well (at least, I don’t predict I’d be very good at handling public shaming).

To circle back to your question: I don’t think there’s any significance to the disparity in the level of attention to detail with regards to puppetry design, other than that some of the characters are on screen more often and thus needed to have more expressiveness and flexibility. Sometimes this works for the best in a narrative context: the general cartoonishness of, for example, Tex (who is, curiously, not renamed with an “H” like most of the characters), makes some of the better darkly comic moments in the film work; my favorite is his deadpan reaction to Charlie’s insistence that the Family take Sharon’s fetus to be raised by them. Tex’s Peanuts-esque design subverts the horror of the moment in a way that I find legitimately funny, but I’m also convinced that this is largely unintentional. I don’t think it’s a statement, I think that Roecker just . . . wasn’t very good at what he was doing. Most of the comic bits in the film fall flat, and I think a lot of that has to do with Roecker. Take, for instance, the fact that he co-owned and ran the LA novelty store You’ve Got Bad Taste, which specialized in both kitschy garbage and serial killer memorabilia. In an interview in 1999, Roecker said ”A Gacy painting is much less offensive than, say, a Nike T-shirt […] Why wear advertising for a company that doesn’t care about you? We encouraged people to think for themselves.” I may have been heavily affected by the work of Kalle Lasn and done some adbusting and culture jamming in my day (for legal reasons I will not say whether I still do), but this statement is the perfect encapsulation of Roecker’s politics and his point of view: it’s not just enough to discourage mindless consumerism and contemporary capitalism and corporatism, but by making a capital-S “Statement” about it that attracts attention by drawing comparisons to (and minimizing) other tragedies. It’s one of the most triumphant examples of edgelordiness I’ve seen outside of a high school cafeteria. It’s exactly the kind of bullshit you would expect from a self-professed punk molded by the 80s and 90s living in the relatively calm days of the end of the Clinton presidency (post Gulf War, post Iraqi Kurdish Civil War, pre-9/11): “I’m not just an agitator against authority, but also I’m a goddamned hero (for selling Gacy paintings).” The fact that anything about Live Freaky! Die Freaky! leaves a positive impression on anyone other than those who are slavishly devoted to this kind of art in general is impressive.

CC, despite the fact that I hate musicals, the one thing that I enjoy about Live Freaky! Die Freaky! without reservations or explanations is the music, which is doubly bizarre since, of the list of acts who were involved with the film, the only one I have any respect for is Henry Rollins. Britnee specifically mentioned “Mechanical Man” and “Strangle a Tree,” which are my two favorites as well. Did you enjoy the songs? Did you find anything redeemable in the movie, other than the conversation we’re all having right now?

CC: I’m definitely enjoying this conversation more than I did any part of the film, even the musical interludes. I think the only song I truly enjoyed was “Strangle a Tree;” I could easily see future Gifties (kids who went to the Louisiana School of Math, Science, and the Arts are known as Gifties; Boomer & I are among the select few) belting that one out during a cabaret performance. My biggest problem with “Mechanical Man” was how catchy it was; it sounded like a kids song and was a total ear-worm. I don’t want to carry around a recipe for Charles Manson around in my head all day, let alone tap my foot along to it. Overall, I didn’t really love the early-aughts punk scene (except for a brief, regrettable period in middle school) and hearing it again mostly just made me cringe.

Brandon, director John Roecker also released a documentary about the recording of Green Day’s 2004 album American Idiot . . . in 2015. I understand that stop-motion animation takes years to create so Live Freaky! Die Freaky!‘s tardiness could be chalked up to simple production realities, but documentary features based on a few months-worth of footage usually doesn’t take nine years to edit and mix into something cohesive. Is Roecker’s delayed, shoddy work reflective of a true dedication to D.I.Y. punk ethos, are small-minded producers and distributors conspiring to prevent his genius from reaching the public, or is it just pure artistic laziness? I’m convinced it’s the latter.

Brandon: The Occam’s Razor interpretation certainly points to laziness, even though that’s the harshest & most unfair explanation of the three. Movies are hard work! It takes perseverance, collaboration, and intense stubbornness to complete any production no matter how professional, so my instinct is to cut Roecker slack on these out of time, crudely slapped together works of dusty mall punk pranksterism. On the other hand, I respect & admire D.I.Y. punk as an ethos too much to totally let his abominations slide without critique. Punk is meant to be an anyone-can-do-it, anti-gatekeeping challenge to the systems that keep ordinary people from making Important art. The entire point is that it opens art up to the talent & training-deficient who have something to say but don’t have the proper tools to say it. As such, it’s not Roecker’s laziness in craft that bothers me so much as it’s his intellectual laziness. Live Freaky! Die Freaky! has nothing particular to say about Charles Manson or the War on Terror or climate change or anything, really. Roecker uses the crude, accessible tools of D.I.Y. punk for cheap, aimless shock value and to play pretend as an Important Filmmaker with his famous L.A. punk scene friends. That’s what most grosses me out about this film, especially when you see those bands’ young teen fans uncritically embracing its non-message through social media support & merchandise. If I believed this Manson Family claymation comedy or a decade-late American Idiot documentary had something specific or worthwhile to say, the form they choose to say it in wouldn’t matter nearly as much. As is, both the form and the message are offensively underwhelming & undercooked.

Nothing illustrates Live Freaky! Die Freaky!‘s intellectual laziness for me quite like the interminable sequence set at Sharon Hate’s house. The Sharon Tate murder is the most notorious highlight of Manson’s career in occultist serial murder, so I was shocked by how empty & lethargic the film felt once Rocker starts recreating that tragic party. It feels as if characters are stalling for time – telling long-winded stories about cocaine & sexual abuse before the murders begin, then refusing to die even after their heads are removed from their bodies. I didn’t fully give up on Live Freaky! Die Freaky! until I was locked in that house for an anti-comedy eternity, where my antagonism towards the film grew increasingly potent with each pointless minute. Britnee, did you have a similar reaction to the Sharon Hate party from the film’s latter half? Was there ever a chance that you might have enjoyed the film overall if it hadn’t stalled for so long in that unpleasant sequence or did that just feel like more of the same, at peace with the first half of the film?

Britnee: The sequence at Sharon Hate’s house felt like a prison. There was no escape, lots of garbage dialogue, and no entertainment to distract from it. It’s a shame because the set built for Hate’s fabulous celebrity home was so beautiful. There was so much potential for lots of entertaining moments to develop in the Hate house, but Roecker didn’t take advantage of it. The dialogue from that sequence sounds like something a group of disturbed 12 year olds would come up with while playing with Barbies. The joke that just wouldn’t die about the penis smelling like head cheese is one of the more prominent details I remember from the Hate house. I hated it the first time, and I hated it more the second, third, fourth time, and so on.

Like Brandon, I too was relieved when the characters got decapitated because I thought it was going to be the end. I thought the torture of watching the Hate house sequence was over, but the heads kept spewing nonsense and the scene kept going. It does eventually come to an end, but not soon enough.

Lagniappe

Britnee: Even though Live Freaky! Die Freaky! isn’t something I will watch again, I’m really glad I got to see it. I loved the clay puppetry and set designs. The style was a cross between Gumby and the cover for Marilyn Manson’s Portrait of an American Family album cover, two things I love very much.

Brandon: Intense negativity aimed towards micro-budget, D.I.Y. art projects is the exact opposite approach we usually strive for on this site, but I can’t feel too bad about ganging up on this film the way we have here. Roecker and his collaborators seem like the exact kind of Gen-X dweebs who complain that “PC Culture,” “SJWs,” and “Millennial Snowflakes” are what’s wrong with the modern world (anyone else notice how many ex-punks grow up to be “alt” Conservative goons?), so I suspect our moral outrage here is exactly the reaction they wanted to achieve. In that way (and that way only), I guess that makes Live Freaky! Die Freaky! a total artistic success.

Boomer: I would like to apologize for choosing a film that everyone found so upsetting. The glory and the tragedy of Swampflix is that we are all so similar in our tastes that finding a film that I love but that no one else on the staff has already seen is often difficult, and sometimes that leads me down the rabbit hole to find something that’s, as is the case here, not very good. Still, I think this has been productive from a discussion standpoint, and I appreciate your patience.

CC: Boomer, I fully and gladly accept your apology. I’m kinda glad we finally found something so equally reviled; I was beginning to think we all liked everything. Still, I’m ready for the reign of auteurs and edgelords to be over! Long live cooperative creation and radical sincerity!

Upcoming Movies of the Month
October: CC presents The Pit (1981)
November: Brandon presents Planet of the Vampires (1965)
December: Britnee presents Cloak & Dagger (1984)
January: The Top Films of 2018

-The Swampflix Crew

Isle of Dogs (2018)

Director Wes Anderson has such a meticulously curated aesthetic that his work is almost polarizing by design. As his career has developed over the decades, long outlasting the wave of “twee” media it partly inspired, he’s only more fully committed himself to the fussed-over dollhouse preciousness of his manicured visual style. That can be a huge turnoff for audiences who prefer a messier, grimier view of the world that accepts chaos & spontaneity as an essential part of filmmaking. Personally, I can’t help but be enraptured with Anderson’s films, as if my adoration of his work were a biological impulse. Like the way house cats host parasites that fool pet owners into caring for them, it’s as if Wes Anderson has nefariously wired my brain to be wholly onboard with his artistic output. It’s a gradual poisoning of my critical thinking skills that stretches back to my high school years, when his films Rushmore & The Royal Tenenbaums first established him as a (divisive) indie cinema icon. Anderson’s latest work, Isle of Dogs, only makes his supervillain-level command over my critical mind even more powerful by directly pandering directly to things I personally love. A stop-motion animated sci-fi feature about doggos who run wild on a dystopian pile of literal garbage, the basic elevator pitch for Isle of Dogs already sounds like a Mad Libs-style grab bag of the exact bullshit I love to see projected on the big screen, even without Wes Anderson’s name attached. As he already demonstrated with Fantastic Mr. Fox, the director’s twee-flavored meticulousness also has a wider appeal when seen in the context of stop-motion, which generally requires a level of whimsy, melancholy, and visual fussiness to be pulled off well. That’s why it’s so frustrating that Isle of Dogs is so flawed on such a fundamental, conceptual level and that I can’t help but thoroughly enjoy it anyway, despite my better judgment.

Set decades into the future in a dystopian Japan, Isle of Dogs details the samurai epic-style adventure of a young boy attempting to rescue his dog from an evil, corrupt government (helmed by his own uncle). All dogs in his region have been exiled to the pollution-saturated hell of Trash Island (which is exactly what it sounds like) amidst mass hysteria over a canine-specific virus, “snout fever.” The story is split between two efforts: a search & rescue mission involving the boy & a gang of talking Trash Island dogs (voiced by Bryan Cranston, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Ed Norton, Bob Balaban, Tilda Swinton, etc.) and a much less compelling political intrigue narrative in which an American foreign exchange student (voiced by Greta Gerwig) attempts to expose the government’s villainous deeds. As an American outsider himself, Wes Anderson is at times contextually positioned in the POV of both the Trash Island Dogs and the foreign exchange student, the only consequential English-speaking characters in the film (a large portion of the dialogue is unsubtitled Japanese). In his worst impulses, Anderson is like Gerwig’s foreign exchange student– an enthusiastic appreciator of Japanese culture who awkwardly inserts themselves into conversations where they don’t belong, wrongfully feeling entitled to authority on a subject that is not theirs to claim. From a more generous perspective, Anderson is like one of the American-coded trash dogs– compelled to honor & bolster Japanese art from a place of humbled servitude, even though he doesn’t quite speak the language (either culturally or literally). By choosing to set an English language story in a fictional Japanese future, Wes Anderson has invited intense scrutiny that often overpowers Isle of Dogs’s ambitious sci-fi themes, talking-dog adorability, and visually stunning artwork. This is especially true in Gerwig’s (admittedly minor) portion of the plot, which sticks out like a sore thumb as one of the film’s more conceptually flawed impulses. For a work so visually masterful & emotionally deft, it’s frustrating that it seemingly wasn’t at all self-aware of its own cultural politics.

There are much better-equipped critics who’ve more thoughtfully & extensively tackled the nuanced ways Isle of Dogs has failed to fully justify its Japanese culture-gazing: Inkoo Kang, Justin Chang, Emily Yoshida, Alison Willmore, to name a few. As a white American, it’s not my place to declare whether this gray area issue makes the film worthy of vitriol or just cautions consideration. I could maybe push back slightly on the cultural appropriation claims that say there’s no reason the story had to be framed in Japan and that Anderson only chose that setting for its visual aesthetic. Like Kubo & The Two Strings’s philosophical relationship with the finality of death (or lack thereof), Isle of Dogs engages with themes of honor and ancestry that feel very specific to its Japanese setting (even if not at a fully satisfying depth). Truth be told, though, I likely would have enjoyed the film even without that thematic justification. Unless Isle of Dogs is your very first exposure to the director’s work, you’ve likely already formed a relationship with Wes Anderson as an artist, whether positive or negative. It’s a relationship that can only be reinforced as the director doubles down with each project, sinking even deeper into his own particular quirks. I assumed with Moonrise Kingdom that no film could have possibly gotten more Wes Andersony. Its follow-up, Grand Budapest Hotel, immediately proved that assumption wrong. While Isle of Dogs stacks up nicely to either of those films in terms of visual achievements, its own doubling-down on the Wes Anderson aesthetic is tied to the director’s long history of blissful ignorance in approaching POC cultures (most notably before in The Darjeeling Limited). It does so by submerging itself in a foreign culture entirely without fully engaging with the implications of that choice. As a longtime Anderson devotee in the face of this doubling-down, I’m going to have to reconcile my love of his films with the fact that this exact limitation has always been a part of them, that I’ve willfully overlooked it in my appreciation of what he achieves visually, emotionally, and comedically elsewhere. Isle of Dogs is a gorgeous work of visual art and a very distinct approach to dystopian sci-fi. It’s a great film, but also a culturally oblivious one. The conversation around that internal conflict is just as vital as any praise for its technical achievements.

-Brandon Ledet

Early Man (2018)

Aardman Animations is not the first place I look to for surprise in my stop-motion animated media. The folks behind the A Town Called Panic series thrive on chaos & comedic surprise; Laika Entertainment continually surprises in the technological advancements they bring to stop-motion as an artform in every release (most recently in the jaw-dropping Kubo and the Two Strings). Aardman, for their part, are the picture of consistency. Brands like Wallace & Gromit and Shaun the Sheep are consistently clever & adorable, but in the exact way you’d expect from Aardman, who have been adorable & clever for decades running now. That’s why I was confident that I knew exactly what to expect form Aardman’s newest release, Early Man. Advertised as the studio’s take on caveman life & follies in the Stone Age, I expected a Wallace & Gromit-style romp flavored with anachronistic jokes about volcanoes & dinosaurs. Early Man starts exactly that way, borrowing a few gags form The Flintstones where prehistoric creatures are employed as household appliances – baby gator clothes pins, buzzing beetle electric razors, etc. After that early business of place-setting, though, the movie surprised (and delighted) me in its choice of genre, unexpectedly functioning as a . . . sports movie? I did not see that coming.

Eddie Redmayne voices our protagonist caveman (the most likable he’s been outside his weirdo, pseudo-drag performance in Jupiter Ascending), a plucky go-getter named Dug. His eternal optimism comes in handy as his small tribe of cave-dwelling rabbit hunters are pushed out of their native land by an invading, more technologically advanced society (lead by another frequently unlikable Brit, Tom Hiddleston). The clash is an absurd literalization of the Bronze Age pushing the Stone Age out of existence, but not any more absurd than the battle used to determine which tribe will maintain possession of the contested land: a soccer match. Early Man immediately details the accidental invention of soccer in its prologue, then briefly drops the subject until it gradually becomes a very faithful participation in a traditional sports movie template. The film is much closer to the irreverent sports comedy antics of Shaolin Soccer than anything resembling a sports drama (as is natural from a stop-motion animated Aardman release), but its plot is a conventional underdog story about sports novices preparing for The Big Game against the best, most arrogant team in the land, with the exact results you’d expect. That genre choice might come as a surprise to any American audiences who stumble into the picture (not many, I’m guessing; the theater where I saw it on opening weekend was near-empty); I don’t think there was a single soccer ball featured in the film’s domestic advertising.

Genre & plot are obviously among the least important facets of any Aardman release. Early Man’s cavemen dolts, with their dopey pig snouts & overbites, are adorable buffoons, especially in comparison with their Bronze Age Adonis enemies. The movie even sidesteps common problems with these traditionalist, throwback kids’ movie narratives by making sure to include a race/gender-diverse cast of characters and no extraneous romance plot. The world these prehistoric goofballs occupy is also crawling with ridiculous creatures that often steal the show: a (sorta) anthropomorphic rock, a meteor crash-surviving cockroach, a hog who thinks he’s a dog, (perhaps most significantly) a fanged kaiju-sized duck, etc. Soccer is merely a backdrop for these creatures’ & cavemen’s nonstop barrage of Aardman-style goofs & gags, which are just as adorable & clever here as they always are.

Even though they rarely catch me by surprise, I love Aardman’s style just the way it is (bad pop music and all). I find it dispiriting that the studio isn’t Minions-level popular in America. There’s likely nothing that could save this film’s presumably dire domestic box office returns. Anyone willing to show up in the first place is likely only driven by leftover goodwill form the days of Wallace & Gromit, with a only a few new fans won over along the way. Still, I appreciated the unexpected genre shift in Aardman’s usual, adorable buffoonery here. Sports movies aren’t typically my genre of choice, but it was lovely to see Aardman deliver a genuine surprise while remaining true to their regular comedic tone. Keeping their consistent look & humor fresh might actually be a question of future genre experiments. The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (lightly) tested horror waters for them in the past. Their upcoming Shaun the Sheep movie Armageddon looks like it dabbles in sci-fi. I likely would have enjoyed Early Man all the same if it hadn’t adapted Aardman’s style to a sports movie mold, but it might just be that exact kind of genre experimentation the studio needs to keep its loyal audience on their toes.

-Brandon Ledet

The Supernatural Romantic Tedium of Anomalisa (2015) & Schizopolis (1996)

In our initial discussion of our current Movie of the Month, the irreverently cerebral Steven Soderbergh comedy Schizopolis, I asked Boomer how he felt the film’s tale of adulterous doppelgängers differed from the similar themes in Charlie Kaufman’s recent stop-motion drama Anomalisa. In Schizopolis, Soderbergh & (his real life ex-wife) Betsy Brantley play duel sets of doppelgängers who cheat on each other in existential searches for romantic passion, only to find more of the same in their “new” partners. To me, this “Love the one you’re with” messaging felt wildly different from Anomalisa‘s central conflict, in which a traveling businessman sees the entire world outside himself as one homogeneous personality except for the woman he’s currently cheating on his wife with, until she too is absorbed into the society of milquetoast doppelgängers that populate his life once the initial spark is gone. I asked Boomer for insight on this difference because I knew he’d be better at articulating it than I would. He wrote, “Schizopolis is a film about projection, but in a way that explores the various ways that multiple individuals categorize and compartmentalize their interactions between different people depending upon the intimacy (or lack thereof) of their relationship, the difference in their social classes and the power dynamic thereof, the emotional distance between them, libido, and other factors. Instead of Anomalisa‘s Michael facing the difficulty of seeing every person–strangers, his wife, his ex, his boss–as the same, Fletcher Munson’s interactions vary, demonstrating the dissonance between his words and his thoughts in his conversations with various people.” Those differences in varying social interactions & perspectives truly are essential to what distinguishes Schizopolis from Anomalisa. It still surprises me, though, how significantly the two works overlap in form to achieve their respective goals.

One of the most immediately striking aspects of both Anomalisa and Schizopolis is the crudeness of their visual forms. Shot with no solid script while palling around Baton Rouge, Schizopolis has a strikingly informal look to it, approximating the home movies & sketch comedy hybrid that defined the style of The Kids in the Hall. For its part, Anomalisa adopts the medium of stop-motion animation, which inherently has a kind of imperfect crudeness to its motions. Offsetting the leaps made in the medium by studios like Laika, however, this film intentionally shows the creases in its characters’ faces, calling attention to its own seams & artifice. Both films also dwell on the anonymity of utilitarian spaces & the empty babble of corporate speak. In Anomalisa, Michael’s depression is amplified by the doldrums of occupying a hotel room while away on business, with nothing especially exceptional about his transient spacial surroundings. The Baton Rouge office buildings & suburban homes Fletcher Munson drifts through in Schizopolis are just as unremarkable & devoid of personality. Munson’s job writing nonsensical speeches for the L. Ron Hubbard reminiscent cult leader of Eventualism & author of How to Control Your Own Mind is also reflected in the big speech on optimizing customer service efficiency (or some other empty form of corporate chatter) Michael travels to deliver. For two films about supernatural events in which bored businessmen drift into romantic entanglements with physical copies of their partners, Anomalisa & Schizopolis both make a point to keep their visual pallets anonymously bland & unassuming. They both seek to wring the supernatural out of the mundane, which requires the outlandishness of their premises to be rooted in visual monotony. The differences between their achievements have less to do with their respective visual styles than with how one story takes boredom with the hegemony as a freeing opportunity for irreverence while the other allows that boredom to fester into contempt.

As Boomer wrote in our initial conversation, “The biggest difference between the two films is in the fact that Anomalisa only gives us Michael’s point of view and insight into his particular problems with intimacy, communication, empathy, and humanity. […] Shizopolis gives us the points of view of several people, and highlights how each of them have their own problems with communication, which vary from person to person.” It’s arguable which choice of perspective makes for a more rewarding film, but being stuck in Michael’s head certainly makes Anomalisa the more uncomfortable watch. In Schizopolis, Soderbergh casts himself as a bland everyman. Anomalisa envisions a world where every man is bland. Not only is every character outside Michael’s head boring (and vaguely reminiscent of Michael Ian Black); they’re also an annoying, unremarkable sea of braying idiots with nothing unique to offer the world. I appreciate the bizarre accomplishments of Anomalisa from an emotional distance, but never truly fall in love with the film because it feels as if it should display just as much contempt for its villainous protagonist as he does for the rest of the world. Whether or not his perspective is the symptom of a chemical imbalance, the lack of empathy in Michael’s worldview makes him out to be an elitist monster who’s far more difficult to resonate with than Fletcher Munson’s more recognizably common suburban doldrums. Schizopolis is willing to examine its protagonist’s close-minded selfishness in its third act reversal of perspective that replays scenes through Mrs. Munson’s POV, while Anomalisa just dismisses Michael’s cruel boredom as “psychological problems,” as if they’re something universally experienced. The most perspective we get from Jennifer Jason Leigh as Michael’s titular love interest is a sweetly pathetic rendition of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” which is played more for pity than it is for empathy.

As much as I prefer the deranged silliness of Schizopolis to Anomalisa‘s bitter people-watching, Michael’s climactic speech about customer service optimization does devolve nicely into a kind of dual mission statement for both films. He asks himself (and his audience) “What does it mean to be human? What is it to ache? What is it to be alive?” in existential desperation, only to answer those questions with frantic repetitions of “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.” These films approach that crisis and the oppressive mundanity of modern life from entirely different perspectives. Schizopolis searches for meaning in interpersonal relationships, finding its frustration with the ineffectiveness of language at truly connecting two human souls in a punishingly tedious world that increasingly doesn’t make sense. Anomalisa, by contrast, despairs at the punishing tedium of other people, who are just as uninteresting & personality-free as hotel room furniture. No matter which perspective you find more honest or worthwhile, it’s eerie how much these visually crude doppelgänger narratives overlap in form. Their supernatural romance dramas are rooted in two incomparable philosophies, yet they’re both staged in a common, tedious modern world setting with intentionally limiting means of expression.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the irreverently cerebral Steven Soderbergh comedy Schizopolis, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

My Life as a Zucchini (2017)

This stop motion animation gem was nominated for a Best Animated Feature award last Oscars season, but is still making its way through rounds of slow trickle American distribution. Don’t it let slip by you. A French language black comedy written by Céline Sciamma, director of Girlhood & Tomboy, My Life as a Zucchini is more spiritually aligned with the quiet comedic gloom of Mary and Max than the kid-friendly antics of more traditional stop motion works like Shaun the Sheep & A Town Called Panic. Its plot is quietly simple. Its animation style is similarly unambitious. However, its empathetic portrait of young, lonely kids in search of a family to call their own is rawly authentic and had me crying like an idiot baby throughout. The good news is that even in its lowest moments of real world gloom and heart-heavy reflections on the lingering effects of abuse and abandonment, My Life as a Zucchini knows how to make a good joke land just when it’s needed most and there are just as many opportunities for a laugh as there are to reach for a handkerchief.

The titular Zucchini in the film is actually a human boy whose mother happened to nickname after the vegetable. With the sunken eyes & oversized head of Anna and the Moods, Zucchini looks like what would happen if Tim Burton attempted to draw Milhouse Van Houten without the glasses. Newly orphaned after a freak accident, Zucchini arrives at a group home where other children await adoptions that are likely never to come. These kids have been through Hell: physical abuse, neglect by way of addiction or mental illness, being left stranded by an uncaring immigration system. My Life as a Zucchini will coldly let their naked pain sink in with a quiet patience too. The kids will complain, “There’s nobody left to love us,” or openly gawk at other kids who do have traditional families while the movie chooses to linger on the raw nerve of the moment, allowing its brutal honesty to sink in. Even when they’re joking around or staving off boredom in the group home’s playground, these haunting moments find their way to the surface, openly daring any eyes focused on the screen to remain dry. It’s not easy.

My Life as a Zucchini isn’t overly maudlin or emotionally manipulative. It’s just honest. One of my favorite aspects of the film is that (with very few exceptions) there are no real enemies driving its central conflicts. Life is just difficult. The foster system cares about ​these kids dearly, but they’re a little older than whom most families would be looking to adopt (Zucchini starts the film at age 9). There’s an older, would-be bully at the home who would serve as the antagonist in most versions of this story, but his transgressions don’t amount to much more than light ribbing (he calls Zucchini “Potato”) and he actually has more empathetic wisdom than most of the kids about how the system works & how they can best look after each other. Even when Zucchini looks back at living alone with his alcoholic, possibly violent mother, he reflects, “She drank a lot of beer, but she made good mashed potatoes and sometimes we had a lot of fun.” As dark as some of these kids’ backstories can be, My Life as a Zucchini often focuses on the “sometimes we had a lot of fun” end of that recollection and the movie balances out its real life gloom by celebrating the small victories and moments of levity that cut through its pint-sized characters’ emotional pain.

All things considered, this is a fairly traditional coming of age story, one that’s stop motion medium has a sort of twee sweetness to it that recalls things like the animated sequences of Taika Waititi’s debut Eagle vs. Shark. The orphans who populate the film indulge in small acts of vandalism, frequently erupt into juvenile sexual humor, cut loose at adorably safe-feeling late night dance parties, and navigate their first experiences with things like romantic crushes & hand holding. The movie itself can be adorable in the same way, whether depicting precious carnival ride miniatures & tiny crayon drawings or piles of empty beer cans complete with their own generic labels. For all of My Life as a Zucchini‘s instant appeal as an adorable object and a sweetly empathetic coming of age narrative, though, the movie often distinguishes itself in how it builds these charms on a foundation of real life emotional pain. When the inevitable sadness & boredom of life at this stop motion animated orphanage disrupts the playtime fantasy of the kids who populate it, the movie always chooses to slow down and let the ugly truth of that moment linger. It’s not always a pleasant experience, but it is a deeply rewarding one.

-Brandon Ledet

The Little Prince (2016)

three star

The recent animated feature The Little Prince has had an interesting path to reaching American audiences. After earning rave reviews abroad and being advertised at theaters in the States, the film was dropped from its release schedule and unceremoniously dumped on Netflix streaming following months of distribution limbo. I’m far from a connoisseur of modern CG animation. Pixar movies don’t quite excite me in the same way they do for most folks and I’m much likelier to seek out a hand-drawn or stop motion-animated film than a Wreck It Ralph or Big Hero 6 or what have you. I will say, though, that the way The Little Prince has been quietly swept aside baffles me a great deal. It’s by no means a contender for best animated feature of the year or anything (not with Kubo & Zootopia looming large), but it’s at the very least more thoughtful & well-constructed than what I assume (but hopefully will never find out) most people got out of this year’s lesser CG fare: Storks, Trolls, Angry Birds, oh my! And those all made huge profits at the theater. Anyone looking for Pixar-quality storytelling & emotional resonance is likely to enjoy this discarded dark horse on some level, even if it wasn’t my usual taste in entertainment, so it’s weird to see it dismissed so casually on the distribution end of the business.

There’s two dueling storylines in The Little Prince. One is told in a storybook fashion and is based on the popular children’s book of the film’s namesake (which I honestly know mostly from Tumblr posts & friends’ tattoos, not from growing up with it); the other is a coming of age tale in which a young girl befriends a lonely old man. The Little Prince is interesting in the way it never puts too fine of a point on the way the themes of its two halves communicate. Both stories are in some way about the value and difficulty in maintaining companionship, but overall the movie exists as a love letter to childhood imagination. In the film’s own words, “Growing up is not the problem, forgetting is.” The old man (voiced by Jeff Bridges), who spends most of his days working on model planes, listening to Dixieland jazz, and recounting the story of the Little Prince to his new school age friend, never forgot the value of play & imagination as he grew older. Every other adult seems to have lost that perspective. As the little girl protagonist faces a rigid summer schedule meant to prepare her for an intensely regimented educational institution, everyone from her own mother to her educational oppressors seem determined to dampen and homogenize her imagination. The old man and his story of the Little Prince offer a (literally) brighter, more exciting future, and a lot of the film’s conflict is generated in the clash of those two ideals.

What drew me into watching this film in the first place, despite it not being my typical thing, was the multimedia approach to its animation. The story of the old man & the young girl is an all-CG, Pixar-reminiscent proposition, one that looks a little like a cheaper version of the medium like Anna and the Moods due to its budgetary limitations. The film begins with a hand-drawn sequence with watercolor added for texture, though, and the titular Little Prince half of the story is told through stop motion animation, something I’m always a sucker for. If the entire film were as interesting to look at as the Little Prince’s claymation worlds, I might be praising it a little more emphatically. Unfortunately, I didn’t find the wraparound CG story quite as worthwhile as the storybook Little Prince vignettes it contains, as it both looked & felt less special in the context of its time, where a CG-animated tale about the value of imagination & individuality are not at all difficult to come by.

I wouldn’t say that The Little Prince would have been a more resounding success if it were all stop motion or hand-drawn. I had some problems with the story too, particularly when its two worlds collide in a third act attempt to transform what was at one time a character-driven familial drama into a cookie cutter action adventure. My main complaint with the film is that outside that last minute stretch, when the film feels least emotionally impactful, its two halves never really feel like a cohesive whole. The stop motion animation version of The Little Prince‘s source material is something very interesting and beautiful to behold; the CG framing device was fine, but not something I would seek out without the titular hook. There’s some clever visualization of the monotonous trudge of time & adult life that colors that half of the film and I’ll admit I teared up at the emotional climax of its story arc once the action adventure shenanigans were put to rest (not that it takes much for me to cry these days; a TV commercial can get me to do that in seconds). I just could never shake the feeling that The Little Prince didn’t fully belong tied to that Pixar-shaped story in the first place. Those more in tune with that genre might be inclined to disagree and I think it’s at least fair to say this film deserved a fairer shake than the one it got, as I’m sure there was an audience out there who would’ve been eager to see it at the theater.

-Brandon Ledet

A Town Called Panic: Double Fun (2016)

threehalfstar

Double Fun isn’t exactly a sequel in a traditional sense, although it is the latest theatrical release in its franchise since the 2009 feature A Town Called Panic. Rather than standing as a feature length follow-up to its madcap stop motion comedy predecessor, Double Fun is a “one day only” (it actually screened over two days at Prytania Theatre) theatrical event that cobbled together several short films from the A Town Called Panic catalog to reach a very slight feature length as a loose anthology. As a trip to the cinema Double Fun was an amusing novelty, not quite living up to the manic brilliance of the original A Town Called Panic movie, but still functioning fairly well as a crash course in the Belgian cult television show’s surreal, maddening mode of crude stop motion animation & slapstick comedy. It was great to see something so aggressively trivial play out on the prestige platform of the oldest running cinema in New Orleans, but I wouldn’t necessarily call the experience essential (like I would have with Prytania’s 100 year anniversary screening of Cinema Paradiso last year).

The main bulk of Double Fun were two mid-length shorts, titled “Christmas Panic” & “Back to School Panic.” I usually detest watching Christmas-themed media out of season, especially when it’s sacrilegious to the still-approaching holy day of Halloween, but I’ll make an exception when it means watching the KaBlam!-style antics of Horse, Cowboy, and Indian on the big screen. Of the two 2016 shorts, “Christmas Panic” was noticeably inferior to the high concept insanity of “Back to School Panic,” but it was still amusing to watch the Panic gang rob both the kindly Santa Claus & the abusive jerk neighbor Steven in the name of the true Christmas spirit: greed. “Back to School Panic” was the true attraction of Double Fun, starting with a very simple plot of Cowboy & Indian trying to avoid having to return to the classroom and somehow winding up playing with a Being John Malkovich situation inside a farm pig’s mind. “Christmas Panic” was cute & the mini-shorts that buffered the two featured segments of Double Fun were a great glimpse into the humble beginnings of the franchise, with the de-evolution monsters of “Cow Hulk” especially standing out as a treat. However, if A Town Called Panic fans are to seek out just one segment of this theatrical event, “Back to School Panic” is the one that most stands out as exemplary of what makes this manic stop motion franchise so weirdly endearing.

Double Fun works best as a crash course in Panic if you have already seen the feature film, which is likely a much better starting point. The way the anthology is curated answered a few lingering questions I had after watching the absurdist feature film. My main ambiguity about whether the franchise was intended for children or stoned adults was somewhat resoundingly answered by the rowdy groups of young tyke attendees at the screening who met the series of shorts with transfixed silence & wholesome giggling. In a way it seems like the series is moving in a more kid-friendly direction in general, especially in making Horse more of a father figure to the increasingly childlike Cowboy & Indian and in softening the music cues. There’s still the requisite partying, alcohol, theft, violence, and manic tension that makes A Town Called Panic distinct as dangerous-feeling children’s media, but the shift was noticeable. Watching the 2016 shorts mix in with the shoddier quality of the series’ humble beginnings was also illuminating as a recent convert, as was hearing the English-language voice actors in the dubs, which took some getting used to, but felt like insight into how the show is typically packaged outside of Belgium.

If you’ve never seen A Town Called Panic before, I urge you to start with the 2009 feature, as it’s a great reminder of the wonders of stop motion as a medium, even when crudely executed. Double Fun is great supplementary material for the already converted, especially in the unreal sci-fi absurdity of “Back to School Panic,” but it’s not necessarily something you need to kick yourself for missing in its very brief theatrical run. If either of those storylines had been used as a launching point for a proper feature length sequel, however, I might be singing a different tune.

-Brandon Ledet

A Town Called Panic (2009)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

I have a bad track record with modern CG animation as filtered through companies like Disney & Pixar and a traditional 2D, hand-drawn animation feature is increasingly difficult to come by, so stop motion might very well be my final refuge in animation as a cinematic medium. This might help explain why (besides them being lovingly crafted & emotionally devastating) titles like Mary and Max & Kubo and the Two Strings have stood out to me as some of the more memorable animated features of the last decade. The 2009 stop motion madcap comedy A Town Called Panic, adapted from a cult Belgian TV show of the same name, doesn’t aim for the same awe-inspiring depth & beauty of titles like Kubo. All things considered, it’s probably a lot more in line with the slapstick antics of something like Shaun the Sheep. However, its tactile visuals, which go out of their way to call attention to its stop motion format, and its manic comedy style make for a much more memorable, enjoyable experience than most of your standard talking CG animal features could. I’m not saying that A Town Called Panic is automatically “better” than all CG animation features because of its virtue as a stop motion work (at the very least, it’s highly likely that Zootopia will make my Top Films of 2016 list at the end of the year and it easily falls under that umbrella). I just find it remarkably easy to tap into the film’s headspace because I am in love with its methods, however crudely executed.

Stop motion studios like Laika pride themselves in pushing their medium to a technical extreme, smoothing out the movement of their figurines through CGI doctoring and striving to achieve grander, larger scale accomplishments in their films’ action sequences. A Town Called Panic is refreshing in the way it casually approaches the medium, intentionally drawing attention to the crudeness of its visual style. Its characters are simple figurines anyone could pick up out of a dollar store toy bag: a cowboy, an Indian, a horse. Their character names are just as simplistic: Cowboy, Indian, Horse. When they run from danger they have to hobble violently because of the limited movement of the plastic bases attached to their feet. There’s a world built around their overly simplistic shapes; pianos, cars, houses, and computers are designed so that they can be operated by horses. It’s not the intricately mapped out, multiscale world of Zootopia, however. It’s more like a children’s playset. I haven’t seen stop motion employed so casually & so conspicuously since KaBlam! in the 90s. The approach doesn’t necessarily read as lazy, though. It merely works as a reminder of how effective stop motion can be as a visual medium even when stripped down to its bare parts. The animation in A Town Called Panic is just complicated enough to deliver the physical comedy & whimsical absurdity of its story. It’s function over fashion, but in its kids’ playset simplicity the film does achieve its own aesthetic.

The plot is similarly bare bones. As with a lot of television series, especially comedies, A Town Called Panic plays like several TV episodes strung together instead of a traditional feature-length movie plot. Cowboy, Horse, and Indian are three roommates who’ve formed a strange, symbiotic domesticity within their household. Horse is the responsible adult of the house, while Cowboy & Indian are his goofball foils. They kick the plot into action when they forget Horse’s birthday & build him a barbecue as a last minute present. Through a mistake anyone could make, really, Cowboy & Indian order 50 million bricks instead of the mere 50 required to build the barbecue and decide to hide the bricks from the much put-upon birthday boy. For all of its manic energy & physics-bending absurdity, the best attribute of A Town Called Panic is its comedic patience. There’s a great payoff to the absurd visual gag of “hiding” 50 million bricks, but it’s a very slow, methodical reveal that relies on the strength of comedic timing even more than it does on situational humor. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a stop motion feature more confident with showing absolutely nothing happening onscreen in lingering shots so the impact of its long-game gags can pay off with greater comedic confidence. The setup of the bricks leads to many ingenious punchlines and episodic adventures, including an Atlantis-esque underwater colony, scientist kidnappers, and farm animal ammo in a territorial war. The absurdity is gradually, incrementally escalated, though. It’s a payoff that doesn’t arrive immediately, which is both surprising for a feature with such manic energy and impressive in terms of comedic confidence.

Overall, it’s difficult for me to pinpoint the exact tone of A Town Called Panic from the outside looking in. Is the franchise intended for children or stoned-out-of-their-mind college students? Both? It commands neither the cutesiness of Wallace & Gromit nor the dramatic ennui of Anomalisa, leaving it in some kind of stop-motion libido. Outside of a few details like alcohol consumption, marital infidelity, and the occasional potty language of words like “bastard” & “dumbass” it’s hard to say for sure that kids wouldn’t be able to watch it over parental concerns, but the humor isn’t exactly “adult” either. Its irreverence & whimsy recalls the stop motion comedy of Michel Gondry’s Mood Indigo or Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, but it traffics in the crude simplicity of something like KaBlam!. Maybe if I were Belgian I’d have better context for A Town Called Panic’s target audience, but as an American Doofus & a stop motion fanatic all I can say is it’s very funny and I’m glad it exists. It’s rare to see a comedy in an medium brimming with so much minute-to-minute energy, yet patient enough to let longterm gags reach their full potential before payoff. This is a confident work of a very particular, unique mode of stop motion comedy & entirely deserves the traction it’s gaining as a cult curiosity on an international scale.

-Brandon Ledet

Black Moon (1975) was the Most Honest Surrealist Take on Lewis Carroll’s Alice . . . Until Alice (1988)

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We were having a hard time in our initial conversation about August’s Movie of the Month, the fantasy realm art piece Black Moon, in pinpointing an exact interpretation of the film’s basic plot or intent. It’s highly likely, of course, that director Louis Malle didn’t want his exact intent or a definitive plot to be discernible at all in the film. Black Moon feels very much committed to a certain mode of surrealism that points to the coldness & seemingly random cruelty of existence by being, you guessed it, cold & randomly cruel. The interpretation we more or less settled on as a crew was that Black Moon was best understood as a down-the-rabbit-hole story that aped the structure of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland series as a means of capturing his young protagonist’s unsettling journey into womanhood. Whatever that journey means or what it even is largely falls under the umbrella of personal interpretation but the Wonderland influence was undeniable as an overarching aesthetic in its basic structure. Black Moon is by no means a strict adaptation of that source material, but it does wear the influence on it sleeve, as openly admitted by Malle himself in interviews. I’d also argue that the film was the best surrealist take on Wonderland’s cold, random cruelty depicted on film for well over a decade, capturing that aspect of Carroll’s work better than any of its many peers that were straightforward adaptations of the novel. That is, until it was upstaged by 1988’s stop-motion animation classic Alice.

Czech director Jan Švankmajer had been producing short films all the way back to the same art scene in his home country that produced 1967’s Daisies before making his feature film debut in Alice. To be honest, Alice’s structure & pacing reflect his short film past in a lot of ways, recalling modern filmmakers like Guy Maddin & Roy Andersson who are remarkably adept at constructing individual images & vignettes, but struggle a little when it comes to piecing those moments together to achieve a digestible feature length work. Alice is a stunning visual achievement, a tactile work of stop-motion animation that values the specificity of curio cabinet oddities, Joseph Cornell shadowboxes, and taxidermy animals over the clay figurines we’re used to seeing in titles like Coraline & Kubo. What makes Alice interesting as an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s source material, however, is not in the visual achievement, but in a tone that matches the cold surrealism of Louis Malle’s Black Moon. As Švankmajer put it himself, he wanted to reinvent the interpretation of Alice in Wonderland in other adaptations that posed it as a fairy tale with a moral center and instead present it as a cold, amoral dream with no point to be made outside its own absurdism, a reading that captures the essence of Black Moon just as much as it hints at the power & intent of Carroll’s source material. Švankmajer explained, “While a fairy tale has got an educational aspect – it works with the moral of the lifted finger (good overcomes evil), dream, as an expression of our unconscious, uncompromisingly pursues the realization of our most secret wishes without considering rational and moral inhibitions, because it is driven by the principle of pleasure. My Alice is a realized dream.” Considered in that context, Black Moon also functions best as a dream & not as a fairy tale, despite what you’d expect based on its talking unicorn.

The difference between the dream structures of Alice & Black Moon, however, is that the latter often functions as a nightmare. Both films’ plots survive on the surreality of minute to minute obstinate confusion, but there’s a lighter tone to Alice that isn’t quite matched in Black Moon. Black Moon can be funny at times, but it often veers into uncomfortable imagery like hawk murder & interspecies breastfeeding, while Alice finds its individual vignettes in moments like a cute rat cooking a can of beans on its young protagonist’s head. Most of the film’s creepiness lies in its old world imagery, a curio cabinet specificity that recalls a similar immersion in Nature, strange animals, and odd domesticity to what we see in Black Moon’s languid sleepwalk through an earth tone dreamscape, but with noticeably less malice. Black Moon pulled a lot of its surrealist influence from Carroll’s creation in Alice in Wonderland, an uncaring, dreamlike tone that recalls the structure of a fairy tale, but without the lesson to be learned. 1988’s Alice picks up that torch & runs with it, applying that same amoral interpretation of Carroll’s intent to a straightforward adaptation of his novel. Together they have a lot to say about the potency of dream logic, the philosophical implications of surrealism, and the meaninglessness of meaning. I highly recommend them as a double feature next time you’re feeling particularly existential & loopy.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, Louis Malle’s surrealist fantasy art piece Black Moon, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film & last week’s comparison of its lame duck unicorn with the divine unicorns of Legend (1985).

-Brandon Ledet