Madeline’s Madeline (2018)

Although she’s been working steadily since the buzzy “mumblecore” movement that established a new standard tone for microbudget indie cinema over a decade ago, 2018 is proving to be a breakout year for Josephine Decker. This started for me, personally, when Decker’s collaborative, self-loathing documentary Flames tore my brain in half in its emotionally volatile record of a toxic, years-long romantic detangling. Her much larger cultural breakout arrived later in a drama where she was more of the auteurist voice: the festival-circuit darling Madeline’s Madeline. What’s impressive about Madeline’s Madeline as a follow-up to Flames is that it maintains the documentary’s emotional volatility and damning self-reflection on the nature & tortures of its own medium, while branching off into the realm of fictional drama. It didn’t hit me quite as hard in the gut as Flames did (perhaps because I was braced for impact this second round in the ring with Decker, whereas I was caught off-guard for the first bout), but Madeline’s Madeline is just as heart-achingly confrontational in its emotional honesty and just as complexly mapped out in its engagement with its own medium as an artform. Decker may have been active and in-plain-sight in both theatre & cinema for at least the last decade solid, but in just two films 2018 has been the year when she set a staggeringly high expectation for the form-breaking phenomena she can achieve on the screen.

Teenage newcomer Helena Howard stars as the titular Madeline, a mentally ill high school student who finds a brief utopian respite in an avant-garde NYC theatre troupe, before that artistic safe space becomes just as messy & volatile as her home-life & her internal psyche. Her home-life crisis is mostly anchored to her relationship with her dangerously high-strung mother (played by Miranda July), a conflict that often erupts into physical violence. As she coldly rejects one mother’s affections at home, Madeline seeks a new motherly figure in her theatre director (played by Molly Parker). This relationship also sours when the play they’re collaborating on with their troupe mutates into a sinister meta-drama about Madeline’s “real” home-life. Madeline’s discomfort with her real-life domestic conflicts being exploited for Art is complicated by the film’s exponential detachment from realty, where the divisions between Art & “reality” become blurred to the point of effective obliteration. A spiritual descendent of Charlie Kauffman projects like Synecdoche, New York or Michel Gondry’s “Bachelorette” video for Björk, Madeline’s Madeline’s echoing of the artifice of theatre in the “The world’s a stage” artifice of real life folds the plot in on itself so many times that it’s near impossible to distinguish what’s “really” happening from what’s just in our protagonist’s head. There’s a clear three-way war that develops between Howard, July, and Parker’s characters, but everything else on the screen is highly subjective to personal interpretation.

This immersion in theatre & artificiality is an immediate cornerstone of the text, as Madeline finds comfort in her troupe’s exercises of getting lost in character work. This starts innocently enough when she’s pretending to be a cat, a turtle, or a pig, but concerns about whether she’s being a sea turtle or “a woman playing a sea turtle” eventually give way to much more violent crises of perception & reality. Madeline has no appetite, is prone to bursts of physical violence, and suffers auditory hallucinations of constant, rhythmic whispers. She’s already a blatantly untrustworthy narrator, then, which Decker chooses to amplify by immersing the audience in her POV on an almost subliminal level. The insular sound design & detail-obsessed photography of the film is so personal to Madeline’s sensory experiences that any “What’s really happening?” narrative concerns are beside the point beyond how they relate to Madeline’s emotional state. Its immersive POV falls closer to the anxiety-driven horrors of Krisha more than the eerie beauty of The Fits, as what Madeline’s feeling is often frustration & an urge to lash out. Her relationships with her director & her mother gradually sync-up with her relationship to theatre, as art itself becomes the weapon she uses to lash out in her all-out war with her dual parental figures (who also wage their own war on each other through theatre). By the time the whole conflict reaches its climax in a Tune-Yards reminiscent performance art piece on an art instillation set, theatre itself becomes both the battlefield & the weapon, whereas it starts the film as a safe-space sanctuary.

The tones & methods of collaborative theatre seem to be a guiding force in Decker’s work, perhaps best represented in the presence of Miranda July (whose undervalued film The Future frequently feels like an influence here) and Sutina Mani (whose work in Snowy Bing Bongs Across the North Star Combat Zone is a more playful take on a similar avant-garde performance art aesthetic). However, by the time the film directly calls itself out for daring to tell the inner life of another person’s story (across barriers like race, mental health, and life experience), I get the exact same form-breaking self-reflection vibe that Decker (again, collaboratively) brought to the screen in Flames. In just the two releases she’s had this year, she’s established a very distinct, often menacing tone of artistic & emotional honesty that’s just as admirably staged as it is emotionally ugly & upsetting. This film wasn’t my personal favorite of the pair, but I believe both are worth an engaged, self-reflective look. I also believe Decker’s trajectory indicates there are more form-breaking freakouts to come, and soon.

-Brandon Ledet

Snowy Bing Bongs Across the North Star Combat Zone (2017)

Knowing the director duo Daniels from their work on projects like Swiss Army Man and the “Turn Down for What” music video, it’s immediately apparent why they would be interested in signing on as producers for Snowy Bing Bongs Across the North Star Combat Zone. Not only does the movie feature comedic actor Sunita Mari, who also features heavily in their work on “Turn Down for What,” it also plays directly into the post-Adult Swim visual excess & juvenile fart humor absurdity that’s quickly come to define their work. Later in the film, a cameo from digital era prankster Reggie Watts sets in stone the exact visual & comedic vibe the film is aiming for. What’s important about Snowy Bing Bongs, though, is not the continued joy of revisiting its more recognizable contributors, but rather the way the film works as an introduction to new talents. These newcomers arrive in the form of the Cocoon Central Dance Team: Eleanore Piente, Tallie Medel, and Sunita Mani (who has already had a great year on the screen, thanks to eye-catching turns on both GLOW & The Good Place, probably my two favorite new television comedies). The film is essentially a mid-length showcase for their various comedic styles, so your reaction to it as an overall piece will rely heavily on how much they can make you laugh.

Most stills & advertisements for Snowy Bing Bongs emphasize the look of its central tableau: a snow-covered planet where three women dressed only in bear skin rugs awkwardly dance with beach ball props. The weirdo dance sequences set on this cotton candy planet only make up a fraction of the film’s runtime as a kind of all-purpose wraparound. The majority of the film functions as a sketch comedy revue, with each member of the Cocoon Central Dance Team being afforded their own series of non sequitur vignettes in which to steal the spotlight. Weirdo characters who can’t pronounce their own names, refer to applause as “hand-slappies,” and discover that they have more internal organs than they initially suspected take turns branching off into their own sketches before the film’s rotary dial returns to the cotton candy snow planet wraparound. The whole thing feels like an extended episode of an Adult Swim sketch comedy show, only functioning like a proper movie in the tableau dance routine & moments of meta commentary on cinema, like the question, “Why do we make movies?” or a sketch that’s essentially a built-in post-screening Q&A. The movie can be very funny from gag to gag, but it’s very rare that it actually feels cinematic.

The heart of Snowy Bing Bongs definitely lies in that cotton candy snow planet, which is explained to be under attack by beach ball asteroids. There’s a slight narrative shift within that wraparound, starting with a rival planet of over-heated bikini babes whose beach balls invade the snow planet and are eventually defeated. More importantly, though, the aggressively ungraceful “choreography” of the dance routines outshines much of the traditional comedy sketches they interrupt, a point that’s driven home in the film’s best vignette: a horrifyingly amateurish pop music performance on a fictional early 2000s TRL-style variety show. Snowy Bing Bongs might have been a better film if it had stuck to a single storyline set on the icy planet of bear skin rug-wearing alien women, but I’m not even sure what that would look like. Instead, we get a mid-length introduction to a new crop of sketch comedy performers & writers that incorporates its fractured structure into their aggressively amateurish Tim & Eric aesthetic. That’s its own kind of pleasure for sure and by the end I was far more surprised than I was disappointed by the form it chose to take.

-Brandon Ledet