L’Age d’Or (1930)

The short-form collaboration between surrealist masters Luis Buñuel & Salvador Dali, Un Chien Andalou, is standard Film Class 101 material by now. I’m saying this as someone who’s never actually taken a proper film course, but has been shown the film in creative writing lectures, heard it referenced in Pixies lyrics, and (most recently) seen Agnes Varda mull over its legacy in her recent art instillation documentary Faces Places. The juxtaposed images of clouds intersecting the moon and a cow’s eyeball being cut-open with a straight razor are an especially gory slice of early cinema just as fundamental to the medium as Méliès’s trip to the moon, Charlie Chaplin’s sliding through machine gears, and a steam engine train rapidly approaching the screen. It feels ignorant, then, that I was not aware of the 17min short’s feature length follow-up, L’Age d’Or. His second collaboration (and final, due to a social falling-out) with Salvador Dali, L’Age d’Or was Buñuel’s first feature-length film. It maintains the surreal juxtaposition of highly political, violently non-sequitur imagery from Un Chien Andalou, but this time hung off a more recognizable narrative and sustained for a full hour. As that story is remarkably thin & self-subverting, however, L’Age d’Or often plays like a loose anthology of comically surreal vignettes; it’s essentially a sketch comedy revue with a fine art pedigree. That kind of highfalutin pranksterism is very much on-brand for both Dali & Buñuel (who would later reuse a lot of images & political tactics from this feature debut in works like The Exterminating Angel) so it’s bizarre to me that this work isn’t cited more often along with Un Chien Adalou as a significant text.

In addition to being a loose collection of silly non-sequiturs, L’Age d’Or might also be undervalued because it’s such a cheaply horny work. The thin narrative that binds its anthology of vignettes concerns a romantic couple among social elites who really want to fuck, but keep getting cockblocked by the wealth class & The Church. The pair lustily make eyes across the room at various social get-togethers until they passionately go at it, right there in public, only to be pulled apart mid-coitus. Even considering the flagrant sexuality of Pre-Code Hollywood films like Baby Face, this animalistic lust feels absolutely scandalous in a 1930s context—something Buñuel gleefully juxtaposes with the rigid social propriety of wealthy social events & religious ceremony. The sexual activity depicted onscreen is far from pornographic, but it is scandalous all the same: fantasies about a woman’s stockinged legs, muddy bouts of public exhibitionism, the fellating of fingers & toes, a minutes-long tribute to de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, etc. These acts themselves doesn’t matter as much as the elite’s response to them. High society types ignore incongruous, troubling events like the murder of a child, the intrusion of a comically oversized chariot helmed by drunks, and the posthumous decay of Catholic higher-ups who rot on beaches in their finest robes. However, any display of sexual impropriety sends them into a riotous uproar, and they continually tear the two lovers away any chance they find to go at it. It’s all the same hypocritical tension between proper manners & animal desires that would continue throughout Buñuel’s career. Yet, its arrival at such an early stage of cinema combines with the ramshackle DIY energy of a creator at the beginning of their career to make for something distinctly fascinating.

It’s said Buñuel was a new adapter of cinema as a medium around the time of Un Chien Andalou & L’Age d’Or, so it’s difficult to pinpoint which aspects of his work were intentional rule-breaking pranks and which were novice mistakes. Buñuel shot L’Age d’Or entirely in-sequence and without cutting any footage in the editing room; all exposed filmstock is included in the final product. One of the earliest French films to use sound, the film features both spoken dialogue & silent film intertitles as if it weren’t sure what to do with the technology. Often, the only auditory elements included beyond the music are of sound effects like gun shots & slaps. Sometimes this feels like an uneasy filmmaker not properly using all the tools in their arsenal. Often, however, it plays like just as much of a prank as the film’s horned-up plot, especially in the case of a toilet flush sound effect accompanying the image of bubbling water. Buñuel opens L’Age d’Or with a short documentary about scorpions that seemingly has nothing to do with “plot” in any direct, discernible way, but its inclusion feels like an artist who knows exactly what reaction they’re intending to evoke. Later, he documents modern Rome with the wildly uneven cinematography of someone who’s never held a camera before in their life. In either case, it’s a young, defiant personality thumbing their nose at the already-established rules of a still-developing artform, while weaponizing that new artform against the hypocrisy & wealth disparity of an amoral, grotesque society. That throwing-punches-before-figuring-out-the-rules attitude affords L’Age d’Or an infectious DIY punk spirit, even if Buñuel would later better hone his skills in more put-together ruminations on the same topic.

As a lover of both pretentious smut & silly hijinks, I couldn’t help but be enamored by L’Age d’Or. The ancient cinematic depictions of gore & fornication fully satisfy my instant-gratification need for pure entertainment value, while the inclusion of Surrealist heavy-hitters like Dali & Max Ernst (who appears in a minor role) as collaborators allows me to pretend I’m watching Important Art. I understand how the prurient subject matter & the extended runtime might keep it from being as standard of a classroom tool as Un Chien Andalou, but you can easily detect its influence on important, artsy-fartsy filmmakers as wide-ranging as David Lynch, Ken Russell, Roy Andersson, Guy Maddin, and Monty Python throughout. That’s wonderful to able to say about a series of sketches detailing a romantic couple’s thwarted attempts to fuck in public.

-Brandon Ledet

Zama (2018)

In the opening sequence of Lucrecia Martel’s Zama, the titular government goon stands on a South American beach, longingly staring at the open water. His anguish in that thousand-yard-stare is twofold: a lonely desire to reconnect with his wife & children in his Spaniard home country and, more prominently, a soul-crushing boredom. All around him indigenous people are living their normal lives: sunbathing, chatting, playing in the sand with loved ones. Meanwhile, his own life is locked in a permanent stasis, as if his assigned post as a magistrate for the Spanish crown were a prison sentence, not an honor. It’s an excruciating fate, but he deserves worse.

Diego de Zama’s fate of being permanently stuck in a foreign land he finds to be a soul-crushing bore is a purely existential kind of torment. He pleads to higher-ups in the Spanish government from every possible angle, including letters to the Crown, to release him from this hellish Limbo, to no avail. If Zama were a moralistic tale about the evils of 17th Century colonialism, this professional prison where its wicked lead awaits a transfer that’s never to come might play like a just, torturous punishment for the sins of Spanish occupation he’s in charge of administering in Paraguay. Instead, the film plays the torture as a more surreal, existential plight; his punishment is made all the harsher & more satisfying because it is entirely meaningless and void of intent.

The bored, anguished stasis of Zama pushes beyond real-world logic to reach the surreal, philosophical existentialism of works like The Exterminating Angel & Waiting for Godot. The film’s mocking of civility is especially Buñuelian, as Diego de Zama & his fellow in-Limbo cohorts foolishly attempt to maintain their homeland nobility despite the indignity of their posts. Their white legislative wigs & vibrantly dyed fabrics look absolutely absurd in the Natural environments they’re tasked to occupy & govern. The juxtaposition of their heartless brutality & mannered civility is often allowed to clash for dark humor, as in scenes where the Spanish government goons enslave or beat locals and then politely kiss each other on the cheek according to custom. Just as often as it’s bleakly humorous, however, Zama allows the out-of-place quality of its damned protagonist to hang in the air for eerie surreality.

I won’t pretend that I fully understood the themes or drama of Zama beyond its existential anguish & mockery of civility, but I was often struck by the potency of its imagery anyway. Lamas, fish scales, naked children, and skin dyed red & blue disorient the eye with continual surprise, despite the contained, reality-bound premise. Diego de Zama is tasked with capturing a local rapist/murderer and bringing him to justice. This seems like a straightforward enough task, but it’s somehow played to be as pointlessly absurd as any of his other assigned duties. His distanced relationship with his family and his treatment of local black bodies as tools & furniture seem similarly ripe for narrative propulsion but are left to rot in discomfort along with the protagonist. Mostly, Zama functions as an eerie nightmare of Natural images, like a costume drama version of Icaros: A Vision. There are certainly historical & thematic elements of the film that sailed miles over my head, but being perplexed by a well-crafted image is its own kind of pleasure.

-Brandon Ledet

Wings of Fame (1990), Harmony Korine, and the Virtue of Restraint

One of the more fascinating aspects of December’s Movie of the Month, 1990’s Wings of Fame, is how delicately surreal the picture can be despite the heightened absurdity of its premise. You’d think that a movie about a fame-economy afterlife where celebrity & cultural longevity determine your post-mortem soul’s access to eternal existence would be an aggressively bizarre work, but Wings of Fame is exceedingly gentle with its own surrealist fantasy. The movie is patient with the potential absurdity of its juxtapositions of dead famous people converging in a shared afterlife, finding much more interest in poking at the existential & philosophical implications of how that fantasy realm would work. To contrast that restraint with a more aggressively bizarre version of a similar work, you’d have to look to one of the most unrestrained button-pushers working in modern cinema: habitual provocateur Harmony Korine. As a filmmaker, Korine’s grimy, crassly misshapen aesthetic is downright antithetical to the refined elegance of Wings of Fame, which calls on respectably mannered performances from actors Peter O’Toole & Colin Firth to establish its tone. That’s what makes him such an excellent point of comparison, even if an unlikely one.

Sandwiched between the unrelenting oddities Julien Donkey-Boy & Trash Humpers, it should be no surprise that Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely is an uncompromising, aggressively surreal work. Considered in the larger context of the director’s career, however, it’s much more akin to his more strictly narrative works Gummo & Spring Breakers than those looser, less accommodating titles. Diego Luna stars in Mister Lonely as a Michael Jackson impersonator struggling to make a living as a street performer in Paris. His life changes dramatically when he’s recruited by a Marilyn Monroe lookalike (Samantha Morton) to live in a Scottish commune with other celebrity impersonators. Michael Jackson did not die until a year after Mister Lonely went into wide distribution in 2008. The film also features impersonators of the still-alive Madonna and the deceased-since-2014 Shirley Temple. Still, it explores similar themes to the fame economy afterlife in Wings of Fame. In an early scene before he’s recruited for the commune, “Michael Jackson” shouts to patients he’s entertaining at an old folks home, “We can all live forever! We can all be children forever! Don’t die! Live forever!” between his iconic dance moves. The immortality he’s promoting in that speech is something he achieves in his own life through adopting Michael Jackson’s celebrity, just like the fame-envious consumers in The Congress. When Jackson boats to the Scottish castle commune with Monroe, it’s like he’s crossing over into a surrealist afterlife (much like the foggy rivers Styx access to the afterlife in Wings of Fame) where famous people like Charlie Chaplin, James Dean, Abraham Lincoln, Sammie Davis Jr., Buckwheat, and Little Red Riding Hood can cohabitate, seemingly removed from the reality of space, Death, and time.

An odd commonality shared between Wings of Fame & Mister Lonely is that they both structure their famous fantasy realms with a remove that restrains the full potential of their absurdist premises. Besides a few recognizable names line Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, and Lassie, Wings of Fame mostly fills its celebrity ranks with non-existent historical figures. Instead of a specific Russian political poet or psychedelic rocker, the movie substitutes an archetype placeholder. This may limit the potential absurdity of seeing famous dead people from across time share a single space, but it does leave more room for philosophical discussion of their fantastic plight instead of dwelling in the details of their individual personalities. Similarly, Mister Lonely uses the remove of gathering celebrity lookalikes instead of actual celebrities in its own fantasy realm. The image of Michael Jackson & Charlie Chaplin playing ping-pong together is absurd, but not nearly as absurd as it could be if those players were the real deal, not lookalikes. Korine’s remove through impersonators might be the one area where his film displays restraint exercised in the much more delicate Wings of Fame. It’s a choice that opens the film to the same fame-as-immortality themes as its counterpoint, although their approaches to the subject are drastically different.

It’s strange to cite any given element in a Harmony Korine film as an example of artistic restraint, since so much of his work is associated with aggressive looseness & crass self-indulgence. Indeed, the only limiting choice made in Mister Lonely is in structuring the film around dead celebrity impersonators instead of actual dead celebrities. Everything else is a free-for-all, completely detached from the subtle tone of Wings of Fame. “Abraham Lincoln” spins a basketball under a strobe light while cursing like a sailor. “Michael Jackson” tenderly says goodbye to individual pieces of his furniture in his rented room with deep sincerity before departing to his new communal home. Celebrity faces appear in clouds & painted eggs to sing to Michael and address his internal conflicts. An entire subplot unfolds, separate from the concerns of celebrity lookalikes, where Werner Herzog plays a priest who wrangles a mission of nuns who resemble The Virgin Mary; together they develop a skydiving cult that requires them to regularly leap from airplanes without parachutes. In typical Harmony Korine fashion, this all sounds very chaotic, but somehow amounts to a slow-moving, unrushed feature that’s just as willing to abandon its audience in its pacing as it is playful with its subject. It’s a challenging watch, but one that rewards in individual, absurdist moments.

The difference in the relative restraint exercised in Wings of Fame & Mister Lonely, respectively, could not be clearer. At the conclusion of the much less bombastic Wings of Fame, the audience is left with so much to ponder about what the film is trying to say about the real life implications of its fame-as-immortality premise. Mister Lonely, by contrast, exhausts its audience with an overload of frivolous (though often fascinating) indulgences, leaving very little room for spiritual or philosophical thought to linger among the flashier details. Wings of Fame can feel frustratingly incomplete & reluctant to fully push the absurdity of its fame-economy afterlife premise, but Korine’s counterpoint suggests that’s not entirely a bad thing. Its quiet, restrained surrealism leaves room for a much more extensive philosophical provocation & thought exercise. Korine’s aggressive exhaustion of his own subject leaves so much less ground to be explored in his viewer’s minds after the credits rolled, having laid all of his cards out on the table. Both films are entertainingly absurd in their own surprising ways, but patience & restraint affords one of them cinematic immortality their characters could only achieve through celebrity.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the delicately surreal afterlife puzzler Wings of Fame, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

We Are the Flesh (2017)

As much horror media as I routinely watch on an annual basis, I do tend to have a weak stomach for the so-called “extreme” end of the genre. Titles like Martyrs, Cannibal Holocaust, Inside, Salò, and so on typify a graphically cruel end of horror cinema that I tend to shy away from as I search for less emotionally scarring novelties like Frankenhooker & Ghoulies II. That’s not to say that there’s absolutely no value in “extreme” horror, a subgenre typically associated with French filmmakers in a modern context. Just a couple months ago I allowed myself to be swept up in the explicit, yet hypnotic cannibalism terror of the recent coming of age horror Raw, despite trumped up reports of the film eliciting vomiting and fainting spells during its festival run. The gimmick of distributing Raw along with accompanying barf bags to theaters around the country to play up its onscreen extremity actually did the film a disservice in a lot of ways, setting an expectation for shock value gratuitousness in a way the film, however violent, wasn’t especially focused on delivering. I’m not sure the same can be said of the recent Mexican-American co-production We Are the Flesh. We Are the Flesh is the taboo, explicitly cruel hedonism of extreme horror perversity that Raw was hinted to be in its advertising & early buzz. Its graphic, button-pushing sexuality and violence is typically the exact kind of horror cinema extremity I shy away from. I went into the film dreading the nihilistic ways it would attempt to dwell in trauma & brutality. What’s surprising is that I left it convinced it’s the best domestic release I’ve seen all year.

While both sexual & violent, We Are the Flesh never allows its extreme horror provocations to devolve into the sexual violence exploitation of most of the titles mentioned above. Instead, the terror in its sexuality commands a kind of cerebral, Cronenbergian quality that pushes its audience’s buttons through taboos like incest, necrophilia, and fucking in literal filth. While the explicit nature of its imagery is presumably intended to shock & disturb on some level, the film overall has a lot more in common with Luis Buñuel’s traditionalist surrealism than it does with Salò or Cannibal Holocaust, titles it risks being swept away with critically by choosing to deal in horrific extremes in the first place. The film lives up to the “flesh” aspect if its title, slathering the screen with writhing naked bodies, sometimes even documenting them in unsimulated acts of sexual intercourse. Unlike with something like Love or Shortbus, however, the pornographic aspect of that display is not the main focal point of its depiction. Instead, the camera (along with the dialogue) breaks down the human body to its most basic components: meat, flesh, spit, semen, menstruate, etc. Like with all worthwhile surrealist art, there’s a darkly humorous reflection of both political and existential unrest perceivable just behind the facade of these evocative images. The anxiety cannot be fully understood and is cheapened by any attempt to put it into words, but it drives the heart of the work beyond the basic effect of shock value into much stranger, more transcendent terrain.

Two siblings emerge, hungry, from a post-apocalyptic cityscape to an industrial space where a total stranger has been seemingly going mad in his isolation. His madness initially takes the form of nihilistic displays of violence that would be right at home on something like The Eric Andre Show: destruction of furniture, off-kilter beating of a drum, nonsensical experiments involving large quantities of bread & eggs. Patterns & purpose eventually coagulate in this chaos, however. He uses the bread & eggs, provided from a mysterious source behind a concrete wall, as pay meant for the brother & sister duo to aid him in his work. Together, the three create faux organic spaces that eventually look like art installations in their now-shared squat. Broken furniture is arranged in geometric lines that recall crystal formations or spider webs. Walls & ceilings are carpeted over with flattened cardboard boxes until the rooms they create resemble ancient caves. The madman describes his creation as “the ultimate memorial of a rotten society.” He condemns the siblings for not fully believing in his work, exclaiming, “You wallow in your youth, though you’re nothing but rotting flesh.” Their initial caution towards his madness gives way to militaristic & cult-like religious devotion. He encourages them to engage in acts of incest, drugs them with a mysterious chemical dropper, imbues them with a fanatical reverence for eggs, and promises that devotion to the cause will lead to a transcendent epiphany, explaining, “Your skull unfolds and blooms like a gorgeous flower.” The whole thing plays out like an extended stream of consciousness nightmare. It’s unnerving, but strangely beautiful.

I’m in love with the way We Are the Flesh disorients the eye by making its grotesque displays of bloodshed & taboo sexuality both aesthetically pleasing and difficult to pin down. The subtle psychedelia of its colored lights, art instillation sets, and unexplained provocative imagery (a pregnant child, close-up shots of genitals, an excess of eggs, etc.) detach the film from a knowable, relatable world to carve out its own setting without the context of place or time. Its shock value sexuality & gore seem to be broadcasting directly from director Emiliano Rocha Minter‘s subconscious, attacking both the viewer & the creator with a tangible, physical representation of fears & desires the conscious mind typically compartmentalizes or ignores (like a poetically surreal distortion of Cronenberg’s Videodrome). Within the film, the man-made, artificially “organic” environments become “real” caves without explanation, both recalling Plato’s Cave and calling into question the inherent artifice of film as a medium in the first place. The isolation of the central three characters in this space makes it seem as if they’re the only people left in the world, evoking a Waiting for Godot style stage play existentialism. Militaristic chants and national anthems conjure similar anxiety surrounding modern politics and bloodsoaked history. We Are the Flesh didn’t exactly unfold my skull so my mind could bloom like a gorgeous flower, but the overall effect wasn’t all that dissimilar. Its dedication to explicit sex & violence was a means to a much greater, more intangible end instead of being the entire point of the exercise. I greatly respect the overreach & surprising success of that ambition.

I wish I had seen We Are the Flesh in the theater with a live audience like I had with the last gratuitous cinematic provocation I’d fallen this in love with, Wetlands. Not only would it have been a joy to see its gorgeous camera work large & loud in a proper cinematic setting, but there’s also something special about squirming with discomfort in unison with strangers when confronted with taboo sexuality. I got a little tease of how that might have felt when I first saw The Neon Demon last summer, but only for fleeting moments. We Are the Flesh is a long, sustained deep dive into violence & sexual discomfort that should likely come with a laundry list of content warnings for the typically squeamish. However, speaking as someone who doesn’t usually find much value in this extreme end of horror cinema, modern or otherwise, I found it to be the exact balance of discomforting moral provocation and intellectual stimulation through abstract thought that makes the times I tried, but failed to find similar fulfillment in films like Martyrs or Baskin feel retroactively worthwhile. I can’t say in concrete terms why the film resonated with me so solidly, because it’s not the kind of work that deals in tangible, measurable absolutes. I can say that it pushed me far outside my comfort zone in a uniquely rewarding way, which is all you can really ask for from surreal art & “extreme” cinema.

-Brandon Ledet

Girl Asleep (2016)

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fourstar

There’s only so much twee preciousness some people can handle, so I’m just going to throw out a few cultural references up front to send the haters running: Michel Gondry, Wes Anderson, Napoleon Dynamite, Juno, Miranda July. I can say with total confidence that the surrealist coming of age comedy Girl Asleep is not a by-the-books exercise in twee whimsy that closely resembles any of those particular cultural markers, but I do believe you need to have an enthusiasm for that thematic territory to take delight in its many charms. Romantic awkwardness, paper mache costumes, animated album covers & photographs, piles of origami birds: Girl Asleep is sure to roll many an eye in its Etsy shop dreamscape, but I can’t relate to anyone who would dismiss a film outright for being intensely manicured in its visual palette, yet impressively loose in its blurred divide between reality & fantasy. After championing little-loved titles like The Future, Mood Indigo, and Gentlemen Broncos in the past I may not have the best track record in distinguishing which twee movies are going to delight or annoy general audiences, but I found that Girl Asleep easily fit in the upper tier of that genre, as divisive as it is.

A young teenager (Bethany Whitmore, who provided some voice work for the excellent forgotten gem Mary and Max), suffers a perfect storm of coming of age anxieties on the cusp of her 15th birthday. She moves to a new town. Her parents bicker loudly over their dwindling passion. Her older sister acts out in a way that makes her invisible. The popular girls at her new school bully her into acting the way they see fit and the only boy who’s nice to her wants to become “more than just friends.” All of this culminates in the disastrous pressure put on her when her parents invite the entire school to a birthday celebration she does not want to attend, especially not in the homemade dress they pick out for her. Unable to ease her anxiety entirely through her stress origami, she naps a large chunk of the party away & works through her inner turmoil in a surrealist dreamscape where she turns the journey from girlhood to adulthood into a literal trek across a physical threshold. In her dreamworld her dad takes the form of a grotesque booger monster who wants to “protect” her & make corny jokes into infinity. Her mother is a frigid ice queen. Her romantic stirrings take on overwhelming nightmare vibes. She fights the popular girls with physical force instead of verbal sparring (not unlike in the ludicrous Jane Austen bastardization Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). Girl Asleep filters the nerve-racking expectations & pressures of “becoming a woman” through a handmade surrealist fantasy realm and the results are consistently endearing, surprising, and ambitiously unhinged. It’s a simple story with a familiar tone that could have easily been mishandled (*cough* Me and Earl and the Dying Girl *cough*), but the film somehow pulls through to make for a delightful, idiosyncratic experience.

Something I greatly respect Girl Asleep for is its disinterest in establishing a hard dividing line between its reality & its fantasy. The film traffics in a disco era psychedelia, complete with Soul Train dance breaks and earth tone sprites hiding in its brown stone walls & wood paneling, long before its protagonist indulges in an angry party nap. I occasionally found its squared-off television format aspect ratio to be a distraction that undercut the expansiveness of some of its individual shots, but my initial expectation of that choice differentiating between “reality” and a wider aspect ratio for the dreamworld thankfully never came to be. Instead, the whole film worked as one long fantasy piece where the rules of its loose grasp on what’s “really” happening were constantly shifted to fit the mood & intent of the moment. Often, when films choose to incorporate dreamscape surrealism into the personal growth crises of their protagonists, they’re careful to distinguish a barrier between the two realms. Girl Asleep waves off the necessity of those barriers with an infectiously flippant confidence. It allows its choreographed disco freakouts & Moonrise Kingdom costumes to bleed into its real world high school melodrama and the result is a thorough delight & a constant surprise.

Again, this film is going to be a love it or hate it experience depending on the audience’s stomach for twee whimsy & sweetness. Personally, I was eating out of its hand for the entire runtime and left the theater smiling, fully sated. I’m trying to think of other titles from this year that came across this imaginative & this aggressively feminine, and the only two that immediately came to mind were Nerve & The Dressmaker, two films I absolutely adored. Coming of age comedies are a dime a dozen & many will likely claim that the whimsical surrealism on display here is nothing too new or too inventive, but I found Girl Asleep to be a wildly anarchic & imaginative fairy tale despite its familiar framework. I’m admittedly a huge sucker for dream logic in my film narratives & have a high tolerance for twee as an aesthetic, but I honestly found it to be one of the most memorably uplifting and surprisingly adventurous cinematic experiences I’ve had all year. Girl Asleep is likely to find the right audience once enough people can get the chance to latch onto its dog whistle charms and I sincerely hope it earns the longevity it deserves.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Paperhouse (1988)

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Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made Brandon, Alli, and Britnee watch Paperhouse (1988).

Boomer: Paperhouse is an odd little film. Helmed by Brit director Bernard Rose, the film follows the frenzied dreams of an artistic young girl, Anna (Charlotte Burke), as she finds herself flipping back and forth between the real world (where she is suffering from a glandular fever) and the fantasy world that is home to the titular paper house of her design. The lines between reality and unreality start to blur as she strikes up a friendship with Marc (Elliott Spiers), a disabled boy living in the otherworldly house and with no memory of life outside of it; when she learns from her physician (Gemma Jones) that Marc is real, things start to get more surreal and bizarre.

This wasn’t Rose’s directorial debut; he had previously worked in various roles on the last season of The Muppet Show and on The Dark Crystal before a short stint making music videos, most notably for Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax.” After two smaller films that are largely forgotten, Rose directed Paperhouse, which was a perennial favorite on IFC in the early 2000s, before moving on to direct cult classic (and his only other truly great film) Candyman, released in 1992. Candyman is undeniably a horror film, and Paperhouse was largely lumped in with the horror genre upon home video release as well, despite not strictly deserving that distinction. It’s much more of a mood piece, with a relatively simple story elevated by striking visuals and a moodily beautiful score by Stanley Myers and Hans Zimmer (Rose certainly knows how to choose composers; Candyman’s Philip Glass soundtrack is so haunting that Glass apparently still makes royalties from it each year, no doubt helped by the fact that “Helen’s Theme” continues to appear in other genre works, most recently American Horror Story).

I love this film, and have seen it at least a half dozen times, but there is always enough time between each viewing that I forget that the film has a longer ending than I expect. For me, the film reaches its narrative conclusion when [spoiler alert] Anna learns that Marc has died. Although I’m not opposed to the resolution of Anna and her family (including her father, whose notable absence informs much of the psychological underpinnings of the film) returning to the seaside and revisiting a happier time, there is something about the ending that seems as little too pat, especially in light of the mildly silly scene in which Marc reappears to Anna. What do you think, Brandon? Did the ending seem out of place to you, or am I being too critical? Would you suggest a different conclusion?

Brandon: If I had to fault Paperhouse for anything it’d be the muddled nature of its central metaphor. The film operates in a spooky 80s kids’ movie headspace that I’m always a huge sucker for and the dream logic of both its set design & its eerie score is wonderfully chilling. There’s just something a little off in its dreamworld narrative that makes it difficult for me to track its overriding metaphor (not that I mind the ambiguity). Two sick children meet in the shared dreamworld set of a hand-drawn house and their recovery in the real world is dependent upon their progress in that fantasy space. Marc, who is unaware of this dichotomy despite Anna’s frequent explanations, suffers a fairly straightforward narrative where he slowly dies due to complications that arise through his muscular dystrophy. As Boomer points out, his death in the real world seems like a logical place for the story to end, but I do believe that the seaside resort epilogue was a necessary addition to the story, because Anna’s own struggle was at that point still largely unresolved.

Anna’s near-death experience with a glandular fever is what puts her in contact with the paperhouse fantasy where she meets Marc, but her true conflict is a mental health struggle related to her anxieties over an absent, alcoholic father. When Marc dies he rides a helicopter to heaven that relieves the real world pains of his body. In the seaside epilogue Anna tempted to leave behind her own pain by joining Marc in the helicopter, a moment that’s coded as a suicide attempt at the edge of a cliff. This last minute crisis might not make much sense in a typical three act story structure, but I do think Anna flirting with the relief of death is a powerful idea that Paperhouse would be lacking without, especially in its indication that her mental health struggle wasn’t instantly wiped away upon her father’s return.

Where I stumble a little in my reading of this conflict is in understanding the exact relationship between Anna & her father. Paperhouse explains the father figure to be a drunk & an abandoner in the real world, which is meant to explain Anna’s anxiety, lashing-out rebelliousness, and eventual disinterest in continuing to live. In the dreamworld, however, her father is far more abusive than that. Blinded by rage (both Anna’s & his own), Dream Dad strikes a terrifying nightmare of an image, destroying the physical objects Anna created & cherished with a hammer and physically beating her in the chest nearly to the point of death. No mention is ever made in the real world of Anna being physically abused by her father, but the brutality & specificity of the hammer & the chest-beating in the dreamworld at least makes it plausible that Anna was afraid that such abuse was a possibility. Coming back to Boomer’s original question, if there’s anything lacking in the ending for me it’s how easy Anna & her father’s seaside reconciliation feels after the brutality of their altercation in the dreamworld. Anna gets in the cathartic zinger, “You don’t have to be invisible to disappear, Dad,” but she does eventually forgive him after the helicopter/suicide crisis and the family is again made whole, which might be a little too neat & tidy of a conclusion given Anna’s near-fatal parental anxieties.

Britnee, how literal did you take the physical abuse in the dreamworld to be? Do you think it was intended as a reflection of something that happened in the real world or simply an amplification of Anna’s anxieties over her father’s alcoholism?

Britnee: One of the many mysteries in Paperhouse is the relationship between Anna and her father. Part of me feels as though the abuse in the dreamworld was more of a reflection of something Anna witnessed rather than something she experienced herself. If her father did indeed abuse her, I feel as though she would have been much more fearful of him in her dreams, but she wasn’t very scared of him considering how creepy the whole situation was. I really think she witnessed her father abusing her mother. Anna’s dreams allowed her to see the potential of her father’s alcoholism, and it really seemed like a big eye opener for her in the real world. There was something about the mannerisms of her mother that makes me believe she had a traumatizing experience with her husband. She seemed a bit shaky when she would light up her cigarettes, and she seemed to be in an entirely different world herself (perhaps Anna’s real world was her paperhouse?). I do agree with Brandon’s frustration with the very simple reunion at the end of the film. It actually made me a little nervous for Anna’s well-being; however, I’ve also been watching a lot of Dr. Phil lately, so that may have something to do with my uneasy thoughts about Anna and Drunk Dad.

What I found most interesting about Paperhouse was the confusing soundtrack. Brilliant, but so confusing. During the film’s opening credits, I was waiting for a dead body to fall out into the school hallway. I kept waiting for a gruesome, terrifying scene, but by the latter half of the film, I just gave up. There were a handful of scenes that were spooky, especially when Drunk Dad captures Anna in her dreamworld, but nothing was half as scary as the tunes in the background. Needless to say, I was surprised to find that the film fell way more on the drama side than on the horror.

Alli, did you feel as though the film’s score was out of place? Did the music add to the creepiness of Anna’s dreamworld? Did you get more horror vibes or fantasy vibes from that world?

Alli: Initially the score felt very spooky and out of place to me and definitely made me feel like more bad things were going to happen; but once in the dreamworld, it felt really appropriate. The low ominous synth sounds seem to enhance the vast emptiness you see around the house. What especially made the score work in the dreamworld was that at some points it became diegetic with the talking radio. While the idea of a talking mumbling radio seems reminiscent of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, here it was very creepy, as the nightmare dad seemed to be talking through it a little bit.

The dreamworld to me was very much a fantasy and an escape from the fact that she’s lonely at school and at home. While it starts off as something she can control very quickly it functions on it’s own bizarre logic, where some of the things she draws turn up very realistically and other things just are crooked and funny. It’s not until the faceless dad that it gets into nightmare zone, and even then he feels more like an intruder than an aspect of the dreamworld. In Anna’s life he is sort of an intruder, showing up whenever he feels like it both emotionally and physically.

But as much as the dad seems like a dark figure in Anna’s life, her mom is really not better at all. It’s no wonder she acts out with a mother who is as unsupportive as we see on screen. She criticizes Anna’s drawings very rudely and isn’t really nurturing at all until Anna is extremely ill, in a sort of trying to make it up to her way. Both parents seem to just make up for the lack of love with material things like riding lessons and manufactured happy trips to the seashore, which I think makes the ending more depressing and bitter.

Boomer, what did you think of the mom’s role? Is she just as bad as the dad or is she just a single mother at the end of her leash?

BoomerI feel like we’re being more critical of both parents here than is called for, at least based on my reading of the film. Multiple times, we see how the dreamworld of the paperhouse is influenced by things that Anna sees or vaguely recalls, or by her physical circumstances in the real world. The reason that Anna feels like she is being beaten in the dreamworld is because, in the waking world, the paramedics are giving her compressions to keep her alive. The reason that her father appears as a backlit creepy shadow is because she encouraged her mother to let the photo of him at the beach develop for too long, until he becomes a dark figure in the image, and thus in her mind. The father doesn’t seem abusive to me, either to his wife or to Anna, so much as he is an unknowable being, his absence making him a figure that is half-remembered and half-imagined, larger than life but imposing.

The mother, for her part, reads more as a woman who’s been run ragged by holding down a household with a misbehaving young girl, suddenly stricken with illness. She has artistic pursuits of her own, as evidenced by her home dark room, and likely has had to sublimate her interest into being both breadwinner and full time caretaker to Anna due to her husband’s chronic and prolonged absence.

One of the things I like most about the film is the fact that no character is a paragon. As a heroine, Anna is a surprisingly postmodern. She’s a girl, but not feminized. She’s not stereotyped as drawing a dream house that’s reminiscent of the kind of future home girls are encouraged to imagine, but a strikingly dull building instead. She tries on make-up, but not to impress a boy; she just wants to try it for herself. Usually, female protagonists can only avoid being sexualized if they are infantilized (and, unfortunately, not even then), and although Anna is young, she’s not treated as an idealized perfect child. She lies, she throws tantrums, she skips school, and, most importantly, she’s not demonized for this either. These are just aspects of her character, not flaws that need to be corrected with external discipline, but that make up the gestalt that is Anna. Her mother, though her screentime is shorter than Anna’s, makes her seem fully-fleshed in her own way as well. She even seems genuinely loving, going so far as to dig through the whole building’s trash to placate what she must assume is some feverish madness.

Am I giving the film too much credit, Brandon? Am I making excuses for the movie because I like it, or have I convinced you that there’s more going on at the character level than there first appears?

Brandon: Please forgive me for the banality of this answer, but I think a lot of that ambiguity falls under the umbrella of personal interpretation. Paperhouse is in the most basic sense a story about lucid dreaming. Dream logic always comes with a certain level of impenetrable surrealism to it and there’s been an entire industry full of psychologist “experts” built around the therapeutic benefits of dream interpretation. Then there’s the film’s art therapy element, in which Anna creates a personal space for herself where she can exude total control as an omnipotent (and highly fallible) god. Both the weird dream logic & the art therapy surrealism of the film’s basic plot leave Paperhouse with a lot of room for personal interpretation in its symbolism, especially once Anna’s drawings start affecting real world change in Marc’s medical condition. Personally, I see a drunk dad who scares Anna (who points out his alcoholism in the darkroom scene) and a mother who may be frazzled, but is not at all abusive (as evidenced in the manic trash-digging scene). I also read a third act suicide attempt at the edge of the cliff, but I’ll willingly admit that I’m reaching for a solid explanation for an intentionally lyrical moment there, which may be the wrong way to go about things in this movie.

So much of this movie is literally in Anna’s head that it’s near impossible to tell what’s “really” happening from minute to minute. How much of our darker interpretations of the parents’ behavior is being influenced by the horror film dread of Myers & Zimmer’s score? How much of the dreamworld content is merely, as Boomer suggests, reflections of images Anna encounters throughout the day, as many dreams tend to be? There’s no “true” answers to these questions, as the film intentionally deals in ambiguity. There’s evidence that Anna’s dreamworld surrogate was truly communicating with Marc’s, a boy she never met in a physical space, but everything else is left open-ended. The film kind of works like a coloring book: it provides a basic outline of how its world works and invites its audience to color in the details. Maybe we’ve been coloring a little outside the lines in our personal interpretations here, but I think the movie invites that kind misbehavior. I also don’t believe that misbehavior is a detriment to either of the central characters, though, as I never felt like I lost track of Marc or Anna as complex, multifaceted human beings. It’s their own personal interpretations of the adults in their lives that throw off our perception as an audience & complicate some of the film’s intent & metaphor.

Britnee, I’m getting some flashbacks to our Movie of the Month conversation about Black Moon here, particularly in our attempts to parse out what the film specifically “means.” Instead of picking apart an intentionally inscrutable art film, though, we’re discussing a movie that was ostensibly made with a very young audience in mind. Do you think the darkness & ambiguity helps the film in this case, considering the flexible imaginations of the children intended to see it? As adults, are we reading more solid, static interpretations of the film’s metaphor than we might have as kids, when Paperhouse could possibly have survived purely on mood instead of concrete symbolism?

Britnee:  While I was in college, I took a history class that focused on the 1960s, and most of that course involved watching films, such as Go Tell the Spartans and Easy Rider, and writing about them. Before viewing each film, my professor would say, “Remember, every detail, whether major or minor, in a film means something. There is symbolism everywhere.” That really stuck with me, and since then I always feel somewhat guilty if I don’t search for meaning behind every little detail in a movie. I’m glad that Brandon brought up the point that this is a film intended for a younger audience. I need to remind myself every now and then that sometimes (maybe even most of the time), films are created solely for the purpose of pleasure and entertainment.

Ignoring the interpretations we made of Anna’s dreamworld as well as her relationship with her parents (Drunk Dad in particular) and viewing the film through the eyes of a child, Paperhouse seems a bit more whimsical. A film about drawings that come to life in dreams and a magical friendship that only exists in the dreamworld seems a lot better than a film about a girl with neglectful and abusive parents. Paperhouse becomes another film entirely. Even the darker elements of the film take on a new meaning. Anna’s scary dream father becomes a product of a mistake in her magical drawing instead of an abusive parent turned villain. As for the darkness and ambiguity of the film, I think it actually contributes to the film’s fantasy elements and makes it much more exciting for the intended adolescent audience. If I was eight years old watching Paperhouse for the first time, my imagination would be running wild during those scenes in Anna’s dreamworld.

Alli, I was really irritated by the mystery between Anna and Marc’s friendship. If only we were able to know if Marc was having his own recurring dream with Anna. What if they were possibly sharing the same dream? The fact that we will never know just kills me. What are your thoughts on the telepathic connection between Anna and Marc? Would you have enjoyed seeing Marc’s side of things?

Alli: I think the interesting thing about Anna and Marc’s friendship is that he has no knowledge of the world outside the dream, which leads me to believe that he was kind of subconsciously called there. Not to try to make too much technical sense of dream logic, it seems like they are sharing a dream, but since he’s less in control of it he is much more wrapped up in the dream state. Like Brandon said Paperhouse seems to be about lucid dreaming. It would be a lot harder for Marc’s dream-self to be aware what’s going on. For him, this is probably just a really crappy dream where instead of being a fantastic escape he’s still sick and unable to walk and there’s this girl urging him to be happy. As we’ve already said, we’re very sympathetic with Anna though and it’s hard to fault a girl for accidentally summoning a sick boy into her dream. I think not knowing Marc’s side of things gives us an opportunity to watch Anna grow more from her perspective. Not seeing Marc’s side, we’re figuring him out as she is. By doing that this film really captures the vulnerability of making friends as kids with kid emotions. They’re so tumultuous and dramatic, because kids are still figuring out themselves and their own boundaries.

I’m going to dare to interpret the dream logic more and say that a lot of these volatile, underdeveloped emotions are mirrored in the dreams. Her dream house is bare. The dreams themselves go from just having a conversation to terrifying faceless dream dad pretty quickly.  As traumatic as they were, the dream conflicts help Anna find more of herself. These dreams are so hard and scary because figuring out yourself is hard and scary. She learns more how to honestly interact with people and to take responsibility for her actions. She learns empathy, which is really hard for kids to learn, by talking to Marc. As she learns more about herself and matures, the dreams become more fleshed out and less bleak. 

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Lagniappe

Brandon: Paperhouse reminds me of a very specific time in 80s children media where stories were allowed to be dark & ambiguous in a way that a lot of the more sanitized kids’ movies of late wouldn’t dare. Titles like The NeverEnding Story, Lady in White, and Return to Oz all specifically came to mind while watching the film, but I have to admit I think it’s closest comparison point was released in 2005. The Dave McKean & Neil Gaiman collaboration MirrorMask is a children’s fantasy film in which a young girl feels immense guilt over fighting with her mother before they’re separated by a sudden illness. She wrestles with this anxiety during an extended dream in which she enters & explores a world she drew by hand in her own bedroom. Sound familiar? MirrorMask is a little more obvious & blunt in its central metaphor & a lot more expansive in its dream space, but otherwise the pair make interesting companion pieces.I think if you really enjoyed one, it’d be more than worthwhile to seek out the other.

Alli: I also thought of MirrorMask, and its terrifying dreamworld, but another Neil Gaiman creation came to mind as well, Coraline, which is another story about a girl upset at her parents entering a dreamworld with duplicate parents. The terrifying Other Mother is reminiscent of faceless dad. But there’s another similarity for me. One disappointing thing the Coraline movie did that deviated from the book was to add in the male character, Wybie, that besides being a sidekick also seems to have an unnecessary crush on Coraline. And that kind of touches on my one gripe with Paperhouse. I kind of wished that Anna and Marc hadn’t become crushes and just remained friends. You so rarely see male-female friendships in movies.

Britnee: I feel really bad for being so rough on Anna’s father. He was probably just a really nice, hardworking man that has to sacrifice spending time with his family to make a decent living. Instead of seeing that initially, I jumped to conclusions and labeled him as an alcoholic and abusive father. Shame on me.

Boomer: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with reading the father as an alcoholic, as there is certainly reference to his drinking in the text. That having been said, the mind of our main character (and perhaps all children) has a tendency to exaggerate the real world, as evidenced in the way that things become larger than life in the dreaming, and that’s how I interpret that particular nuance. Still, although that’s my reading of the text, the other readings are certainly valid as well.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
December: Alli presents Last Night (1999)

January: The Top Films of 2016

-The Swampflix Crew

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

Movie of the Month: Black Moon (1975)

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Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Alli made Britnee, Brandon, and Boomer  watch Black Moon (1975).

Alli: It’s hard to describe the plot of Black Moon, but I’ll try my best to sum it up simply. A young girl, Cathryn Harrison, is fleeing certain death in a war. It’s seemingly everywhere as she tries to get away. She eventually winds up at a magically untouched farm house. There she seeks refuge. Life at the farm house is surrealist chaos. Things that exist in this movie: an operatic yet mute man, nude children with farm animals, a unicorn, and a mumbling rat. It’s more an Alice in Wonderland type story than an actual escaping the war movie.

In the credits, I noticed Sven Nykvist listed as cinematographer. He was Bergman’s cinematographer for many, many films, but the two most relevant to this one are Persona and Hour of the Wolf. Those two titles, to me, function in the same sort of dream-like time frame and space. There’s a scene in particular that’s an extremely beautiful shot where the cast is in a living room type space and there’s this family production of an opera. There’s these two children standing and singing and to just freeze that frame I think is a lovely picture.

Something I forgot about was the strange politics of this movie. It’s set against the backdrop of this war, but it’s set up to be a battle of the sexes. By showing this as a brutal and seemingly senseless battle, it seems to be a very clueless attempt to say, “Why can’t we just get along?” By not giving context it kind of trivializes a lot of what was going on in mid-early 1970’s, given that this was during the height of second wave feminism and Roe v. Wade was only two years before. I think the reason I forgot about the politics in this film is that they get brushed aside very early on by its strange tone and pacing.

This movie is extremely surreal. It has the rare quality of having the most dream-like logic of any movie I’ve ever seen. I frequently have sort of stressful dreams where I’m running in and out of buildings and rooms struggling to find something. The something is always vague. Watching this movie kind of put me into a familiar, trance-like state, which I’m not entirely sure if that’s a positive or negative attribute. In a way I think is dreamlike surrealism finds its own kind of horror whether intentionally or not.

I find that surrealism is an either you’re in or out sort of thing, especially in film. What do you think about its dreamlike feel, Brandon? Were you onboard? Why or why not?

Brandon: Black Moon does reach for a languid Spirit of the Beehive style of horror in ambiguity & the unknown that I genuinely appreciated, but will admit that the film’s deliberately alienating mode of obfuscation took me a minute to sink into. Early on in the runtime I found myself searching for direct metaphor in the film’s War vs. Nature imagery & a clear, linear sense of plot in what was happening minute to minute, but I don’t think the move lends itself to that kind of literal examination. That’s not to say that there is no prevailing structure or that the movie is generally meaningless, but I do think trying to “figure it out” is a little besides the point, which is a kind of submission on the audience’s part that can be difficult for a film to earn.

I think Black Moon shows its hand in this way when its initially stoic, Mad Maxian brat protagonist demands “Would you please tell me what’s going on around here?” and her panties immediately hit the floor, signifying nothing but an oddly tawdry, whimsical joke. Then there’s my personal favorite moment when she opens a picture album in search for answers only to find pictures of the same confounding characters & objects that frustrated her in the first place. It’s gags like these that signaled to me that it’s okay to relax and enjoy the film’s odd visual pleasures & loopy dream logic without having to solve some kind of complex metaphorical puzzle. The movie knows exactly how silly & absurd it’s being.

As Alli noted, the best way to wrap your mind around Black Moon‘s structure is to consider it as an Alice down-the-rabbit-hole story (an influence explicitly acknowledged by the director, Louis Malle). Our de facto hero Lily (one of three Lilies, a super popular name apparently) leaves a masculine-governed war-torn world in the midst of a female rebellion to mysteriously find herself transported to a decidedly matriarchal, magical realm of Nature. These two realities, War & Nature, seem to paradoxically occupy the same space, alternating in dominance but rarely interacting as Hero Lily tries to make sense of where exactly she fits in. She begins the film as a defiant non-participant in the War realm and ends the film wholly indoctrinated in the Natural one, with all of its naked children, strange critters, and nonverbal communication. It reminded me of fairy tales where you’re not allowed to leave a magical realm once you’ve tasted the food, except in this case you’re stuck once you breastfeed a mythical beast or a human adult.

It’s in that War vs. Nature dichotomy where I have to slightly disagree with Alli’s suggestion that the film’s central war-of-the-sexes political message is “Why can’t we all just get along?” Although both realms depicted in Black Moon are horrifying in their own bizarre way, there’s a peace & freedom to the feminine, Natural world that simply doesn’t exist in the male-dominated War world. It’s a tranquility you can see in the slow-moving beauty of the film’s odd little bugs or in the wild, screaming abandon of its hoard of naked children. It’s only when Man Lily disrupts this serenity by dismembering an hawk with his giant, phallic sword that the semblance of order & freedom is disrupted and the Nature realm starts to resemble the War one. Like I said, though, the film is so aggressively nonsensical that it’s risky to read anything this concrete in its story or allegory, as tempting as it is.

Britnee, what, if anything, do you think Black Moon has to say about the war of the sexes? Was the film’s social or political metaphor at all strengthened by its deliberately confusing story & imagery or only muddled by them?

Britnee: When initially viewing Black Moon, I felt completely lost. I’m usually slow at catching on to art house films such as this one. As the film came to an abrupt end, I planned on heading home and Googling the hell out of Black Moon because I felt as thought there was some deep movie message that I completed missed. A strange feeling sat with me for a long time after watching the movie. It was a mixture of fear, confusion, familiarity, discomfort, and bliss. What a combination, right? I loved the way that Black Moon made me feel, and I loved how I was given the freedom to figure out the film for myself. So, thankfully, I decided to not do one bit of Googling for Black Moon.

The film begins with a very violent and terrifying war of the sexes. With such an intense opening, I thought the film was going to be a surrealistic war movie, and Lily was going to join the women in their fight. Well, that didn’t happen at all. Once Lily ventured off to the magical farmhouse, the war of the sexes makes very few appearances for the rest of the film. I didn’t think the film had much to say about the war of the sexes except for that it simply existed. I also didn’t recognize any social or political messages within the film, so, in answering Brandon’s question, it’s quite possible that the film’s confusion prevented these messages from coming across (if they exist at all). I viewed Black Moon as a bizarre film about a young girl stepping into womanhood. Lily’s breastfeeding of the old woman, the sexual tension between her and male Lily, and just the way that she goes from having a tantrum about something silly to taking control of the situation led me to believe that this film could be a coming-of-age tale. Oh, I almost forgot about the snakes! I thought it was strange how there were multiple snakes that made appearances in this movie, but the snake represents transformation (shedding its skin) and Lily is transforming from a girl to a woman. The film sort of makes a bit of sense when I view it as story of a young girl transforming into a woman, but maybe I just shouldn’t be making sense of this movie.

Boomer, did you think the film was attempting to make a statement about entering womanhood? What parts of the film were you able to easily clarify and what parts, if any, were you simply not able to make any sense of?

Boomer: Like you, Britnee, the first thing that I did after watching the film was looking for interpretations of it online. I was primed to assume that the movie would be about burgeoning female sexual maturity as soon as I learned it was a film with the word “moon” in the title and was about a young woman. Overall, that reading bears itself out, although it seems like a shallow and decidedly male (maybe even chauvinistic) lens into that world. I’ll admit that point is arguable, but I have to say I would feel less annoyed by a film that has a girl’s underpants falling down when she tries to understand the strange world around her if there had been a woman in the director’s chair.

This is the primary rhetorical methodology used to dissect the film as well. Ginette Vincendeau writes in her essay “Black Moon: Louis in Wonderland” (released with the Criterion DVD of the film) that the “dominant interpretation, unsurprisingly, has been psychoanalytical. [Black Moon] is a tale of a young girl’s sexual awakening, explicitly modeled on Alice in Wonderland…. [Georgiana] Colville offers the best sustained analysis in this vein, pointing out, for example, Lily’s positioning as an onlooker, frequently seen on a threshold or at a window, observing the adults’ and animals’ behavior.” It’s certainly an interesting idea, but I’d go so far as to posit that the pervasive surreality may render any attempts to parse the film a bit of an academic exercise.

Before going in to the film, Brandon told me that he perceived a distinct Suspiria vibe in the proceedings, and I can see the similarities between the two in the dreamlike nature of the narrative (for lack of a better term), although Suspiria benefitted from a structure and a more colorful palette (although the dream elements in Suspiria don’t have the same metaphorical quality that Black Moon‘s losses). Given the parallels and the very brief period of time between each film’s respective premiere, how do you feel these two films compare to each other?

Alli: There’s actually a lot of things in common with Suspiria that I didn’t think about until you guys brought it up. They both employ a sort of Wonderland style story arc. There’s the idea of girlhood and girlhood terror through the lens of a male director. Then, you’ve got the idea of witches as old terrifying hags, sort of Queens of Hearts. You could even make a strong argument for the woman in the bedroom being a similar kind of witch as Mater Suspirium, both bedridden and cared for by their followers. Both Lilia and Suzy navigate their worlds with a similar brazen, Alice-like curiosity. Though Suspiria relies on the terror of being young and small in a world controlled by ageless beings, while Black Moon sticks to the well-trodden fear of growing up.

I think Black Moon presents coming into womanhood and growing as giving up some natural freedom. The only truly free people you see the entire movie are the nude children running around. Sister Lily is stuck disdainfully caring for everyone, even this new arrival. Every other adult woman is stuck fighting the men. Even old age is presented as horrific since the old lady is bedridden and sickly and mean. There’s the unsettling ticking clocks as the passage of time with alarms going off as a prominent thing in this film, as if a reminder that Lily is just getting older and older. Her chasing after a mythical creature, one that only appears to virgins and maidens, is a kind of way of chasing after youth and imagination.

I guess the thing that always stands out to me when I watch this movie is the talking animals. Usually they’re only seen in children’s movies, so it’s kind of refreshing to have a character like Humphrey appear in a wacky, surreal arthouse movie. As apposed to being lighthearted, It sure seems that creatures like Humphrey and the Unicorn have sort of a disdain for humankind. Nature in general seems pretty eager to let people kill themselves off so that it can get along with things. It feels a little bit like it’s all looming, especially at the end with the sheep everywhere. I know you said, Brandon, that there’s sort of a peace and freedom in nature, but to me it seems a little bit like it’s biding its time. What do you think about this idea of ambivalence? Is it menacing or comforting?

Brandon: I meant to use the terms “peace” & “freedom” in more of a political sense than anything. There is plenty of discord & danger to be had in Black Moon‘s take on Nature, but I get the general sense that its societal structure is far more functional than the War realm’s. The children & animals (both mythical & otherwise) run freely in an overwhelming, menacing sort of way in Lily’s new home, but it’s difficult to imagine them existing at all in the War realm. According to the film’s central philosophy, “All is illusion. Set us free of this world,” a sentiment that points to an ambivalence & frivolity on both sides of the coin, the same kind of everything-is-pointless mentality you see in anti-war art movements like surrealism & Dadaism. Even as both worlds pose their own sort of existential threat, though, as any kind of mortal life would, I still found the Natural one more hospitable.This isn’t quite the ultra-feminine Nature utopia of The Duke of Burgundy, especially with the masculine romance novel cover model Lily chopping birds out of the sky, but there’s still food on the stove & (goofily ugly) unicorns milling about, dispensing life advice. It’s, to me, a preferable existence in a world that’s bound to be dangerous & ambivalent either way Lily chooses to go.

Britnee, you said earlier that Black Moon is at heart a bizarre tale of a young girl stepping into womanhood. Besides the girls running amok among the wild children, there seem to be three distinct snapshots of what womanhood looks like presented here: the panty-dropping frivolity of youth in Hero Lily, the confidently self-assured adulthood of Sister Lily, and the bedridden, infantile bitterness of (as the credits bill her) Old Lady. What do these portraits combine to say about the womanhood Lily is presumably stepping into? How does it differ from what little we see of the film’s masculine archetypes?

Britnee: I didn’t initially see the three main female characters as representing stages of womanhood, but I completely agree with your theory, Brandon. My mind is completely blown right now. These “snapshots” combined really make womanhood seem like it’s going to, for lack of a better term, suck. Hero Lily (insert the incredible Trey Songz hit “Panty Dropper”) is so confused about who she is and what she’s doing that I get stressed out just thinking about her. Sister Lily seems to have her shit together and really holds down the fort, but as Alli previously mentioned, she’s stuck in this caretaker role (serving dinner to the naked kids, maintaining the cottage, breastfeeding the Old Lady, etc.). The cruel Old Lady is completely envious of Hero Lily’s youth, and spends most of her time talking to a rat and radio. Nothing about her life is remotely appealing.

Brother Lily serves as one of the only representations of masculinity in the film. He really seemed to be ignorant and immature when compared to Sister Lily, who seems to be the same age. He doesn’t really do much but garden and sing, and the only time he really stands out is when he becomes violent by killing a hawk and having a deadly fight with Sister Lily. When comparing him to the symbolic female characters of the film, he just looks really dumb. I’m starting to feel like Sister Lily is the strongest character in the film. That could say something positive about a woman entering adulthood, but still, she doesn’t seem to have much freedom.

Boomer, were there any parts of the film that made you uncomfortable? The breastfeeding of the old woman, spanking of the young girl, and the nude kids are a few things that made me shudder a bit. Even the parts with the talking animals were a bit unnerving because their voices were so whispery.  Of course, this could be because of my own ignorance.

Boomer: That’s not ignorance at all; I’m fairly certain that the parts which made you uncomfortable did so intentionally. For me, one of the things that stood out the most was the recurring motif of breastfeeding, not because of the feeding itself but because of the way that it subverted the paradigm of top-down caretaking that was referenced above. There’s a definite Maiden/Mother/Crone element at play that runs parallel to and inhabits the stages of womanhood, and the upending and general scattering of what personification/stage performs what actions and when is, I think, deliberately evocative of the general topsy-turviness of this world. That distance from the (presumably natural but really socially inscribed) norm lends even the more quotidian actions a general sense of uneasiness.

The thing that disturbed me most overall was the general destructiveness of our heroine, especially the sequence in which she stomps around the yard and takes delight in snuffing out the screaming cries that emanate from under her feet. There’s such a sociopathic quality to it that I couldn’t stop thinking about it after the movie ended. It’s a pretty mundane sequence (as much as anything in this film could be considered mundane) in comparison to the other surreal oddities on display, but it’s really stuck with me.

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Lagniappe

Britnee: I really feel like a terrible person for being so judgmental of the film’s unicorn. When seeing the unicorn for the first time, I was so pissed off that it was a donkey with a horn. Unicorns are supposed to look sort of like Fabio as a horse and have silky hair and shiny horns, but being a short, stubby donkey with an ugly horn shouldn’t make the Black Moon unicorn any less of a unicorn.

Boomer: The death of the hawk made me think of Paget Brewster felling an eagle in the cold open of the “Pageant” episode of Another Period, which made me laugh inappropriately. “Ha! Majestic no more!”

Alli: I’m going to take this as a Humphrey appreciation moment. I love his constant mumbling and that he slams doors every time he leaves the room. Also, I think that he’s extremely relatable. If I were that old woman’s pet rat, I’m pretty sure I’d be perpetually peeved.

Brandon: I think my text message wires got crossed while I was gushing to Boomer about too many movies at once, something I do embarrassingly often. I was actually comparing Suspiria to to Refn’s latest provocation, The Neon Demon, and Black Moon to Ladyhawke, which I assure you are much lesser stylistic leaps. I do think the Suspiria similarities Alli drew on were interesting & valid, though, and funnily enough I had cited another Argento title in my notes for Black Moon: Phenomena, a work that similarly sets a journey into womanhood against a horrific world of supernatural Nature.

My favorite aspect of Black Moon is the way it presents magic & witchcraft as a Natural, feminine realm crawling with plants, bugs, animals, and mythical creatures. There might be a bone-headed, typically masculine lens to that style of storytelling that estranges womanhood to an otherworldly mystique, in essence stripping an entire gender of its humanity, but damn if we haven’t gotten some great movies out of that buffoonery: Phenomena, The Witch, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Juniper Tree, The Spirit of the Beehive, etc., etc., etc. The gimmick may not lead to great gender discussion, but it certainly has lead to some great cinema.

Upcoming Movies of the Month:
September: Brandon presents The Box (2009)
October: Britnee presents Funhouse (1981)
November: Boomer presents  Paperhouse (1988)

-The Swampflix Crew