Movie of the Month: Unfriended (2015)

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 Brandon made BritneeAlli, and Boomer watch Unfriended (2015).

Brandon: I generally don’t have too much personal interest in modern mainstream horror as defined by filmmakers like James Wan, Eli Roth, and Fede Alvarez, but there’s one trend within that herd that always has me on the hook. Recently, I find myself increasingly fascinated with modern technophobic horror & thrillers that incorporate throwaway digital imagery into their visual language. From dutifully retelling The Blair Witch Project as a Snapchat story in Sickhouse to finding unexpected horror in innocuous programs like Pokemon Go & CandyCrush in Nerve #horror, respectively, I find this aggressively modern mode of digital schlock endlessly exciting. The documentation of modern online discourse for the means of cheap thrills schlock instantly dates each of these pictures in the years of their release, but will also serve as an excellent time capsule of what modern communication looks & feels like because of that of-the-moment quality. Classier major studio horrors that attempt a more timeless aesthetic and avoid the convenience of smartphone technologies by setting their narratives in the past will be much less useful in that way and thus, by my estimation, much more likely to be forgotten.

It’d be impossible to define this hyperspecific subgenre without highlighting its crown jewel, the 2015 found footage horror Unfriended. Shot entirely through the first person POV of an especially gossipy teen girl operating a laptop, Unfriended  wholly commits to its digital interface gimmick. As an audience, there’s some frustration in watching an unseen user operate the computer as they bounce back & forth through programs like Skype, Facebook, iTunes, ChatRoulette, and YouTube. Something within us wants to take over the wheel & snatch the mouse from their hand. The movie deliberately derives tension from that frustration and piles onto it with similar anxiety from glitches, time delays, pop-up ads, and unresponsive computer programs. Not only is this digital verisimilitude impressive in terms of storytelling craft, especially in its editing; it also reaches past movie-necessary modes of communication (Skype) & diegetic music generators to integrate practically all other modern forms of online media (memes, creepypasta forums, dick pics, revenge porn, etc.) to capture the full, ugly zeitgeist of internet communication in the 2010s. It was surreal to see these disposable forms of communication projected on the big screen in 2015, but I believe their inclusion in the storytelling had genuine purpose within the film as a tension-builder. From the laggy Universal logo in the opening credits to the visible ellipses of desperately waiting for a response to a message as it’s being typed, the digital landscape of Unfriended leaves me on the edge of my seat with anxiety, itching to reach for phantom mouse to click my way to the exit.

As a found-footage horror & an intentional genre innovator, Unfriended obviously owes a lot of influence to the legacy of The Blair Witch Project; it even names its laptop-wielding protagonist Blaire to acknowledge that debt. Past its single-gimmick surface, however, it’s much more faithful to the formula of a first wave slasher from the 70s & 80s than it is to that late 90s update. Six despicable teenagers share a live video group chat on the first anniversary of the suicide of their dead friend, Laura Barns. Like the slasher victims of the 1980s, each obnoxious teen is revealed to be an irredeemable bully, to the point where the audience cheers for their violent deaths as they’re doled out one by one. Besides their casual participation in racism, transphobia, misogyny, and rape, these teenage dirtbags also each had a direct hand in bullying their deceased friend to the point of suicide, a sin they haven’t had to reckon with in their privileged, suburban lives. On the anniversary of that suicide, they’re trolled from the dead friend’s social media accounts, seemingly by her ghost, into confessing their wretched guilt and then killing themselves one by one with nearby household appliances as payback. Once Laura Barns’s ghost is believed to be the real deal and the teens start dropping off in increasingly violent ways, the mystery of their plight shifts to discovering what involvement, if any, our potential Final Girl, Blaire, had in the death of her supposed bestie and whether she’ll be allowed to survive the night.

The conversation surrounding Unfriended is always likely to center on its aesthetic-defining gimmick, something I was certainly guilty of when I first reviewed the movie two years ago. I do find it impressive how well the film adapts a classic slasher story to that gimmick, however. It could easily be near-unwatchable in the wrong hands, but even on this revisit I found myself shaking with anticipation to discover what happens next as the cursor drifted across the screen from program to program. Britnee, while watching the movie did you find yourself at all invested in the story it was telling or did the gimmick of its Internet Age communication remain a constant distraction? Did you see Unfriended only as a single-gimmick genre experiment or did you actually lose yourself in its teen slasher narrative?

Britnee: I actually really enjoyed the story of Unfriended, and I didn’t feel like it was overshadowed by the highly entertaining social media gimmick. If anything, the interweb aspect made the typical teen slasher plot more vibrant and interesting. During the entire film, the audience is experiencing everything from the point of view of Blaire’s laptop, which is brilliant. When she has side conversations via Skype chat with her boyfriend, Mitch, I felt like I was in on their little secret conversations. Watching Blaire type and quickly redact her initial responses to the mysterious Laura Barns Facebook account brought me to the edge of my seat. Using programs that just about everyone is familiar with (Skype, Facebook, YouTube, etc.) is a great way to really put the fear in viewers and keep them interested in the plot. The mystery of why Laura committed suicide lingers for most of the film. Once it’s obvious that the YouTube video that keeps popping up but never finishes contains the answer, I became so frustrated (in a good way). There were moments where I would find myself motioning to click the play button, but this wasn’t my laptop.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if Unfriended was released in a  sort of movie/video game hybrid? Just pop the DVD into your laptop and join the Laura Barns ex-friend chat via Skype while getting harassed by ghost Laura via Facebook. This could really be the future of horror.

The idea of the dead being able to manipulate the internet is fascinating, yet terrifying. When it comes to internet applications such as Skype, Facebook, and Gmail, it seems that only a hacker or some sort of glitch could cause things to go wrong. We have so much control over things that exist in the digital world. The idea of a ghost being able to upload pictures, prevent users from unfriending, or remove the forward email option is so spooky. Who do you contact to help you get rid of the ghost on Facebook? Facebook administrators are not trained to be ghost hunters (and vice versa), so you’re pretty much screwed.

Alli, did you find the idea of a ghost in cyberspace to be scary or silly?

Alli: I feel the need to warn everyone that I’m about to get a little too deep about a trashy internet ghost slasher, so here I go.

First, I really like ghost stories, so I didn’t think of it as any sillier than the idea of a ghost being inside of a house, or an object. The idea of being trapped and held in a particular space with unfinished business is a really old one. We keep things that remind us of loved ones. Objects and places preserve some of the essence of people who are lost to us.  It’s scary to think about what’s left of us being preserved on the internet after we’re gone. Our personalities and images are preserved more now than ever. Our ancestors only had paintings, locks of hair, and other little memento mori type things. It’s hard these days for people to truly disappear, even after death. There’s a weird, conflicting thing that happens to grieving people now. You know your loved one is gone, but at the same time so much of everything is there. During this movie, when Blaire starts having Laura reach back out to her really kind of hit me in a bad way. It’s already hard to accept that a person is gone, but then for them to start talking to you again . . . that’s messed up. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a technophobe or someone who spends all day online, that idea is uncanny and a little horrifying, maybe even more horrifying than a haunted house. We go through and will believe really weird stuff when we grieve, and when we regret the way we treat someone it’s scary that we’ll never get to apologize or make it right after they die. Guilt haunts us. Of course, fictionally we would take that idea even further to poltergeists. And of course now, with kids getting cyberbullied and committing suicide it was only a matter a time until a vengeful internet ghost movie happened.

All the same, it still felt silly in a lot of ways. I know Brandon said above that it the online discourse makes this feature dated afterwards, but to me it felt a little bit dated already. Did kids in 2015 still use video chats on their computers? Snapchat was a big thing then. Did kids in 2015 have no idea how to take screen shots? It just felt like none of these kids, not even Ken, were technologically savvy. It’s silly to me that their identities wouldn’t have been tracked down by law enforcement in the first place, especially since Blaire is clearly the one who took and uploaded the video. I know it’s hard to track down internet crimes, but I feel like all of these teens were careless enough to get caught. Also, the anti-bullying message seemed super over the top.

What did you think of the heavy handed moral of the movie, Boomer? Do you think that was effective or just kind of goofy?

Boomer: As someone who was the victim of cyberbullying as a teenager (via LiveJournal, which really shows you how old I am), I don’t think that it’s possible to be too heavy handed about the effect of bullying on the psyche, both in the real world and online. Humans can be pretty horrible to each other, and the addition of apparent anonymity gives people who are already disposed toward cruelty a kind of permission to say things to others that they would never be able to say in person . . . sometimes. On the other hand, while Unfriended  felt preachy to me, “Don’t Cyberbully” wasn’t really the moral that I inferred from it.

To be honest, at least from the outset, this group of characters didn’t seem like terrible people to me. In fact, I kind of liked them, and I was immediately pulled into their camaraderie and got a real sense of bon homie from their intimacy and the way that they quipped with each other. They reminded me of myself and my friends, or the “unsympathetic comedy protagonists” of shows like Seinfeld. I did find it strange that they weren’t more upset about the anniversary of their friend’s death, and their blasé reactions to the reminder that it had been a year were unusual, but teenagers (and adults) deal with grief in different ways. Case in point: last year, a former classmate of mine from high school brutally, and I mean brutally, murdered his parents, and it was a weight on my mind for weeks and weeks afterward. Then, last month, some friends were moving out of their apartment after a long feud with their property manager, and held a “hex the apartment” reverse housewarming party on the eve of their move-out. To up the “spoopy” ambiance, they had a Halloween playlist and created a slideshow of famous killers that played on the TV throughout the party, including people like Aileen Wuornos and Jeff Dahmer, but also featured Tilikum and Ted Cruz the Zodiac Killer, as well as my former classmate. The initial horror and despair I felt last November when watching the press conference in which the local sheriff described how my old acquaintance chopped his parents up had become a kind of gallows joke, a way to lessen the real life horror of the event. As such, I couldn’t really begrudge Blaire and her posse for working through (or compartmentalizing/ignoring) their pain in a way that could seem callous from the outside, but which rang true to me.

As a result, the thing that worked least for me in this film was that the sudden reveal that every member of this squad had perpetrated cruel (and in the case of Adam the date rapist, outright evil) acts on other people above and beyond the normal amount of between-friends teasing that people of a certain sense of humor have. I believed Blaire when she told Laura’s ghost that she hadn’t been among the masses sending the latter “kill urself lol” messages, and from what we do see of Laura briefly (and the way that her ghost enacts its revenge), I get the sense that she was just as bad, if not worse, than her victims. I just didn’t read these teens as cyberbullies; as such, the moral I got from the story, and one which I see aimed at teens more often, was “Don’t Drink Alcohol.” From the chronological outset, the bad things that these kids experience mostly come from partying too hard: Laura’s falling out with people at a party and passing out so hard that she soiled herself, Adam and Blaire hooking up, Val passing out and having things drawn on her—these are bad choices that result from drinking too much, not cyberbullying. There’s an argument to be made here that I might be blaming the victims of cyberbullying, but the fact of the matter is that Laura doesn’t make up things to post online or share in the video chat, she just uncovers things that people actually did and keep hidden out of a sense of embarrassment (it’s notable that the worst thing a character does, Adam’s rape, isn’t revealed by Laura, but by Mitch). Obviously, Laura took her own life because she was bullied online, but I felt like the film was more of an anti-drinking screed than a jeremiad about the dangers of cyberbullying.

That brings me to my question. Brandon, who do you think this film is for? Other than the repeated uses of “fuck” and various other expletives, there’s really nothing in this film that should ensure an R rating, especially given that those over 17 are presumably not the intended audience. For instance, I found Mitch’s reaction to finding out that Blaire and Adam had hooked up to be comically overblown. It reminded me of that scene in The Simpsons in which Homer teases Bart about a falling out with Milhouse, mocking him for thinking that grade school friendships are eternal; only someone who is the age of the characters (or the age the characters are supposed to be; William Peltz was 28 in this movie, whereas I assume Adam is supposed to be 16 or 17) would be so emotionally invested in this relationship.

Brandon: If the story of recent box office successes like IT, Get Out, and Annabelle: Creation is any implication, this kind of wide release horror fare has a very wide appeal that should transgress age demographics. In a climate where a lot of major studio releases are struggling to turn a profit, horror is right up there with superhero action fantasies as a bankable genre that’s almost guaranteed to get butts in seats no matter how poorly other films are performing. It also helps that horror is relatively cheap to make. Financed by the notoriously frugal/lucrative Blumhouse brand, Unfriended cost only $1 million to produce, which made its $64  million box office returns a pleasantly hefty payoff. Common wisdom, though, would say that the payoff would have been doubled if the film had curbed a little bit of its violence & crude dialogue to achieve a PG-13 rating, opening its ticket sales to a wider market. I maintain my belief the film has contempt for the fictional teens it brutally murders, but I also believe that their peers were largely its intended audience, which oddly adds to its appeal as a curiosity for me as an Old Man.

Outside of a couple brutal kills and a few more repetitions of “fuck” than the prudish MPAA tends to allow,  Unfriended  already feels like a PG-13 film. Mitch’s high school drama outrage over Blaire’s infidelity is indeed a moment of (presumably) unintended camp and a blatant indication that the producers intended teens to at least be a significant fraction of the audience, if not the majority. Its adoption of teen speak & real world apps can sometimes feel like Steve Buscemi’s private eye going “undercover” as a high school student on 30 Rock (“How do you do, fellow kids?”), but I’m sure that the expendable pocket money teen market was in the film’s crosshairs from conception. Even though a large chunk of them were unfortunately shut out of buying a ticket to see Unfriended on the big screen, I hope they now find their way to it in its video-on-demand afterlife. A 2010s high schooler blind-watching this movie alone on a laptop is probably its best chance to leave a decades-lasting impression the way catching Child’s Play, a stray Nightmare on Elm Street sequel, or (personally speaking) The Dentist on late night television scarred much of our generation when we were in that age range (or, let’s be honest, way younger).

Softening Unfriended‘s rating might have only required minor edits, but I’m glad they stuck with the few details that landed it an R. Slashers are often reduced to the value of the novelty & brutality of their individual kills and this movie delivers on the implausibility of its supernatural forced-suicides alone. Watching one teen dismember himself with a salsa blender that just happens to be plugged in next to his bedroom PC (we’ve all been there, right?) is one of the more hilariously inane horror moments I can remember seeing in the last decade. Conversely, there’s a kill involving a curling iron & a meme generator that genuinely made me gasp at its cruelty both times I watched the film, which is a rare reaction from me, considering how often I dwell on this genre. Britnee, what did you think of the way onscreen violence is handled in Unfriended? Do you think the teen suicides earned the film’s R rating? Are they just as creative & memorable as the film’s Internet Age found footage gimmick or more of a genre-requirement afterthought?

Britnee: The “suicides” in the film were quite brutal, making it very worthy of that R rating. What is so interesting about the creative teen deaths is that they are all very unexpected. Val was the first victim of Laura’s vengeful internet ghost, but her death was pretty mild. She drinks bleach and falls to the floor. That’s it. It’s not bloody or violent, but it’s still creepy enough to get under your skin. It’s really Ken’s death that starts up this ultra-violent suicide streak. When the internet phantom is lurking in Ken’s room and his screen freezes after the discovery, I expected the screen to flash to a bloody body on the floor. It’s obvious that he was going to die, but nothing prepared me to see him shoving his hand in a salsa blender. There was most likely remnants of a previous salsa batch still in the blender, and all that old sauce and hot pepper juice was mixing in with blood and flesh. That’s as gross as it gets. It’s really Jess’s suicide that takes the cake, though. Shoving a steaming hot curling iron down your throat is so damn disgusting. What confused me about this suicide was the small amount of time it took for the curling iron to heat up. Even extremely high quality hair-styling tools take a good couple of seconds to get to a decent heat level, and there’s really no indication that it was plugged in when Jess got to the bathroom. I’m sure some super cool ghost power got the iron to heat up in, like, 2 seconds, but it would’ve been more interesting if the camera showed Jess in a trance plugging it in and staring at it soullessly until the temperature was just right.

I really have to commend the film for being able to balance out horror and violence so well. Recent horror films seem to be more gore-driven, and it really takes away from that unsettling sense of the unknown that a good horror flick gives off. Seriously, nothing is worse than expecting to get a case of the willies from a horror movie but actually ending up on the verge of puking because of all the gore. I’m looking at you, Saw franchise! While the deaths are so disturbing that they will haunt your mind weeks after watching the movie, they don’t really overpower the film. When I think about Unfriended, the first thing that comes to my mind is all the fun internet ghost moments, not the deaths.

Because all the characters were total shit bags, it was difficult for me to care about their survival, but it really made me like the movie more. Teens are assholes, and it was interesting to see them portrayed as such. Alli, did you find the characters to be annoying as all hell? Do you think this film would be as good if they were more likable?

Alli: I know teenagers are horrible. They’ve got those underdeveloped brains and crazy hormone changes. They’re figuring out the world and gradually being given more and more responsibilities they can’t handle. I know that it’s not just angst when they say that they’re misunderstood. But these kids I really had a hard time empathizing with. I just really disliked all of them. I think one of the reasons I feel that way is that they’re all pretty well-off suburban kids. They have nice houses, all this technology, cars, name brand clothes, and even personal salsa blenders. It’s really difficult to feel bad for entitled people. I get it. There’s that suburban angst of your parents being inattentive and distant, but that doesn’t really resonate with me in the slightest.

Then there’s the fact that they did this to their own friend! They released that video. They made fake accounts to bully her. And it seems like this is the first time it’s really hitting them how messed up what they did was. It’s debatable with the way they treat each other whether or not these kids have friends at all or if they’re just caught up in a shallow and vain lifestyle. They fall back on drinking as an excuse for their actions, but ultimately as they’re discussing and panicking and hiding the truth, you can see that they’re truly that terrible. Yelling at one another. Calling each other names. Even in a matter of life and death, they’re still focused on petty drama.

Had I felt sorry for them the movie would have been even more tense and scary. Not that it wasn’t already tense, but there was something worth reveling in when it got to the gruesome death scenes. They were gross and nightmarish, but also satisfying in a way. (Maybe I just have a revenge problem?) Had I liked the characters, I would definitely think they were unfairly being targeted. Instead, I actually applauded the ending.

Boomer, what did you think of the ending? Was it as satisfying for you as it was for me?

Boomer: The ending didn’t really do it for me, and it’s not just the goofiness of the jump scare and the fakety fake fake image of ghost Laura (or the fact that Blaire’s screen froze instead of following the line of site her webcam would as her laptop was closed, or any of the other things that make no sense from a technological perspective). I think that part of the reason for this is that the ends feels loose for me. For instance: Blaire tells Laura’s ghost that Mitch is the one who posted the video, and we do see that the edited video that wound up online has added text and cuts out before we see Blaire laughing about how Laura soiled herself. Was this true, or not? My reading is that Blaire filmed the video, but Mitch made the finished product and put it online, possibly without Blaire’s permission. That makes her complicit, sure, but I’m not sure that it makes her guilty enough to deserve her fate. (Granted, this might be my mind refusing to accept that the apparent Final Girl was actually not the Final Girl at all.) In a different context, in which Blaire took the video of the unconscious Laura and laughed at her, with the intention of showing Laura later and joking about it together, would be just an example of kids being kids. Unless Blaire actually did encourage Mitch to upload it, but I didn’t read that from the text. Overall, I would have to say that the ending rang a little hollow for me, but I was still surprised by how much I enjoyed the film as a whole, given my reservations. 

Lagniappe

Boomer: I would actually love to see this idea applied to a romcom, showing the building of a relationship entirely through social media. Befriended.

Britnee: A grown-up version of  Unfriended would be an interesting watch. The drama and bullying that goes on between my adult family members on platforms like Facebook is definitely more prominent than what I see among the youth that I know. I would love to see a group of 50-something-year-olds in the same situation as the teens in this movie.

Alli: I really want to show this movie to a group of teens just to see how they receive it. I want to know if this is relatable to them or not, since they are presumably the intended audience. Would it actually be an edge of their seat thriller or would they write it off as silly nonsense? As of now, I’ve only watched it with an adult man and his reaction was “hoo boy.”

Brandon: I’m starting to feel like somewhat of a phony fan of this movie even though I often go out of my way to promote its legacy. I’ve now watched it on the big screen and on my living room television, but I’ve never bothered to screen it with headphones on my laptop for the Pure Unfriended experience, the way I assume it was intended to be seen. This feels like the inverse of the blasphemy of a young brat watching Lawrence of Arabia for the first time on a smartphone. It’s also further implication that I’m an out of touch old man who has no business taking as much pleasure in these teen-oriented, social media-obsessed genre film frivolities as I do.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
November: Britnee presents Hearts of Fire (1987)
December: Boomer presents Wings of Fame (1990)
January: The Top Films of 2017

-The Swampflix Crew

Movie of the Month: Schizopolis (1996)

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 BritneeBrandon, and Boomer watch Schizopolis (1996).

Alli: I spent my teenage years moping away in Baton Rouge. I lived in the thick of the suburban sprawl, I dealt with LSU Tigermania, and I struggled with the boredom of living in a place where the main source of entertainment was trying to learn to be into football or embracing the wacky nature of not really belonging. I didn’t watch Schizopolis until after I had moved to New Orleans, but it just stuck with me how the film doesn’t explicitly say it’s set in Baton Rouge anywhere, yet Baton Rouge is everywhere. All of the city’s most iconic landmarks are onscreen: Louie’s Cafe, the local new age emporium Coyote Moon, Highland Park (which I wonder if they even got permission for the obscene moments they filmed there), and the strip mall where Little Wars, the game store and nerd refuge, is located. Basically, Baton Rouge is integral to me as far as Schizopolis is concerned. Outside of the disjointed narrative and surrealist moments of invented language, it’s basically a movie about how the typical American suburban life with a cubicle office job drives you a little crazy.

The main character played by director Steven Soderbergh, Fletcher Munson, works a boring office job for a self help guru/cult leader reminiscent of L. Ron Hubbard, T. Asimuth Schwitters. (There’s a strong Scientology presence in Baton Rouge in real life.) He wastes his time at work throwing paper balls into a waste basket and literally jerking off. He has a regular wife with a regular daughter. A generic life full of “generic greetings.” His wife is bored and tired of his inattentiveness, so she starts cheating on him with his doppelgänger: Dr. Korchek, a dentist and philanderer. There are many other wild characters who jump in the narrative along the way: Elmo Oxygen, Nameless Numberhead Man, and Attractive Woman #2.  It’s a jumble of varying perspectives, nonlinear storytelling, and basically just nonsense.

Steven Soderbergh filmed Schizopolis in nine months, working whenever he felt like it. It’s a total self-indulgent vanity project. He starred, directed, wrote it (or rather mainly improvised it), was the cinematographer, and even worked in the sound department. But Schizopolis is a very aware kind of self-indulgent. Before the actual movie begins, there’s a prologue that really serves to set the mood, where Soderbergh is in front of a microphone in an empty theater introducing the film. It’s almost a Monty Python-esque sort of dry humor, right down to the intertitle that assures you that no fish were harmed.

In general, I think the writing is extremely funny, especially for having been improvised. The love letter written to Attractive Woman #2 is a really great example: “I may not know much, but I know that the wind sings your name endlessly, although with a slight lisp that makes it difficult to understand if I’m standing near an air conditioner.” Brandon, what did you think of the use of humor in a non linear narrative like this? Do you have any favorite lines?

Brandon: Monty Python is actually a perfect point of reference, since the disjointed nature of Schizopolis reminded me a lot of a genre I love that rarely goes over well with most audiences: the sketch comedy film. Gags in this comedic mosaic often feel like isolated vignettes before they connect to the larger themes Soderbergh is playing with, namely suburban boredom & romantic miscommunication. Because of the cheap, handheld 90s cinematography that feels so firmly nestled in the era’s indie cinema boom, I suppose sketch comedy troupes like The Kids in the Hall or Upright Citizens Brigade would better fit the vibe Schizopolis traffics in than Monty Python or (for a more esoteric example) The Groove Tube, especially since their televised series would often work individual sketches into a larger episodic narrative. There’s a Gen-X slacker quality to Schizopolis that I really appreciated as a contrast to its heady explorations of the flawed nature of language or the faux-spiritualism of its Scientology stand-in, Eventualism. It’s basically the movie equivalent of a late-period Picasso or a 90s low-fi indie rock act like Half Japanese or Daniel Johnston, getting across genuinely intellectual ideas through a formally sloppy mode of expression. Looking at the film from an intellectual distance, many might think that anyone could’ve made it, that there isn’t much craft to its prankish amateurism. I don’t believe that’s true. There are plenty of other low-fi experiments filmed on microbudgets in Nowhere, America that aren’t nearly as watchable or as cerebrally stimulating as this film. Just look to the documentary American Movie to get a taste of what I’m talking about.

For a film about language, however, there aren’t many individual lines of dialogue I can single out as favorites. A lot of Soderbergh’s technique in Schizopolis is dependent on generic placeholders substituting genuine dialogue. The scenes where Fletcher Munson & Mrs. Munson hold entire conversations with phrases like “Obligation” and “Location of offspring” or where the exterminator, Elmo Oxygen, hits on his female clientele with nonsensical gibberish are fascinating improv language exercises, especially when they’re turned back in on themselves from a different character’s POV in the third act. They’re not exactly quotable, though. A lot of my favorite gags were purely visual, like when an entire scene is substituted with a sign that reads “IDEA MISSING” or when the title card is presented as screenprinted text on a man’s t-shirt, only for the man to be revealed wearing only the t-shirt. The stand-out centerpiece of the film might even be the unbroken shot of Soderbergh (as Munson) making goofy Jim Carrey faces in the bathroom mirror immediately after masturbating at work, just because. As big as Schizopolis‘s ideas can be in a larger scope, its scene to scene rhythms function as a series of half-assed pranks, like a highbrow version of Jackass.

Like Alli, I was also thrown off by these highbrow pranks being staged in Baton Rouge, a severely mediocre city I regret living in for as long as I did in the mid 00s. Every now and then a K&B sign or an eerily familiar LSU auditorium would snap me back into awareness of setting in a dissociative way that was just as surreal as any of the film’s play with language or spiritualism. It’s so odd to me that after the massive success of Sex, Lies, and Videotape (which was also set in Baton Rouge) Soderbergh would stave off the major studio career he would later succumb to (in titles like Erin BrockovichMagic Mike, and the Oceans series) by relying on his father’s resources as LSU’s Dean of Education to film the most bizarre, dirt cheap, and, in my opinion, best movie of his career in a place as drab as Baton Rouge. Boomer, you also have a personal connection to the city Alli & I are eager to throw under the bus here. Did Schizopolis’s Baton Rouge setting contribute to its surreality in your viewing? What effect do you think the city had on this picture’s overall vibe?

Boomer: Seeing the city that I knew so well (and have much fonder feelings for than my fellows here, although all their criticisms are 100% accurate) certainly added a layer of surreality to the film that I was not expecting. I know Soderbergh was a longtime BR resident–a friend of mine from college used to live in the Sex, Lies, and Videotape house on Bedford–but I was still taken aback when the intro sequence of Act 1 featured (the old location of) Louie’s, which was never more than a five minute walk from any apartment I occupied in the eight years I lived in Baton Rouge. For me, growing up in the beyond-rural reaches of the 5.5 square mile municipality of Slaughter (now a town as of 2002!), Baton Rouge wasn’t just a city, it was the city. To put this in perspective, my parents still can’t get cable where they live, and a recent AT&T service issue left them without phone or internet for three weeks. As such, even the tiny town of Natchitoches seemed like a thriving metropolis when I lived there for a couple of years for school. Looking back, there’s a certain kind of nostalgic energy that I’ve had difficulty articulating in the past: I have very specific remembrances of passing through parts of BR I had not seen before as a child and recognizing the business signs, like the one for Kelleher in the aforementioned Jefferson Highway shopping center that now contains Little Wars, and getting a thrill that something from TV appeared in my real life. Part of this may have been born out of being fortunate enough to see the travelling Sesame Street show at the old Bon Marché mall as a very young child. When you grow up in a trailer in the woods with no connection to the cultural world other than three TV networks (four and a half on a clear day) and the “local” public library two towns over, there’s no clear distinction between national and regional broadcasts, so seeing a business in the real world that had been advertised in a local commercial was just as magical to tiny Boomer as hypothetically seeing Big Bird wandering the streets or stumbling upon Murphy Brown in a cafe.

Years of living in Baton Rouge killed that magic, although I will readily admit that there were other mitigating factors that led to me disenchantment, most of them concerned with growing up and being forced to participate in the economy, which aren’t BR-specific. On the other hand, I was fortunate enough to live on or near East State for the better part of a decade during the time when it was one of the last bastions of artists and other weirdos left in the city’s culture war against gentrification (which it lost, in case you were wondering), and being a part of KLSU gave me insight into a different, more culturally relevant side of the city. That having been said, seeing The Baton Rouge That Was, the city of my childhood, brought back feelings in me that I wasn’t prepared for, and cast a veil of intimacy over Schizopolis that was both surreal and distracting. I kept thinking of being a kid, and making connections between the on-screen presentation that were probably never intended to mean anything to a larger audience (“The lady on Channel 9 with the big teeth–they’re talking about Donna Britt!”). The part of my brain that still retains its childhood awe of the Baton Rouge of yore was a bit overwhelmed by the input, and by the time that Mrs. Munson meets her French lover in a coffee shop where I used to work, I was close to short-circuiting.

When my brain was working, I kept thinking about Jacques Derrida and his work in Of Grammatology, wherein he espouses a theory of language that prioritizes a kind of Logocentrism that revolves around the conceit that writing is a removed (and thus less pure) form of speech, and that speech is a removed (and, again, less pure) form of thought. In the scene where Elmo Oxygen finally breaks down what he really wants (to have sex with a certain P.A.), he makes the statement that “Language does not always require speech,” which on the surface appears to be the opposite of his personal ideology. Elmo’s speech seems to instead require no language, communicating emphasis and meaning through a form of comically exaggerated aphasia in which words have no objective meaning. I have to ask, Britnee, do you think that this is an intentional inversion, or is there a meaning to his statement that I’m overlooking?

Britnee: Elmo is by far my favorite character in Schizopolis. The moment that funky beat of his theme music starts to play, you can be sure that Elmo and his bug-eye goggles are about to grace the screen. He’s the generic sexy neighborhood “pool boy,” except he’s a lanky, middle aged bug exterminator that doesn’t need to try too hard to seduce lonely housewives. Elmo’s character doesn’t make much sense, but I don’t think he’s supposed to. That’s what makes him so funny. While his bizarre manner of speaking seems to be another one of the film’s hilarious improvisations, the strange language eventually starts to make sense. Elmo’s nonsense words are repeated in multiple scenes (“nomenclature,” “jigsaw,” “beef diaper”), and they actually start to develop meaning. For example, when “jigsaw” is stated, it means something along the lines of a sexy “Alright.” When he does state, “Language does not always require speech,” I thought it was just another comical element to his character and nothing more. It’s interesting that Boomer mentioned this theory of language from Jacques Derrida. I have no idea who Derrida is and I am not familiar with his work. However, it made me look at Elmo’s statement in a different light. It’s quite possible that the statement was a nod towards the art of improvisation, but I’m leaning towards it just being a goofy line for his nonsensical character.

Other than Elmo, one of the more fascinating parts of the film was the relationship between Fletcher Munson and his wife. I love how we are able to see the same scenario repeated through the eyes of each character. When we see Fletcher’s version, everything is very matter-of-fact. When he comes home to his wife and child at the end of the work day, it becomes quite obvious that the two have a lack of communication. Fletcher greets his wife by saying, “Generic greeting,” and she responds with “Generic greeting returned.” It’s actually really sad to see the lack of connection and emotion between the two while they put on fake smiles and pretend to give a shit. Fletcher’s wife’s version of events is a little different. When she hears Fletcher and his doppelgänger, Dr. Korchek, speak, the two speak in Japanese and Italian, further representing the inability for Mrs. Munson and the men in her life to communicate with each other.

I felt so bad for Fletcher’s wife. She gets shut out by both versions of her husband, and she doesn’t even get a name! She’s simply known as Mrs. Munson. Alli, what are your thoughts on Mrs. Munson’s character? Is she supposed to represent the invisible suburban housewife?

Alli: Mrs. Munson does seem to represent the average bored and lonely housewife, jaded and treated horribly by a culture of men who are bored, neglectful spark-chasers. However, much like how Munson has his doppelgänger, she has her own in Attractive Woman #2; still a character without a name, but a character with much more agency. On one hand, we have this maternal and pragmatic woman fed up with her husband and his lack of attention, but then there’s also this woman who just wants a dang dentist and takes a man to court for being a creep. She’s a mother trying to figure out where her life is headed next and an unattainable love interest who has the upper hand, which is slightly more than the Soderbergh character gets, even if it involves less screen time and no first name.

It’s this duality that really creates the central conflict of the film. There’s a dichotomy between the settled American family life, represented by Mrs. Munson and her husband, and the single life, represented by Dr. Korchek and Attractive Woman #2. The question being posed and answered in that dynamic amounts to, “Is the grass greener on the other side?”  And of course, going a little deeper than shallow inspection (Munson peering into Korchek’s windows) and beyond infatuation, the answer is resoundingly “No.” If you’re a normie suburban type, you might as well just embrace it.

The female characters in general do seem to be given a level of inconsideration, however. Like we’ve already mentioned, none of them are given first names. None of them have any obvious occupations. They’re stuck in the stereotypical world of women, gossiping with friends and taking care of children. The men aren’t exactly portrayed favorably, but it doesn’t feel balanced given their female counterparts’ lack of screen time, lines, and story beats. It’s the same sort of attitude that I feel like the film is trying to lampoon, ironically enough, by making all the men boneheads. I don’t want to be too harsh though, because, unlike in real life, being creepy and sexist has noticeable consequences here. Dr. Korchek gets his words thrown back at him by three unamused lawyers, and even gets shot. Munson is unknowingly ignoring his wife into leaving him. All of the men get their due, even Nameless Numberhead Man, who’s constantly and disgustingly shaming his wife for being too thin. He’s made to look like a ridiculous ass, and much like Mrs. Munson with Dr. K, his wife is cheating on him with Elmo the exterminator, who is a weirdo but not a creep. Everything between Elmo and women is consensual.

Elmo is a somewhat main character who isn’t given a double; what you see is what you get with him, although he’s given an alternate life or two. He’s an exterminator, he’s a sexy neighborhood “pool boy” like Britnee mentioned, and eventually he’s sort of a reality TV star. “Meta” is an overused word, but between Elmo’s video life, the intro, and the interview with the guy in the park, there’s this sort of self-aware thread running through Schizopolis. Brandon, how do you feel about that kind of post-modern “This is a movie you’re watching” thing? And what do you think of Elmo’s involvement in it?

Brandon: While it’s true that Elmo Oxygen doesn’t have an exact doppelgänger (at least not in the form of a separate character also played by actor David Jensen), he does have a sort of counterbalance in the cult leader guru T. Azimuth Schwitters (Mike Malone), author of How To Control Your Own Mind & the engineer of Eventualism. The film contrasts Elmo’s aggressively informal demeanor & working class lifestyle distributing Elmo’s Bug Juice throughout Baton Rouge suburbia with Schwitters’s stuffier, self-agrandizing nature as an L. Ron Hubbard stand-in. The way they function within the plot as a unit suggests they might have originally been intended to be cast as a single actor, like Fletcher Munson & the dentist or Mrs. Munson & Attractive Woman #2. Schwitters’s Eventualism lectures have a decidedly more academic air to them than the hypnotic gibberish Elmo employs to seduce the bored housewives of Baton Rouge, but the philosophical sentiment of those monologues mean just about as much as Elmo’s “jigsaw nomenclature” ramblings; i.e. they mean nothing at all.

The dual function of these two characters also operates mostly outside the domestic drama of the doppelgängers, which is more of the film’s A-plot. Elmo & Scwitters are allowed to address the audience directly and reveal the barely hidden mechanics of Making a Movie in a way that points to the self-aware, “meta” nature of Schizopolis Alli was referring to. Elmo’s role in that dynamic seems to be to represent the film’s function as a sophomoric prank with Looney Tunes sound effects, while Schwitters represents its more heady, philosophical aspirations. Both are played for equal, self-effacing humor and anchor other meta elements like the interviews in the park, the diagetic chapter breaks, and Soderbergh’s introductory address to the audience to something more thematically substantial. Usually when movies are this self-aware they fall firmly in the Dumb Comedy genre, where breaking the fourth wall or directly pointing to the artificiality of their own existence is a more widely employed trope. Elmo managed to make a more significant impact than Schwitters in this way, as his prankish existence is much more in line with the cartoonish weirdos you’d likely see in a wacky comedy from the Farrelly Brothers, ZAZ, The Lonely Island, etc., but I found them both about equally fascinating as two sides of the same meta coin.

As fun as the film’s self-aware meta humor is on a scene to scene basis, Schizopolis‘s main concern seems to be the romantic affairs between the various doppelgängers played by Soderbergh & Betsy Brantley. This dynamic, in which spouses cheat on each other with characters who look exactly the same as the people they’re already with, opens the film up to many thematic provocations we’ve already covered: the breakdown of communication, the mundanity of suburban life, the dwindling passion inherent to romantic partnership & domesticity, etc. What I’d like to hear from Boomer is how he thinks that dynamic compares to the similar themes of Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa, in which attraction to a new acquaintance makes them appear different from the rest of the world only until time eventually renders them to be the exact same as everyone else: just another body within the dull hegemony. Does that more conspicuously bitter stop-motion drama traffic in the same waters as Schizopolis‘s “Love the One You’re With” domestic strife for you or are they doing entirely different things?

Boomer: What a great question! For me, I see the two as being complementary and compatible, but not really aligned with one another. Within Anomalisa, Michael’s issues appear to stem from a pretty severe mental illness which causes him to see all people as variations on the same archetype of a person; for him, the whole of humanity is a vast sea of individual bodies bearing identical faces and voices, “proving” to him that he is the only unique (and perhaps only real) person in the world. Michael is adrift in a sea of non-persons, circumscribed by his own existence and unable to find value in others, trapped. When he meets Lisa, he perceives that he is like him, an individual, and creates a facade of her with which he falls in love. When the real Lisa does not live up to this false expectation (because no one can), she begins to assume the same face and voice as the rest of the human horde, until Michael can no longer see what attracted him to her in the first place. My reading of the text of Anomalisa is different from my reading of SchizopolisAnomalisa is very much a work about the failures of human interaction, yes, but I interpret its thesis to be a statement about men’s needs to create an artifice of a woman in place of a real person, as this is less complicated than recognizing a person’s individuality, and how that mental circumlocution is supported by predominant social narratives about the gender but is ultimately doomed to failure because it fails to accept that gender is socially created and performative, not a fact of biology. On another level, Anomalisa is about Michael’s particular and idiosyncratic sociopathy when it comes to his lack of recognition of the humanity of others.

My reading of Schizopolis, on the other hand, is more about the relationships between individuals. It is still 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. As noted above, his conversation with his wife is like an exchange of placeholder dialogue despite their physical proximity to each other on screen and the intimacy which we would expect based on the fact that they are married; alternatively, his shouted comments to his neighbor, who is placed across the street to imply that the distance between them is personal as well as physical, are too familiar, talking about the man’s wife in intimate (and derogatory) terms.

The biggest difference between the two films, however, 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. We see Lisa’s true face at the end, but only briefly and out of Michael’s sight. 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. I wouldn’t say that makes Soderbergh’s the richer film (it’s too tongue-in-cheek to have the same haunting effect as Charlie Kaufman’s unique brand of melancholy), but it does make it one with more rewatch value.

Britnee, what did you think of the role of (dis)organized religion in this film? Do you think that the director’s choice to mock Scientology over other, more popular and stable religions was designed to prevent offense? What does the film say about cult thinking?

Britnee: Eventualism is always looming in the background of Schizopolis. These sad, lifeless characters (minus Elmo) are products of Eventualism. Much like Scientology, Eventualism dangles the cheese in front of its members, giving them the promise of reaching their full potential, but in all actuality, destroying their lives. Part of me wonders if Fletcher and his wife’s doppelgängers are what they would actually be if they weren’t part of Eventualism. Lately, I’ve become fascinated with Scientology. No, I’m definitely not becoming a member, but the more I learn about the religion the more blown away I am that it exists. On a recent trip to Quebec City, I stumbled upon Eglise de Scientologie on accident (I thought it was a bookstore), and it was quite the experience. Lifeless, robotic individuals were walking up to me and my mother, offering us the “secret to happiness” by trying to lure us into taking personality tests. I couldn’t help but think of these folks when watching Schizopolis. Like Fletcher and his wife, they really aren’t horrible people; they’re just in a horrible situation. Like with many cults, if the members aren’t 100% brainwashed, they’re trapped. Their families are members and it’s become the only life they know, so it’s not easy to leave. Take Fletcher, for instance: he works for the leader Schwitters and his family belongs to the faith, but he’s absolutely miserable. He’s forever doomed and he knows it.

I don’t think that Soderbergh targeted Scientology over other popular religions to prevent offense, as he doesn’t strike me as the type to play it safe. It seems like he chose Scientology because it’s more interesting than boring old Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, etc. Scientology is a little more on the flashy side, as it’s practiced by many celebrities and even advertised on television!

Lagniappe

Alli: As boring and ill-fitting as suburban, domestic life is presented here, ultimately there’s some sort of resolution and acceptance. Fletcher meets with his wife in the end at coffee shop to patch things up. It seems like they’ve had a taste of the other, more adventurous side of life and it fits even less. Hopefully they resolve their communication issues, but overall it’s an ending that says maybe the average American life isn’t so bad. Some people are just born normies, and that’s okay.

Boomer: As for another artistic view on Baton Rouge that is more in line with Brandon and Alli’s feelings about the city, I recommend “Polio Addict” by BR band The Melters. As for other Baton Rouge-iana that permeates the film, I thought that perhaps Soderbergh’s mention of “foot long veggie on wheat” was a reference to Inga’s Subs and Salads, but wanted to make sure that this was possible, timeline-wise. As it turns out, yes! Inga retired a couple of years ago, but her shop is still in existence on West Chimes Street, and I recommend it.

Britnee: I can count the number of times I’ve been to Baton Rouge on one hand, so I didn’t have any nostalgic feelings like the rest of the crew. I will definitely check out some of the Schizopolis landmarks on future trips!

Brandon: Schizopolis was the most important motion picture I ever rented. It is my firm belief that the delicate fabric that holds all of us together will be ripped apart unless every man, woman, and child in this country sees this film and pays full streaming price, not some cut-rate deal. I found certain sequences & events confusing, but it was my fault, not filmmakers’. I will need to see the picture again and again until I understand everything.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
October: Brandon presents Unfriended (2015)
November: Britnee presents Hearts of Fire (1987)
December: Boomer presents Wings of Fame (1990)

-The Swampflix Crew

Movie of the Month: Mikey and Nicky (1976)

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 Boomer, Britnee, and Brandon watch Mikey and Nicky (1976).

Alli: Organized crime has a long history in film. The oldest surviving gangster film is from 1906. When most people think about mob movies, they probably think to films packed with explicit violence, or they think Coppola or Scorsese, whose films feature huge ensemble casts and wholly explored backstories and plots. Many of these films intricately lay out the inner workings of crime families, often with socioeconomic criticism about the treatment of immigrants in America.  But Mikey and Nicky doesn’t really do any of that. The violence is implied. The cast consists of just 20 people. It’s just a peek into a very specific event and more about betrayal than any political critique. Given that The Godfather came only 4 years before, it’s probably a better approach to break the mold entirely than covering all the same ground again.

Having two characters make a manic dash around New York is still a bold move. There’s so much potential to have it all go wrong, but I can’t think of two people better cast opposite one another.  The movie depends on their interactions. Luckily, they’re both masters. Peter Falk has his matter of fact, levelheaded manner and John Cassavetes plays a frenetic jerk. They’re just fun to watch together. Elaine May knew this. Most of the movie was improvised. She captured hours and hours of footage of just Peter Falk and John Cassavetes talking. There was 1.4 million feet of film by the end, which is nearly 3 times as much as Gone with the Wind! The result is a really great movie with an amazingly natural flow, but it took more than two years to edit, which was way over the deadline. After it was reluctantly released, she didn’t work behind the camera for over a decade. Having also had similar problems with A New Leaf, I wonder if her misunderstood genius would have fared better now in the era of digital.

May’s writing is so smart and wonderful. It’s important that dialogue in a movie like this really flows. It’s tense and fast, but also has such moments of tragic humor. Rather than solely focus on the chase and Nicky’s ploys to outsmart pursuers, the relationship between him and Mikey is really developed. I know it’s hard to like or even have empathy for an asshole like Nicky, but in a way, I was still rooting for him. Brandon, did you have sympathy for Nicky?

Brandon: The way we’re introduced to Peter Falk & John Cassavetes’s titular gangsters is unconventional for any movie, let alone a mafia piece, and completely disoriented my sympathies as an audience. The film opens with Nicky strung out & paranoid in a motel room, dying of a stomach ulcer he’s drank himself into. Mikey comes to his rescue, feeding him pills and half & half to alleviate the ulcer, doing his best to calm down what is eventually revealed to be his life long friend by assuring him that, contrary to his paranoia, there is no one out to kill him. Our relationship with Nicky is shaky at that point. Cassavetes plays Nicky with the wild-eyed abandon of a man in the middle of a days-long bender, so it’s easy to keep an emotional distance from the character while aligning sympathies with Mikey instead, a calming presence who sings lullabies, spoon-feeds medicine, and bumbles through life with Falk’s trademark feigning of adorable, cross-eyed befuddlement. Once Nicky’s paranoia of being hunted by the mob is confirmed as legitimate, however, and it’s revealed that Mikey’s helping the mafia arrange his supposed friend’s execution, our sympathies swap and we turn on Mikey for the betrayal.

Sympathy with Nicky doesn’t last long, though. He quickly turns out to be a racist, misogynist asshole who beats women & starts bar fights just to inflate his ego & stave off his boredom. By the third act, when Mikey & Nicky reach their lowpoint fighting over a broken wrist watch in the middle of a city street, I had lost any concern over either of their lives. Over the course of a single night, both characters manage to expose themselves as low-level scumbag criminals without a decent bone in either of their bodies, which is a wild ride considering where the whole mess started. I’ll even admit that Britnee & I were openly, verbally cheering for Nicky’s death by the time their story came to a close.

I’m fascinated by Elaine May’s storytelling process here, especially after hearing Alli say the film was put together in the editing room. The dialogue has such a tight, pointed feel to it, as if the screenplay were written for the stage, so it’s mind-blowing to learn that this was constructed after-the-fact like a sprawling, improv-based Apatow comedy. Besides the storytelling style, I was also struck by how well May captured the dirty, pre-Giuliani era of NYC, the type of New York we’re used to seeing in early Scorsese pictures like Mean Streets & Taxi Driver. The late-night setting, funky blaxploitation soundtrack, guerilla-style handheld camera work, and genuine background characters of real life barroom drunks & creeps all afford the film an authentic, unnerving New York City grime. The only film I can think to compare it to in terms of narrative structure & visual craft is the recent release Tangerine, which gives a whirlwind tour of L.A. sunshine similar to the way Mikey and Nicky tears through NYC streetlights. With those two films being released four decades apart and Scorsese’s most similar contemporary works being praised at the time for being the cutting edge, I think it’s fair to say May was in some ways ahead of her time, even if her basic visual aesthetic resembles a general 70s exploitation cinema aesthetic.

I’m embarrassed to admit that in our third year of organizing these Movie of the Month conversations, Elaine May is the first female director we’ve covered here. With a couple dozen titles from plenty of dudes behind us, that’s more than a little pathetic, but I do appreciate that we got the ball rolling for a corrective with someone who obviously has such a distinct, blunt filmmaking & storytelling style. Britnee, is May’s directorial work something you took particular notice of while watching Mikey and Nicky or did the two dialogue-intensive performances from Falk & Cassavetes fully distract you from what she was doing behind the camera?

Britnee: Mikey and Nicky, which I still accidentally call Mikey and Ikey or Micky and Nicky, is unlike any movie I’ve ever seen. It reminded me more of an intimate play (I got some Rosencrantz and Guidenstern Are Dead vibes), so I’m not surprised to find out that improv played a huge part with our two main characters. As Alli stated earlier, the flow of Mikey and Nicky’s dialogue was so natural. Watching the two characters interact with each other was mesmerizing. At first, I thought that Nicky was hallucinating and Mikey was his lover just playing along with his “episode.” In no way did I expect this film to be a gangster flick. What a surprise! Nicky wasn’t losing his mind, he was just an complete asshole that was scared of being murdered by his mob boss.

Something that really did stick out for me was the film’s directorial style. The hazy, voyeuristic shots of Mikey and Nicky walking the dark streets of New York are so damn beautiful, but it’s the way that May captures the good, bad, and ugly of her two main characters. Mikey’s heavy heart due to betraying his life long friend and Nicky’s abrasive behavior that seems to grow with his fear of being whacked are two major elements that are highlighted by May’s directing. The audience can’t help but feel sympathy for both characters at some point, but ultimately, both are horrible people. Creating that sort of love/hate relationship with characters like Mikey and Nicky seems almost impossible, but with May’s smart directing style, she really gets the job done.

A film focused mainly on the relationship between two male friends over the course of a single night doesn’t initially sound like a recipe for success, but this is one of Mikey and Nicky‘s biggest strengths. There aren’t many distractions, except for the décor in Nellie’s fabulous apartment, so we’re able to focus on what is the most important: Mikey and Nicky’s very confusing friendship. Boomer, did you enjoy the film’s simplicity or did you find it to be boring?

Boomer: I’ve always been a big fan of “small” films, by which I mean movies that focus on the relationship between a minimal group of characters and which play out more like a stage play than big sweeping epics (although I love those too). Part of this could be borne out of my theatre background, but it more likely comes from having watched so many episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in my youth; in those early days of television, newly minted screenwriters seemed to still be stuck in a very “stage” mindset, usually writing scripts for no more than three major characters and confining the action to one set. Serendipitously, just a few nights before watching Mikey and Nicky, my roommate (coincidentally also named Nicky) and I watched a 1961 episode of AHP, “Gratitude,” starring a thirty-four-year-old Peter Falk as a gangster who is terrified of being killed by his rivals for potentially exposing their casino ring to wider police scrutiny. I’ve never really thought of Falk as typecast, but it sure is a fascinating alignment of coincidence that he played the Nicky role therein.

As such, I really did enjoy the intimate focus on these two men and their deteriorating relationship as May traced their dialogue-heavy path across the New York that exists only at night and only in the past. The film is essentially a play in motion, tracking Mikey and Nicky from one set piece to the next but not being predicated on the need for that movement; I could easily see this being adapted for the stage, with most of the discussion and conversation playing out in the relative safety of Nicky’s hotel room. The film draws you into the intimacy of the title characters’ relationship long before the rug is pulled out from beneath you with the revelation of Mikey’s true motivations, and most narratives (especially those on Alfred Hitchcock Presents) would be satisfied to reveal this twist and skip right to the violent ending, but Elaine May lets us continue on with this knowledge as the film tracks towards its sorrowful, if inevitable, conclusion.

Brandon mentioned Tangerine as a companion piece above, but this felt to me more like an inverted Girl Walk//All Day, in the sense that the latter film is a casual, daylit, dialogue-free feel-gooder that expresses itself through fluid and expressive motion and color, the opposite of Mikey and Nicky‘s languid (and stumbling) trek through the dark, in which the plot is driven largely by conversation, reminiscence, and old grudges. Both even have revelatory scenes in graveyards! This flick’s your pick, Alli, and we covered GW//AD before we were fortunate enough to have you join us. If you have seen that film, do you agree that it would serve as a decent counterpoint to M&N? What other films do you think would serve as thematically or narratively companions to this one, if you were to program such an all-night double feature?

Alli: I just watched Girl Walk//All Day, and I think it’s definitely got a lot of similarities, like you said with the graveyard, and it shows a lot of New York, but the New New York. It’s not the hazy grimy 70’s New York. It’s the glowing Times Square, people coming and going New York. If you were to take The Girl, The Gentleman, and The Creep and transport them to 70’s New York, especially the New York of Mikey and Nicky, they’d stick out like a sore thumb and probably get mugged. Another companion piece with a similar tone as GW//AD–I know this isn’t a film, but there’s an episode of Broad City where Abbi looses her phone, and she has to run around New York in search of it. It’s got the chase aspect, but it’s more about friendship than betrayal. It also has the added bonus of two lead actors with amazing chemistry together.

As far as actual movies go, I think Wings of Desire would be a good double feature with thisand not just because Peter Faulk is also in it. It’s something about the wandering through Berlin as these two angels try and figure it all out. West Berlin looks as decaying as New York City in the 70’s. It’s also a movie that was shot with a minimalist script and a lot of improvisation. Of course, Wings of Desire was heavily praised and award-winning, while Mikey and Nicky fell into obscurity.

I know part of why it fell into obscurity was due to legal battles and distribution issues, but it still puzzles me. It’s a beautiful movie. It’s also just as much ahead of its time as it is a time capsule of a dark and gritty era of New York history. On top of all of that, it’s really quotable. One of my favorite lines in all of cinema is, “You make us sound like a couple of cemetery freaks.”  I think it should stand out more. And I hate to say that it might be due to having a woman director, especially when I know about all the release problems, but I think it’s definitely a contributing factor. After all, Apocalypse Now suffered similar production problems with a much, much higher budget, and is now regarded one of the best films ever.

Brandon, do you think gender bias had an affect or is this just a case of a small movie not finding its audience? Like you said before, this is the first film by a female director for Movie of the Month. I think that’s pretty representative of the state of gender in filmmaking.

Brandon: That’s a difficult question to answer definitively. Gender bias is an issue that gets its nasty little fingerprints on everything, so it obviously has a huge effect on what films are being made, seen, and properly canonized, just like it effects nearly every other aspect of life. On the one hand, I remain thoroughly embarrassed that I had not been paying attention to highlighting female-directed films through the tiny critical platform we have here in these Movie of the Month discussions. On the other hand, the source of that problem is deeply rooted in the film industry as a system & an institution. According to this piece in the Hollywood Reporter, “Women comprised just 7 percent of all directors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films in 2016.” 7 percent. I can’t imagine the numbers were any better when May was working back in the macho days of the 1970s or any other time in cinema history (2016 actually saw a significant dip from 2015’s barely-better 9 percent; thing’s aren’t consistently “getting better”) and that long-standing under-representation behind the camera is a huge blow to the kinds of voices we get exposed to as an audience.

Hollywood is simply not giving enough women (or anyone who’s not a white dude, more broadly) the opportunity to produce well-funded, well-distributed, well-promoted media, which means that when we’re making selections for conversations like these it’s important to pay attention to who we’re representing. That can mean taking extreme measures like critic Mayra E. Gates’s recent A Year With Women project, where she decided to only watch female-directed films for an entire year. It can also mean taking less drastic actions like the 52 Films by Women pledge, which only asks that you watch one film a week directed by a woman over the course of a year. I decided to take the 52 Films by Women pledge myself this year after embarrassingly realizing I watched less than 40 female-directed films in 2016, a pathetically low number considering the rate of my pop culture intake. The point of the pledge is to pay attention to who’s making the media you’re consuming and to go out of your way to seek out the filmmakers Hollywood is systemically underserving.

The question is how to reconcile that context with Elaine May’s reputation as a director. Based on Mikey and Nicky alone, May is a bold stylist who’s grimy vision of New York City rivals the likes of Scorsese, Ferrara, De Palma, and Friedkin in its palpable sense of danger & fearless desperation. Yet, her name is rarely championed among those contemporary New Hollywood rebels. May’s roots are as a comedy writer/performer alongside longtime creative partner Mike Nichols, yet Nichols managed to direct twenty feature films while May only completed four (despite enjoying a long life as a screenwriter, often uncredited). According to common wisdom, this is because May was difficult to work with and ineffective in keeping films on budget & efficiently produced. Of her four feature films, only one was a certifiable, profitable hit. The other three, Mikey and Nicky included, were all two-times over budget, delayed for endless months in the editing room, and dead on arrival at the box office. All three.

In his My World of Flops piece on the Warren Beatty comedy Ishtar, May’s most infamous and most expensive flop, critic Nathan Rabin writes, “Comic genius Elaine may has led a schizophrenic existence as both an in demand script doctor and a ferociously independent, obsessive überauteur who would rather feed her children to wolves than to let a script doctor (or studio head) tinker with her vision. […] May embodied ‘box office poison.’ She should have been unemployable as a director. She was letigious. She was expensive. She was difficult. She viewed studios as enemies rather than collaborators or benefactors. From a commercial perspective, investing in an Elaine May film made only slightly more sense than purchasing magic beans or building a bonfire out of one-hundred dollar bills.”

I honestly don’t know how to negotiate those two sides of Elaine May’s financial and critical downfall. Many male directors have been given 2nd, 3rd, and 4th chances to deliver a winning picture after falling on their face, so I’m willing to chalk up at least some of her professional missteps to having to be combative with movie studios who never really had her back. Her reputation as a “control freak” and a perfectionist sounds a little ridiculous when you consider the opportunity and patience afforded people like James Cameron and David O’Russell, who also often push the limits of reasonable on-set behavior. I can’t say for sure if her films weren’t hits because they weren’t properly promoted after her less than harmonious relationships with movie studio execs soured their willingness to give her the benefit of the doubt, or if those execs (and audiences) never gave her a proper chance from day one. The truth, of course, is probably a combination of all of these factors, including both May’s personal failings as a businesswoman and the culture’s failings of women in general. It’s a depressing mess of missed opportunities and unprofessional behavior in which gender bias certainly played some sort of a role, if not a large one.

The one aspect of Elaine May’s professional downfall that really fascinates me is the idea that she would shoot way too much footage and then, as they say, slowly “find the film in the editing room,” post-production. This filmmaking style is so much more common now in the digital era, due to the lowered production cost of not shooting on physical film, and I’m wondering if her approach to the craft was just a few decades ahead of her time. Britnee, based on Mikey and Nicky & May’s reputation, is there a type or genre of film you would’ve liked to see Elaine May direct in this style, if she were afforded an unlimited budget and no restrictions on the amount of film she could shoot? Would you want to see her to go big in a large-scale production or does the small-scale nature of Mikey and Nicky seem like the perfect fit for her talents?

Britnee: I would love to see May direct a horror film. Mikey and Nicky was a pretty dark movie, but the story alone isn’t what made the film so disturbing; it’s May’s style of directing. It’s so haunting.  The uncomfortable silence, the tense yet mysterious relationship between the two main characters, and all the creepy distant camera shots from Mikey and Nicky makes me feel as though May would do an amazing job directing a horror movie that’s told through the eyes of a serial killer. She has the ability to make the audience feel like they’re lurking, so she is more than capable of creating a movie that would basically force viewers to be in the mind of a killer. Big budget movies don’t suite her style, but she would definitely be a badass low-budget horror film queen. I can’t help but imagine her directing a movie called something like Through the Eyes of Jeffrey Dahmer. Horror was definitely something she should have dabbled into, but unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like she would’ve ever had the chance because of all the shitheads in Hollywood.

Speaking of horror and death, I’ve been thinking a bit about Mikey’s assistance in Nicky’s death. He knew that Nicky was ultimately going to be “sleeping with the fishes,” so I’m having a hard time trying to figure out why he put himself through the pain of spending the night with him while helping the mob hunt him down. Mikey was so concerned with Nicky’s stomach ulcer and keeping him alive in the beginning of the film, but I’m not 100% sure what his intentions were.

Boomer, do you think Mikey kept Nicky alive to please the mob and save his own ass? Did he not let the stomach ulcer kill him because he couldn’t physically watch his friend die?

Boomer:  I think that his lifelong friendship with Nicky probably has a lot to do with Mikey’s attitude. One of the elements that really stood out to me was the early scene in the coffee shop, especially in retrospect. Before we learn the true nature of Mikey’s investment in getting Nicky out of the hotel (in a great reveal, by the way; I don’t think I’ve ever been as emotionally sucker-punched as I was in that scene where the phone starts ringing in the bar and the audience connects that Mikey and Ned Beatty’s assassin Kinney are in cahoots), the scene feels like a strong demonstration of Mikey’s friendship, showing that he will act outside of his pleasant and avuncular demeanor in order to take care of his dear friend. When we find out that he really wants to “take care” of him, this violent outburst becomes much more disturbing in retrospect, as it shows the menace lurking beneath the kindly façade, ready to burst forth at any time. It’s startlingly effective on both the first watch and the second, but for different reasons.

There’s an old folk story that I heard in my youth about a man who, for whatever reason, was forced to cut the tail off of his pet monkey. Rationalizing that cutting off the whole tail all at once would be too cruel, the man decides to slice off a mere inch at a time, ending up causing the monkey far more injury than if he had simply cut the whole tail off at once. In the end, Mikey is that man, as he acts as the Judas to Nicky’s shitty Christ figure, hurting him more in the long run than if he had simply taken care of business himself.

There is certainly something to be said for the ties that bind adults who were friends(?) in childhood. Although his behavior towards Mikey and everyone who crosses their path is reprehensible, Nicky is fundamentally sympathetic in that we as an audience feel empathy toward him with regards to his very real anxiety. Further, the way that Mikey trails him across the city with ulterior motives speaks to a deeply human paranoia that the people that we care for and who seem to care about us could be hiding their true feelings and intentions. On the other hand, the bullied child in all of us can recognize the complexity of sentiment one must have for a lifelong companion who is both friend and tormentor, and though we can detest Mikey for his involvement in Nicky’s ultimate fate, our sympathies lie with him also. As such, I don’t think Mikey was keeping Nicky alive to please the mob, but he might have been doing so in order to attempt to save himself on a emotional or spiritual level. Killing wiseguys is just part of the business, and he doesn’t have much of a choice in his participation in the Passion of Nicky, but he feels that if he can lessen that suffering, even a little, it will help calm the disquiet in his soul. He can’t escape it, however, as is made manifest in the film’s final moments, when his sins literally follow him all the way home.

Lagniappe

Alli: I like all the different backgrounds and settings in this movie. They all have such a unique vibe and atmosphere. The bare bones diner feels like it’s a whole world apart from Nellie’s beautiful apartment, and even more so the cemetery. It’s almost like we’re watching Nicky’s​ life flash before his eyes, each place being a separate chapter.

Britnee: I thought it was strange how calm Mikey’s wife, Annie, was throughout the film. She doesn’t have much screen time, but she is in no way the typical mob wife (I can’t help but think of my girl Big Ang). She’s so calm and collected while obviously knowing what her husband is up to. Props to her.

Boomer: There’s something deeply sad in Falk’s performance that just would not have been present in another performer. He’s not as attractive as Cassavetes, and his humble looks and charm are in great form here against the other man’s performative hedonism. Unlike the gadabout Nicky, who has a wife but can’t keep her because of his personal flaws, Mikey’s wife seems to genuinely love him, and Mikey’s darkest moment in the film comes when he tries to be Nicky and sleep with another woman. The film’s saddest moment comes when Mikey feels inferior to Nicky, plaintively and furtively seeking the approval of his bosses while reflecting on Nicky’s statements about how they really feel about him. There’s a great parallelism going on there, with Nicky telling Mikey about another party’s ulterior motives while Mikey hides his own secrets from Nicky.

Brandon: I’d like to again encourage people to consider taking the 52 Films by Women pledge. It’s not at all a difficult quota to fulfill once you actually pay attention to what you’re watching. I’ve had a lot of fun taking the pledge myself so far this year, a journey I’ve been documenting in this Letterboxd list if you’re looking for a few titles to get your own pledge started. Secondly, I’d encourage you to buy a copy of Nathan Rabin’s My World of Flops book (or borrow one from the library), which includes a much more expansive piece on Ishtar than the one I linked above (and it’s the version I was actually quoting). It’s not only worth it for the Elaine May musings. Rabin’s my favorite living critic and the entire book is a shining example of the kind of open-minded, empathetic criticism I try to emulate on this site. (He liked Ishtar a lot more than that isolated pull-quote may have implied.)

Upcoming Movies of the Month
June: Brandon presents Cool As Ice (1991)
July: Britnee presents Something Wicked this Way Comes (1983)
August: Boomer presents The Psychic (1977)

-The Swampflix Crew

Movie of the Month: What’s Up, Doc? (1972)

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 Britnee made Alli, Boomer, and Brandon watch What’s Up, Doc? (1972).

Britnee: As far as screwball, madcap comedies go, Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 film, What’s Up, Doc? is up there with the greats. It’s also, in my opinion, the greatest Barbra Streisand film of all time. Yes, it’s even better than Yentl. Streisand was quite the “funny lady” from the late 1960’s through the 1970’s, and Judy Maxwell is by far one of her most hilarious roles. The film also stars a young Ryan O’Neal, who is Judy’s depressed and confused love interest, Dr. Howard Bannister. Both leading characters have such conflicting personalities: Judy is a free-spirit who gets off on starting trouble between strangers, and Howard is a walking zombie in an unhealthy relationship. There’s not much romantic chemistry between the two, but they are a great comedy duo.

The main plot of the film revolves around a mix-up between several identical bags that belong to completely different individuals that are staying at the same hotel in San Franscicso (Bristol Hotel). The bag mix-up is so confusing that it’s almost impossible to explain, but in all honesty, the whole film is confusing because there are loads of plot lines occurring at the same time. I’ve seen this movie at least 30 times, and I didn’t really put all the pieces together until about the 5th viewing. Strangely enough, the confusion of the film is one of the things I love most about it. You could watch What’s Up, Doc? over and over again without getting bored. There’s always something different to focus on.

Actually, after watching it for Movie of the Month, I realized how horrible Madeline Kahn’s character, Eunice Burns, was treated. Seriously, this poor woman was put through hell for this entire movie, and she’s made to look like the bad guy. She’s Howard’s fiancé, and while the two aren’t in the best relationship, Judy randomly swoops into their lives and basically steals Eunice’s identity. After Eunice is made a fool of in front of an entire banquet of people, kidnapped and most likely assaulted by a group of mobsters, etc., it’s difficult to see her as the annoying fiancé she’s portrayed to be.

Boomer, what are your thoughts on the real Eunice Burns? Did you feel any sympathy towards her? Did you feel as though she was portrayed to be a villain when she was actually a victim?

Boomer: I didn’t realize that the audience was supposed to see Eunice as unattractive until the end, when the Judge responded to Eunice’s complaints that she had been inappropriately touched by the jewel fences with “That’s . . . unbelievable.” Because, I mean, come on, Khan’s a knock-out. That unusual perception is not unique to her character, however, as Ryan O’Neal is probably the most tan, studly, and barrel-chested hunk of man to ever play a milquetoast Iowan academic.

As to whether she’s made out to be a villain or a victim, I’m less sure. It’s unusual for me to sympathize with a character like Judy, a kind of proto-Manic Pixie Dream Girl who also happens to be a whirlwind of disaster, but Streisand plays her with enough aplomb and likability that Judy comes off as charming. This was a bit of a surprise for me, as someone who only really thinks of Streisand as a face on a CD cover in a stack of albums sitting next to the stereo of a deeply closeted Baton Rouge hair stylist (you know who you are). I also have nothing but love for Khan, and as such I think I might have been more inclined to sympathize with her than the producers intended, given that she was a complete unknown cast as the romantic rival to the more well-known Streisand. Eunice is certainly demanding and a poor match for Howard, but I read her as more of a Shakespearean archetype of a woman who appears to be a shrew only because of the character with whom she is paired but who will fit seamlessly with someone else, which is essentially exactly what happened with her arc.

So, I suppose I didn’t find her to be a villain or even presented as one, nor did I find Judy to be a “bad guy” either, even though her entire story resolves around falling for an engaged man and doing everything in her power to subvert Eunice in her “rightful” place as Howard’s lady love. I can’t even quite put my finger on it, but there’s something about Judy that makes her eminently likable despite her objective villainy. Alli, did you feel the same way, or not? If you agree, perhaps you’re better able to articulate why?

Alli: I also liked Judy against my better judgement. She’s entitled, disrespectful, and dangerous, but somehow still endearing. Probably because she’s free and she’s got a great sense of humor, which is able to shine through because of her stunted, immature nature. I think the thing about Judy isn’t that she’s a villain so much as she’s just chaotic, and there’s something charming about chaos. Reasonable people would never rip around the town impulsively, but we all have flashes of that instinct. Judy is the embodiment of that instinct, free from society’s pretensions and facades.

A major theme here is sort of a clash between absolute chaos and rigid order, the inner child vs “propriety.” Not to get too pretentious here, but this movie almost seems to be about the old debate over “the state of nature” vs society and reason. Eunice is order, “reason,” Judy obviously pandemonium, “savagery,” and Howard is the neutral ground that they’re fighting over. But at its heart What’s Up, Doc? is a wacky, briefcase switching comedy and I doubt that the intent was a debate about the true nature of humanity and society. It’s hard to take away any serious dramatic themes in a movie this cartoonishly bizarre.

The world it’s set in, while relatively realistic, is simultaneously surreal. There’s exaggerated sound effects, slapstick, and just a general bending of rules. One of my favorite examples of this is when they’re at the banquet underneath the table and Eunice gets dragged away, leaving skid marks and squeaking. Brandon, did any moments to you stand out as particularly cartoonish? Do you have a favorite?

Brandon: If nothing else, “cartoonish” is such a perfect word to describe what Barbara Streisand’s doing in this movie as Judy. At this early, most successful stage of Peter Bogdanovich’s career, the director scored a string of hits dripping with nostalgia for the cinema of his youth, with What’s Up, Doc? being sandwiched between fellow classics The Last Picture Show & Paper Moon. The interesting thing to me about What’s Up, Doc? that distinguishes it from those other two films is that it not only calls back to madcap mix-up comedies of the 1930s, which are traditionally staged at these grand hotels, but it also pulls influence from a much more unexpected source: Looney Tunes. Judy’s role as a benign source of comedic chaos is 100% Bugs Bunny tomfoolery and the film winds up feeling just as much equal parts Tex Avery as Bringing Up Baby. It makes this influence as explicit as possible too, with one of Judy’s first comedic moments being staged around her eating a carrot and her final exchange with her hunky Elmer Fudd (Ryan O’Neal) including the titular line, “What’s up, Doc?” The film even closes out with Porky Pig stuttering his way through “That’s all, folks!” on an airplane television. So, yeah, while we might not want Judy mucking up our lives with her literally cartoonish antics, it’s easy to see why we wouldn’t find her any more villainous than Bugs Bunny or his obvious source of inspiration, Groucho Marx.

Bogdanovich’s choice to bring in the surreal slapstick of Looney Tunes to disrupt the relatively realistic world of traditionalist screwball comedy was a brilliant move, mostly because screwball comedies are already pretty damn cartoonish in their own right. Although I found Babs’s Bugs Bunny antics as Judy to be a large part of the movie’s charm, she actually had very little involvement in my favorite gag from the film. There’s a scene about midway through What’s Up, Doc? where Howard is trying to hide Judy’s presence in his hotel room from Eunice by asking her to hang perilously off the balcony. The combination of Eunice’s interrogation, Judy’s demands to re-enter the room, other guests frantically trying to steal their desired variation of the identical luggage, and a waiter calmly preparing a meal Judy ordered as room service reaches a comedic fever pitch where Howard’s hotel room is destroyed in a fire, a moment that had me howling. Now, this visual punchline is much more closely tied to the film’s 1930s screwball roots than anything related to its cartoonish surrealism, but it’s also so absurdly over the top in its gradual escalation that it’s a great insight into why those two aesthetics were so easy to marry into one humorous feature.

Something that felt a little less natural & easy to me were the motivations for the two sides of that coin. Judy’s motivation for pursuing Howard as a romantic partner is a little muddled for most of the picture. Her instant attraction to him is oddly intense, making it unclear whether she’s genuinely into seducing him or if she’s just an opportunist who needs a place to stay and is having fun toying with a milquetoast, but handsome pushover in the meantime. The engine that drives the screwball humor was also a little confusing, as the identical cases of luggage (one containing diamonds, one containing Top Secret government documents, and one containing, I don’t know, more carrots for Judy to chew on like a cigar) were difficult to keep track of. Some of that confusion was obviously deliberate, but it didn’t help at all that the two thieves attempting to steal the luggage were both bald schlubs I couldn’t really tell apart because the film was far more interested in the machinations of the Judy-Howard-Eunice love triangle (and rightly so).

Britnee, considering that you selected the tonally similar, hotel-set 1930s throwback comedy Big Business for a Movie of the Month last year, it seems that you’re somewhat of a fan of this kind of Old Hollywood madcap humor. For you, does the exact, clear status of who’s in possession of which bag at what time and who’s trying to steal what from whom matter at all in these kinds of stories? Without the luggage mix-up and the thieves that follow, there’d be less people involved in this film’s insane, climactic car chase through the streets of San Francisco, which would definitely be a shame. Do the mix-up or the motivations of the romance need to be any more clear or necessary than that for you to find them worthwhile or is it enough that they provide a backdrop for the comedic antics of a Barbara Streisand or a Better Midler or whoever the particular film’s de facto Bugs Bunny/Groucho Marx happens to be?

Britnee: It’s never dawned on me until now that I have a thing for hotel comedies. Just yesterday, I recommended Four Rooms to a friend as a fun weekend movie. There’s just something hilarious about hotel settings, and I really think it has a lot to do with the gaudiness of hotels. All that brass, ridiculous patterned carpet, and over-the-top chandeliers are just oozing with tackiness, making it the perfect background for a comedy. Hotels are also perfect for a trashy murder mystery for the same reason (1972’s Private Parts particularly comes to mind).

As for the mystery of the bag mix-up, finding out if each bag makes it back to their owner doesn’t really matter. It’s strange because I usually find satisfaction watching belongings find their way back to their owner in a film, but I honestly could not have cared less if Judy ended up losing her underwear and became stuck with top secret documents or if Howard lost his rocks and ended up with a buttload of fancy jewels. It doesn’t really matter because the humor would still be there. The same goes with the romance between Judy and Howard. Who cares if they end up getting together in the end? The comedy wouldn’t suffer if they didn’t get together, and that’s really all that matters in films like this one. If the romance and bag mix-up were to be stripped away from What’s Up, Doc? without taking away the funny characters, shenanigans, and of course, the comedy of Streisand, the film wouldn’t suffer one bit.

Although the romance and bag mix-up are not very important to the film’s success, the San Fransisco setting is. The car chase throughout the city’s steep streets (especially Lombard Street), the run-in with the Chinese dragon during the Chinatown parade, and the cars running off the pier are just a few funny moments that wouldn’t be the same if the film wasn’t set in San Fransisco.

Boomer, do you think that the film’s San Fransisco setting was important? Would any other location have made a big difference in the film?

Boomer: I have to admit that I didn’t give much thought to the film’s setting initially. When the climactic show-stopping car chase began, I thought “Oh, it’s in San Francisco because of Bullit.” That film likewise centers around a final car chase through the famously hilly city, and I assumed that Bogdanovich had merely been inspired to make a more comedic version of said vehicular pursuit. Reading a little more about the film, it looks like that was, in fact, the reasoning: this homage is merely one of many that occur in the film, and as it relates to a contemporary piece of pop culture that is less well-known than some of the older (but more culturally revered and thus more “permanent” fixtures in our cultural landscape) references, like to Looney Tunes. For instance, there was an ad that touted the VW Bug’s real ability to float in water, as seen at the end of the film when Howard and Judy launch into the bay; the reference was more pertinent and familiar in its day, but still works as a sight gag even without that knowledge.

Of course, the placement of the film in San Francisco also allowed for some nice touches that would have been lacking had the film been set elsewhere, like New York or Los Angeles (i.e. the two places where probably 85% of American media is set). The scene with the Chinese New Year parade, and the resultant accidental theft of the parade’s crafted dragon, could only take place in SF, for instance. As noted above, the hills of the city make for a particularly interesting place for car chases, here used as they had been in Bullitt, to more comedic–if no less thrilling–effect. Larrabee himself is distinctively West Coast in that his mannerisms are unconventional and excited; he rolls with the punches. One could even argue that, since his personality clashes so strongly with the unlikable (but no less comically delightful) Hugh Simon, and since that character is a parody of New York’s most unpleasable (and most unpleasant) critic John Simon, a criticism of this artistic and individual dissonance between East and West Coast is made implicit in the text.

There’s a scene in one of the early episodes of Scream Queens in which a character is breaking into an office and uses a glass cutter to cut a hole in the in-door window, through which they attempt to reach in and unlock the door; after a protracted time of s-l-o-w-l-y cutting, the character reaches through, and the glass shatters. Every time I see it, I have to rewind because of how hard I’m laughing. It’s a great sight gag, and the build-up is great; it’s just so pure. It’s one of the best jokes in the whole series, and is inarguably the best non-quip laugh the show elicits. The two-men-carrying-a-pane-of-glass gag in What’s Up Doc? is similar but writ large, and is the best such visual joke I’ve ever seen. Alli, can you think of any other contenders for the top version of the TMCAPOG gag? And could you better put into words why this version of the cliché works so well?

Alli: I’m going to have to come clean here and say that while that gag is in everyone’s mind and feels so pervasive in popular culture this might be the only time I’ve actually seen it used in context. (It makes me wonder where it even came from and why we all know it.) Given it’s prevalence and predictability (there’s a sheet of glass therefore it will shatter inevitably), it’s impressive that What’s Up, Doc? manages to still make it so funny. The problem with this movie and its humor is that it’s very difficult to try to explain what is so funny about it. There’s so many old gags and silly one liners, but they just work. I think maybe it has to do with the pacing. It’s just spitfire. There’s just joke after joke, so if one doesn’t land the next one probably will.

Not to use the played out, “They don’t make them like they used to,” but you don’t see a lot of this sense of humor in movies anymore and I miss it. The jokes are so carefree and for the most part inoffensive, minus the jabs at Eunice. Probably why I’ve never actually seen the sheet of glass gag in action is because it’s not used as much anymore. When’s the last time a movie had an earnest pie in the face? A lot of comedy these days seems to rely on crude, gross, or vulgar humor. I don’t really have a problem with tastes changing, but there’s such a timelessness and charm to so many of the gags in this film.

Brandon, you mentioned the nostalgia aspect of What’s Up, Doc? Do you think more movies could benefit from more of the nostalgic impulse? Have you seen any recent comedies that remind you of this one in any way?

Brandon: It’d probably be a little foolish to ask for more nostalgia in our current pop culture climate, but I do believe revision & tradition has been a part of cinema as long as cinema has been around. Current comedies seem to be looking back to the absurdist gross-out humor directors would have enjoyed in their 80s & 90s youth, just as Bogdanovich would have been fondly looking back to Marx Brothers/Bringing Up Baby-type hotel mix-ups when he made What’s Up Doc? in the 1970s. I don’t think the classic screwball tradition is at all dead, though. It’s just moved away from broad, commercial films to what we’d be more likely to consider “smart” comedies. Filmmakers like Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach, and the Coen Brothers all work in various forms of comedy that draw from the same influences as Bogdanovich (and likely from Bogdanovich himself as well), but dress up their screwball antics in enough meticulous visual craft & tonal melancholy that they’re considered “art house” instead of commercial humor.

For specific examples from the last decade, I suppose Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel would be a great reference point, considering its setting & ensemble cast structure. Baumbach collaborator Rebecca Miller’s recent film Maggie’s Plan also has a sort of screwball structure to it, including a mix-up at a hotel conference between emotionally immature academics. I’ve also recently watched the British ensemble comedy Death at a Funeral for the first time, which reminded me if this kind of old-fashioned comedic tradition in that all the attendees at what should be a quiet, civil event are trying to keep their goofball antics under wraps to not draw attention to themselves, only for it all to blow up spectacularly at the climax. The Coens’ recent triumph Hail, Caesar! also makes nods to the genre (along with every other Old Hollywood genre imaginable), right down to the convoluted luggage heist.

What distinguishes these comedies from the kinds of works that would be headlined by a Melissa McCarthy, a Seth Rogen, or a Kevin Hart is that they’re just more openly conscious of their participation in cinematic tradition. What’s Up, Doc?‘s spirit, borrowed wholesale from its own set of traditional works, is still alive in our current comedic landscape. Keeping it alive is in itself a kind of scholarly, traditionalist act, though, so the films where you’d hear its echoes are often considered to be stuffy, highbrow art films, despite being as absurdly goofy in tone as the genre originally was in the 1930s.

Lagniappe

Alli: I just want to say how much I liked this movie. Immediately after watching it, I ended up recommending it to people. I think it’s been a weird, rough month for a lot of us and it was good to unwind with something charming and hilarious. It was my first Barbara Streisand movie, and now I feel like I really need to watch more. 

Brandon: Of the handful of Barbara Streisand films I’ve seen, this is the only one I’d consider to be a strict comedy, so I wasn’t at all prepared for how little singing there’d be. I have a habit of picking up her movie soundtracks long before I actually see their corresponding films (Streisand vinyl is oddly ubiquitous at thrift stores), so now I have to wonder what a What’s Up, Doc? soundtrack would even be. Besides a brief duet with Ryan O’Neal on piano, I don’t remember any other musical numbers. Is this indicative of the way her comedies usually go? I’m curious to look into it.

Britnee:  The outfits in What’s Up, Doc? are absolutely amazing! I know that they blend in well with the fashion of the time, but of all the films I’ve seen that take place in the early 1970s, nothing compares to the costume design of What’s Up, Doc? Basically, I want to own everything in Judy’s closet, no offense to Eunice.

Boomer: I also noticed the similarity between this film and Big Business, with each film having a 20th Century Diva, a hotel setting with a sardonic and world-weary desk clerk, and shenanigans that come from mistaking identical people/bags. I thought Britnee was pulling a long con on us. Further, I also was annoyed by the lack of visual differentiation between Harry and Mr. Jones, as Brandon was, given that the other characters were much more distinct in appearance. Finally, depending upon how much you hate yourself, you can find John Simon’s hold-nothing-back blog here, or just enjoy this fun batch of excerpts.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
April: Boomer presents Head Over Heels (2001)
May: Alli presents Mikey and Nicky (1976)
June: Brandon presents Cool As Ice (1991)

-The Swampflix Crew

Movie of the Month: The Independent (2000)

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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 Brandon made Boomer, Britnee, and Erin watch The Independent (2000).

Brandon: I first was alerted to the low-stakes indie comedy The Independent this past summer when Britnee posted an article about how our former Movie of the Month Highway to Hell happened to feature every member of the Stiller family: Jerry, Ben, Anne (Mearea), and Amy. An observant Swampflix reader, Tom Morton, was kind enough to point us in the direction of yet another film that featured every member of the Stiller clan, The Independent. I fell in love. I gushed heavily in my review of the film & added it to the growing list of our so-called Swampflix Cannon after just one viewing, despite it being a fairly simple, straightforward comedy. Something about the subject matter just clicked perfectly with my own pet cinema obsessions, especially in the B-movie spectrum. In the film Jerry Stiller plays Morty Fineman, a Roger Corman archetype who’s made a career out of schilling an infinite stream of schlock for decades on end. Unlike Corman, who is generally calm on the surface but expressive in his filmmaking, Fineman is on the same violently explosive vibe Stiller brought to his role as Frank Constanza on Seinfeld. He also (for the most part) lacks Corman’s thirst for making art films, like The Masque of the Red Death, and sticks mostly to genre fare that’s main selling point is “tits, ass, and bombs”.

The great thing about this set-up is that Morty is not only a stand-in for Corman (who appears as himself within the film), but also fills the role of countless other legendary B-movie directors & producers: Ed Wood, Russ Meyer, David Friedman, etc. In other words, he is schlock personified. Morty Fineman is the entire B-movie industry wrapped up into one convenient, hilarious package. A lot of the soul of The Independent is in the brief clips & promotional material for Morty’s work. There’s a Meyer-esque sexploitation pic about an eco-friendly biker girl gang, a wonderful mushroom cloud pun mockup for a film called LSD-Day, a Fred Williamson-falls-in-love-with-a-sexy-robot blaxploitation called Foxy Chocolate Robot, and so on. These schlock spoofs are consistently funny & evenly spaced from beginning to end, supported only by the flimsiest of narrative glue about Fineman’s struggle in his old age to climb out of financial ruin either by filming a morally-reprehensible musical about a real-life serial killer or accepting a film festival gig in a shithole town he dubs “Blowjob, Nevada.”

At the time of its release, reviews of The Independent were mixed at best, but I honestly believe it was ahead of its time. If pitched in the current cultural climate, it would make for a knock-out HBO comedy series. Its mockumentary format, improv-based looseness, tendency towards one-off gags & celebrity cameos, and loveable reprobate of a protagonist would all play perfectly into the modern HBO comedy. It’s a wonderful little love-letter to the schlock movie industry that recognizes its faults (like the literally fatal risks of some of the less-than-safe sets) as much as its glorious heights. I’m not going to pretend to know the entirety of Jerry Stiller’s career, but I will say this is the best feature-length vehicle I’ve ever seen for his brand of comedy.

Boomer, do you think part of the reason audiences did not connect with The Independent when it was released 15 years ago was that there was too much focus on the one-off B-movie spoofs & not enough of a fully-fleshed narrative to support a full-length feature? Do you think that breaking up the spoofs into a weekly sketch comedy format would’ve benefited the story it was trying to tell or was the film satisfying enough as a self-contained, low-stakes tale of a struggling, past-his-prime director trying to keep his family & his business intact?

Boomer: When watching this movie, the thing that struck me most about it was, as you noted above, how ahead of its time it felt. Debuting a year before the original UK version of The Office, it was not the first mockumentary, but it was made during a time when the tropes and rhetorical shorthand methodologies of the genre were largely unknown by the general population. I’d wager that if The Independent were to have been made after the airings of Arrested Development and, to a much greater degree, the US version of The Office, then the film would have seen wider appeal. We live in a world full of sitcoms that use talking head confessionals as a quick and dirty way of telling jokes in a more succinct way, for better or worse, even when the show itself doesn’t lend itself to that (for instance, it works for The Office, and that show eventually incorporated the film crew as part of the action in its final season, but why exactly do the Dunphys and Pritchetts of Modern Family mug for–and talk directly to–the camera?). I think it’s safe to say that, should there be an interested producer looking for a project, a series adaptation of The Independent would not be out of place in today’s television landscape.

I’m hesitant to commit to watching this hypothetical series, however. So much of what makes The Independent work is that the film’s tone never becomes too sentimental or unfocused on Stiller’s objectively reprehensible but subjectively human protagonist, and I feel like a series, even a serialized, single season adaptation, would find itself going to the well of emotional pathos much more than the source material did. The quick shots we see of his films contribute to the sense of his character, and his films convey a great deal in their (relative) understatement, regardless of how outlandish the films themselves may be. I get the feeling that an adaptation would rapidly experience diminished returns as we saw more and more of his body of work, pushing beyond their initial humor into exponentially more outlandish film outings that would undermine the film’s taut use of this device. Der Ubergoober, Truckstop Nurses, and The Despot Removers are all film titles that are pure perfection in the abstract but wouldn’t work, or would disappoint, if we were presented with them on film (although I have to admit that I would love to see Hot Justice in Thirty Minutes or Less, and Rock ‘n’ Roll Golem sounds like a blast).

That the film is simply that, a film, works best for me personally. That we see Janeane Garofalo’s Paloma exact revenge on facsimiles of the cheerleaders who spurned her in less than thirty seconds of Cheerleader Camp Massacre, for instance, shows that the strength of The Independent lies in knowing what to expand and what to explore only briefly. Given contemporary television’s tendency to decompress storylines at the expense of consistency and viewer patience, as well as the general saturation of the mockumentary-as-comedy style, I feel like a series adaptation would be a letdown. As a concept, it was ahead of its time, and now that its time has come, it has no real place among its contemporary peers.

That having been said, there are quite a few of these films that I would love to see in full, especially with a little MST3k-esque riffing. What about you, Britnee? Are there any of Fineman’s movies that you would desperately like to see as real films? Any that you think are best left imagined rather than realized? And why?

Blombas: Without a doubt, I would love to see Whale of a Cop (1981) as a full-length film. From what the trailer implied, a cop, played by Ben Stiller, is the human form of a whale, and he has a close friendship with a 8-10 year old kid. Stiller makes all sorts of whale noises, and he even spits out water! In the trailer, the kid is having one of those shoo-the-dog goodbye moments. Stiller looks all dopey-eyed and confused while this kid is crying up a storm and yelling something along the lines of “go be with your own kind!” I was crying from laughing so hard during this scene. How did the spirit of a whale end up in the body of a cop? Why is this super young kid with a bowl cut his best friend? These are all questions that I am dying to have answered. Hopefully, they were both once whales, but the boy fully turned into a human while Stiller is only half human. The police department recruited him because his special whale senses were helpful with their criminal investigations.

Another film that sounds like a blast would be A Very Malcolm Xmas. It’s never discussed during the actual film, but the title is shown during the credits (along with the rest of Fineman’s filmography). As an admirer of Malcolm X, I would love to know how Fineman would blend his legacy with Christmas traditions. As a lover of bad films and just being a curious person in general, I can’t really think of any fake Fineman movies that I would not want to see as actual films.

Other than the many “fake” film trailers featured in the movie, something in the film that really stood out to me was the duo that is Jerry Stiller and Janeane Garofalo. The chemistry between the two was so unexpected but, by God, it was extraordinary. They both have such different styles of comedy, and I think that’s why they got so many laughs out of me.

Erin, did you feel the same about Garofalo and Stiller? Would you like to see the two act in similar roles again? Or was this more of a one time thing?

Erin: I have to say, seeing Janeane Garofalo as a fake-tanned daddy’s girl was a lot of fun, since I’m most familiar with her acidic side, a la Heather of Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion.  And Jerry Stiller is perfect as Morty Fineman.  After watching The Independent, it’s hard to imagine him as any other role (although, I suspect that Stiller’s acting talents often lie in adding quite a bit of himself to his roles).  I liked seeing Garofalo and Stiller playing off each other, and the were really, truly believable as adults navigating a parent-child relationship.  Oddly enough, though, I would have to say that while I would like to see more of Jerry Stiller in similar roles, I’m not sure that I’m sold on Garofalo in similar roles.  I think that it might be because Garofalo was acting against type that her performance in this movie comes off so well, and I think that this kind of magic might lose its luster if repeated too often.

To change the subject a bit, I think that one of the things that made this movie so watchable was the pacing, the way that little glimpses of the Fineman world were revealed in a way that eased us into the madness of it all.  I wouldn’t have accepted the immediate introduction of Fineman’s car-dwelling ex wife, even after the strangeness of the opening scene.  However, by the time we meet her, we’re fully prepared for the next wacky turn of events. The Independent takes us by the hand and leads us happily down the lane, and by the time we think to ask where we’re going we’ve left the real world behind.  It’s the skillful story telling that makes me think of The Independent as a filmmaker’s film, something made not necessarily to entertain the masses but turn the lens of film back on itself.

The Independent is like watching a home movie.  I think, perhaps, that this home movie is meant for filmmakers, to see themselves and their passions through the fiction of a movie.  It’s interesting to see how the filmmakers portray themselves here – confident, persistent, optimistic, and terrible to live with.

What do you think, Brandon?  Is The Independent a self portrait, meant for filmmakers?  Is is self-indulgent, or a surreal confessional asking for atonement?

Brandon: So far I’ve honestly only thought of this movie as a film for schlock junkies. Fans of the trash auteurs of yesteryear will find plenty to chew on in The Independent, especially in those short-form spoofs & Roger Corman interviews. I don’t think that descriptions excludes filmmakers from the intended audience, though. A lot of filmmakers, even the ones who make endless piles of garbage, are really at heart just big movie fans who can’t help but make the the things they love. For example, Morty Fineman didn’t make hundreds of movies on accident. He made it because them because he doesn’t know what else to do with himself. It’s in his blood. Also, because he liked “the tits, bombs, and ass,” as he confessed in the fabulous scene in his ex-wife’s house/car Erin just mentioned.

Something I always wonder about directors like Roger Corman & Morty Fineman is whether or not they ever have time to actually watch movies for fun. In the documentary Corman’s World (which is required viewing, by the way) Corman recalls an anecdote where he was running almost a dozen simultaneous film production. When his wife asked him if he could actually name them all from memory, he could only recite the titles of all but two & then said something to the effect of, “Well, whatever the rest are, I’m going to cancel them in the morning.” Folks like Fineman & Corman are constantly swamped with shooting schedules & issues of financial backing, but their work is obviously influenced by the cinematic world surrounding them, so they somehow have to be watching movies in their leisure time. For instance, Fineman’s lost herpes PSA film The Simplex Complex was a spoof of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Corman’s production of Joe Dante’s Pihranna was a thinly veiled response to Spiendberg’s Jaws (which, in turn, was heavily influenced by Corman’s own creature feature work). I have no idea how an over-productive schlock director could find the time to keep up with their contemporaries that way, given the near impossible weight of their workloads.

To bring it home to Erin’s question, if this film were made with any particular filmmaker in mind it’d be Roger Corman, but would he even have had time to watch it? Even his contributions as an extended cameo seemed to be brief & succinct, probably shot on a break between a dozen other projects. It’s interesting to think of a what a Fineman-esque schlockmeister would get out of The Independent, considering the film’s admiration of their work & acknowledgement of their sleaziness, but I’m not sure they’d ever have the time to engage with it in that way. Did Corman ever sit down to watch this movie even though he appears in it? I’m curious, but doubtful.

It seems that The Independent‘s best chance for a cult audience is in comedy nerds who enjoy a Christopher Guest-style mockumentaries & weirdo sketch comedy and in schlock junkies who genuinely love bad movies as an art form, even beyond the MST3k brand of sarcastic derision. My question is whether or not you’d have to exist in the overlap of that Venn diagram to enjoy the film for all it’s worth. It’s obviously difficult for me to discuss The Independent without droning on about folks like Roger Corman & Russ Meyer, so I’m wondering if someone without that sense of B-movie context would get the same kind of appreciation of the movie’s insular little world of shoddy filmmaking.

What do you think, Mark? Is familiarity with the world of folks like Roger Corman necessary for loving this film beyond a tossed off “That was pretty funny, I guess.”? Is being a fan of irreverent comedy enough to fully appreciate The Independent or do you also have to be a little bit of a B-movie nerd to get on its wavelength?

Boomer: It’s interesting to me that you mention Christopher Guest, especially since his movies were the first point of contact I thought of when viewing The Independent, not Roger Corman, despite Corman’s cameo in the film’s opening moments. There’s a fine line tread here between the kind of zealous schlock that characterizes Corman’s work and the nuanced character work that typifies Guest’s. To be honest, I think that an appreciation for the kind of work that Guest does may be more integral to the overall enjoyment of The Independent as a movie than an appreciation for Corman and his ilk. Guest’s films generally feature a mixture of understatedly human emotions acted out by larger-than-life characters in situations that are incredibly idiosyncratic, be it a high-stakes dog show or a folk music reunion concert. The characters that populate the faux-documentary, especially but not limited to Morty, his assistant, and Paloma, are very much Guest-type people.

Of course, the prevalence of Corman-esque style in Morty’s works themselves can’t be ignored, either. Morty is Corman as a Guest character, and it works very, very well. It’s not hard to imagine Corman creating a film like Bald Justice, and a line like “You’re gonna like Leavenworth; they’ve got a great barber,” could have flowed from his pen just as easily as it did from Stephen Kessler and Mike Wilkins’s. Overall, though, I think it would be easier to enjoy the movie if you knew Guest but not Corman, rather than Corman but not Guest, simply given the fact that the homages to Corman, while pitch perfect and hilarious, don’t carry the weight of the narrative in and of themselves.

I would love to see more films of this type. Maybe a satirical slasher film that centered around a Hitchcock type, or a desert island survival story wherein all the characters are the stars of a seventies sci-fi show reunited for a convention cruise that goes awry. Or, of course, more mockumentaries about eccentric artists who are secretly self-deluded hacks. What about you, Britnee? How would you adapt this format into a personal instant classic?

Britnee: I’ve always wished and hoped for someone to make a John Waters biopic that would depict his work with the Dreamlanders crew. Could you imagine such a treat? So when thinking about what sort of film I would like to see in the style of The Independent, I would love to see a film that follows the journey of a Waters-like director and his band of misfits. The crew would travel the country creating snuff films in small, all-American towns. They would have a cult following of all ages willing to “die for art.” If anyone with the connections and resources ever reads this, please, oh please, make this happen.

Come to think of it, there really aren’t enough films that focus on the careers of movie directors, and they have one of the most interesting jobs on the planet! When director roles are featured in films, they are usually portrayed in a negative way. Most of the time, they’re sleazy douchebags that promise cast members leading roles in exchange for sex. It was nice to see a director portrayed in a positive light in The Independent. Morty has so much passion for filmmaking, and he truly loved all 400+ of his terrible b-movies. What an inspiration!

Going back to the discussing the film’s unique style, I don’t think it would be as enjoyable if it were anything other than a mockumentary. Erin, if The Independent was not filmed as a mocumentary, but was still a comedy, do you think it would still be as likeable? Why or why not?

Erin: Interesting question, Britnee!  I agree with you.  The mocumentary style of The Independent is an important part of its charm.  It allows for Morty’s character to be portrayed as humanly as possible.

That’s where I connected most with The Independent, with its portrayal of humanity.  The hyperbole used in the storytelling lets the actors tell a deeply human story about the the struggle to balance the compulsion to create and live according to one’s own heart against the very real impact that every human has on those around him or her.
As fluffy and ridiculous as The Independent is, there are moments of genuine pathos and discomfort.  Those moments, in a way, make the movie. They use of comic relief and exaggeration to tell real truths about the human condition is one of our best introspective tools as a species.

Lagniappe

Erin:I really, really want to see Whale of Cop brought to fruition.  There’s no shame in that game.

Britnee: I’m so glad to know that there’s another film other than Highway to Hell that involves all members of the Stiller clan. I have to say, I really wish there was more Rita (Anne Meara)!  Rita (Morty’s ex-wife that lives in a luxury car) was probably my favorite character in the film, but she was definitely not given enough screen time.

Boomer: Rita was definitely a character that I would have loved to see more of, especially with regards to her relationship with her eternally devoted doorman/chauffeur/lover. I also really loved the moment of footage we saw of Rat Fuck; it was such a great, minimal joke. In my notes from watching the film, I noted that Christ for the Defense reminded me, at least visually, of Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter, which never came up organically in this discussion but which I think bears mentioning, if anyone feels like watching a movie that Morty may as well have directed.

Brandon: When started doing Movie of the Month Swampchats this past February I joked that the cold weather was making us a depressed bunch. The first few movies we discussed (The Masque of the Red Death, The Seventh Seal, Blood & Black Lace, etc) were a morbid procession of death & pestilence. I’m glad to say we pulled out of the funk in the past few months & started having some fun with a few comedies & even a kids’ movie, but it’s also remarkable how the year came full circle, beginning & ending with Roger Corman, who directed Masque & had a large influence on The Independent. There are few filmmakers out there who I love more or who could better represent this site’s love of where trash meets art. Let’s hope next year’s just as tidy & well-rounded. It’s been fun.

-The Swampflix Crew

Movie of the Month: Innocent Blood (1992)

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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 Erin made Britnee , Brandon , and Boomer watch Innocent Blood (1992).

Erin: A decade after An American Werewolf in London, John Landis brought the public Innocent Blood, a movie about a French vampire in . . . Pittsburgh.  Marie, the fey French vampire, decides to help herself to Pittsburgh’s criminal element.  Mistakes are made, spinal cords are left intact, and before too long Marie and ousted undercover cop Joe are duking it out with a proliferating vampire Mob.

There’s something for everybody!  Stunts!  Grotesque special effects!  Gallons of blood!  Strippers!  Don Rickles!

Innocent Blood is entertaining, weird, and a little self-conscious.

I really like this movie.  I’ve seen dozens of vampire films and most of them are lacking things like . . . plots.  Direction.  Cinematography.  Scripts.  Innocent Blood was clearly made with a sufficient budget and by a team who knew what they were doing.  It isn’t scary enough to really be a horror movie, although it pays homage to the genre.  There are schlock elements, but all in all it feels too mainstream for me to consider it a camp film.

Vampire films often sit in a strange place between monster movies and mainstream dramas.  John Landis seems to have envisioned a film respectful to the grand history of monster movies, but essentially a gritty, sexy, 90s dramedy.  I’d say that he gets about 95% of the way there.  There’s the preposterous sex scene that feels overlong, some pacing issues around the end of the second act that slow down the movie, and a soundtrack that is all. about. that. jazz.  That said, I would recommend it to anyone looking for a vampire movie while avoiding camp or outright bad movies.

What do you think, Brandon?  Is Innocent Blood a pretty good monster movie that’s appropriate for a filmography that includes An American Werewolf in London, Blues Brothers, and Animal House?  Am I blinded by my exposure to truly, truly terrible movies? Does this movie stand out to you as a vampire film?

Brandon: It’s funny, because the near-campless first half of the film really wasn’t doing it for me. It felt like Landis was splitting his time between making both a mediocre vampire movie & a mediocre mob film. There was a little fun to be had in the way Marie talked about her “food” (read: victims) in lines like “How about Italian?” & “Never play with the food” and the dissonance between her glowing-eyes blood feasts & the Sinatra-scored, bargain bin Scorsese mob aesthetics, but it didn’t feel all that special as an example of either genre. Innocent Blood didn’t truly win me over until it devolved into utter chaos, a change that gets kicked off sometime around when mob boss Sallie “The Shark” Macelli is turned & starts assembling cinema’s (as far as I know) very first vampire mafia. There’s some respectable noir influence in the dark alleys & detective work of the back half, but it’s the black comedy & campy vampire mob shenanigans that make the movie shine. It’s hard for me to read scenes like Don Rickles’ vampire transformation or that never-ending, super-kinky, thrust-heavy sex scene as anything but exercises in camp.

And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. There’s so much implication that Landis knows exactly what he’s doing here. Like Erin said, it’s not an entirely campy affair through & through. The competent production & surprising jaunts of violent cruelty (including some truly grotesque body horror in Don Rickles’ Big Scene) see to that. It’s just that when Marcelli is running around converting his dopey goons, hissing at lightbulbs, and curling up for a cat nap in a meat freezer, the movie’s darkly humorous (and entirely intentional) campy tendencies thankfully start overtaking what was promising to be a too-serious & not-too-special film in the first act. Robert Loggia (whose version of apoplectic rage I’m most familiar with in Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie) is brilliantly funny in his role as Marcelli, thoroughly unraveling in his newfound, undead state, to the point where he’s playing more of a vampiric humanoid raccoon than a vampiric mob boss.

Landis backs up this silliness with copious televisions playing ancient B-movies featuring familiar monsters like stop-motion dinosaurs, escaped gorillas, Bela Lugosi, and Christopher Lee. At the same time, on-screen televisions also take time to play more respectable fare, like the Hitchcock film Strangers on a Train. I think these movie selections are a great representation of what Landis was intending to do here: marrying a schlock aesthetic with the higher production value of a “real” film. It’s that exact push & pull that made me fall in love with Innocent Blood as a dark comedy, when I initially wasn’t expecting to get much out of it.

Britnee, how much of that camp/serious divide was segregated between the vampire mafia cast and the scenes featuring the demure vampire Marie & her undercover cop love interest Joe (Anthony LaPaglia, who also played a “Joe” in Empire Records, oddly enough)? Did Joe’s & Marie’s scenes ever approach the fever pitch absurdity of Mercelli’s vampiric mob-building or was their share of the plot more dedicated to the film’s more serious, straight-forward impulses?

Britnee: The relationship between Marie and Joe was interesting, to say the least, but I never found it to be this serious, genuine romance that it tries to be. From the time the two had the cliché meet-cute in the middle of a snowy Pittsburgh street, I sensed that there was a campy romance brewing. And in all honesty, campy romances make for the best cinematic experiences. When comparing Joe and Marie’s scenes to the explosive vampire mafia scenes, I find myself going back and forth deciding whether or not the couple could be taken more seriously than the vampire mobsters. Part of me feels that they do fall a little more on the serious side, but then my head is filled with images of Marie’s fiber optic eyeballs during her memorable lovemaking scene. When reading the film credits, I noticed that a licensed optometrist was credited, so if eyes could magically change color, I guess that’s exactly what it would look like. Anyway, I guess the two contribute to the film’s small amount of seriousness because their romantic element isn’t as outlandish as a bunch of bloodthirsty mobsters covered in meat juice.

During our viewing of the film, there were a couple of times when I almost forgot about Marie and Joe because the insanity that was the budding vampire mafia completely overshadowed their characters.  There were times where I felt as though half an hour went by and the two lovebirds where nowhere to be seen. Of course, I was too enthralled by the vampiric mob madness to care. Landis is an obvious special effects junkie, and the majority of this film focuses on the stunning effects of the monster mobsters. He may have unintentionally drawn attention away from Marie and Joe’s characters, but I can’t blame him for getting carried away because for such an unknown movie, the effects were far from shoddy. They were brilliant! The scene where Manny (Rickles) gets his first dose of sunlight after making the “turn” is pure art. His skin tears open as he’s burning up and turning into pure ash, and it’s one of the greatest examples of exceptional special effects work that I’ve ever seen.

Boomer, do feel as though Marie’s character was not very prominent in the film? Did she make any contribution other than a couple of funny quotes and some sexy moments?

Boomer: It’s funny you should ask, since I was thinking throughout the film how tangential Marie’s role is to the more intriguing and interesting elements of the plot. She acts as a catalyst, as her actions against the first wiseguy she devours onscreen serves to lead LaPaglia’s Joe to out himself as an undercover cop, and her second meal leads to Loggia’s Sallie turning undead and dreaming of an enthralled vampire Pittsburg underground. For a character whose actions set the plot in motion, we know almost nothing about her.

Who is Marie? Is that her real name? When was she turned? Why? Who turned her? How does she feel about her parasitic nature? Nearly all contemporary vampire narratives in which the vampire is not explicitly villainous (and even some where they are) at least pay lip service to the idea that being an undead monster is a bit of an ongoing existential crisis. It’s ironic that the first shot of the film reveals (and revels in) Marie’s entire nude body, as her literal nakedness lies in direct contradiction to the way that she is metaphorically covered and hidden throughout the film. Other than her animal instinct to feed (and breed) and the actions she takes in an attempt to rectify her accidental release of a monster mobster, we have no idea what Marie does with her literally endless spare time. She feels guilt enough over her actions to consider ending her existence by meeting the sun, but her ultimate decision to continue (un)living is less a heartfelt triumph of the spirit than an “Eh, I guess I’ll stick around.” It’s less an issue of Marie not being prominent and more an issue of her being two-dimensional, standing out as a flat character even against shallowly characterized (but endearingly entertaining) scenery-chewers like Rickles and Loggia.

Now that I consider it, none of the main characters are fully fleshed out. Joe is determined to take down the Italian mafia, but any other motivations he may have in his personal or private life are unspoken, if they exist at all. The same can be said of his fellow cops (and a criminally underutilized Angela Bassett as the Pittsburg DA) or of the mobsters from Loggia down. For a prolonged section of the film, the protagonists and antagonists exist in completely different plotlines that only tangentially intersect, and I think that the crime the film is most guilty of is devoting too much focus to Marie and Joe, especially if none of that attention yields any character insight or development; there’s both too much and too little of Marie to be satisfying. A film that focused instead on Luis Guzman, for instance, ineptly bumbling his way through an investigation would have more potential entertainment value, all things considered. LaPaglia’s not a bad actor, he just seems to be under the impression that the ratio of crime thriller to comedy of the film he’s in skews in the opposite direction it actually does.

Perhaps it’s my postmodern eye, but throughout the film I kept attempting to apply some metaphor to the representation of vampirism. In the past thirty years we’ve seen vampirism stand in for disease, sexuality, and corruption, and even vampires themselves as metaphorical minorities and outsiders. From the way that Marie’s particular vampirism operates, at first I was expecting that we would eventually get some correlative relationship with AIDS, but no clear metaphor eventually coalesced, at least not one that I could see.

What do you think, Erin? Is there a metaphor that I’m missing, or one we as an audience could infer regardless of authorial intent?

Erin:  That’s a great question, Boomer.  Innocent Blood has a lot of action, but not a lot of character development, even as characters are doing such intense things as literally transforming into undead monsters.

I’m not sure how to parse the metaphor of Marie’s vampirism in this movie.  I find that usually vampirism is linked to themes of excess, hedonism, and greed.  Marie certainly has some of these elements – her two main interests in life are sex and food.  On the other hand, as you pointed out, we never really learn anything about her past, her other motivations, or how this episode of her life changes her.

The mobsters might be the place to look for metaphor in Innocent Blood.  Sal’s greed for power and his megalomaniacal feelings of invincibility are the things that cause his downfall.  Maybe the metaphor of vampirism here is for both greed and trying to use powers that are not fully understood or appreciated.  Sal tries to convert his whole mob into vampires, but doesn’t seem to make any considerations for the fact that they will no longer be able to work during daylight or that their favorite Italian foods will now cause great distress.

All in all, I’m leaning towards saying that John Landis wasn’t trying to explore the metaphors of vampirism so much as he was trying to produce a mainstream monster movie to appeal to the mass market.

What do you think, Brandon?  Is Marie a cipher here, an empty Manic Pixie Dream Girl only in the movie as a plot device?  Is vampirism presented in the same way?  Is that problematic?

Brandon: There’s a near endless list of metaphors that have been attached to vampirism in the past, ranging from as disparate of meanings as the unchecked thirst for power Erin mentioned to the powerlessness of cyclical depression & drug addiction. I’m just not seeing anything explicit in Innocent Blood that suggests a clear metaphor. The mobsters’ thirst for power angle Erin suggests is something I’d buy, with plenty of evidence backing it up in the film, but where exactly does that leave Marie as a character? The more I reflect on the emptiness of Marie’s general presence, I’m left thinking that the movie could’ve been so much better without her. It’s as if she were a starting point that eventually lead Landis & writer Michael Wolk to the much more fleshed out undead mobster concept. If Marie had been left on the editing room floor or at the very least taken a backseat after she got the mobster plot rolling, we might have a much tighter plotted movie. The befuddled law enforcement POV Boomer suggested above in particular could’ve been worth a try. Then again, we wouldn’t have that insanely sleazy sex scene in that scenario, so maybe they made the right choice afterall.

In addition to the absence of a clear vampirism metaphor, Landis’ film also goes light on its dedication to the generally accepted rules of cinematic vampirism. Marie may be averse to garlic & sunlight, but her reflection appears in mirrors & she kills her fellow vampires with shots to the head (much more akin to zombie rules) rather than stakes to the heart. Somehow, though, I’m not at all bothered by all of this. As much as I might’ve appreciated a clearer set of rules or a more well-defined metaphor, I believe that the film is perfectly entertaining as is. It’s curious to me that Innocent Blood is the sole screenplay credit for writer Michael Wolk, as I believe he did a fantastic job of establishing a distinct kind of mob-themed horror comedy that I’ve never seen on film before. When his screenplay works it really works, flaws & false starts be damned.

Britnee, do you think that Innocent Blood could’ve been more successful if it were more dedicated to the vampire movie as a genre or do its deviations from the format make it all the more memorable/entertaining?

Britnee: This may sound a bit crazy, but I don’t really think of Innocent Blood as being a vampire movie. I know that there are indeed many vampires in the film, but they aren’t the sexy, mysterious vampires that dominate the vamp movie world. They’re a group of grotesque undead dudes that look more like zombies than actual vampires, and as Brandon previously stated, they are killed off like zombies as well. Of course, Marie does fall into the sexy vampire category, but she wasn’t really a big part of the film. Even when she did have her vampire moments, she reminded me more of a werecat from the 80s film Cat People than an actual vampire. Landis was attempting to almost reinvent the vampire, but in 1992, the world just wasn’t ready for something so huge. The general public would have probably better received the film if Landis stuck to more traditional vampire guidelines, but I am ever so grateful that he didn’t. The film’s many deviances make it a cult masterpiece, which is 100 times more valuable than a box office hit.

The idea of a monster mob film is brilliant, but other than Innocent Blood, I don’t recall ever coming across any other films that incorporate the mob with the supernatural. The two elements surprisingly work together in harmony.

Boomer, did you feel as though the monster mob is what mainly contributed to the film’s success? Why didn’t this idea take off and influence other horror films?

Boomer: I can honestly say, with no mental evasion or dishonesty, that the parts of this film which work best are those which relate to and revolve around vampire mafia plot. Loggia’s screen presence, hammy though it may be, is definitely the energetic core of what would otherwise be little more than a late-night Cinemax softcore skin flick that happened to star half the future cast of The Sopranos. I feel like I’ve seen the Underworld (Len Wiseman) meets underworld (mafia) schtick before, but after racking my brain and consulting TV Tropes, I’ve come to the conclusion that it must be one of those ideas that is so ingenious you only think it must have been done dozens of times. Maybe on Angel? Or Forever Knight? Kindred: The Embraced? But definitely not in a feature, or in any work in which the vampire mob was so central to the story.

As to why this didn’t usher in a new era of similar or copycat bloodsucking mafia flicks, I don’t really think there was room in the world for that genre to flourish. The popularity of film mafiosos waxes and wanes; after scores of films about gangsters in the early days of cinema, features about organized crime largely receded until the 70s and 80s, when pictures like Scarface and the Godfather series created a resurgent interest in “fuggedaboutit” movies that didn’t really survive into the 90s. The last great genre piece from that era was Goodfellas, which came out two years before Innocent Blood, and as far as prestige cinema goes, there’s really no comparison between the two. Landis’ American Werewolf endures because its story blended horror and comedy more successfully than Innocent Blood does, and its striking effects work made it stand out despite being released the same year as both The Howling and Wolfen. Aside from Rickles’ character’s (admittedly well done) death sequence, Innocent Blood doesn’t have American Werewolf‘s tangible viscerality; overall, Innocent Blood is a much cheaper-looking movie. If I didn’t know better, I would assume that it was a Cinemax made-for-TV film, and would never have guessed that Landis was involved.

Innocent Blood also fails to stand out among its vampiric brethren as well, as it lacks the sweeping epicness of, say, Interview With a Vampire, which came out just two years later, or Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which was released the same year (Innocent Blood also doesn’t have the built-in audience that comes from being an adaptation, either). As a result, it failed to gain the prominence or immortality that other movies in the same vein and of the same era did. It just wasn’t gruesome enough, or memorable enough, or gangstery enough. In shooting for a middle ground, it ended up having too many ideas; consequently, it failed to stick in the public consciousness in a meaningful way.

Lagniappe

Boomer: Innocent Blood is an ultimately inconsequential film, the kind of movie that seems destined to be included in one of those ubiquitous Cracked.com lists, like “Six Movies with a More Interesting B-Plot than Premise.” I didn’t care for it as much as some of my fellow reviewers, but I didn’t dislike it either. I guess, on the whole, I’d say that on the range of John Landis’ contributions to the world, where American Werewolf is the limit of the best end and spawning whiny privileged misogynist Max is the limit of the lower end (and no, I didn’t forget the death of two children during the production of the Twilight Zone feature; Max is arguably worse), Innocent Blood falls somewhere in the vicinity of Beverly Hills Cop III.

Britnee: Innocent Blood is an excellent horror-comedy as well as a truly entertaining film with an unforgettable plot and cast (well, except for Marie). The true gem of this film isn’t the vampiric mafia or the vampire/human romance; it’s Lenny (David Proval), Sal’s dopey-eyed assistant.  The only other film that I’ve seen him in is The Brady Bunch Movie, in which he makes a 10 second appearance as an electrician with a bad lisp, and I had no idea that he embodied so much talent and pizazz until I saw him in this film. He only had a handful of lines, but each one was pure gold. I still crack up when I remember his worried face by the bathroom window, screaming “Sal!” while Sal is in a tub of his own blood after Marie’s failed attack.

Brandon: Although we’ve already ragged on Marie & actress Anne Parillaud a good bit here, I will at least admit that she has one interesting quirk to her outside of the glowing eyes & knack for BDSM: lighting. As we’re first introduced to Marie, buck naked in her apartment, she’s revealed to be a bit of a candle hoarder. Because much of what she was doing & saying was less than captivating, our minds were left to wonder about Marie’s endless sea of lit candles in several early scenes. Does she prefer candles to electric light because they remind her of simpler times? Where do they come from? Does she buy them wholesale? Do her vampire powers allow her to light them all at once or does she have to go around the room igniting each one with a match like a chump? Marie talks a lot about her “food” (victims), but I feel she has an equal passion for candles that goes conspicuously uncommented on.

Erin: I think that one of my favorite things about this movie are the more mature actors.  Don Rickles, Robert Loggia, and Elaine Kagan working together in Sal’s transformation at the Bergmans’ house has to be one of the best scenes I’ve had the pleasure of watching.  I really wish that John Landis had focused more on the “monster mobster” side of the plot, especially with the amount of talent he had on tap.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
November: Boomer presents The Class of 1999 (1989)
December: Brandon presents The Independent (2000)

-The Swampflix Crew

Movie of the Month: The Boyfriend School (1990)

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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 Britnee made Brandon and (newcomers) Erin & Boomer watch The Boyfriend School (1990).

Britnee: As a fan of uncomfortably terrible films, I was more than excited to select The Boyfriend School (aka Don’t Tell Her It’s Me) for September’s Movie of the Month. This is a film that was washed away with the other thousands of unsuccessful romantic comedies of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, but it’s truly a diamond in the rough. What makes The Boyfriend School stand out from the rest is, well, just about everything. The film’s cast includes the crème de la crème of chintzy actors: Steve Guttenberg, Shelley Long, Jami Gertz, and Kyle MacLachlan. Who can resist a line-up like that? Throw in a crap ton of cringe worthy, knee-slapping moments, and you have one hell of a movie.

The film follows the sad, sad life of Gus Kubicek (Guttenberg), a depressed cartoon artist that just won a battle against Hodgkin’s disease. His overbearing sister, Lizzie (Long), is a romance novelist, and she is disturbingly obsessed with getting him a girlfriend. She decides to prey on a young journalist, Emily (Gertz), and attempts to force Emily and Gus to become a couple. It’s extremely difficult to sit through the first half of this film without doing a couple of facepalms. Every ounce of Gus’s embarrassment and humiliation seeps from the screen and into your soul, and just when you think it can’t get any worse, it does. Lizzie creates a persona for Gus, and he morphs from a chubby, hairless Average Joe into a hunky biker from New Zealand named Lobo Marunga. Guttenberg ends up looking like Mad Max and George Michael’s love child, and it’s absolutely amazing.

Brandon, what are your feelings on the love story between Gus and Emily? Should she have ran after him or away from him?

Brandon: Discomfort is certainly the story at the heart of this film & Emily The Love Interest had so, so many discomforting reasons to run away from Gus that the movie was honestly pretty gutsy to go for the traditional romcom ending at the airport than the much more appropriate option of a murder-suicide. At the risk of spoiling a decades old Steve Guttenberg vehicle for anyone who could possibly care, let’s get this out of the way: Gus violated Emily. He doesn’t come clean about not being Lobo until the morning after they slept together. That’s pretty fucked. The only time Emily met Gus as himself he was in full Uncle Fester cosplay (because of the cancer, God help our souls) and the two of them were force-fed jellyfish salad (a dish Emily humorously describes as “chewy tears”) in a scene that makes Shelley Long’s character out to be less of a romance novelist & more of a torturer whose techniques rival those of Vlad the Impaler or the Holy Inquisition. Even if Emily saw something in Gus through the façade of Lobo Marunga, she should at least have ran far away to escape his sister’s evil clutches.

The strange thing is that even though Gus is a certifiable monster for not coming clean before doing the deed, it’s still difficult not to feel bad for him because he starts the film as a visible monster. In the opening scenes Gus is a Hunchback of Notre Dame type who’s locked himself away in his seaside cabin to draw cartoons & die alone so his Jack Russell terrier can pick at his bones. It very well may have been his sister that motivated him to win his battle with cancer, but she uses his extra time on Earth to remind him of how sad & ugly the disease has made him as a means to try to whip him back into shape & “get himself out there”. No one comes across looking good in this exchange. Gus is is a horrifying shell of a man. His sister is a Type A sociopath who takes great glee in playing God. Emily is an astute journalist who can’t figure out that this dude (that she has met before) who is most definitely not from New Zealand is not from New Zealand. There are very few traces of dignity or humanity to be found in this film & the resulting cringe fest is oddly fascinating.

Erin, am I exaggerating here? Is this kind of absence of dignity or recognizable humanity normal for a romcom or does The Boyfriend School push the pained awkwardness into unusually morbid territory?

Erin: I have got to agree that this movie definitely pushed the boundaries of taste, even for a self-consciously cheesy romcom.  I’d almost categorize it as a cringe comedy, instead.  I can only hope that the actors protested their roles in this wreck of a movie.  It’s set in a strange and unrealistic world, a caricature of a reality populated by caricatures.  Yes.  Undignified and inhuman and inhumane.  The most real character is Annabelle, Gus’s toddler niece, who has a speech delay and has somehow survived Lizzie’s negligent and neurotic parenting.

Maybe we’re missing something with this movie, or there was a disagreement between the editing team and the director.  If the movie as watched is the intended product, then The Boyfriend School might be a comprehensible work if the watcher forgets the romantic comedy genre and watches it as an exploration of the universe of romance novels.  It has all of the hallmarks of a trashy novel: unrealistic universe mechanics, tragic back stories, completely unbelievable plot turns, romantically picturesque settings, unethical sexual encounters . . .

Boomer, what do you think? Were we mislead by marketing?  Is there any redeeming quality to be found at all in this movie?

Boomer: It took me nearly a week to track down a copy of this movie, and the copy that I did find was the kind of bare-bones affair rushed onto the market in the early days of  DVD to fluff up home video collections; in fact, it has one solitary “special” feature: the theatrical trailer, which I watched before the movie, out of habit. I’m not sure if it was the American market trailer, since it features the alternate title, Don’t Tell Her It’s Me, but the narrative outlined in the promo recapitulates the film’s plot fairly well: unlucky man is made over into a precognitive Dog the Bounty Hunter cosplayer by his sister in order to win the heart of the girl of his dreams. The trailer does make Kyle McLachlan’s Trout character out to be more of an innocent in the end of his relationship, rather than the two dimensional cuckolder that he is in the film, and it fails to show that Gus will end up, as Brandon notes, violating Emily; the marketing is pretty straightforward in broad strokes and (mostly) in the details. At the end of the movie, I thought to myself, “Yes, that was certainly a movie.” The 1990s were the decade of the romcom, a short period in which so many films of the genre were made that the concept itself was subject to so much dilution and derivativeness that Meg Ryan went from starring in such straightforward love stories as falling for a rival storeowner in a remake of The Shop Around the Corner to being swept off her feet by angels and handsome timelost scientific pioneers (that was actually 2001, but you get the picture). As a cultural artifact, The Boyfriend School is charming in its simplicity and straightforwardness, if not necessarily in its subject matter.

As Emily says to Lizzie near the end of the film, the former hates the latter in the abstract, but can’t hate her in the flesh. I would wager that this is true of virtually any character played by Shelley Long; she’s just an intensely likable actress with a great sense of comic timing, and it’s hard to be certain that the enjoyment I got out of this movie would have been present without her. Long brings an effervescent effusiveness to a role that would likely play as more malicious had Lizzie been portrayed by another actress. Jami Gertz is also quite charming here, despite the fact that her character is paper-thin. During the time it takes Gus to grow a full head of hair, learn to poorly impersonate a Kiwi, lose those horrible face prosthetics that are supposed to simulate illness, and sweat off all the cotton stuffed around his waistline, what do we see Emily doing? Shaving her legs. We don’t see anything of her relationship with Trout, or her working on a different story (at one point Gus does read an article of hers about snakehandling, the first paragraph of which is actually about that religious practice, while the rest is advertising copy about desktop publishing software–great job there, propmaster), and yet I felt her character was likable in her sweetness, if a bit obtuse, even before the film felt the need to go full Liz Lemon with her mud-sprayed, torn dress airport run. Even Gus, a handsome creep played with discomfiting ease by Guttenberg, comes off as hatable in the abstract but not the flesh, and, to his credit, Gus is only at Emily’s the night of the violation to come clean about his double identity, although he stops putting forth an effort on this front almost immediately, for the sake of plot contrivance.

If anything, it was the tight plotting of this movie that struck me as a pleasant surprise, especially in a film with such low stakes, so to speak. In contrast to a lot of the romcoms that followed in the next ten or so years, there’s not a single wasted line or moment, and there are a lot of subtle touches and ironies that I found to be inspired, or at least novel. The film introduces the “Unkow” clue and the fact that Lizzie’s dog only likes Gus early in the movie, with a kind of deft subtlety that belies the over-the-top facade of a somewhat high concept story. Lizzie is constantly trying to impress upon Anabelle the potential consequences of her adorable but dangerous random childlike actions, but she fails to foresee the consequences of her own meddling in things that she shouldn’t. She even mentions that she has to get Gus to the metaphorical last page of the bodice-ripping romance she’s constructing in her mind; for her, what matters is getting to that final paragraph of sexual conquest, and what happens afterwards is irrelevant because, in her novels, nothing happens next. It’s a formulaic, cookie-cutter movie, but with the kind of foreshadowing and payoff that you wouldn’t expect from a movie sharing shelf space with other forgettable fare like Something to Talk About, Addicted to Love, or Simply Irresistible (why were so many of these movies named after songs, anyway?).

Anyway, I’ve rambled long enough about a movie that’s, by and large, pretty inconsequential, despite featuring a brief scene between Beth Grant and a life-size demonstration doll with questionably accurate anatomy. What about you, Britnee? How do you see this film fitting into the milieu that was the romcom ocean of last millennium’s last years? Is it a precursor, a relic, or a non-starter?


Britnee:
Even though I really enjoy this film (for all the wrong reasons), I would have to say that when compared to the romcom scene of the 90s, it’s nothing more than a dud. The film does try hard to be great by playing on the popular “don’t judge a book by its cover” love story, where the nerd gets the hot girl in the end, but as we all know, it leans more towards being a psycho in disguise horror-type film. What really hurt this film (among other things) and caused it to be a romcom failure was the hard-to-believe romance between Gus and Emily. You can’t have a solid romantic comedy without the romance. When she initially meets Gus as himself, she has no romantic or friendly feelings for him, and Gus merely makes a few compliments on her “playboy model” looks. What causes him to go after Emily is his twisted sister, who pushes him to win Emily’s heart for her own sick pleasure. A couple of heartfelt exchanges after Lizzie’s disastrous dinner would’ve made all the difference. Even when Gus becomes Lobo, there still doesn’t seem to be much going on between the two. None of Gus’s personality shines through in his Lobo character. He does have a couple of vocal slipups, but he doesn’t give Emily a reason to fall for him, which really ruins the creditability of the “romantic” ending scene. He violated her and she didn’t really care for him to begin with, so why is she going after him? Big mistake. Huge.

I first came across this film on late-night cable, and the main reason I tuned in was because I noticed that Shelley Long’s name was in the TV Guide description. I’m a huge Shelley Long fan, so I wasn’t going to miss this one. Strangely enough, it wasn’t Shelley that won me over; it was Guttenberg’s horrible New Zealander caricature. In real life, Guttenberg looks, sounds, and acts like someone who would own a candy shop or run a summer camp, so seeing him head to toe in leather, whispering to himself, “I am Lobo. I hunt alone. I need no one,” is beyond hilarious. Even when he’s plain old Gus, there’s just something about his signature Guttenberg mannerisms that make the character unforgettable.

Brandon, do you think Guttenberg did well in his role as Lobo/Gus? Does he contribute this film’s failure or is he without blame?

Brandon: Here’s where I have to cop to genuinely enjoying Steve Guttenberg. It helps that I am just a few years too young to remember a time when he was this unlikely, but oddly ubiquitous leading man that was legally required to star in every movie offered to him no matter the quality. I have the fortunate position of remembering The Gutte as an odd cultural footnote. It’s fascinating to me to see him play parts like the mayor with a secret on Veronica Mars or the pot-smoking DJ in the Village People movie or even his own charming self on Party Down. He’s not a particularly versatile actor, but he is a pleasantly goofy one. Somewhere along the line, I’ve somehow learned to love The Gutte, God help me.

I think that’s why it hurts so damn much to see him in the cancer survivor Uncle Fester make-up, the embarrassing leather daddy New Zealander chaps, and the lowly position of Shelley Long’s whipping boy in The Boyfriend School. I felt as if the film were a punishment someone was putting Guttenberg through to atone for the sins of his mid 80s omnipresence. Throughout the endless parade of embarrassments (especially in the first half of the film), my brain was screaming “This is Hell! This is Hell! Set him free!” The Gutte may not have been exactly deserving of his ludicrously overblown success, but surely this punishment was a little rough for even him. Y’all were right to call The Boyfriend School out for being more of a cringe comedy or a psycho in disguise horror than a romcom, but I find it also plays like an act of penance. Even in the film’s trailer, which Boomer mentioned earlier, where the Gutte is talking directly to the camera (looking like his normal, healthy, non-Kiwi self for longer than he does in the entire film), I can feel the menacing presence of someone slightly off-screen holding a gun to his head & pointing at the cue cards.

Erin, do you think it’s time that we as a society let Steve Guttenberg back into our hearts? Now that he’s served his time in the squalid prison of The Boyfriend School, what kinds of roles (if any) would you like to see him play?

Erin: I can understand how The Gutte earned his spot in the limelight – his completely non-threatening, boy-next-door good looks, his passable skill with goofy comedy, and his string of not-too-terrible 80s movies.  Not to discredit what I’m sure was lots of work, but it seems like The Gutte benefited a bit from right-place-right-time syndrome.

His current career has been hit and miss . . . well, actually, after appearing in Veronica Mars ten years ago, mostly miss.  His latest credit seems to be for Lavalantula.  If you are thinking that this is a move about giant and horrifying lava spewing tarantulas, then you are absolutely correct.  Could it be a hidden gem in the land of self-aware, poorly produced B movies?  Could it be the movie we’ve all been waiting for to watch at 3:00 am while eating a whole bag of pizza rolls?  Maybe.  But probably not.

I’d love to see Steve Guttenberg reclaim his career with a well produced family comedy (The Gutte as a slightly befuddled dad? Sure!), then maybe take on slightly more adult dark comedy roles that explore the world of the aging baby-boomers as they navigate a world vastly different from their heyday.  The Gutte takes on Tinder and deals with the death of his close friends?  Is that past The Gutte’s range?  I’d like to think not.

Boomer, do you see any room in our current movie environment for a Gutte-back?  Are his current roles due to some fault in talent, natural Hollywood career trajectory, or are we simply seeing a man taking the projects that make him happy?

Boomer: There is something to be said for Guttenberg’s natural charm. I, too, remember his sinister turn on Veronica Mars as yet another in a long line of adults who couldn’t be trusted, a wealthy man whose privilege made him feel above morality; somehow, this role felt well suited for him, despite his charm in movies like Police Academy, the Three Men and a Little X flicks and even, God help me, Cocoon. As an actor, he has a charisma that helps him sell characters that are despicable, either intentionally (as on Mars) or unintentionally (as in The Boyfriend School). Earlier, I praised Long, saying that another actress in the role would have made Lizzie seem more sinister, but that dubious accolade could be ascribed to Guttenberg just as easily, and his contribution to making Gus likable in spite of the character’s flaws can’t really be ignored.

Which is not to say that I’m suffering from a lack of Guttenberg in my life, at least not in the way that I miss seeing Shelley Long in vehicles that show off her charm (her occasional appearances on Modern Family notwithstanding). But I could stand to see him in something new. He could put in an appearance as relatively obscure character given new prominence in an upcoming Marvel film, for instance; there’s no dearth of those coming out, and it could give him the visibility he needs to resurrect his career. Personally, I think I’d like to see him in a role more like Michael Keaton’s in Birdman, where he tackles a thinly veiled version of one of his former characters in a serious, postmodern way. The Boyfriend Academy, perhaps? Or maybe Three Men and a Divorcee? If the Vacation movies aren’t sacred, perhaps nothing is.

Lagniappe

Brandon: When I said earlier that there’s very little humanity for the audience to identify with in this film, I may have been selling Gus’ aforementioned, nonverbal niece Annabelle a little short.  Known to her mother by the hideously cruel nickname “Piglet”, Annabelle is a bizarre collection of quirks just like every other character in the film, but she does have the very relatable impulse to escape the confines of The Boyfriend School‘s sadistic universe (and the evil clutches of Shelley Long) by ending her own life. Whether she’s shoving metal into electrical sockets or ingesting toxic household products, I totally understand Piglet’s desire to leave a world that can be this unkind to a man as simple and as goofy as The Gutte. Thank you for speaking up for the audience, Piglet, (even if you couldn’t use your words) when you repeatedly asked that they shuffle off this cruelest of mortal coils.

Britnee: Something I forgot to mention in the Swampchat was the short, strange appearance of zydeco music in the film. Shortly after Gus enrolls in Lizzie’s “boyfriend school” and starts getting into shape, all the fun 80s film pop is set aside to allow a few minutes of zydeco. Watching Guttenberg run to zydeco made my little Cajun heart very happy, but it really threw me for a loop. It was such a weird choice of music for a running scene, but I guess I shouldn’t be all that surprised because, afterall, this is a weird movie. A weird movie with a little heart and loads of discomfort.

Boomer: I was surprised to learn that the screenwriter of The Boyfriend School, Sara Bird, was also the author of the book on which the film was based, and she was named by The Austin Statesman as Austin’s best author in 2011. It’s hard to conceptualize that this accolade could be applied when School is, overall, a fairly mediocre movie, but I can see that the tight plotting of the film probably mirrors a more complex structure in the original novel. That having been said, this film gave us Beth Grant tonguing a lifesize mannequin, so it’s not without some value. I probably never would have seen this movie were it not for this Swampchat, and I can’t say that it changed my life, but it did give me a new perspective on the genre, so I’d have to say I appreciated the opportunity to view this little oddity.

Erin:  The Boyfriend School is definitely a strange movie.  I think that it definitely seems like a novel in the characterization and pacing.  Purely speculation, but I think that some of the creepiness would be mitigated if presented in written form since we would be able to understand some of the thought processes of the characters.  It’s actually pretty interesting for a self-referential trashy movie.

Upcoming Movie of the Months
October: Erin presents Innocent Blood (1992)
November: Boomer presents The Class of 1999 (1989)
December: Brandon presents The Independent (2000)

-The Swampflix Crew

Movie of the Month: Babe 2 – Pig in the City (1998)

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Every month one of us makes the others watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made Britnee watch Babe 2: Pig in the City (1998).

Brandon: Nearly four decades into his beyond bizarre career as a director, George Miller recently wowed audiences by breathing new, absurdly energetic life into the long dead Mad Max franchise with the film Fury Road. When I reviewed Fury Road in June I echoed the praise of its “surprisingly satisfying feminist bent for something so thoroughly violent” and called it “one of the best action films released in years” & “an incredible technical feat stuffed to the gills with impressive practical stunts & confident art design”. Although the idea of a rebooted 80s franchise is generally a dreadful proposition these days, Miller was smart enough to throw out nearly everything he had already accomplished with Mad Max & start over with renewed enthusiasm, creating one of the defining films of his career. This shouldn’t be surprising, though, since Miller had already pulled off this very same trick twice before: once with The Road Warrior and, much more surprisingly, once with Babe 2: Pig in the City.

The first Babe film is a perfect, small-scale children’s media charmer in which a clever pig is raised by farm dogs to herd sheep, much to his delightful owner’s surprise. In the words of the farmer (played deftly by James Cromwell), “That’ll do.” Miller was a producer & screenwriter for the first film, leaving the director duties to a largely unknown Christopher Noonan. With the sequel Pig in the City, Miller takes over the director’s chair & furiously tosses the “That’ll do” attitude to the wayside. Pig in the City is a bizarre fever dream of a film, a terrifying spectacle populated by nightmarish clowns, talking animals, cops, pig people, and all sorts of various creeps & reprobates. Leaving the quiet farm of the first film far behind, Babe ventures into the cold bureaucracy & literal dog-eat-dog viciousness of the big city and through the sheer virtue of his pure little pig heart becomes the de facto leader of a small band of abandoned animals starving for affection . . . and a decent meal. The world Babe navigates here is cruel & unusual. An over-the-top set design & constant barrage of heartless obstacles never stops twisting the knife on just how out of his element & against the odds our little swine hero is in The Big City (a strange amalgamation of every big city imaginable contained in a single, impossible metropolis).

Britnee, I’m 28 years old and I’m petrified of this movie; I can’t possibly imagine what it’d be like if I had seen it 20 years ago, when I was in the range of what I assume the target audience would’ve been. Do any moments stand out to you as particularly nightmarish or does the entirety of Pig in the City just sort of all blur together as one extended scare?

Britnee: I watched the first Babe film in theaters back in 1995, so all I could remember was that it starred a talking pig that humans couldn’t understand. As a die-hard Charlotte’s Web fan, I didn’t get into the Babe craze all that much. This allowed me to watch Babe 2: Pig in the City with a fresh mind, and it was, in fact, a horrifying experience (in a good way). Pig in the City was such a strange film that I didn’t expect to be all that outlandish. Yes, it’s based on talking animals, but that’s not something unusual for children and family films. It’s everything else about the film that makes it a huge magical nightmare. The city streets’ whimsical buildings (sort of like Paris meets the Shire), the vulgar attitudes of the city’s animals, and the warped, bizarre human characters are examples of why this nightmare is so “magical.”

There were a couple of standout parts that were particularly terrifying for me, such as the farmer’s brutal near death experience in the well, the dirty old clown with his thieving gang of talking monkeys, and the junkyard dog hanging and drowning from a cobblestone bridge. The film was really like a mild horror film for adults that kids could enjoy as well.

Brandon, it seemed as though most of the humans in this film were more terrifying than the talking animals. What are your thoughts on that? What human character was the scariest?

Brandon: First of all, there’s a definite dichotomy the film’s trying to set up between the coldhearted big city people and the small town weirdos who “get it”. When the farmer’s wife first arrives in The City with Babe in tow, she’s met with the cold sting of bureaucracy. Mistaken for a drug dealer at the airport, she’s physically assaulted, misses her connecting flight, and is left stranded with nowhere to stay for days. To contrast the humorless big city folk that derail Mrs. Hoggett’s life, the movie also presents a network of colorful weirdos with small town backgrounds (and, often enough, pig-like snouts) who help her out by providing a safe haven for her & her animal while she’s stranded in The City . . . that is, until she’s arrested following a Rube Goldberg-esque mishap and finds herself once again trapped in the unforgiving entanglement of bureaucracy.

The thing is that both the big city folk & the network of weirdos are all disturbing in their own ways. There’s a *shudder* clown in the film that performs for the amusement of the deathly ill & an innkeeper that provides a safe haven for animals & pet owners in an unforgiving environment that are both technically sympathetic characters plot-wise, but look so strange & daunting that they’re a terror to behold. The entirety of Pig in the City has a child’s funhouse mirror POV that makes virtually all adults feel terrifying, whether they’re helpful or not. This child’s POV is even reflected in the wardrobe. The big city meanies are all dressed in drab greys, while the weirdos have a much more colorful palette, but both groups are horrifying in their own way. If I had to single out a most terrifying human character, I’d probably settle for a clown named Fugly, a part silently played by Mickey Rooney, as a default. The idea of Mickey Rooney in clown makeup is terrifying enough on its own, but as presented here, decorated with fire & confetti, it’s even worse than you’d expect. Fuck that clown.

Britnee, in a lot of ways the human characters in the film feel a lot less . . . human than the animals. This is especially apparent in the portrayal of a family of chimpanzees & their dignified orangutan leader Thelonius. Do you think Thelonius was a “good guy” or a “bad guy” within the film, or was his role more complicated than that? How does the question of his character’s goodness or badness compare/contrast with the oversimplified morality of other members of the cast, both human & animal?

Britnee: Thelonius was so strange. At times, I had difficulty deciding if he was good or evil, and to be honest, most of my memory about Thelonius in the beginning of the film is a bit fuzzy. It wasn’t until the latter half of the film that I really started to pay attention to him. I don’t think he was ever a “bad guy,” but more of a self-absorbed grump. I think that he was a “good guy” all along, he was just stuck in a crappy situation and his inner goodness didn’t show until the latter half of the film. One scene that is so vivid in my mind is when the animals are attempting to sneak out of the pound/laboratory. The animals finally get the chance to escape to safety, but Thelonius makes them wait for him to get dressed. As he slowly puts on his fancy attire, he ruins their getaway plan. I wasn’t sure if this was supposed to be a funny scene or if this was to show how egotistical Thelonius was. He doesn’t really shine through as a “good guy” until he saves the life of a baby chimp at the chaotic gala.

It was much easier to determine the good and evil elements of the human characters, but as for the animals, it wasn’t as much of a walk in the park. The human characters had no depth, so it was easy to determine who was “bad” and who was “good.” The animal characters were much more confusing, like Thelonius. The wheelchair pup and a couple of other animals at the hotel were pretty rude, and the street animals were pretty heartless (especially that horrible pink poodle); however, they are all viewed as “good” when compared to the humans.

Brandon, I’m having a hard time with remembering details about all of the animals because the amount of important animal characters was a bit overwhelming. Do you feel that the film focused on too many animal characters? Would the film be better with a tighter focus on only a couple of animals?

Brandon: I actually think it’s the depth of the animal cast that makes this film so rewatchable. I’ll admit that on the first run through, I was a little overwhelmed by the endless parade of personalities. There’s the wheelchair bound Jack Russell, the queer dog couple in the matching sweaters, the operatic room of cats, the reformed bully bull terrier, the tragic Southern belle poodle, the Steven Wright-voiced chimp that strangely reminded me of Michael Shannon for no apparent reason, and the list goes on. The thing is, though, that as exhausting as this list can be in the abstract, the movie deftly makes time for each character to have their “moment”. The Jack Russell terrier has his brief trip to the afterlife. The bull terrier has a turnaround in personality after Babe saves his hide. The queer couple literally comes out of the closet during a police raid, etc. I feel like Thelonius was the most well-developed animal personality in the film in that he had so many moments like this that complicated his character, but the rest of the animal cast helped color the world around him that the movie would be all-too-thin without.

The difference between our views on this aspect might be that I found the animal characters much more empathetic than you seemed to. I think it’s interesting, for instance, that you call the pink poodle character heartless, when I think of her as a tragic Blanche DuBois type whose heart is way too big, if anything. Also, the “gag” where Thelonius’ need to dress before escaping the lab didn’t play for me like a jab at his ego that had made him out to be a cold-hearted figure earlier in the film. It was more or a quietly sad deflation of his dignity to me & helped flesh out just how much pained effort he was putting into keep his chimp & clown family together. I think that’s a lot of what Miller was aiming to say with the film. Each animal may seem cruel or selfish on the surface, but they’re all disenfranchised & down on their luck, essentially fighting over scraps (like a stolen jar of candy, for instance) for survival. It isn’t until Babe teaches them that if they’re kind to one another & learn to share their scraps evenly as a community they all have a better chance of survival that the animals let their defensive guards down & start being kind to one another.

Britnee, how effective do you think Miller’s message about the importance of community over the strength of the individual was in Pig in the City? Do you think the alternating scary & goofy strangeness of the film completely overshadowed the film’s message of the importance of solidarity?

Britnee: Honestly, I think the film’s bizarre nature definitely overshadowed any sort of message that Miller was attempting to put out. Even during scenes where the animals began to be more compassionate, I couldn’t help but focus on all of the twisted happenings. You’ve seen this film multiple times, and I think this could be a reason as to why our opinions differ. Because the film’s strangeness was so overwhelming, I had a difficult time paying attention to anything else. Watching Pig in the City for a second time would probably change a lot of my current thoughts about the film.

You do make an interesting point about how the animal characters were struggling to survive, and Babe was a beacon of light in their hard knock lives. Actually, I don’t think I ever noticed how great Babe was until now. He was just a little pig leaving his simple farm life for the very first time, and even though he was put into tons of terrifying and unfortunate situations, he remained brave. His courage and compassion had an impact on just about every character, and this is more than apparent in the film’s final scenes. Of all the great pigs in film, I think Babe is up there with the best of them.

Lagniappe

Brandon: Although George Miller is generally associated with the wanton mayhem of the Mad Max franchise, Pig in the City isn’t nearly as out of touch with the rest of his catalog as you’d expect. There are traces of many of his films lingering in this one, from the bungee chord battle of Beyond Thunderdome to the surreal balloon drop of The Witches of Eastwick to the childish goofery & political ponderings of the Happy Feet films. I’ve slowly come to realize that Pig in the City is far from an outlier in Miller’s career, but more of a gateway film that serves as an unlikely combination of all of his achievements in one aggressively strange package.

Britnee: After reflecting on this Swampchat, I believe there is a lot of heart in this film that I ignorantly overlooked, which is why I really need and want to watch Babe 2: Pig in the City again. It seems that this movie has a reputation for being a little too dark to be considered a children’s film, but I think that it’s a perfect film for children. Real life is nothing like a fairytale, and sometimes you have to make the most of your situation and create your own happy ending. That’s a message that people of all ages can benefit from.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
September: Britnee presents The Boyfriend School (1990)
October: Erin presents Innocent Blood (1992)

-The Swampflix Crew

Swampchat: The Campy Spectacle of Bryce Dallas Howard’s Laughable Awfulness in Jurassic World (2015)

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Sometimes it takes more than one of us to tackle a film. Those are the times when we need a Swampchat.

Brandon: Reading over your review of Jurassic World was a refreshing experience. When I left the theater I felt an intense love-hate combo that had me a little more lukewarm on the film than you were, but I gotta say your enthusiasm is a little infectious after-the-fact. It’s good to take a step back and remember that “The predictable plot and characters aren’t the main selling point for this movie. It’s all about the dinosaurs!” The over-the-top dino action was certainly what got my butt in the seat, and the movie did deliver on that front, but I gotta admit that butt was squirming at the dialogue once it got there. As you alluded to in your review, the character Claire, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, was particularly groan-worthy on this front, serving as the “ball-busting” ice queen career woman stereotype no one was eager to see return to the big screen (hopefully no one, anyway).

As much as I enjoyed your enthusiasm for the movie’s dino action, I think you could’ve been even harder on Bryce Dallas Howard’s role in the film. I’m not going to mince words here. I honestly believe she might have been the most poorly conceived/written/acted/employed character I’ve ever seen in a movie this expensive. She was beyond awful. Just horrendous. But, once you accept how atrocious Claire is the whole thing becomes a fairly hilarious joke. For me that turning point came very early in the film, on an orgasmic helicopter ride (you have to see it to believe it) and lasted all the way throughout, or at least until she was making eye contact with a garden snake like she was gazing into a mirror. I’ve rarely been this simultaneously infuriated & tickled by a single performance before. It’s one for the camp record books.

Britnee, did you manage to find any humor in Bryce Dallas Howard’s performance or was the sexist implications of how she was written sour your reaction to her completely? Am I also being too hard on the actress or did was she really that inhuman in the role? I feel like I saw more human behavior from ScarJo in Under the Skin, but a lot of that could potentially be blamed on the script . . .

Britnee: I think I would have to watch the film again to see anything other than disappointment and annoyance with Claire’s character. We are usually on the same page when it comes to finding the camp value in crappy movie characters/actors, so I’ll give Campy Claire another shot. What was more disappointing than her character was the theater audience’s reaction to her sexist traits. When she was running in heels or trying to act tough and pretty for Owen, everyone belted out laughs. Someone even said “What an idiot!” There was one part in the film that sort of sums up Claire’s role in Jurassic World. She’s sitting in the driver’s seat (or passengers seat) of a truck while her nephews are in the back, and she attempts to calm them down by offering her protection. They immediately point to Owen and say something like “Um, can we go with him?”

Basically, Claire was useless and only in this film to be a joke and a pretty face. This is the only other film I’ve seen with Bryce Dallas Howard other than Lady in the Water, which is one of my favorite films. Her role in that film didn’t require great acting at all, so I’m not really sure if she’s a good actress or not. As for you’re harsh words about Dallas and Claire, they were 100% justifiable considering that the acting was crap and the role was the worst.

Brandon, do you think that all of the film’s dinosaur goodness makes up for Claire’s flaws? What was your favorite dino moment?

Brandon: I left the theater feeling very strangely conflicted on this one. Your initial review made it sound like the dino action overwhelmed a lot of the more unsavory elements for you & I’m totally there with a lot of the scenes. The trained raptors, the Pterosaurs swarm, and the climactic battle between (vague spoiler?) the old guard & the newest attraction were all fist-pump worthy elements that had me excited like the tiniest of children. However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the film as a whole was just grossly off to the point where it could’ve been renamed Jurassic Park IV: A Woman’s Place Is Sidelined In The Van With The Kids or JP 4: Quiet Everyone, A White Man Is Talking. In the end I was half enthusiastic & half turned off. It was a strange sensation. To be fair to Bryce Dallas Howard, she was far from the only problem the movie had souring its more universally-enjoyable dino action, but she does serve as a convenient (and often hilarious) example of what the film gets wrong.

I think part of the reason I had fun with how awful Claire is in the film is because I had to. It was like a strange defense mechanism, as if my brain couldn’t handle something so egregiously wrong mucking up the pleasure I was getting from the trained raptor army & terrorized Jimmy Buffets of the film. Bryce Dallas Howard’s cold, implausible, entirely inhuman performance certainly helped things there, since it was easy to accept the idea of abandoning any non-camp enjoyment I could pull from her presence very early in the proceedings.

Britnee, one of the things I found most interesting in your review is the idea that Claire was especially regressive when viewed in contrast with Laura Dern’s turn as Ellie Sattler in the first Jurassic Park film, released more than two decades ago. However, there are some similarities between her character & the similarly career driven, baby hatin’ Alan Grant, played by Sam Neill in that film. Do you think that if Claire were less of a casual observer & more of an active participant like Dr. Grant, she would’ve been more of a palatable character? Or does gender-swapping those character traits pretty much guarantee the laughably bad performance that was delivered?

Britnee: Now that you mention it, there are a good bit of similarities between Claire and Dr. Grant. The idea of this most likely accidental gender swap sheds a new light on Claire’s character. Her attitude wasn’t the main thing holding her back from being a likeable character; it was her lack of participation in the nitty gritty of the film. She actually did have one big heroic moment, but unfortunately, it was overshadowed by her negative aspects. When the Indominus rex makes her way near the park entrance, Claire comes up with the brilliant idea of releasing the T-rex, and she even runs to the gate (in those damn heels) to release the dino. Why couldn’t she have had more parts like that? Now don’t get me wrong, she was very intelligent in many parts of the film, much like Dr. Grant, but she just wasn’t very physically active. I think that Owen is actually a big part of this problem. His manly man character was very oppressive and prevented Claire from doing much of anything. Claire and Owen should’ve been a team like Ellie and Dr. Grant, but the filmmakers seemed too focused on making Owen this macho breakout star instead of making Owen and Claire a dynamic duo.

Brandon, what are your thoughts on Owen? Why, especially in this day and age, do you think Jurassic World was so backwards when compared to Jurassic Park? Were the writers purposeful with this mistake or were they just a bunch of doofuses?

Brandon: I’m going to have to side with The Doofus Theory in regards to how this film got so mucked up. This is a major studio project that, although helmed by a director whose first film, Safety Not Guaranteed, had a strong cinematic voice, was most certainly made by committee. The fact that there are four credited screenwriters alone is not a good sign. If director Colin Trevorrow were paired with a single writer, maybe two, there could’ve been a much stronger vision shining through here. Instead, you can just feel the studio’s influence seeping through every frame to the point where producers & screen testers should’ve been given written by credits as well, at least for the sake of transparency. In the scramble to reboot a once mighty, now extinct franchise, Jurassic World makes constant homage to its 1993 ancestor, casually tossing out sly callbacks to all sorts of aspects from the original Jurassic Park with wild abandon. Some of these callbacks worked extremely well, especially when they culminate with the two films’ central monsters battling it out at the climax. However, the purposelessness of the exercise sometimes comes back to bite the movie on its tail, like when Dr. Grant’s child-hatin’ coldness (but not his heroic sense of adventure) get reassigned to a female character without any thought given to what that crucial change implicates.

Chris Pratt’s Owen has a very similar problem. Like the Indominous rex, he’s a creature of design, a classic movie hero seemingly grown in a lab solely to look handsome, squint purposefully, and crack wise. Like the reckless scientists in the film, the studio that created Owen were only trying to entertain the crowds looking for some dino action. They never once considered how dangerous their creation could be, how grotesque it would feel to watch a modern blockbuster in which every woman & POC character in charge would be proven weak & ineffective in contrast to the white man who swoops in to straighten everyone out. Even Chris Pratt’s bountiful charm can’t overcome an obstacle that treacherous & Owen’s flippant The-White-Man’s-In-Charge-Now attitude frequently comes off just as poorly as Claire’s Coldblooded-Damsel-In-Distress routine. Knowing that the effects these characters have on the film were likely a result of too many cooks spoiling the stew does little to help me forgive them for souring an otherwise pretty fun monster movie with a bunch of great, politically blank dinosaur action.

Lagniappe

Brandon: I honestly believe the Rosetta’s Stone of enjoying this film without caveat is personal acceptance of Claire as a campy mess. The awful performance combined with the (perhaps unintentionally) regressive dialogue was consistently humorous to me in the theater and I’m totally okay with that. I don’t need a movie that’s drawing power is mostly dinosaurs eating folks to win me over on an emotional or intellectual level. There wasn’t really enough going on with the film’s characters to provide a worthwhile face-value reading anyway. Claire is 1000% more entertaining as a joke than she is as a sympathetic character. It’s almost all for the best that that effect was unintentional; I wouldn’t want to believe that a final product that egregious was delivered on purpose.

Britnee: I think that I took Jurassic World too seriously during my first viewing because I expected it to be an extension of Jurassic Park. Of course, it is an extension of Jurassic Park, but it’s not as
similar to the first film as I initially thought. The dinosaur stuff was pretty similar, but everything else was totally different in the worst way possible. Now, I’m starting to see the overwhelming amount
of camp contained in the film. Owen the Raptor Man speeding around a dinosaur theme park on a motorcycle, a high-fashion ice queen trekking through dangerous territory in heels, and Jimmy Buffet running away from a dinosaur attack with a margarita in each hand are definitely not elements that would be found in a serious film, so I’m looking forward to watching it a second time with a much different mindset.

-The Swampflix Crew

Movie of the Month: Crimes of Passion (1984)

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Every month
one of us makes the other two watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made James, Britnee, and (our newest contributor) Kenny watch Crimes of Passion (1984).

Brandon: Director Ken Russell was a madman. Whether exploring the farthest reaches of his twisted psyche in projects like Altered States & Lair of the White Worm or making more commercial projects like the musical film Tommy, Russell had a knack for finding the surreal in the mundane. His films would reach for cinematic mindfuckery that audiences would expect in dignified art films, but his particular brand of on-screen madness was typically grounded in a mundane, often tawdry context. For instance, both Tommy & Altered States are overflowing with bizarre, dreamlike imagery but one is essentially a glorified The Who music video and the other is (reductively speaking) about a dude on drugs in a bathtub. Russell’s films are simultaneously both artful & cheap, an unholy marriage of high & lowbrow art and that’s partly why I love his work so much

In some ways Crimes of Passion, a 1984 sex thriller starring Kathleen “Serial Mom” Turner as a fashion designer by day & prostitute by night, is the prime example of Russell’s self-conflicting nature. It’s a visually stunning work that uses a Bava-esque attention to lighting to create an otherworldly playground of sexual fantasy & escapism, but it’s also just pure smut. It occasionally attempts to laud the virtues of sex work, but also uses the profession as a means to leer at naked bodies. It reads like an intentionally cruel vilification of marriage & monogamy that also has a lot to say about the hypocrisy of self-righteous religious piety, but it’s also just a long string of dirty one-liners like “Don’t think you’re getting back in these panties; there’s already one asshole in there.” Crimes of Passion is thoroughly bewildering in its refusal to be engaged with as either high art or low trash, but instead insists that audiences simultaneously appreciate it as both. In other words, it’s pure Ken Russell.

Kenny, what did you make of the film’s tonal mix of art house solemnity and tawdry sex jokes? How did its leering salaciousness interact with its more sincere views on monogamy & religious faith for you?

Kenny: “A Priest, a hooker and a husband walk into a motel…” This sounds like all the makings of a bad joke, but instead these are the ingredients to a perfectly balanced portion of 80’s cinema. The film walks a very tight line, carefully trying to not be cast as weighty or absurd. Without question, the director maintains a perfect tonal balance with the film’s mix of the “sacred against the profane.” However, the thing to marvel in is how Russell frames the context. What is sacred is absurd (ex. “holy sex toy”). What would be filth, the viewer comes to recognize as sacramental. I love the way it flips the norms on the viewer.

Speaking of flipping societal norms, how cool is Russel’s vision of China Blue? She has all of the makings of a kick-ass comic book anti-heroine. A successful woman in fashion, who finds herself trapped by the dated expectations of how “normal” people should behave, escapes to her seedy lair in the underbelly of the city to find a safe haven among the deviant. I love how she is placed in a position of power throughout the film, and how her independence as a woman is never compromised.

Did anyone else care for Ken Russell’s reversal of traditional gender roles? What are your thoughts on the dynamic of the strong female and the meek male character in need of saving?

Britnee: China Blue (aka Joanna) is the definition of an independent woman. Kathleen Turner is a total goddess that is known for portraying strong women in film, so she was perfect for this role. Russell really did an excellent job switching up traditional gender roles in Crimes of Passion by giving China Blue the power to create and control her own world while both major male characters, Reverend Peter Shayne and Bobby Grady, are both pretty weak and cannot function without their China Blue fix. The Reverend is the scariest, most unstable individual that one could ever imagine, and I was really shocked at how she wasn’t intimidated by him whatsoever. She didn’t run and hide from him, but instead fought him at his own game. Also, I think it’s important to mention that Russell didn’t end the film in a traditional way by giving China and Bobby an over-the-top wedding that leads to a happily-ever-after marriage. China didn’t need to marry Bobby in order to make a better life for herself; she already had her shit on lock.

One thing that really stuck out to me when we watched Crimes of Passion was how it seemed like two different movies mixed into one. The beginning was like an insane fever dream, but the second half of the film had a much more mild tone and was more on the serious side. It’s known as an erotic thriller, but it didn’t really feel like a thriller in the beginning. If there were any elements of a thriller in the beginning, they were definitely overshadowed by the all the peculiar incidents.

James, do you think that there was a significant change in the style of the film towards the latter half? If so, what are some of your thoughts/opinions of why Russell would do this?

James: Besides the completely bonkers ending, I agree that Crimes of Passion shifts to a subtler, more character driven direction in its second half, but tonal shifts are kind of a Russel trademark. As Brandon addressed in his opening remarks, Russell loves to have trash coexist with highbrow art and all of his films have done this with varying degrees of success. (Crimes of Passion is definitely up there). For me, the real heart of Crimes of Passion lies in its subdued second half, as these deeply damaged characters come more into focus.

The scenes of Bobby and Amy’s crumbling marriage and China Blue meeting with a dying man, in particular, are outstanding and it’s refreshing to see Russell, whose stylistic tendencies can sometimes overpower his actors, give them center stage and let their performances drive the movie. Turner, Laughlin, and especially Perkins pull out all the stops (he apparently huffed real nitrous between takes), putting in more effort than maybe the film deserves. I say this because, in the end, I am skeptical that Russell had a clear message he was trying to convey with Crimes of Passion. Much of the film feels like Russell being a prankster provocateur, which is not to diminish the visceral, surreal experience of watching it.

Brandon, what do you think Ken Russell set out to do with Crimes of Passion? Was he trying to make a genuine statement about relationships and sex or is he merely being a “prankster provocateur”?

Brandon: My short answer would be that he’s doing a little bit of both. There is an undeniable central message to Crimes of Passion, it’s just not a particularly deep one. The film essentially boils down to the thesis that monogamy = bad. There’s a vivid contrast between the miserably drab home life of the central married couple and the wild escapist fantasies of China Blue’s sex work that intentionally makes seedy, New York City prostitution feel divine in comparison to the straight life’s cruel bickering. China Blue has fun with her stable of johns’ perversions, never arguing with them until the minute she has a truthfully passionate impulse and falls in love. That moment is what tips the film to the slower, more grounded second half, so in a way monogamous love even has the gall to spoil the fun of the film itself.

And then there’s Russell’s prankster sensibilities running rampant in details like Anthony Perkins’ deadly “superman” vibrator and a nameless john’s terrifying bait & switch rape fantasy mined for dark humor. Russell was nothing if not a series of absurd contradictions and the contrasting anti-monogamy message & sex-obsessed pranks of Crimes of Passion can best be observed in harmony in the film’s soundtrack. I wasn’t keeping a tally, but I want to say that the not-so-subtly sarcastic, anti-monogamy ditty “It’s a Lovely Life” plays more often in this film than “That Thing You Do!” plays in That Thing You Do! Every time I thought they were finally playing a new tune, a stray bar from the chorus of “It’s a Lovely Life” would interrupt and remind me that there really is only one song on the soundtrack, like the movie was one overlong, salacious music video for a parody of a rock song. I’m definitely willing to chalk up that effect to Russell being a “prankster provocateur” (nice descriptor for him, by the way).

Kenny, considering that Crimes of Passion was released just a few years after the launch of MTV, can you see ways in which it was influenced by the music video as a media format?

Kenny: This movie couldn’t be more MTV if it had a Billy Idol music set in the middle. The cinematographer’s love of neon had to be the envy of any 80’s music video director. Sharing what I like to call an “80’s noir” look with other films such as Nightmare on Elm Street, Weird Science and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, I can certainly see how the director would use the look of the film to amplify the fever dream feeling Britnee spoke of. However, nothing in the movie seemed more 80s than the performance from Tony Perkins.

Britnee, did you find Russell’s decision to cast Perkins to be a bit of type casting at play?

Britnee: Absolutely! Type casting is definitely something that I get annoyed with from time to time, but I’ll let it slide for this one because Perkins was disturbingly perfect as The Reverend; he was a complete psycho, so who would be better for this role than the original “Psycho“? As crazy as this may sound, I find Perkins much more terrifying in Crimes of Passion than he is in Psycho. He’s just as demented as Norman Bates, except he’s got a sick religious obsession with a hooker and a bag of dangerous sex toys.

Crimes of Passion is not a very popular film. Even just in the group of Ken Russell films, it’s still more unknown than others. I don’t understand why it’s so underrated because it’s actually an amazing film with a star studded cast. It doesn’t even have that much of a cult following, which absolutely blows my mind. This movie is perfect for elaborate midnight showings. Picture it, a crowd full of fans dressed as China Blue singing along to “It’s a Lovely Life”; it’s just meant to be.

James, why do you think Crimes of Passion wasn’t a a bigger hit? Why doesn’t it have a large cult following?

James: I totally agree that Crimes of Passion should have a much bigger cult following but I think the film’s bizarre mixture of sex, violence, and humor was probably a turn off to mainstream audiences in 1984 who were expecting a more straight forward erotic thriller. This is also the exact reason that I enjoyed the film so much and why I think the film would play better for audiences today who have a more ironic, postmodern sensibility.

Lagniappe

Brandon: In some ways “should’ve been more popular” feels like the story of not only Crimes of Passion, but of Ken Russell’s entire career. Sure, he had a huge hit on his hands with his The Who musical Tommy and I know he has his die-hard fans, but his name is not one you typically hear when weirdo auteur names like Cronenberg & Lynch get tossed around. His films The Devils, Lair of the White Worm, and Altered States are just as arresting & cerebral as anything in those directors’ repertoires. Crimes of Passion has a little bit of a lighter hand than these titles, but its affinity for cheap sex jokes makes it even more of an anomaly than some of his other works. Sex sells, after all. Russell should’ve been more of a household name and the playful sex-obsession of Crimes of Passion should’ve been his foot in the door.

Kenny: Crimes of Passion is a must see for any 80s film buff. The lighting, the set pieces and art design, along with the acting, will give any film fan the nostalgic feeling of watching the dream sequences of A Nightmare on Elm Street combined with the eroticism of The Red Shoe Diaries.

Britnee: Crimes of Passion was a hoot! It’s been well over a month since we all sat down to watch it, and I still catch myself singing “It’s a Lovely Life” while reminiscing about all the insanity that occurred in the film. Also, I’m just realizing how China Blue kind of looks like a sassier version of Disney’s Cinderella. I’m not sure if Russell did this for any reason whatsoever, but it’s just something to think about.

James: Overall, the film is nuts, features memorable performances, and deserves a rightful place among Ken Russell’s best work.

Upcoming Movie of the Months:
June: James presents Blow Out (1981)
July: Britnee presents Highway to Hell (1991)