Movie of the Month: Blow Out (1981)

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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 James made Britnee & Brandon watch Blow Out (1981).

James: Brian De Palma’s political thriller Blow Out is our May Movie of the Month and I’m pretty stoked to revisit this hidden gem from one of my all-time favorite directors. Based on the 1966 film Blow Up about a fashion photographer who accidentally films a murder, Blow Out tweaks that premise, focusing on Jack Terry, a sound engineer for B horror movies, who gets entangled in a conspiracy after capturing the audio of a fatal car crash that kills a presidential candidate.

Putting his stylistic chops on full display, De Palma doesn’t pull any punches. Split screens, long tracking shots, dizzying angles; Hitchcock would be proud. It’s mind boggling that even with a star studded cast (including John Travolta, Nancy Allen, John Lithgow, and Dennis Franz) and gushing reviews from critics, Blow Out was a box office flop when it premiered in 1981. That’s a shame because everyone gives great performances, especially Lithgow as a cold blooded psychopath (what else) and Travolta as the sound engineer always looking for “the perfect scream”. Thankfully, Blow Out has gained popularity through the years and earned a reputation as a quintessential De Palma. I think it’s his best film.

What really blew me away re-watching Blow Out was how strongly the film holds up as a homage to the medium of film itself. It is a movie about making movies. As Jack puts together the audio and video of the fatal wreck, we are viewing the process of film making itself, the melding of sight and sound.

Brandon, do you feel like I do about Blow Out being a “movie about making movies”? Do you think this is why De Palma chose to focus on a movie sound engineer instead of a fashion photographer?

Brandon: I did find that approach interesting here, because normally films will interact with their own medium by showing members of a theater audience. This is even true in horror films, such as the monsters-break-the-fourth-wall classics Demons & The Ring or the throwaway gag in Gremlins where an entire theatrical audience is made of unruly, cackling monsters. There’s a little bit of audience-acknowledgement in the opening minutes of Blow Out, which features a few men in a screening room enjoying a hilariously tawdry, violent slasher movie. It adds whole other layer of specificity that the men are actually working on the film they’re watching, specifically on its sound effects. As James just noted, it’s not interacting with film as a medium from a consumer’s point of view, but rather from an active participant’s. Of course, the movie maker’s perspective isn’t entirely unique either, but the sound engineer angle has a very precise specificity to it, since most films about filmmakers would approach the story from the perspective of a writer or a director. It gets even more specific from there, given that these are men that only make cheap slasher flicks. At one point a character asks Jack if he works on “big” movies and he responds, “No. Just bad ones.”

That specificity turns out to be a very important distinction, especially the sound engineer detail. As James points out, Travolta’s protagonist, Jack, spends most of Blow Out’s run time attempting to construct a film version of a car crash he witnessed. Although film is a mostly visual medium, it’s Jack’s work with sound that dominates this process. He obsesses over the audio recording of the crash that he captured, using it as a cornerstone in his reconstruction of the crime scene. Yes, Blow Out is in some ways a movie about making movies, but more specifically it’s a movie about how essential sound is to film. It boils the medium down to one of its more intangible elements. In that way it’s much more unique than a lot of other movies about movies, arriving more than three decades before the film it most closely resembles in this approach (that I can recall, anyway), Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio.

Britnee, how do you think De Palma’s focus on sound in Blow Out shaped the film as a final product? Did its sound obsession have a big effect on you as a viewer, as opposed to how you normally watch movies?

Britnee: De Palma’s focus on sound really makes Blow Out a standout film and turns what could’ve been a run-of-the-mill thriller into a milestone in cinema. Of course, there are many other elements that make this film unique, but I think its obsession with sound is really what differentiated it from others. I have watched quite a few movies in my lifetime, but I’ve never come across or heard of a film that offers a behind-the-scenes look at the importance of sound in movies. Prior to viewing Blow Out, I never gave much thought to any of the sounds that occur during a movie, and now that I’ve seen the film, it’s all that I think about. In the final scene of Blow Out, Jack uses the screams from Sally’s murder for the bad movie he’s working on (his “perfect scream”), and I found this to be very unsettling. When I now hear a scream in a movie, I can’t help but think of the possibility of it being from an actual murder. What if there are psychotic sound technicians that go around killing people for authentic screams? It’s just something to think about.

The film’s camerawork is definitely something that stood out to me as well. Many of the angles were creative and voyeuristic with similarities to those in Blood and Black Lace, but there were a few that were way over the top, almost to the point of being ridiculous. The one that stands out the most to me is the merry-go-round shot that occurs in the scene where Jack is searching through his studio like a mad man looking for the missing tape. The camera must have spun around 100 times without stopping. It was like being on a Tilt-A-Whirl but not in a good way. Other than his theme park inspired camerashots, there were many others that were very innovative and enjoyable.

James, what are your feelings about De Palma’s imaginative cinematography? Were some of the shots a little absurd? Were they necessary for the film’s success?

James: A self-professed De Palma devotee, I love his unique approach to cinematography but I can understand how some viewers might scratch their heads at his more show-offy, “I went to film school” shots in Blow Out. Like the long tracking shot at the beginning of his1998 film Snake Eyes, many of these grandiose shots aren’t necessary, definitely a little absurd, but totally awesome. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have ejoyed Blow Out nearly as much if it didn’t included close up of owls and dizzying trips around Jack’s office. It reminds me of previous Movie of the Month directors like Mario Bava and Ken Russell who seem to take a similar delight in playing with their audience’s perspective

On a different note, I have to bring up the ending to Blow Out. As I addressed in my first question, Blow Out did not perform well in the bow office, and I wonder if the film’s bleak ending was the reason. With Jon Lithgow in full on psychopath mode and the Fourth of July festivities in full swing, we assume that that Jack will reach the girl in time but De Palma pulls the rug out from under us and the backrop of patriotism and freedom takes on a more ominous tone. Is this punishment for Jack’s participation in exploitation films? Is it a statement on American politics?

Brandon, what are your thoughts on Blow Out‘s ending? Why do you think De Palma chose to end the film in such an unconventional, bleak manner?

Brandon: I think the movie’s pessimistic conclusion is best understood in the context of De Palma’s status as one of the voices of New Hollywood. New Hollywood was already at least a decade old by Blow Out’s release, often cited as beginning with the release of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde in 1967, but De Palma’s aesthetic & tone was very much rooted in the movement. In addition to other genre-defining traits, notable New Hollywood films like Easy Rider, Chinatown, The French Connection, and Harold & Maude had a tendency to subvert audience’s expectations by concluding on bleak & unresolved notes. I suppose the idea was that this approach was more realistic & honest because conflicts in “real” life don’t always end on the definitive & upbeat terms that often accompanied more escapist Old Hollywood fare.

I think De Palma goes even a step further than some of his peers in this case by falsely promising a grandiose, happy conclusion. When Travolta’s protagonist Jack first rushes to save the day, he disruptively drives directly into a Liberty Day parade in a grand gesture that normally would end with him victorious & Lithgow’s antagonist in jail. Instead, he crashes & burns. Literally. The “happy ending” subversion in Blow Out is so deliberate & well-teased that it plays like a hilarious prank before it takes an even darker turn. Despite the violence & grim political intrigue of the film’s story, De Palma still found a way to let his darkly playful sense of humor shine through.

Britnee, were there any other ways you found Blow Out oddly humorous outside the slasher-movie & hero-saves-the-day fake-outs that began & closed the film? What made you laugh in-between those moments?

Britnee: There was a whole lot to laugh at between the opening and closing of the film. While Blow Out was a serious thriller, there were a good bit of ridiculous moments and scenes that got a few chuckles out of me. Particularly, the scene when Jack first meets Sally in the hospital. Sally basically has a concussion after being in a fatal car crash, but Jack is so set on dragging her out of her hospital bed and getting her to a bar. He does succeed with getting her out of the hospital while she’s still in need of medical attention, but ends up having a hard time getting her to the bar for a couple of drinks (go figure). As Brandon mentioned previously, De Palma does have a dark sense of humor, and this is a pretty good example of it. Also, I’m just now realizing that the lovers in Blow Out, Jack and Sally, just so happen to share the same name as the famous couple from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Interesting.

Most of the other comical occurrences in the film were minor, but still pretty damn hilarious. Jack’s over-the-top dramatic facial expressions, Sally’s quirky dialogue, and Manny Karp’s dirty wife-beater really stick out in my mind as little things that were humorous in the film.

Lagniappe

Brandon: One thing I think that has gotten somewhat lost in the mix here is the performance by Nancy Allen as Sally. Known to most as “That Lady from Robocop” and known to Blow Out director Brian De Palma at the time of filming Blow Out as “My Wife” (feel free to read that in the Borat vernacular if you need to), is an actress who doesn’t necessarily get a chance to shine often. She’s extremely charming here as the love-interest-who-isn’t-quite-what-she-seems noir archetype, recalling performances like Dotty in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure & the secretary from Twin Peaks. It’s not entirely surprising that Allen’s performance is overwhelmed by the likes of John Travolta, John Lithgow, and the impressively sleazy Dennis Franz, but I do feel like deserves more recognition for bringing a certain heart, authenticity, and (as Britnee mentioned) humor to a film that may have felt like a (exceedingly technically proficient) cold cinematic exercise without her.

Britnee: Blow Out is such an unrecognized treasure. What I liked the most about this movie were the many twists and turns that occurred from beginning to end. After the first half-hour or so, I thought that I had the film figured out; an average Joe solves a murder and gets the girl in the end. It turns out that I’m a terrible guesser.

James: Blow Out is essential De Palma and arguably his masterwork. With its mix of intrigue, nail biting suspense, and dark humor, the film transcends genres and feels as fresh as it must have in 1981. Showcasing De Palma’s formidable skill behind the camera, Blow Out is also a great homage to the process of film making from a modern master.

Upcoming Movie of the Months:
July: Britnee presents Highway to Hell (1991)
August: Brandon presents Babe: Pig in the City (1998)

-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)

Movie of the Month: The Seventh Seal (1957)

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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 James made Britnee & Brandon watch The Seventh Seal (1957).

James:
Ingmar Bergman’s classic The Seventh Seal was the Swedish auteur’s first major film and helped establish art-house cinema when it won the Special Jury Prize at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival. Set in Europe during the Black Death, the film follows Antonius Block, played by the great Max Von Sydow, as he tries to outwit the personification of Death in a game of chess. The film is now remembered mostly for its historical significance and that iconic image of Death, parodied in movies like Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey and Last Action Hero, rather than its substance. That’s a shame because The Seventh Seal is thematically rich and a masterpiece of cinematography. A jester’s performance interrupted by a procession of the plague stricken. An innocent woman burned at the stake. The Dance of Death. The stark black & white images Bergman presents are haunting, evocative, and foreboding, staying with you long after the final credits.

But watching the film again, I can see why The Seventh Seal isn’t as highly regarded as some of Bergman’s later films. As an art-house film, it is an intellectual, philosophical movie that modern audience might find too heavy and bleak. It also tackles one of the deepest and most disturbing questions of existence: Why, in the face of so much evil, does God remain silent? The Silence of God is a theme Bergman would explore in later films like Through a Glass Darkly and Cries & Whispers but in those films he found more nuanced ways to get his message across. In The Seventh Seal, by contrast, Bergman strips away everything in the story that doesn’t embellish the allegory, making it feel almost like a sermon. And as with most sermons, the effect the film has on you depends greatly on if you are on board with its message. The film’s rejection of religious dogmatism in favor of humanism was something that was very powerful for me when I watched it as a teenager. The scene where Antonius confesses his doubts about God and lines like “In our fear we make an idol and call it God” fed the existential angst of my teenage years but now the film seems somewhat heavy-handed.

Brandon, do you feel the film’s lack of subtlety helps or hurts its overall message?

Brandon:
This may be a result of watching the film with fresh eyes, but the heavy-handed nature of the sermonizing worked for me, if not only because it was backed up by the strength of the film’s images. Death appears very early in the film & his iconic chess match with Max von Sydow’s Antonius is initiated almost right away. Also, the way the film is so conspicuously staged (it was mostly filmed on a studio lot) is mirrored in the traveling theatre troop’s performances, which feels like Bergman intentionally pointing out the artificiality of the world he’s created here. The movie’s honest & explicit about the fact that it’s sermonizing about the fruitlessness of life & The Silence of God and the atmosphere of a stage play is well suited for the task. The brutal imagery of the plague that haunts the proceedings also supports the weight of the lofty subjects discussed throughout. The only element that didn’t land for me was Bergman’s added gallows humor. The line of jokes surrounding the blacksmith’s wife’s affair was particularly flat for me, but ultimately it was so inconsequential in comparison to the towering presence of the film’s ideology & imagery that it didn’t affect my viewing too much.

Speaking of artificiality & stark imagery, it makes total sense that Death’s visage from this film has had such a long life in pop culture. Somewhere between a mime & a wizard, it’s a simple look, but an unnerving one all the same. Just like with last month’s The Masque of the Red Death, Death is portrayed in The Seventh Seal as an indifferent inevitability. The difference between the two portrayals is in Death’s sense of humor & amusement here. He allows himself to be tricked into the iconic chess match with Antonius because it amuses him and later poses as a priest to take the knight’s confession in a church for much of the same reason. The Red Death would never have participated in such tomfoolery. Bergman’s intense focus on portrayals of Death in art are prevalent throughout the film: an artist paints The Dance of Death in a church; the traveling actors wear a Death mask in their play; characters frequently sing about Death, God, and Satan in their leisure time. Even the image of Death playing chess that Bergman chose to portray early in The Seventh Seal is lifted from a real-life Medieval painting by Albertus Pictor, which is acknowledged by the knight in the film. When another knight asks the church painter why he paints images of Death, he responds: “To remind people that they’re going to die,” and reasons that people like to be scared & a skull can be more interesting than a naked woman. The church painter seems to be Bergman’s direct mouthpiece in this scene, an artist standing in for the artist at work.

Britnee, how did you react to the portrayal of Death in this film? Does his playfulness & humor detract from his scariness or only add to it?

Britnee:
I’ve avoided watching The Seventh Seal for years because artsy films about death just aren’t my thing, but I’m glad that Movie of the Month exists because I would’ve never given this remarkable film a chance. The film’s statements about the silence of God were so blunt and direct, which really took me by surprise and left me with some haunting thoughts. The scene with Antonius confessing to the priest, who was actually Death in disguise, was probably my favorite scene because he’s just so honest and genuine throughout his entire rant. My appreciation for his authenticity was at an all-time high at that point. Now, as for Death, I really believe that his humor and silliness most definitely contribute to his scariness. The fact that he’s having a good old time messing with Antonius is definitely creepy because it makes him seem almost human. I think the concept of the uncanny can explain how Death’s humor is terrifying. Humor, silliness, and playfulness are very human-like traits, but while these traits are familiar to us, the forces of Death are quite unfamiliar.

I really enjoyed the connection Antonius had with Jof & Mia. When he watches their family come together, there seems to be a change in his character. Jof, Mia, and their son, Mikael, are a sweet little family with nothing but love for each other, and they are so different from all the other characters Antonius encounters in the film. He is intrigued by their simplicity, morality, and the way they represent a sign of light in a world of darkness. He is waiting and searching for an opportunity to do something that would really give his life meaning, and at the end of the film, he is able to distract Death from taking the lives of Jof & Mia. After reading a couple of articles about the film, I noticed that many compare Jof, Mia, and Mikael to Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. Honestly, I don’t believe that they are direct representations of the Holy Family, but I do think they represent how being simple and virtuous can give meaning to life and make it worth living.

James, what do you think Bergman was trying to portray with the Jof and Mia? What do they symbolize?

James:
You hit the nail on the head when you describe Jof, Mia, and Mikael as a sign of light in a world of darkness and I think, through them, Bergman is trying to articulate his vision for the only real way to “cheat” death. For me, each major character (Antonius, the squire, and Jof and Mia) reacts differently to the “Silence of God” to represent a broader way that human beings deal with Death. There is Antonius, who reacts with anger, disillusionment, and hopelessness; the squire, who seems more cynical but at peace with the absurd nature of being alive; and Jof and Mia who, while maybe naive, fully embrace life, family, and art despite the dread and despair that surrounds them. As Jof, Mia, and Mikael are the only characters to survive the film, I think Bergman is trying to say that the only way to conquer the fear of death is to truly embrace life, which makes the film, in my eyes, an ultimately uplifting one.

Brandon, do you agree with this interpretation? What do the different ways that the characters react to death symbolize to you?

Brandon:
I agree that there is an undeniable dichotomy set up between the way Jof & Mia gaily approach mortality as opposed to Antonius’ unhealthy obsession with it. If no characters were to survive the film, the couple’s final days would have been much more pleasant than Antonius’ fretting over how to cheat his inevitable demise. Even their occupations reflect their relationship with mortality. As a knight, Antonius is duty-bound to interacting with death on a regular, militaristic basis. As traveling performers, Jof & Mia entertain the living, bringing amusement into people’s lives instead of protecting their demise or threatening to end them.

Jof & Mia’s playful, jocular approach to living is contrasted not only by Antonius’ morbid navel-gazing, but also in the interruption of their theatrical performance by a procession of doomsaying monks. If Bergman wasn’t trying to praise the couple’s zest for life through their survival of Death, he at least drew a distinction between their public performance and that of the self-flagellating monks, who basically spoil a pleasant afternoon. As a provider of joy & entertainment, Jof is portrayed as a holy character in the film, one that receives divine visions from beyond the mortal realm. The religious folks & Antonius are more or less party poopers that don’t know how to enjoy a good thing before it’s gone.

Britnee, where do you think Bergman’s film falls on that divide? Does it strive more to provide life-affirming entertainment & encourage joy or does it obsess over the more morbid aspects of the inevitability of our mortality?

Britnee:
I think the film successfully provides a positive view about the rather depressing fact that we are all going die. We all seem to be on the same page when it comes to the Carpe Diem attitude of Jof & Mia, and the couple’s influence on Antonius is what, in my opinion, makes this film fall more into the positive side of the divide. Antonius makes himself sick by obsessing over death and trying to give his life meaning before he cashes in his chips. After witnessing years of brutality as a Crusader and returning home only to find a town filled with Negative Nancys, it’s no wonder why he has no gusto or passion for living. He only seems to be truly happy once he meets Jof & Mia and spends time with them. Bergman makes the couple the standout characters in the film in order to create an optimistic view on life.

Lagniappe

Britnee:
We are all going to die at some point, so living in the moment and not worrying about our inevitable demise is the key to a happy, meaningful life. That’s the main message that I got from The Seventh Seal, and I really didn’t expect to have any positive lingering thoughts from a film best known for its personification of Death. There’s not much action or drama in the film, but the rich symbolism, thought provoking scenes, and intricate themes make up for anything the film may lack. I finally understand why The Seventh Seal is so legendary.

Brandon:
I’d just like to point out that our first few choices for Movie of the Month (The Seventh Seal, The Masque of the Red Death, Blood & Black Lace, and Crimes of Passion) are a pretty morbid group. I wonder if the cold weather’s getting to us. Maybe by the summer it’ll be all Gidget movies and stoner comedies. That being said, The Seventh Seal & The Masque of the Red Death were a pretty great one-two punch in the way they fed off of each other thematically. According to Wikipedia, Roger Corman himself was aware of the thematic similarities, admitting that he delayed the production of Masque because of them. He said, “I kept moving The Masque of the Red Death back, because of the similarities, but it was really an artificial reason in my mind.” Even if it is an artificial connection, they’ll be forever linked in my mind as well, because our back to back conversations about them here covered a lot of the same territory (mostly in our contemplation of an uncaring, inevitable Death).

James:
I thought it was interesting how The Masque of the Red Death and The Seventh Seal share similar themes, but the directors handle them in strikingly different ways. Bergman uses stark black and white images while Corman uses bright colors. Bergman’s dialogue is melodramatic while Corman’s is campy. The contrast really shows the tremendous influence a director’s style has on how we perceive a film. The art-house style of The Seventh Seal makes it feel more important and “deeper”, but, in my opinion, The Masque of the Red Death is the more enjoyable film. Regardless, The Seventh Seal is a bona fide classic and a great introduction to the world of Ingmar Bergman. Can’t wait until next month.

Upcoming Movie of the Months
April: Britnee presents Blood & Black Lace (1964)
May: Brandon presents Crimes of Passion (1984)

-The Swampflix Crew

Movie of the Month: The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

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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 watch The Masque of the Red Death (1964).

Brandon:
The Masque of The Red Death is one of eight films in the Corman-Poe cycle: a series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations directed by B-movie legend Roger Corman for American International Pictures. The Masque is widely considered the best of the Poe cycle as well as one of Corman’s best films overall, a sentiment I wholeheartedly agree with. There’s so much about The Masque that’s firmly in my wheelhouse: over-the-top set design, an early glimpse of 60’s era Satanic psychedelia, Vincent Price taking effete delight in his own cruelty, a fatalistic ending that doesn’t stray from the pessimism of Poe’s story, Corman pushing the limits of what he can get away with visually on a shoestring budget. I love it all.

What struck me most on this recent viewing of The Masque is how well it’s suited for the Carnival season. With Fat Tuesday looming around the corner, it was impossible not to see aspects of Carnival in the masquerade ball hosted by Prince Prospero (Vincent Price). The cheap costumes & mockery of opulence is very much reminiscent of Mardi Gras parades. There’s even a scene where Prospero literally throws beads from a balcony shouting “Gifts! Gifts!” and scoffs at the greed of the people below. As the threat of The Red Death plague becomes increasingly severe, the masquerade takes on a “party while the ship is sinking” vibe New Orleans knows all too well. Horror films are usually tied to Halloween, but The Masque of the Red Death is distinctly akin to Mardi Gras in my mind.

James, do you also see Carnival in The Masque’s decadence, or does the Satan worship overpower that influence?

James:
Man, The Masque of the Red Death was awesome. The bold stylistic choices that Corman made on a limited budget and limited time (the final masquerade scene was filmed in a day) are astonishing. Some of the images in the film (The Red Death himself being the starkest) are mesmerizing. I think the film should also be noted for its pitch-perfect tone. Despite its macabre images, philosophical discussions of Satanism, and Prince Prospero’s nastiness, what could have been a dreary chore is instead a blast throughout.

In regards to the presence of Carnival in the film, I do think the masquerade ball scenes in particular have a very Mardi Gras feel to them. Masks with feathered beaks, gorilla suits, and a child masquerading as a little person don’t feel too far removed from the typical Carnival season debauchery. The Carnival feel also deepened a central theme of the film: lost souls celebrating a kind of momentary victory over Death. Ultimately, the film seems to have a nihilistic attitude towards Death, implying that the celebration is indeed a momentary victory and whether Christian, Satanist, or Atheist, we will all have to eventually confront an indifferent Death. But it also seems to find solace in our ability to shape our own existence while we are alive. This is echoed The Red Death’s climactic statement “Each man creates his own God for himself – his own Heaven, his own Hell.”

Britnee, what was your interpretation of the film’s philosophy on Death? Is it wholly negative?

Britnee:
This was my first time viewing The Masque of Red Death, and I have to say that I was blown away. Vincent Price as Prince Prospero was dynamite. I was so close to hiding under the covers during the close-ups of his signature evil stare, but seconds later, I was imagining what it would be like to have a conversation & afternoon tea with him in one of those seven colored rooms. Also, one of my favorite things about the film was the set and costumes. I know the look was supposed to have a Medieval vibe, but I really felt that I was at a Satanic drug dealer’s mansion party in the early 60s. All that was missing was the orange shag carpet.

As for my interpretation of the film’s philosophy on Death, I’m honestly not 100% sure. Death has always terrified/interested me, and I caught myself really falling into some deep thoughts about it while watching this film. The Christians and Satanists in Masque both experienced violent deaths, and neither of their higher powers swooped in to save them or give them a miraculous second chance. I guess the film is trying to show that Death cannot be avoided, regardless of power or faith. In the end when The Red Death states “Sic transit gloria mundi,” which literally means “Thus passes the glory of this world,” everything sort of hit me. Life can be very short & leave without warning, whether you’re a Christian villager living in poverty or a wealthy Satanic prince; it’s coming for us all!

Something else that stuck out was the interesting relationship between Prospero and Francesca. After sparing Francesca’s life, Prospero brings her to his castle to make her his consort and gives her a taste of his world. He becomes very intrigued with Francesca’s innocence and faith. As for Francesca, there are times where it seems as though she is giving in to temptation, but simultaneously she is in constant focus on her escape.

Brandon, what themes do the relationship between Prospero and Francesca bring to the film?

Brandon:
It’s reasonable to assume that Prospero wasn’t always the cruel tyrant we meet in the picture. He didn’t emerge from the womb executing peasants and cursing God. Prospero’s poisonous personality was likely the result of a gradual corruption of his soul, an evil born of his prosperous upbringing. Raised with untold wealth & influence, he came to rule over his fellow human beings like an unforgiving deity. Unsatisfied with the power his privilege as Earthly nobility affords him, he reaches even further beyond this realm and makes a deal with Satan in an attempt to overcome Death. Yet, there’s a little speck of good left in Prospero’s heart, which I think is what we see in his treatment of Francesca. At times he tries to prove that even her innocence can be corrupted because he wants to be assured that his own wickedness can be found in every person’s heart. He even asks her to join him in mocking the greed & decay in the guests at the masque, because he believes all people to be as amoral as he is. At other times, he goes out of his way to protect her and spare her life, an instinct that surprises even The Red Death. The only other glimpse of good we see in Prospero is when he asks his guards to spare a baby’s life at the gates. Although he is beyond redemption, (not that redemption matters in the eyes of Death,) Francesca affords Prospero his last chance to act like a true human being.

Then there’s the fact that the actress who plays Francesca, Jane Asher, was just achingly beautiful. So beautiful, in fact, that she was in a relationship with & at one time engaged to Sir Paul McCartney in the 60s. She was attractive enough to snare a Beatle during the fever pitch of Beatlemania, so surely a demented prince who can’t even cheat Death wouldn’t stand a chance against her charms. Perhaps simple lust spares her life. I think Francesca stands out here as a hip youngster (maybe it’s all in those bangs?) and helps add to that 60s drug dealer mansion party vibe mentioned above. So much of the film feels rebellious in an anachronistic way. Prospero’s philandering is out of control. Lines like “Satan rules the universe!” and “Each man creates his own god for himself” are pretty edgy for 1964, even coming from the villains. Keep in mind this is still years before the New Hollywood, a movement Roger Corman cannot be praised enough for influencing.

James, how do you see the balance between the movie’s setting and the era in which it was filmed?

James:
The movie definitely has an edge that makes it still creepy and blasphemous over 40 years later. I wonder how much Corman was in tune with the counterculture of the time because, despite it being a British production, the film feels more like a deranged product of the 60’s San Fransisco hippie movement, like a horror version of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls; its macabre decadence fueled by lust and greed. It’s also most likely no coincidence that the epicenter of the hippie movement was the same place that the Anton Lavey established the Church of Satan in 1966. Themes like the destruction of social norms and an openness to sexual and spiritual experiences seem to be shared by The Masque of the Red Death, Satanists, and the hippies; “Each man creates his own god for himself” is THE basic philosophical statement of Satanism. I also think this is reflected in the dark, psychedelic imagery that The Masque of the Red Death and Satanist rituals share. (Photo for example)

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Britnee, How strongly do you think the psychedelic aesthetic of the 60’s influenced The Masque of the Red Death? Any specific examples that stick out to you?

Britnee:
I think that The Masque of the Red Death was as psychedelic as it gets, at least for a horror film based in Medieval times. An example that really sticks out to me is the colors used throughout the film, most importantly, the use of red. Red usually represents blood, gore, and all the good stuff horror movies are made of, but when I also think of the term “psychedelic,” red is usually the color that comes to mind. After doing a little research, I found that the color red has a pretty long wavelength and very low vibration; this pretty much explains how the red tint that is present in multiple scenes really gives off this warm, draining feeling. Sounds a bit like the feeling you get after taking a hallucinogen or two, right? Also, all of those gaudy colors in the castle & clothing of Prospero and his pals can’t go without mention. While I’m not a Middle Ages expert or enthusiast, I’m almost positive that the colors of clothing and décor weren’t as bright and vibrant during that era as they are in the film. It’s obvious that the 60’s psychedelic aesthetic heavily influenced those hues.

Lagniappe

Brandon:
I’d just like to point out one last time just how early this film was released. A lot of what we think of as the hippie-dippie 60s came very late in the decade. The era-defining Summer of Love was in 1967, the same year Roger Corman dropped acid for the first time and fictionalized his experience in the film The Trip. The Masque‘s 1964 release positions the film as years ahead of its time. Corman was pulling off the Satanic psychedelia vibe the same year that Mary Poppins & My Fair Lady were huge cultural hits. I’m not saying Masque was particularly a major influence on the countercultural swell that was to come, but it at least was somewhat visually intuitive. And Corman himself did have direct influence on the later films that typified that counterculture, films like Easy Rider and Bonnie & Clyde. Even back then, when “don’t trust anyone over 30” was a motto to live by, he was the hippest geezer in the room and a filmmaking rebel.

Britnee:
After the discussion with The Swampflix Crew, so many ideas and thoughts about The Masque of the Red Death were brought to the surface. It gave me an excuse to watch the film a couple more times, and I fell in love with it more each viewing. The movie also got me hooked on the Corman-Poe films, so I’m currently trying to get my hands on all of them. The Masque of the Red Death was just a great balance of horror, suspense, and drama that gave me some really unsettling thoughts & a case of the willies. Great job, Corman!

James:
Really enjoyed the discussion of The Masque of the Red Death. Watching the film a second time and taking into account all the points you guys made deepened my appreciation and understanding of the film. Definitely want to see more Corman, especially the Poe films. As Brandon pointed out, Corman seemed to have his hand on the pulse of the counterculture and was always one step ahead of mainstream Hollywood. Truly a filmmaker ahead of his time.

-The Swampflix Crew

Upcoming Movie of the Months
March: James presents The Seventh Seal (1957)
April: Britnee presents Blood & Black Lace (1964)

Swampflix’s Top Films of 2014

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1. Snowpiercer – A high-concept dystopian sci-fi parable, our choice for Movie of the Year is likely to leave you with more questions than answers. However, if you avoid getting wrapped up in the literal mechanics of how its world functions or in its generic political philosophy, there’s an excess of violence, absurdity, and genuine heart bending over backwards to entertain you. It’s a wildly exciting ride for those who stop questioning its methods and instead submit to its charms.

2. The Babadook – The best horror film of 2014 is flooded with genuine scares essential to the genre, but its true threat is more intimate & psychological than what you’d find in a traditional monster movie. The Babadook will linger in your mind for days, months. Maybe forever.

3. Gone Girl – The Lifetime movie this film pretends to be in its first half is merely a cover-up of the excessive, sociopathic spectacle lurking under the surface. Fincher proves again that he can do no wrong.

4. Interstellar – Grand, epic, visually striking. The volume & variety of complaints surrounding this wonderful film has got to be the most hilarious joke of 2014.

5. Blue Ruin – A grim, realistic, edge-of-your-seat revenge thriller that hits familiar beats carved out by directors like Jeff Nichols & The Coen brothers without ever feeling redundant.

6. We Are the Best! – A heartwarming story about three adolescents discovering their inner punks. These kids are the best.

7. Under The Skin – Haunting. Sparse yet loaded with unforgettable images & sounds. Glazer is a genius.

8. The Grand Budapest Hotel – Wes Anderson seems to be testing just how much Wes Anderson people can take with his last couple of features. When he’s working with images this strong & performances as hilarious as Ralph Fiennes’ is here, we can take a lot.

9 The One I Love – A romantic trip into The Twilight Zone that’s both hilarious & thought-provoking. We’re not sure if Romantic Horror is a genre, but this film might qualify if it were.

10. Venus in Fur – Disregarding Polanski’s personal life, you have to give him credit here for turning a delicate premise into such a humorous, sensual, and metatextual success. Venus is brilliantly acted, masterfully escalated, and wonderfully critical of both sex politics & theater as an art form.

HM. Obvious Child – Approaching a sensitive subject from a sincere & deeply empathetic place, this film deserves to be recognized as one of the all-time great romantic comedies. Or at least one of the best in recent memory.

-The Swampflix Crew

Read Britnee’s picks here.
Read James’ picks here.
Read Brandon’s picks here.

Welcome to Swampflix

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Swampflix is a small collective of Southeast Louisiana natives who spend way too much time watching movies. We enjoy everything from the heights of art cinema to depths of basic cable schlock. More often than not, our favorite films are the ones that marry those two aesthetics. We genuinely try our best to love every movie we watch, so know that it hurts us to give one a negative review. We’re looking for the gems in the garbage, not for films to shame.

As New Orleans-based critics we may occasionally focus on local films or theaters, but mostly we just want to talk movies. All kinds of movies. Our New Orleans temperament will most likely show less in the material we cover and more in the way we cover it. We may be a little late to the table for some conversations, a little sloppy or inconsistent in others, but mostly we just showed up to party, to indulge in a good time. We hope you will indulge with us.

Thank you for reading Swampflix. Enjoy!

Questions? Concerns? Contact us @ swampflix@gmail.com