To Die For (1995)

Nicole Kidman stars in Gus Van Sant’s tabloids-obsessed erotic thriller To Die For as a local cable Weather Girl from the suburbs who cons metalhead teenage dirtbags into murdering her husband. It is maybe the most purely 90s Movie I’ve caught up with since the 90s ended, having blindly stumbled upon it as a recent thrift store purchase because I dug Kidman’s lewk on the poster. Her costars include Ultra 90s sitcom performers Wayne Knight (Seinfeld), Kurtwood Smith (That 70s Show), George Segal (Just Shoot Me!), and the never-less-than-stellar Illeana Douglas (who had at least one guest spot on any TV show you can name) among Van Sant’s usual movie-star caliber cast of players. Arriving just one year after Pulp Fiction, it experiments with the scrambled timeline messiness that became inescapably popular in a post-Tarantino world, applying it to the Joe Eszterhaz era erotic thriller, as defined by 90s titles like Showgirls & Basic Instinct. Danny Elfmann provided the score, which can’t help but recall the 90s suburbia fantasy worlds he helped establish for Tim Burton in titles like Edward Scissorhands & Beetlejuice (which spilled over into the decade in its animated Saturday Morning Cartoon form). The only way To Die For could be more quintessentially 90s is if it were Clueless and, even then, both films share their casting of Dan Hedaya as a disgruntled dad.

Beyond its immersion in contemporary aesthetics & personae, To Die For is distinctly 90s on a philosophical level in its bottomless appetite for tabloid sensationalism. Vanity Fair dubbed the 90s to be The Tabloid Decade in its 1999 retrospective on how news media had changed over those ten years (which makes sense given that it was the decade when the O.J. Simpson trial kicked off the 24-hour News Cycle, bringing tabloid journalism into every American’s living room on a round-the-clock routine). Energized by that growing cultural obsession with Celebrity Criminals, Nicole Kidman plays a tabloid superstar who recalls archetypes of the era like Lorena Bobbitt, Patsy Ramsey, and Tonya Harding (which makes it fitting that I, Tonya later copied from this movie wholesale and turned every last interesting thing about it into a tactless embarrassment). The novel Buck Henry adapted his screenplay from was even “loosely” based on a real-life tabloid sensation: Pamela Smart, a New Hampshire high school employee who really did seduce her school’s least respected teens into murdering her husband. Although Smart was not a Weather Girl in real life, contemporary audiences still would have recognized the iconography of her crime from the supermarket magazine racks and instantly known where this story is headed, so Henry & Van Sant waste no time taking them there. The movie begins with Kidman being mobbed by paparazzi at her husband’s funeral. Her fame is then projected on tabloid magazine-inspired opening credits so intensely up-close that they resemble a Roy Lichtenstein print in motion. A fictional headline that reads “Sex, Violence, and the Weather” could have served as an alternate title if Van Sant really wanted to commit to this sadistic tabloid obsessiveness (it’s what the Lifetime Channel version of the movie would have done, anyway), but we still get the point without him going there.

Since the Pamela Smart story was already familiar to the point where it was practically a modern folktale, To Die For is less about the surprise of her life’s twists than it is about the alluring idiosyncrasies of her character. Kidman’s persona in the film feels like a Mainstream Hollywood mutation of the fame-seeking anti-heroines of John Waters’s oeuvre: Pink Flamingos‘s Babs Johnson, Female Trouble‘s Dawn Davenport, Cecil B. Demented‘s Honey Whitlock, etc. She is desperate to be a famous TV personality at any cost. At first, her path to achieving that dream seems to be exhibiting her bombshell good looks on a local cable network’s news show as their eye-candy Weather Girl. Murdering her husband was only a necessary insurance measure, since he disapproved of her leveraging that gig into bigger opportunities that might have come along – preferring that she settle for becoming a stay-at-home mother instead. It turns out, though, that the murder itself was a much quicker path to televised fame. There’s a noticeable thrill that lights up her eyes once she realizes that the world’s attention is glued to her misdeeds on the screen (and on supermarket magazine racks). By 1995, neither celebrating nor satirizing the attention-seeking narcissism of tabloid-friendly criminals were especially novel; Waters alone was nine features deep on the topic with Serial Mom the year before. Still, the specific textures of Smart’s bizarre circumstances, Kidman’s sweetly cruel performance, and Van Sant’s playfully ironic (and, frankly, patronizing) tone make the film a sadistic delight.

The only hiccup I have with my enjoyment of To Die For is the way Gus Van Sant plays with the order of events. His mix of mockumentary and traditional narrative filmmaking styles is generally fun to watch, but there is a jerky stop-and-start rhythm to their assemblage that makes it difficult to fully lose yourself in the story being told. Otherwise, I’m totally on board with this film as an exercise in 90s-specific aesthetics, especially in its harsh contrast between Kidman’s bubbly femininity and the speed metal riffs that frequently interrupt Elmann’s whimsical score. The film only becomes more impressive the longer you dwell on how I, Tonya disastrously attempted to repeat every single trick in its playbook (which becomes apparent as soon as Illeana Douglas begins conducting her “interviews” from an ice-skating rink) but stumbled on a hypocritical tact of audience-blaming that blew up the entire balancing act. By contrast, Van Sant openly indulges in being captivated by the Pamela Smart story, shamelessly burrowing into its most sordid details and cruelly poking fun at the small-town simplicity of its central players. It might not be as Moral of an approach as the audience shaming finger-wagging of I, Tonya, but it’s at least an honest one. To Die For captures a very specific time in tabloid criminal celebrity by genuinely participating in its full allure, like a Lifetime Original Movie that happens to feature actual movie stars. If nothing else, it’s easily among the career best outings for both Kidman & Van Sant, who have plenty of formidable contenders for that honor.

-Brandon Ledet

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project (2019)

I remember when the news of Marion Stokes’s death made headlines because of her massive home-recorded VHS collection. At least, I recall the news of that self-produced library being absorbed by the Internet Archive in San Francisco years later, where its unparalleled immensity first became evident. For three consecutive decades, the seemingly anonymous, obsessive woman simultaneously recorded multiple television news networks on 70,000 VHS cassettes. In the hands of a media watchdog organization or an avant-garde digital artist, this project might have been contextualized as a radical act of persevering history. From a non-publicized, self-funded effort from an unknown, private citizen, however, it was treated more as a sign of mental illness. The inherent value of Marion Stokes’s D.I.Y. archive is instantly recognizable to anyone with a passing interest in pop culture preservation – especially given the scope & consistency of her efforts – but the discussion around what she accomplished was initially framed as an unintended byproduct in the life of a hoarder & a crackpot. Recorder, a new documentary that attempts to clarify who Stokes was and why she created such a labor-intensive archive, is an essential corrective to those misinformed assumptions. This movie vindicates Marion Stokes as an absolute fucking genius who know exactly what she was doing, even when those closest to her didn’t have a clue.

I don’t mean to suggest that Stokes’s characterizations as a reclusive eccentric and a hoarder are entirely inaccurate. Her obsessive collection of television news broadcasts extended to other, less uniquely valuable “archives” of furniture she liked, Apple computer products, books, and the tell-tale Achilles heel of many hoarders: newspapers & magazines. It’s just entirely unfair & disingenuous to suggest that Stokes did not understand the full value of her D.I.Y. television news broadcast archive, which was very much a deliberately political & academic project of her own design. At one time in her early life as an ideologically combative idealist, Stokes worked as a legitimate, professional librarian in NYC. Her political associations with Socialist and Communist organizations in the 1950s eventually locked her out of that work, as she was effectively backlisted for her leftist ideals. Her interest in broadcast television as a powerful ideological communication tool began with later appearances on a local roundtable panel discussion show called Input, where she was a regular pundit as a political organizer in the 60s & 70s. Recording & preserving a physical archive of TV news broadcasts became a personal interest to her since even the primordial days of Betamax, but it was the news coverage of the Iranian hostage crisis in the late 70s that really kicked her diligent recording into high gear. As coverage of the event evolved from news to propaganda, she became fascinated by the way TV news was reshaping & repackaging facts in real time – something that would extend to how American crises like police brutality, the War on Terror, and the AIDS epidemic would be covered in the future. This was not some unplanned hoarder’s tic that blindly stumbled into cultural relevance; it was a purposefully political act from the start.

You could easily assemble a hundred distinctly fascinating documentaries out of this one rogue librarian’s archive. Stokes’s tapes are a bottomless treasure trove for an editing room tinkerer, which leads to some truly stunning moments here – particularly in a sequence that demonstrates in real time how all TV news coverage was gradually consumed by the tragedy of 9/11. As this D.I.Y. archive is an extensive cultural record of American society over the past thirty years, the list of trends & topics that could be explored in their own full-length documentaries are only as limited as an editor’s imagination. Recorder does excellent work as a primer on the cultural wealth archived in those VHS tapes (which have since been digitized), as it both explores larger ideas of how media reflects society back to itself and does full justice to the rogue political activist who did dozens & dozens of people’s work by assembling it. The film doesn’t shy away from acknowledging that the project became an escapist & dissociative mechanism for the increasingly reclusive Stokes as the years went on, but it also makes it explicitly clear that she knew the full value of what she was preserving well before anyone else validated her efforts. Was Marion Stokes paranoid that America was being taken over the by the Nazi Right, that the media was systemically racist in how it contextualized police brutality, that all of this raw cultural record would be lost by television networks that claimed they were archiving their own material? Or was she an incredibly perceptive activist who’d be proven right on all those counts, given enough time? Recorder is a great film, but it’s only the first step in giving this visionary her full due.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #92 of The Swampflix Podcast: Downton Abbey (2019) & Movie Sequels to TV Shows

Welcome to Episode #92 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our ninety-second episode, Britnee & Brandon are joined by special celebrity guest star Boomer to discuss feature-length movie sequels to television shows, with a particular focus on Downton Abbey (2019), Da Kath and Kim Code (2005), and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

-Brandon Ledet, Britnee Lombas, and Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Deathrow Gameshow (1987)

I’m a huge sucker for dystopian gameshow cinema, so my appreciation for Deathrow Gameshow might very well be entirely dependent on genre. There’s nothing particularly special about this mid-80s sci-fi cheapie that you couldn’t find in titles like The Running Man, Death Race 2000, The Hunger Games, or Nerve in terms of dystopian world-building or slick production design. Deathrow Gameshow even sidesteps the genre’s usual adherence to liberal, anti-authoritarian politics to sympathize & laugh along with the abusers in power, which seems like the exact wrong way to go about making one of these things. Still, I couldn’t help but take delight of some of the Killer Gameshow from the Future surface pleasures of the film’s premise because the genre territory it occupies is so instantly appealing to me. As the film went along, I even started to appreciate the way its disgusting Reagan era politics & sadistic black humor helped distinguish the work from its genre peers, even if by being spiritually repugnant.

In the not too-distant future of1991, a game show titled Live or Die executes prisoners for captivated audiences’ afternoon television entertainment. Deathrow inmates sign waivers to appear on the show, where they answer trivia questions or complete simple (but rigged) tasks in the hopes of winning prizes. The cost of an incorrect answer or a job half done is a televised execution – by guillotine, by electrocution, by explosion, by whatever keeps eyes glued to the television. The show is wildly popular, with citizens committing crimes for the opportunity to appear as contestants & family members of the executed cheering on their death for brief fame or small prizes. Live or Die does have its critics, though. Protestors gather in the streets holding signs saying the host “should be aborted.” There’s also, of course, people out to kill the host themselves to avenge lives he’s ended on air for personal profit. What’s weird is that we’re asked to sympathize with the sick, oppressive fuck instead of his portrayed-as-whiny detractors. Instead of watching him suffer under the weight of his own societal sins like, say, James Woods’s similar sleaze bag in Videodrome, we’re supposed to be invested in his spiritual growth as he’s threatened punishment, but ultimately gets out on top. That might be a result of the film’s dedication to comedy instead of horror or dystopian sci-fi, but it is a striking deviation from how these things usually go nonetheless.

Besides aligning audience sympathies with its selfish sleaze bag gameshow host, Deathrow Gameshow also disgusts in the targets of its misanthropic humor. This film takes jabs at “militant” feminism, makes casual references to prison rape & domestic violence for easy “humor,” and is convinced that the mere mention for homosexual desire is the height of hilarity. It’s also worth mentioning that although there’s diversity in its deathrow prisoner population, the only black characters represented onscreen are violent criminals. The film wholly & cruelly commits to a Reagan-era sense of Fuck You, I Got Mine selfishness, but in a way that almost works to its advantage. Even if its goal was to make me laugh with its cruel sense of punching down humor, the way those gleeful stabs at political incorrectness land make me recoil in horror, which in a way heightens the effect of its premise. This is a crass film with a complete absence of a moral center, but that kind of Money > Empathy sentiment fits its killer gameshow premise surprisingly well. I’m not sure the effect was entirely intentional, but the discomfort certainly makes for a memorable, authentically horrific viewing experience.

That’s not to say all of Deathrow Gameshow’s humor amounted to empty cruelty, though. I got a chuckle when one of the Live or Die contestants wins death by hanging as a gameshow prize, only for a The Price is Right-type announcer to declare, “Every man dreams of being well hung.” It’s not a particularly smart or inventive joke, but it’s well told, much like other gags where a secretary is caught masturbating or a rolled-up car window reads the message, “Blow it out your ass.” Everything in Deathrow Gameshow fits in one of two categories: sex or violence. Sometimes that 80s-era lizard brain idiocy can be amusing, like when an assassin, portrayed by an actor known simply as Beano, chows down on a whole mess of spaghetti while casually discussing murder. Sometimes it can be deflating, like when a character calling a woman coded to be a Feminist “a stupid bitch” is supposed to be a knee-slapper of a punchline.

There are some stranger, non-comedic touches to Deathrow Gameshow too: prisoners only being referred to as numbers, television advertisements for sex work, a nightmare sequence being rigidly blocked off like a movie trailer, a character justifying the show’s murder for entertainment ethos by explaining, “Life is a transitional state and Death is God’s way of saying ‘Take a Break.’” The movie’s just a little too compromised in its spiritually corrupt humor & underwhelming in its world-building ambition to award a hearty recommendation. I don’t mean to besmirch the good name of filmmaker Mark Pirro, whose other titles include Nudist Colony of the Dead, A Polish Vampire in Burbank, and Curse of the Queerwolf, but I’m not sure he was the best person to tackle the material. While Pirro’s grimy, off-putting sense of humor did provide the film a memorably sleazy, discomforting vibe, it’s a property that could’ve been an all-time classic in the more ambitious hands of The Canon Group or maybe Roger Corman’s crew. As is, Deathrow Gameshow is entertaining enough in its lighthearted approach to cruel, meat-headed exploitation cinema. It’s just difficult to shake the feeling that it could’ve been something more worthwhile.

-Brandon Ledet

The Groove Tube (1974)

The sketch comedy movie is an often derided & dismissed genre with rare exceptions like Kentucky Fried Movie breaking through to land significant cultural impact. Loosely connected sketches strung together for a full-length feature have a minute-to-minute “hit or miss” reputation with general audiences, who seem happily willing to brush them off as empty frivolity. I probably should not have been surprised, then, that the 1974 sketch comedy The Grove Tube has been largely forgotten by mainstream culture and, according to indicators like its pitifully low score on Letterboxd, dismissed even by those who have a patience for low budget experiments in independent cinema. I was still a little taken aback, though, since the film is so much funnier & more substantial than its reputation suggests. According to Wikipedia, “The film was originally produced to be shown at the Channel One Theater on East 60th St. in New York, a venue that featured R-rated video recordings shown on three television sets, which was a novelty to audiences at the time.” You can feel that artsy, confrontationally low-fi aesthetic in the film’s comedic tone, which aims more to amuse the post-hippie counterculture types of NYC than to reach as wide of an audience as possible. Shades of future counterculture comedy outlets like Wonder Showzen, UCB, UHF, and early SNL are detectable throughout. Absurdism, non sequitors, chaos disguised as order: The Groove Tube is surprisingly experimental & forward-thinking for a sketch comedy feature. Better yet, its individual sketches pay off with a much higher success rate than they typically do in these sprawling, stoner-minded comedies. It’s consistently funny.

The film opens with a fairly straightforward parody of 2001: A Space Odyssey, where a small community of apes are confronted with the mystery of a television set instead of the Kubrick film’s monilith. When the television flips on, a druggy montage of nuclear families watching TV over inverted outer space imagery read the title credits: The Groove Tube. This is clearly a film where early 70s counterculture laughs in the face of mainstream consumerism & family values, poking holes in and making fun of the sanitized version of America that’s broadcast on television. An early sketch even parodies hitchhiking & free love nudism to establish that it’s trading in Laugh-In‘s hippie California sunshine for a much more authentic New York City grime. Period-specific Barbie commercials & “Let your fingers do the walking” phone ads are parodied, but for the most part its satirical targets are relatively timeless: corporate empires, sexual norms, hippies, news media, cops, etc. In the film’s most typifying sketch, a Bozo the Clown stand-in appears to be harmless children’s entertainment on the surface, but devolves into purient readings of erotic De Sade-type literature once parents are asked to leave the room. In another, a nonsensical cooking show recipe devolves into a kind of madness distinctly reminiscent of a modern YouTube gimmick. Originally released with an “X” rating, the film features just as much male nudity as it does female and somehow avoids ever being outright sexist despite the general grossness of its era, even as it obsesses over explicit sexuality. In a perfect world, The Groove Tube would have been exalted just as high as Kentucky Fried Movie for the way it managed to elevate the sketch comedy feature to something more than just comedians dicking around with no sense of purpose or direction.

There is one unfortunate blemish on the film that hasn’t aged well at all in the four decades since its release: a brief sketch in which a young Richard Belzer plays a black female prostitute. It’s an offensively dated, bone headed moment that certainly leaves a bad taste in its wake, but like most sketches doesn’t last long enough to make too big of an impact on the film’s otherwise impeccable runtime. The Groove Tube mimics the feeling of being up too late in a drugged out haze, flipping channels without aim, and trying to make sense out of modern culture through that window. Most sketches, then, last only for seconds at a time, with the one minutes-long exception falling down a strange rabbit hole that begins with drug trafficking & public heavy-petting and ends with psychedelic animation & sincere expressions of homosexual desire. The prostitution sketch is only a blip in the larger gestalt, with most of Belzer’s work holding up fairly well as New York City alt-comedy counterculture, a snapshot of the city’s proto-punk grit & sleaze. He’s joined in most sketches by director Ken Shapiro and a young Chevy Chase (making his first feature film appearance), who would later carry a lot of the film’s sardonic, druggy, nose-thumbing comedy to his breakout role on SNL. Besides boasting all this youthful rebellious energy and politically-minded absurdism, The Groove Tube is also bookended by the Curtis Mayfield classic “Move On Up,” which helps solidify its tone as a fun, funky slice of political anger & cultural discontent. I doubt the sketch comedy feature will ever get its due respect as a vibrant & viable film genre, but if it ever does, I’d love to see The Groove Tube included as one of its more surprisingly rewarding specimens.

-Brandon Ledet