Episode #14 of The Swampflix Podcast: Trash Humpers (2010) & The Films of Richard Kelly

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Welcome to Episode #14 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our fourteenth episode (our second in Skype exile), Brandon discusses all four feature films by Richard Kelly, director of September’s Movie of the Month The Box, with returning co-host Bill Arceneaux and Caliornia-based film critic Rick Kelley. Also, Bill makes Brandon watch Harmony Korine’s found footage oddity Trash Humpers (2010) for the first time. Enjoy!

Production note: The musical “bumps” between segments were provided by the long-defunct band Your Cat is Dead.

-Bill Arceneaux & Brandon Ledet

An Evening with Richard Kelly: A Southland Tales (2007) Q&A

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“No film is every really finished, just abandoned by the filmmaker.”

This is the philosophy, or rather one of the facets of the real-life and filmmaking philosophies, of Richard Kelly. In something of a MotM miracle, I received an email last week advising that Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse would be hosting a screening of Kelly’s 2007 opus Southland Tales, with an introduction by the director and a Q&A following the film. As discussed in our email roundtable, I was a fan of Donnie Darko when it was first brought to my attention in 2003, when a DVD of the film was passed around like wildfire at the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts. Although time and distance (and a strong wave of hype backlash as the film caught on outside of the cult scene) have dulled my teenage enthusiasm for the film, my interest in Kelly’s work was piqued again by our viewing of The Box, a film I didn’t love but haven’t been able to stop thinking about. I never got the chance to see Southland Tales before this past Sunday, but I’m glad that my first viewing experience was on the big screen and not limited to the comparatively tiny television in my living room.

What’s the film about? I’ll try to be as succinct as I can: Southland Tales takes place in an alternate 2008, where post-9/11 paranoia and the overreach of infringement upon civil liberties that followed that incident has been further exacerbated by a nuclear attack on American soil (Texas, to be precise). The draft has been reinstated, interstate travel is extremely restricted, and citizens are heavily monitored via the use of information network USIdent and the deployment of heavily militarized Urban Pacification Units, which seem to have taken the place of standard police forces. The Republican Party, most notably represented by Texas Senator and potential VP Bobby Frost (Holmes Osborne) and his wife, NSA Deputy Director cum USIdent overlord Nana Mae (Miranda Richardson), is seeking to swing California to the red in order to ensure the continued power of USIdent and the party. Popular action star Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson), the husband of the Frosts’ daughter Madeleine (Mandy Moore), has recently awoken in the desert with amnesia; he makes his way into the arms of Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a psychic porn star seeking to expand her media and merchandise empires through diversification. Krysta has recently completed a screenplay entitled The Power, which foretells the end of the world.

Elsewhere, the underground liberal forces of the Neo-Marxists oppose the Republican Party (this entire group is composed almost entirely of former SNL cast members, including but not limited to Nora Dunn, Amy Poehler, and Cheri Oteri). Their current plan involves staging a racially-motivated police shooting committed by haunted veteran Roland Taverner posing as his twin brother Ronald (Seann William Scott), an UPU officer; the intention is to have this captured on film by Boxer during a ride-along for research purposes, then use the footage to discredit Bush’s apparent successors. Their machinations are held in check by a series of double-crosses that undermine their ability to take any real political action. Elsewhere elsewhere, the wizard Baron von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn) has invented both a device that uses the power of the ocean to generate wireless electricity as well as several injectable liquids of various colors that are used as drugs for both recreational and psychic purposes. He and his band of assorted cronies (Bai Ling, Curtis Armstrong, Zelda Rubinsten, and Beth Grant) move throughout the various factions at play, gaining political power and prestige while well aware that the alternative energy source that they have created could bring about the end of humanity. And all of this is narrated by Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake), a former movie star whose face was disfigured by friendly fire in Iraq after he was drafted. And, hey, if you were starting to think any of this was too straightforward, don’t worry; there are also stable time loops, predestination paradoxes, mistaken identities, and all the other Kelly elements you’ve come to know and, perhaps, love. Plus a lip-synch music video.

Part multimedia experiment, part time travel film, part jeremiad prophecy of the dangers of unchecked rightwing expansion into surveillance and homeland policing, part philosophy lecture, but mostly a political satire, Southland Tales has been called many things: unwatchable, convoluted, pretentious, and incomprehensible. For my money, however, the film (and its expanded materials, which I hesitate to call “supplementary” given that they were always intended to be part of the experience) is simply too ambitious to ever have any kind of mainstream penetration, even on the level that Darko did. There’s also been a lot of name-calling and assumptions with regards to Kelly’s ego and affectations of intellectualism, even from those of us here at Swampflix; in person, however, Kelly comes across as approachable, well-spoken, thoughtful, and shy (and he’s a total babe as well– look up a picture or two if you haven’t already done yourself this great service; those triceps are poppin’). Kelly directed this film when he was twenty-nine; that’s my age, and all I have to show for a life is a stack of unopened mail and a heap of student loan debt that I’ll finish paying off seven years after I’m dead– if I’m lucky.

In case you weren’t aware, Southland was originally envisioned as the final three chapters in a six-chapter arc, with the first three components released as graphic novels (Kelly said that when these materials, which were not quite complete at the time of the Cannes premiere, were given to the press, they sneered). There is a certain feeling of incompleteness that can be felt in the film as a result, but this is not the same thing as saying that the film is, as Kelly said in his introduction, “unfinished.” There’s certainly an element of that in play in the theatrical version that was screened, but I didn’t find it as distracting as others have. He discussed the nature of the release of the film, the way that certain visual effects were never quite completed due to the fact that the money for said polishing was to have come from one studio that held the international distribution rights, but there were issues with the domestic distributor. It’s all information that you can find elsewhere, I’m sure, so I won’t get into it here. There were some new tidbits that were shared in the Q&A that I’ll share here, though.

Why is Janeane Garofalo in the final scene? In the earlier, longer version of the film that was screened at Cannes, there is an additional subplot in which Garofalo plays a general who is engaged in a Dungeons & Dragons game with veteran Simon Theory (Kevin Smith) and a couple of other characters, with that game serving as an additional metaphorical layer to the events of the film, just line the screenplay for The Power. (I did see a credit for a D&D consultant in the final credits, which confused me until this was explained.)

Was this movie inspired by Brazil? Yes, Kelly loves Brazil.

Where did the character names come from? Kelly discussed that there’s a music to character names, and described how some come from more obvious sources (like the Robert Frost-quoting Senator Bobby Frost), and some a bit more obscure from sources both historical (like the von Westphalen family, whose true allegiances are obvious from the outset for those who know Jenny von Westphalen was the wife of Karl Marx), and literary (the Taverners share their surname with Jason Taverner, protagonist of Philip K. Dick’s Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, which shares a rightwing autocratic dictatorship with Southland). So, like many of the references to extratextual real-world works that we mentioned in The Box discussion, they’re present less because Kelly wants to prove how smart he is and more because he thinks we’re all on his level, which is a compliment more than anything else.

Why so many Saturday Night Live actors? Besides the aforementioned Poehler, Oteri, Dunn, and Garofalo, other SNL alums include Jon Lovitz and John Larroquette. I really liked Kelly’s answer to this question; when we talk about political satire, at least in America, SNL is the troupe that is on the cutting edge of that discussion.

Is the recurring theme of free will versus predestination representative of a personal philosophy or just something that Kelly finds intriguing to play with on film? This was my question, and was admittedly a little longer in the actual asking (which involved referencing the Job-like structure of The Box and eschatological nature of Southland, leading Richard Kelly to compliment me personally, so take that, world!), but Kelly stated that this was something that he thinks about a lot, that humans beings are often bandied about by forces outside of their control, and how much agency any of us have at all (one audience member asked about Krysta Now’s agency in regards to the film, but I missed the answer to that one trying to calm myself enough to ask my question). Kelly had previously mentioned that Southland was intended to be a cathartic film experience; given that the themes of the film boil down to the idea that salvation comes from forgiving the self, which is an entirely internal emotional journey, I think that this could be reflective of that idea. Forgiving one’s self, like Taverner does in the film’s final moments, removes the external elements of predestination and is purely an act of personal decision, and through that comes real existential relief.

Whatever happened to the Norma Lewis prosthetic foot prop? This one I had to ask for Britnee, per her final thoughts on The Box. As it turns out, Kelly’s father, who really did work on the Mars Viking Lander project, did something similar for Kelly’s mother, whose own foot was disfigured, not unlike Norma’s. As for the prop, Kelly said he would have to make some calls to be absolutely certain, but he’s pretty sure it’s in a props warehouse in Boston.

For more on September’s Movie of the Month, Richard Kelly’s sci-fi mystery thriller The Box, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at how the film works as a literary adaptation.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

From Playboy Magazine to Cult Classic Contender: The Box (2009) as a Literary Adaptation

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Richard Kelly’s sci-fi mystery thriller The Box might not ever earn the legitimate cult classic status it most certainly deserves. Kelly’s other two features, Donnie Darko & Southland Tales, have already found their own dedicated of cult followings out there in the wilderness of cinematic nerdom, but The Box remains largely unchampioned. There are many, varied complaints detailing exactly why The Box “doesn’t work,” but one of the most common is that it expanded upon a basic premise that needed no depth of context or detail. Before The Box was a sprawling, two hour critical & financial misstep it was a nine page story in Playboy Magazine & a 20 minute episode of the Twilight Zone. When it comes to adapting literary text for the big screen, the critical impulse generally tends to favor the source material in terms of legitimacy, especially in the case of something like The Box, which shows very little, if any regard for solely sticking to the script of its short story origins. By exploding the central mystery of its source material into a galaxy of other unanswered questions, however, The Box far exceeds its origins’ ambitions & successes in my mind. Its DNA in Playboy Magazine & The Twilight Zone is interesting for sure, but nowhere near as fascinating as the places Kelly took the story in his go-for-broke adaptation/bastardization.

Consider the shifted stakes & the heavy-handed morality lesson of The Box’s very first incarnation, a very brief short story published by Playboy Magazine in 1970. The Richard Matheson-penned story “Button, Button” is for the most party reminiscent of what Kelly later brought to the screen. Even its central character names remained largely unchanged: Arthur, Norma, Arlington. However, the story’s scope is ludicrously miniscule as a comparison point, with these three characters more or less representing the totality of relevant players. In “Button, Button” the mysterious agent Arlington Steward drops off a box featuring a button under the cover of a glass dome. He informs the married couple of Norma & Arthur Lewis that if they press this button someone they do not know will die & they will receive $50,000 cash. The husband urges the wife not to push the button out of basic human decency, but she does so anyway, as she does in all three versions of the story (it’d be a pretty go-nowhere plot if she didn’t). What differs in the original text is its last minute twist in which Arthur is the one who is killed the promised $50,000 is collected from his life insurance policy. Incensed, Norma calls out Arlington for claiming that the person who would die would be someone she did not know. Steward retorts by questioning if Norma ever truly knew her husband. As far as morality tales go “Button, Button” is a little slight, but very efficient. However, it raises a lot of interesting, open-ended questions about the origins of its mysterious box & the menacing organization who carry out its machinations, an ambiguity its down-the-road adaptations would greedily revel in.

“Button, Button” was published too late in the game to be included in the classic black & white, Roger Sterling era of The Twilight Zone. Instead it appeared in the much cheaper, much less charming 1980s run of the show. Its basic premise remains faithful to its Playboy Magazine roots, but it does make some significant changes to the details. In the Twilight Zone version the prize for pushing the murder button skyrockets to $20,000, along with an escalation in the economic state of the couple in question. The televised Norma & Arthur live unhappily in abject poverty, with Norma playing the thankless role of a nagging shrew wife & Arthur struggling to provide for the household in a less than glamorous economy. Their philosophical conversations around whether or not to push the button are largely the same as they are in the original story, but they’re nastily heated here in a way that low income couples arguing about money often tend to be. Unfortunately, because the production value of the episode is so ungodly cheap, their tension is conveyed mostly through shouty braying, two performances that might even stand out as over-the-top in an early John Waters provocation.

Besides altering the economic tension of the central philosophical crisis, the televised version of “Button, Button” also crucially changes the detail of its gotcha ending. Instead of killing Arthur, the box only instigates Arlington Steward paying the couple their previously discussed amount, then informing them that it will be “reprogrammed” & passed along to a new household, someone they do not know. Just like the original story, it’s a tidily little morality play, although in this case the lesson is shifted from what it means to truly know someone to the value of the Golden Rule, which was the lesson of most Twilight Zone episodes anyway.

Part of the sprawling brilliance of Richard Kelly’s The Box is how it’s a pretty faithful adaptation of both of these works, yet still drowns out their central life lessons with a deafening sea of existential concerns and batshit crazy plot twists. So much of Richard Kelly’s film adaptation is eerily faithful to its source material, from the exactly look & name of “the button unit” (mostly lifted form the Twilight Zone verson of the story) to the intense focus on domesticity & the home (very strongly emphasized in the Playboy version, if you can believe it). It’s all represented in the first 20 minutes or so of The Box before Kelly blows the whole tightly controlled story apart into something infinitely more expansive & strange. You can tell Kelly was a huge, adoring fan of his source material. It’s just that he gets hopelessly lost in his fascination with its minor details. In the Twlight Zone version, Norma asks “What is this, some kind of survey or something to see who will and won’t push it?” Kelly wants to know what that survey would look like, what it would mean, and what other similar surveys it would constitute. In the Playboy version, Steward admits that he “represents and organization of international scope,” but keeps the details vague & menacing. Kelly wants to know exactly how large & powerful such an organization would have to be to function. You can even see Kelly’s admiration for his movie’s “Button, Button” roots in the details he does decide to change. For instance, when he gives Norma & Arthur a child, he can’t figure out exactly what the child is good for in the story, except as a plot device that allows for more button unit-type moral/existential dilemmas once the plot becomes truly unwieldy.

The Box has a tendency to over-explain or provide too much context for what’s basically a very simple story, but Kelly leaves the overall ambiguity of his source material’s scenario exactly how he found it. He pokes & questions initial vague details presented in the early versions of “Button, Button,” but only so that they give way to even more immense & vague details once they’re prodded. The mistake a lot of reboots, prequels, and reimaginings make is in providing too much context & background info so that all mystery is sucked out of the room in favor of mediocrity. No one liked Death Vader better after knowing he was a little blonde boy who built C-3PO & held his beloved at the lakes of Naboo. However, the kind of context Kelly piles on how somehow makes the story feel more contextless. A lesser, more disciplined mind might’ve stuck to the basic outline of “Button, Button”, but stretched it out to a feature length slog of a moral dilemma. Kelly instead gives it the exact length of time it needed to work itself out on an episode of television, then expands his scope from there, chasing his fascination with the story’s vague, menacing details once the business of a faithful adaptation was out of the way. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a literary adaptation quite like it, even from other films that started as Phillip K. Dick short stories or slight Roald Dahl novellas for children.  Kelly’s film is at once a faithful adaptation and a brazen, no-cares bastardization. Its gaze into the infinity can be at once both cripplingly silly & devastatingly impressive, but looking back to its roots as a miniscule 9 pages in Playboy Magazine only makes Kelly’s fascinating sprawl all the more puzzling. The question, then, is whether or not you find that puzzle entertaining.

For more on September’s Movie of the Month, Richard Kelly’s sci-fi mystery thriller The Box, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: The Box (2009)

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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 Britnee, Alli, and Boomer  watch The Box (2009).

Brandon: “Your home is a box. Your car is a box on wheels. You drive to work in it. You sit in your home staring at a box. It erodes your soul while the box that is your body inevitably withers, then dies, whereupon it is placed in the ultimate box to slowly decompose.”

No, that’s not lyrics to a Bright Eyes song or a page ripped from your 15 old self’s poetry-filled diary (or both if you’re Conor Oberst). It’s an explanation from The Box’s mysterious villain Arlington Sterward when he’s asked the simple question, “Why a box?” Steward’s rambly, heavy-handed response (delivered expertly by character actor Frank Langella) is a typifying example of writer-director Richard Kelly’s filmmaking style in that it’s both far outside any semblance of normal human communication and it represents a nonstop torrent of ideas that Kelly can’t help but spill onto the page all at once. His debut film, Donnie Darko, was a weird 80s throwback sci-fi horror that’s just bonkers enough to serve as art film training wheels for disgruntled teens (it worked for me, anyway), but also stylistically restrained in a way Kelly hasn’t been since. His follow-up, the sprawling & delightfully incomprehensible Southland Tales, is a punishing assault of strange ideas that plays like a big budget adaptation of a crackpot conspiracy theorist’s 4,000 page manifesto on the state of the modern & supernatural world. The Box, Kelly’s most recent film to date, splits the difference.

As Kelly put it himself, The Box was an attempt “to make a film that’s incredibly suspenseful and broadly commercial, while still retaining [his] artistic sensibility.” I’d say it’s almost successful in that way, tempering Kelly’s bottomless wealth of bizarre ideas with a familiar realm of cinematic tones that lands somewhere between Hitchcock suspense and the Spielbergian throwback horror of titles like Super 8 & Stranger Things. I honestly believe The Box is his best work to date. However, if Kelly thinks that this overwhelming tale of deadly ultimatums, alien invasions, mind control, interdimensional gateways, and spiritual ascension has “broad commercial appeal” he’s gotta be out of his fucking mind (and I’m sure there’s more than a little truth to that). Audiences hated The Box. It’s one of the few films to ever receive an “F” Cinemascore, which is typically a very forgiving grading system. It flopped financially in 2009 & has since been largely forgotten by time. General audiences have been known to hate a lot of great art, though, and I think that there’s an argument to be made that this film deserves to be recognized as such.

The first half hour or so of The Box might actually be the work of “broad commercial appeal” Kelly believed he was delivering. The film opens as a retelling of the classic Twilight Zone episode “Button Button” in which a young couple receives a mysterious box that prominently displays a giant button and comes with an even more mysterious offer: if the couple pushes the button someone they do not know, somewhere in the world, will die & they will receive $1million cash. Long story short, the couple pushes the button, receives the cash, and are informed that the box will now be passed onto a new couple, someone they do not know. Like the best of The Twilight Zone, “Button Button” is a tight, efficient story of supernatural dread that reinforces the value of The Golden Rule: treat others as you would wish to be treated. Kelly faithfully delivers that tight, controlled life lesson and then, leaving broad commercial appeal behind, explodes it into a galaxy of strange ideas that explore the identity of the man who delivers the box (or “the button unit” as Steward puts it”), the question of whether or not humanity is an enterprise worth preserving, and theories on what could possibly exist beyond our basic understandings of reality & mortality. All of these heady topics are interjected with whatever weird ideas pop into Richard Kelly’s head from moment to moment – say, lightning as a means of alien-to-human communication, motel pools as gateways to other worlds, entire armies of It Follows-style demons (“employees” of Steward), etc. etc. etc. It’s all perfectly overwhelming and I enjoy every frame of it, but I can’t fathom a world where it could’ve been a runaway commercial success.

Richard Kelly seems very much interested in trying to convey the vague menace of the unknown here, an overreaching ambition that leaves a lot of character development by the wayside in favor of otherworldly ideas & never-ending suspense. As a result, a lot of the film’s dialogue & character motivations can fall just on the campy side of eerie. It can also be a little difficult to care about any particular character’s fate, including the film’s central family, since they remain near-strangers for the entire runtime as they try to piece together exactly what’s happening to them. As unnerving as The Box can be, its lack of compassion for its characters & its subversively campy humor can play just as thick as Cameron Diaz’s godawful Virginian accent (she really is laughably bad in her lead role as the matriarch).

Britnee, how do the corny acting & unclear character motivations play into the film’s nonstop assault of spooky ideas for you? Are they a distraction or do they add to the film’s strange, off-putting appeal?

Britnee: First of all, when I found out that The Box was going to be the September Movie of the Month selection, I got it confused with the 2015 film The Gift. Jason Bateman graced the cover of The Gift, so I kept waiting for him to make an appearance in The Box, which, of course, he never did. It turns out that movies about mysterious boxes are more popular than I thought.

The insanity that is The Box should come with a warning label. Those with severely high blood pressure or epilepsy should never watch this movie because they will end up in the emergency room before the film is over. The constant twists and turns are just too much to handle, but I loved them all. The acting of just about every character, especially Cameron Diaz and James Marsden, really contributes to the movie’s wacky charm. Diaz’s performance as one of the film’s main characters, Norma Lewis, really sticks out for me. It’s really as bad as it gets, but her horrible accent, unconvincing attitude, and missing toes all come together to make The Box a hell of a good time. As Brandon mentioned previously, it’s difficult to give a damn about the fate of any of the film’s characters because viewers aren’t given the opportunity to really connect with them, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I enjoyed not worrying about whether or not Norma and Arthur would survive the terrors brought on by the box because I was able to focus my attention on the all the confusing supernatural happenings.

There were many times in the film where I thought the movie was concluding, such as when Arthur goes through his chosen portal in the library and ends up in his bedroom with Norma, but then the film continues and the story develops even more. Alli, did you find the constant twists in the film to be irritating or did you enjoy them? Was there any point in the film where you thought it should’ve ended?

Alli: It’s hard to say when a movie this in-over-its-head in a bizarre concept should have ended. I think maybe somewhere on the writer’s desk someone should have come in and asked about some plot holes and maybe talked Kelly out of some of them. But as you guys are saying, they’re all a part of this movie’s goofy charm. After a certain point of being jerked around I kind of gave up and just let it take me along for this strange little ride and part of me even felt like it could have kept going, honestly. There were so many more questions than answers. Not that I think I could have stood Diaz’s accent for another hour, but I really wanted to know more about these employers of Mr. Steward. I want to know more about this film’s philosophy as well.

A thing this movie brushed over and possibly unintentionally made a argument about was free will. In the end, did the new family being offered the box have a choice at all? He clearly knew that everyone he offered these options to were going to choose the easy way out, if you can call it that, otherwise some sort of transmitter would actually have to be in the box for him to know. I know there’s an argument to be made for supernatural surveillance, but it seems like he and his employers knew all along what human nature would lead these people to do. I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t a heavy-handed monologue about that.

But then again, this is a movie that only left me half satisfied. We’re vaguely introduced to aliens but we don’t learn much more about them other than they want to prove humans are unworthy. We’re given some suspense but nothing too bad, except for like Brandon said the occasional It Follows moment of a stranger being outside the window. We’re given an ideal suburban family in an ideal suburban town that’s slightly claustrophobic but not quite. Everything seems to fall just barely short of hitting whatever target he was aiming for. Boomer, is there anything you really wish had been expanded or clarified that wasn’t?

Boomer: Honestly, I had the opposite feeling. Although I definitely like the spookiness of the Steward hive mind followers and the general impenetrability of concept that is a hallmark of Richard Kelly’s work (like Brandon, Donnie Darko served as a kind of Baby’s First Jacob’s Ladder for me as well), there’s a certain simplicity to the existential dread of the original Richard Matheson short story that is absent here. In the short “Button, Button,” the story ends with the enigmatic Steward retrieving the button in a box from the protagonists, departing as he “reassures” the couple that they should not worry, as the next recipients of the box won’t be anyone that they know, with all the implications thereof. Does that mean that there is a direct link between the immediate recipients of the button and the previous button-pushers, or just a chilling reminder that their karmic comeuppance will come someday, without warning? It’s classic Matheson that way, and I adore the story (it’s adaptation in the eighties Twilight Zone revival has a different, more obvious ending, and I, like Matheson, don’t care for it; he went so far as to have the story idea credited to a pseudonym). There’s a quietness and intrigue to the original story that this film, which uses the original story less as a template and more of a jumping-off point for spiraling but utterly watchable madness, doesn’t possess.

That having been said, there were some things that I would have been interested to see more of. I was particularly intrigued by the use of realistic grounding in the life of the family before the box arrives, like the discussion of Norma’s foot injury and Arthur’s spacey aspirations. While it’s true that much of what makes the film captivating is the unexpected paths that it takes, I would have preferred to see the story retain that level of grounding throughout rather than grow exponentially more wild. It’s as if there are two films here, and I would have liked to see a Kelly flick that had the alien test plot and a second, different film that followed the mundane lives of the Lewises after the button is pushed, as they navigate the quandary of the immoral actions taken as a result of Steward’s visit. As it is within the film, everything that follows Norma’s impulsive push that affects them is an external force, not an exploration of the fallout of committing such an act, which would have been a more interesting film to me.

As far as other elements that I would have liked to see more of, Deborah Rush is criminally underutilized here as she was in her previous MotM appearance in Big Business, and every time I see her in any role I wish she had more to do. I also would have liked to know more about what Steward was like before he became the host for the alien entity that is sitting in judgment of humanity; was he chosen because of a similarity between his pre-possession personality and the ideas of the Hive? Was he the opposite? It could have been interesting to see the dichotomy between his former self and his new one, especially as a mirror of the change in personality between some of the button-pushers we saw pre- and post-button mashing; an objective correlative metaphor is never a bad idea, and could have illustrated the difference in the self that occur as a result of chance (Steward) versus those that follow deliberate action (the Lewises). What do you think, Brandon? You mentioned that the campiness and spectacle of the movie are its big draws for you; would you feel that you would enjoy it more, or at least as much, if it had been more of a character piece than a moderately coherent, not-quite-on-target, effects-heavy scifi fable?

Brandon: I’m a little amused by that question because I assume Kelly believes he was delivering a character piece, or at least his version of it. I don’t think stripping the film of its excess of The Day the Earth Stood Still-modeled sci-fi ideas on testing humanity’s worthiness through complex alien puzzles would necessarily improve its narrative in terms of entertainment value, but I do agree that the film starts weaving some interesting threads about the Lewises that might’ve lead to some truly powerful character-based moments had they been given enough room to breathe & develop. For instance, the family’s early financial troubles, born solely of their apparent disinterest in living within their means, is played merely as motivation for their activation of the button unit, but could’ve instead lead to genuine dramatic tension were Kelly interested in building it. He also suggests an interesting spousal dynamic when the couple negotiates the button unit’s terms & conditions and Marsden’s scientist-dolt husband asks, “What is it to really know someone? Do you know me?” I wouldn’t trade those lines of inquiry for the ludicrous sci-fi spectacle we’re gifted with instead, but I do think they would’ve been better received if they had been more fully developed, ideally without sacrificing the sci-fi backdrop that contrasts them.

The problem with fitting the character study elements and Kelly’s immense idea flood into a single vehicle might be a question of form. In some ways a two hour feature film isn’t nearly expansive enough to encompass everything The Box wants to contain. The film takes the idiom “biting off more than you can chew” as a direct challenge & a mission statement, an approach that doesn’t always sit well with a movie-going audience. I feel like the property’s ideal self would be as a prestige television series on AMC or HBO, a medium that would fix several immediate problems like allowing more room for grounded character study, giving each out-there sci-fi idea time to breathe instead of running through them all at once, forgiving a little bit of the television-grade acting choices made by Diaz & Marsden, etc. I’m imagining it like a Twin Peaks or a Welcome to Nightvale, where monster-of-the-week alien threats (or in this case, alien puzzles) would all inexplicably occur in a single town & follow a small family unit as they struggle to make sense of the phenomenon. The first episode of The Box: The Television Series would be the same “Button, Button” remake the movie uses for a launching point, except that it would end with the couple pushing the button in a cliffhanger, waiting for the story to be picked up at the beginning of episode 2. As I’ve said, though, a large part of the fun of The Box for me is in being overwhelmed by its wealth of ideas in such a short amount of time & I think there’s a value to experiencing all of that otherworldly absurdity in a tightly paced, cinematic punch that is somewhat lost when you’re, to risk referencing something so of-the-moment twice in one conversation, binge-watching all 8 hours of Stranger Things over the course of a week.

Speaking of the sprawl of sci-fi ideas included here, one of my favorite concepts in The Box didn’t come from Richard Kelly himself, but is instead a quote from sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke, conveniently read aloud for the viewers following along at home: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Unable to resist piling even more literary quotes onto the film’s DNA, Kelly also makes several allusions to Jean-Paul Satre’s play “No Exit,” both mining its title for easy existential dread & expanding its infamous line, “Hell is other people” to “Hell is other people seeing you for who you truly are,” in an offhand stab at literary analysis. Kelly’s pulled off this trick before in Donnie Darko as well, which includes an extensive classroom analysis of the Graham Greene short story “The Destructors.” Britnee, do you think these two literary references, Clarke & Satre, as cool as they are, provide any legitimate sort of insight into what kind of story Kelly was trying to tell in The Box or were they just easy modes of injecting profundity into what’s at heart a very pulpy sci-fi premise? Was their inclusion earned in the film’s content or did it come across as a little try-hard?

Britnee: Kelly’s use of the Clarke and Satre references you mentioned, Brandon, caused me to give a big eye-roll as I was thinking back to when they occurred in the movie. It’s difficult for me to take anything in this film seriously, so I would definitely have to say that the presence of these literary references is a little ridiculous. Obviously, Kelly didn’t throw them into the film to add to the campiness, but ultimately, that’s exactly what happened. I get what he was attempting to accomplish, but this movie was just too silly for anything profound to exist within it. Then again, my knowledge of anything by Clarke and Satre doesn’t go beyond Brandon’s previous statement, so maybe I’m the crazy one and Kelly’s got the right idea.

I feel like I’m being a little harsh on The Box. There were a few moments where I caught myself thinking about monumental life choices I’ve made and what motivated me in my decisions. The Lewis family painted a picture of how ugly being selfish and greedy really is, which is why I didn’t have much sympathy for them. The fact that they decided to take the life away from another human being so they could keep up with their suburban lifestyle made me sick to my stomach. Alli, do you think the film’s “protagonists” would have been more likeable if they were worse off (e.g. Their kid was dying, and they needed money for a lifesaving transplant)?

Alli: You know, I actually do think they would be more likeable if they were in more dire circumstances, but I think making them shallow suburbanites is either some sort of misguided attempt in a post-2008 financial crisis world to say, “This is you!” to the audience or to do the high and mighty, “Yes, you as the audience gets it. Look at the normies struggling with their mixed up priorities.” And if it was the second I’m not sure if they were ever supposed to be likeable at all and it’s just about the schadenfreude. Given the smug literary references and all of Donnie Darko, pretty much I’m leaning towards that interpretation, but it seems like there’s a lot of ways to read this movie.

Even though I never liked them and never sympathized as the movie progressed, I managed to like them even less as it went on, until finally it reached a point where I actually despised them. That point was at the end when they have to choose between having a deaf and blind son or Arthur shooting Norma. I hope I’m not spoiling too much by saying this, but what the hell? The idea of a disabled son being worse than a dead wife is really upsetting to me, especially when you have a million dollars and can afford to find ways to make your life more accessible. Not only is it a cheapness of life thing but just some casual ableism thrown in. And I just shudder to think that someone watching this somewhere probably thought that that was a reasonable choice to make.

Boomer, was there any point more “upsetting” (I’m not quite sure that’s the word I’m looking for) than others to you or did nothing really stand out to all?

Boomer: The most upsetting thing to me was seeing poor little Britta passing through the long hotel hallway while being met with the stares of various Steward acolytes. I know that a lot of people find hotels to be inherently creepy automatically (I’m not one of them) and so they probably found this even more unsettling than I did, but there was something about her apparent innocence and the way that she was bandied about by forces outside of her control. I don’t recall that we ever really get much of an explanation as to who she is or what she was doing; was she, like the man from the previous box cycle from whom Arthur learns about the nature of Steward, an escapee from the “plan” who was trying to make sense of her upturned world? Was she merely an unwilling accomplice in the larger goals of the mysterious entities? It is perhaps my fondness for Gillian Jacobs alone that led me to be so thrown off by this sequence, but it was generally disturbing.

I disagree with your reading of the final scene, however. Not that there are no ableist connotations in the scene (that interpretation is certainly valid), but I don’t feel that Kelly’s intent was to make it seem that having a blind/deaf child was worse than a dead wife/mother, but was more of a demonstration of Steward’s willingness to give Norma a second chance to prove that she could make the “right” decision, since it was her impulsive pushing of the button (despite Arthur’s hesitation and apparent ultimate refusal) that doomed the family in the first place. In response to your question, what was perhaps most disturbing was the fact that Steward and his overseers were testing “free will” in a way that influenced the participants; in fact, given that none of us can come to an agreement as to whether there is free will in this situation (given the way that deaths of previous users of the box rely upon the next user making the wrong decision), it’s unclear what, if anything, could be gleaned from these experiments.

Although I hesitate to sympathize with the Lewises because of their vapid engagement in consumerism (it’s important to note that the original story did, in fact, feature a family in a much worse economic situation than the Lewises), they were living within their means until Steward manipulated events in their life, like causing Arthur to lose his candidacy for promotion and taking away the tuition reduction plan that the family relied upon in order to send their son to the best possible school In a way, the film could be seen as a modern(ish) retelling of the story of Job, substituting mild setbacks for utter familial destruction and replacing faith in God with the willingness to perform acts which enact the greatest good for the largest number of people. Viewed through this lens, Norma and Arthur have their faith tested and Norma fails, but is given the opportunity to correct this wrong through self-sacrifice. I don’t necessarily think that this is the reasonable choice, but I feel like this was more likely to be Kelly’s intent. Regardless, just as with Job, none of the characters that we see would be in the situations in which they find themselves without divine (or unholy) intervention. Maybe this means that The Box is really an exploration of the philosophical conceit that if (a) the divine is all knowing and pre-ordains all actions and (b) humans are thus unable to exercise free will despite the appearance that they can, then (c) punishing mankind for acting in accordance with preordination is unreasonable and perhaps evil. Probably not, though.

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Lagniappe

Britnee: While The Box left me with loads of unanswered questions, what I want to know more than anything else is the current whereabouts of the prosthetic silicon foot that Arthur made for Norma (using materials from his workplace!). Did Diaz take it home as a souvenir from one of her most desperate roles? Does Kelly keep it in a curio cabinet in his family room?

Alli: Coming back to the disabilities/deformities thing. I just really think it’s super messed up that someone like Norma, who lives with a limp has some sort of hierarchy of disabilities. Like, Mr. Sterling’s face makes her feel better about herself instead of her being able to identify with him. I know she’s worried about the teasing and ridicule when it comes to her son, but it’s still terrible.

Brandon: There’s so much to cover in The Box that I feel like I could never touch on all of it even if this conversation went on for two more rounds. There’s the curious case of its Arcade Fire-provided score that never reached physical media release, the weirdly wonderful feeling of seeing a babyfaced Gillian Jacobs in an early dramatic role, the peculiarly detailed prop of that Human Resource Exploitation Manual Arlington Steward supplies to his employees, and a whole lot more I could never get to with all the time in the world. Instead of trying to gather all these details like so many Pokémon, I’d just like to follow up on a couple things Alli & Boomer mentioned that interested me.

I totally agree with their assessment that the film’s musings on free will are muddled at best. This is never more apparent to me than at the film’s climax when two couples are given an ultimatum by Steward and they make their decisions simultaneously, one directly affecting the other. Whose free will is being exercised there? It’s a question (among many) that the movie is far from interested in answering. A heavy handed Steward monologue on the subject would’ve been nice. However, I do want to buck Alli’s assertion that not enough suspense is earned through interactions with the It Follows “employees”. They’re creepy as all hell and, unlike most of the film, tastefully employed in small doses. The three big moments I’m thinking of are the aforementioned zombified man in the kitchen window; the babysitter’s long, troubling walk down a motel hallway; and that incredible sequence in the library where the employees threaten to form into an angry mob. I know I’ve poked fun at how ludicrous The Box can be from minute to minute, but I do believe the suspense it generates is genuine and a lot of it comes from those creepy, dead-eyed employees of Steward’s.

Boomer: When I was working at the Urban Outfitters in the French Quarter in grad school, James Marsden came in to shop (I think he was working on the remake of Straw Dogs at the time). I rang him up and I cannot tell a lie: he really is that pretty in real life. I’m not going to say that I got lost in his eyes or anything, but I’m also not going to pretend that I didn’t. The most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life was the gradation of colors in the rings of Saturn through a refraction telescope at the top of the observatory in college; the viewer was the size of a dinner plate, and from ringtip to ringtip, the rings were six inches across, with nothing between me and this distant planet but glass and space. It was humbling, awe-inspiring, and absolutely stunning. The second most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen was James Marsden buying tank tops. Take from that what you will.

Upcoming Movies of the Month:
October: Britnee presents Funhouse (1981)
November: Boomer presents  The Paperhouse (1988)
December: Alli presents Last Night (1999)
January: The Top Films of 2016

-The Swampflix Crew