Episode #82 of The Swampflix Podcast: Sordid Lives (2000) & Gay Plays

Welcome to Episode #82 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our eighty-second episode, Brandon & Britnee revisit the quips & quibbles of cult-classic gay stage plays. They discuss the Del Shores comedy Sordid Lives (2000), its crowd-funded sequel A Very Sordid Wedding (2017) and, for balance, the William Friedkin-directed downer The Boys in the Band (1970). Enjoy!

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– Britnee Lombas & Brandon Ledet

Madeline’s Madeline (2018)

Although she’s been working steadily since the buzzy “mumblecore” movement that established a new standard tone for microbudget indie cinema over a decade ago, 2018 is proving to be a breakout year for Josephine Decker. This started for me, personally, when Decker’s collaborative, self-loathing documentary Flames tore my brain in half in its emotionally volatile record of a toxic, years-long romantic detangling. Her much larger cultural breakout arrived later in a drama where she was more of the auteurist voice: the festival-circuit darling Madeline’s Madeline. What’s impressive about Madeline’s Madeline as a follow-up to Flames is that it maintains the documentary’s emotional volatility and damning self-reflection on the nature & tortures of its own medium, while branching off into the realm of fictional drama. It didn’t hit me quite as hard in the gut as Flames did (perhaps because I was braced for impact this second round in the ring with Decker, whereas I was caught off-guard for the first bout), but Madeline’s Madeline is just as heart-achingly confrontational in its emotional honesty and just as complexly mapped out in its engagement with its own medium as an artform. Decker may have been active and in-plain-sight in both theatre & cinema for at least the last decade solid, but in just two films 2018 has been the year when she set a staggeringly high expectation for the form-breaking phenomena she can achieve on the screen.

Teenage newcomer Helena Howard stars as the titular Madeline, a mentally ill high school student who finds a brief utopian respite in an avant-garde NYC theatre troupe, before that artistic safe space becomes just as messy & volatile as her home-life & her internal psyche. Her home-life crisis is mostly anchored to her relationship with her dangerously high-strung mother (played by Miranda July), a conflict that often erupts into physical violence. As she coldly rejects one mother’s affections at home, Madeline seeks a new motherly figure in her theatre director (played by Molly Parker). This relationship also sours when the play they’re collaborating on with their troupe mutates into a sinister meta-drama about Madeline’s “real” home-life. Madeline’s discomfort with her real-life domestic conflicts being exploited for Art is complicated by the film’s exponential detachment from realty, where the divisions between Art & “reality” become blurred to the point of effective obliteration. A spiritual descendent of Charlie Kauffman projects like Synecdoche, New York or Michel Gondry’s “Bachelorette” video for Björk, Madeline’s Madeline’s echoing of the artifice of theatre in the “The world’s a stage” artifice of real life folds the plot in on itself so many times that it’s near impossible to distinguish what’s “really” happening from what’s just in our protagonist’s head. There’s a clear three-way war that develops between Howard, July, and Parker’s characters, but everything else on the screen is highly subjective to personal interpretation.

This immersion in theatre & artificiality is an immediate cornerstone of the text, as Madeline finds comfort in her troupe’s exercises of getting lost in character work. This starts innocently enough when she’s pretending to be a cat, a turtle, or a pig, but concerns about whether she’s being a sea turtle or “a woman playing a sea turtle” eventually give way to much more violent crises of perception & reality. Madeline has no appetite, is prone to bursts of physical violence, and suffers auditory hallucinations of constant, rhythmic whispers. She’s already a blatantly untrustworthy narrator, then, which Decker chooses to amplify by immersing the audience in her POV on an almost subliminal level. The insular sound design & detail-obsessed photography of the film is so personal to Madeline’s sensory experiences that any “What’s really happening?” narrative concerns are beside the point beyond how they relate to Madeline’s emotional state. Its immersive POV falls closer to the anxiety-driven horrors of Krisha more than the eerie beauty of The Fits, as what Madeline’s feeling is often frustration & an urge to lash out. Her relationships with her director & her mother gradually sync-up with her relationship to theatre, as art itself becomes the weapon she uses to lash out in her all-out war with her dual parental figures (who also wage their own war on each other through theatre). By the time the whole conflict reaches its climax in a Tune-Yards reminiscent performance art piece on an art instillation set, theatre itself becomes both the battlefield & the weapon, whereas it starts the film as a safe-space sanctuary.

The tones & methods of collaborative theatre seem to be a guiding force in Decker’s work, perhaps best represented in the presence of Miranda July (whose undervalued film The Future frequently feels like an influence here) and Sutina Mani (whose work in Snowy Bing Bongs Across the North Star Combat Zone is a more playful take on a similar avant-garde performance art aesthetic). However, by the time the film directly calls itself out for daring to tell the inner life of another person’s story (across barriers like race, mental health, and life experience), I get the exact same form-breaking self-reflection vibe that Decker (again, collaboratively) brought to the screen in Flames. In just the two releases she’s had this year, she’s established a very distinct, often menacing tone of artistic & emotional honesty that’s just as admirably staged as it is emotionally ugly & upsetting. This film wasn’t my personal favorite of the pair, but I believe both are worth an engaged, self-reflective look. I also believe Decker’s trajectory indicates there are more form-breaking freakouts to come, and soon.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 41: My Dinner with Andre (1981)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where My Dinner with Andre (1981) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 159 of the first edition hardback, Ebert nostalgically discusses the value of well-written dialogue. He writes, “The big difference between today’s dialogue and the dialogue of years ago is that the characters have grown stupid. They say what is needed to advance the plot and get their laughs by their delivery of four-letter words. Hollywood dialogue was once witty, intelligent, ironic, poetic, musical. Today it is flat. So flat that when a movie allows its characters to think fast and talk the same way, the result is invigorating, as in My Dinner with Andre.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): “The idea is astonishing in its audacity: a film of two friends talking, just simply talking—but with passion, wit, scandal, whimsy, vision, hope, and despair—for 110 minutes. It sounds at first like one of those underground films of the 1960s, in which great length and minimal content somehow interacted in the dope-addled brains of the audience to provide the impression of deep if somehow elusive profundity. My Dinner with Andre is not like that. It doesn’t use all of those words as a stunt. They are alive on the screen, breathing, pulsing, reminding us of endless, impassioned conversations we’ve had with those few friends worth talking with for hours and hours. Underneath all the other fascinating things in this film beats the tide of friendship, of two people with a genuine interest in one another.” -from his 1989 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

“What My Dinner With Andre exploits is the well-known ability of the mind to picture a story as it is being told. Both Shawn and Gregory are born storytellers, and as they talk we see their faces, but we picture much more: Andre being buried alive, and a monk lifting himself by his fingertips, and fauns cavorting in a forest. And Wally trudging around to agents with his plays, and happily having dinner with Debbie, and, yes, enjoying Heston’s autobiography. We see all of these things so vividly that My Dinner With Andre never, ever, becomes a static series of two shots and closeups, but seems only precariously anchored to that restaurant, and in imminent danger of hurtling itself to the top of Everest (where, Wally stubbornly argues, it is simply not necessary to go to find the truth).” -from his 1999 review for his Great Movies series

I didn’t have regular access to cable television as a kid, but whenever I did manage to find myself alone with a remote control and more than several broadcast-network channels to choose from, I’d often park the dial on IFC. The Independent Film Channel was never as satisfying as an afternoon spent emptily staring at MTV or Comedy Central reruns, but I did enjoy watching it anyway. It gave me the self-satisfaction of an intellectual. Half-watching entry-level indies like Living in Oblivion, Trees Lounge, Kicking & Screaming, and short film programs on IFC made me feel much smarter than the teenage idiot I so obviously was, even though I wasn’t engaging with their individual selections as vigorously as I should have been. My Dinner with Andre might be the quintessential IFC half-watch movie of those lazy juvenile self-indulgences. I remember seeing the movie on television so many times in my younger days, but I can’t recall every actively watching it, absorbing its nuances. A movie mostly consisting of a real-time conversation between NYC playwrights at a hoity toity restraint, My Dinner with Andre was perfect background fodder for pretending I was a budding intellectual, a lie I never came close to living up to.

Of course, I have much greater patience & attention span in my thirties than I did two decades ago, so I had a much easier time engaging with the dialogue-heavy explorations of philosophy & art that play out over this film’s titular meal in my recent revisit. NYC playwrights Wallace Shawn (who I would have known only as The Nice Man form Clueless the last time I saw this picture) & Andre Gregory (an avant-garde theatrical producer who staged Shawn’s first play) share a philosophical back & forth over their meal about Nature vs. Comfort in the modern world, jumping form topic to disparate topic as the natural rhythms of their conversation dictate. At first, Shawn allows Gregory to ramble on unimpeded about his spiritualist journeys beyond the facade of societal & artistic norms, only asking questions to deflect interest in & attention to his own views. As Gregory’s long, troubling answers are increasingly upsetting to his sensibilities, Shawn finally becomes incensed enough to speak up, challenging Gregory’s complaints about how modern society is living in a foggy, zombie-like trance by rightfully countering that Gregory’s spiritualist solutions to that false crisis are impractical to everyday people with normal means. Before that conversational shift, My Dinner with Andre feels exactly like the stuffy, intellectualist nonsense I had casually grouped it in with without giving it too much thought. Once Shawn starts speaking up, however, it becomes a much more vital, useful debate about life, art, and the merits of the modern world

Director Louis Malle (who we’ve covered here before in discussions of Black Moon & Pretty Baby) does his best to make this stage play material feel cinematic, recalling similar Friedkin adaptations like The Birthday Party & The Boys in the Band. Although the conversation is staged in the public space of a restaurant, it’s constrained to the intimate setting of a corner booth. The audience feels like we’re listening in from a table over, invading the players’ privacy. Malle also clues the audience in on Shawn‘s more practical, populist mindset over this dining partner’s by paying attention to the physical language he shares with the waitstaff, whereas Gregory acts as if they’re the only two souls in the room. There’s only so much a director can do with the dialogue-focused material, however, so the most auteurial style Malle allows himself is in depictions of Shawn’s travel to & from the titular meal, riding the subway cars & taxi cabs of late-night NYC. In these moments you can really feel the film’s microbudget, experimental theater means, which only feel a step above its No Wave cinema contemporaries because of the academic nature of the dialogue. There’s even something oddly punk about watching Wallace Shawn travel by subway in cold weather, apparently fighting off a nasal drip & looking mildly displeased by life itself. That’s never something I expected to think about The Nice Man form Clueless.

I could claim that the dense philosophical discussion of art, Nature, and comfort is what endeared me to My Dinner with Andre, but even in this recent, adult rewatch that would be a self-serving lie. I mostly appreciated My Dinner with Andre for the opportunity to spend two hours looking at and listening to Wallace Shawn. In too many roles, Shawn appears only briefly as the bills-paying comic relief, so it was wonderful to hear him speak his own written dialogue for extensive stretches of time while gazing at his Muppetish visage. Before he even speaks up against Gregory’s noxious pontificating he’s already the clear hero to his dinner guest’s villain, making lovably incredulous faces at each absurd, prolonged statement about What’s Wrong with The Modern World. Maybe my fixation on Shawn’s facial expressions and my total opposition to Gregory’s POV are both directly tied to my unintellectual approach to cinema (and life at large). Two decades may have passed since the last time I watched this independent film standard, but affording it a matured, attentive viewing only made me feel like more of an intellectual imposter upon revisit. Thankfully Wallace Shawn was there for me this time to call bullshit on any & all potential pomposity. He really is the best

Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating (4/5, 80%)

Next Lesson: White Men Can’t Jump (1992)

-Brandon Ledet

Stage Fright (1950)

The opening credits of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1950s thriller Stage Fright begin with a theatrical “safety curtain” lifting to reveal the city of London instead of a stage. This is not only a winking foreshadowing of that safety curtain’s central role in the film’s conclusion, but also immediately opens the film to a Shakespearean “All the world’s a stage” mindset, deliberately so. Stage Fright gleefully traffics in the meta commentary inherent to all movies & plays about stage actors, setting its murder mystery thriller plot in the posh world London theatre. Instead of bringing real world conflict to the artificial environments of a playhouse, however, Hitchcock brings character study stage acting to real life city streets, teasing out information on a first act murder through a series of false identities & well-formed lies. It isn’t until the film’s conclusion that most of the action is confined to an actual theatre and by then that interior space just feels like an extension of the larger city that houses it. It’s a brilliant inversion of what was already well-established trope over half a century ago.

Jane Wyman (of All That Heaven Allows fame) stars as a young character actor in training who’s stuck on a puppy love crush with a boy who’s in big trouble over his actual lover, a famous actress of high society prestige played by Marlene Dietrich. Through an early flashback, we see the young fugitive fleeing a murder charge for the death of Dietrich’s wealthy husband, clutching a bloody dress that would link his lover to the crime. Wyman’s aspiring young actor stashes the fugitive away at her low level smuggler’s home and decides to clear his name herself while the police hunt him down. Her smartass father (a scene-stealing Alastair Sim, who resembles a hybrid between Alec Guinness & John Lithgow) worries that using her stage acting skills to create false identities as a means to gather information is “transmuting melodrama into real life.” He jokes that she’s gathered up a plot, an “interesting” cast, and even a costume (the bloody dress), but is forgetting the real world dangers her “performance” is flirting with. He’s, of course, exactly correct. The actor’s web of lies only lead her further into danger, lust, and mystery as her real world stage play spirals out of her control and one of the great Hitchcock twists entirely disrupts the narrative she had been constructing to absolve her beloved.

Besides the film’s genuinely surprising twist, there are plenty of Hitchcock charms that help distinguish Stage Fright as a notable title among the director’s lesser works. The meta settings of an acting class and a cramped props closet leave plenty of room for Hitchcock’s usual sly, winking-at-the-audience humor. An umbrella-obscured sequence set at a rained-out garden party allows for the director’s mechanically precise craft of set piece staging to come to the forefront. He finds room to play with his usual visual trickery elsewhere as well: a character’s POV fuzzing with prescription glasses, imagined bloodstains on various dresses, a faked split diopter shot (that honestly resembles bad Photoshop in a modern context), etc. These are all minor Hitchcock pleasures, however. For all of Stage Fright‘s small scale successes in meta theatricality & Jane Wyman sleuthing, its biggest draw is the gleeful way Hitchcock shoots & highlights Marlene Dietrich. She doesn’t get nearly as much screentime as Wyman, as she must remain a mysterious figure for the film’s “All the world’s a stage” plot to work, but she still commands the film’s spotlight. Shots of Dietrich smoking under a veil or singing a lengthy Cole Porter number about how she’s too lazy to fuck are what elevates Stage Fright above meta-theatrical murder mystery to something slightly more distinct. Hitchcock did an excellent job of exploring her presence without overplaying her schtick and I’d much more readily recommend the film for someone looking for Top Shelf Dietrich instead of the director’s best. In the end, Dietrich is the star attraction her pompous character believes herself to be and the movie’s meta stage play theatrics are more or less lagniappe.

-Brandon Ledet