Dottie Gets Spanked (1993)

PBS programming was apparently a lot more adventurous in the 80s & 90s than I remember it being as a kid, even though I watched it religiously as a pretentious nerd without cable access. Or maybe it’s that local PBS affiliates in Louisiana weren’t broadcasting The Good Stuff (the gay stuff) that aired in less morally regressive areas of the country. Whatever the case, a few weeks ago I learned that PBS broadcast the radically queer video art flamethrower Tongues Untied the year of its initial release (admittedly to some national controversy in the press), and now I’m just finding out that the publicly funded network also broadcast a 30-minute Todd Haynes short about a child’s sexual awakening as a burgeoning kinkster. Made between Poison & Safe, Dottie Gets Spanked was a dispatch from the earliest, most abrasive period of Haynes’s career, when his voice was such an anomaly on the indie film scene that critics had to coin a new term for it: New Queer Cinema. And PBS was there to push that outsider-art queerness in front of a larger audience, risking morally righteous pushback from the Conservative pundits who are always on the hunt for excuses to defund the network. I think that’s beautiful, and it’s very different from the super-safe (although still incredibly helpful & informative) version of PBS I remember from my own childhood.

In Dottie Gets Spanked, a small suburban child in the 1960s becomes fetishistically obsessed with a spanking scene in an I Love Lucy type sitcom, much to the horror of his super straight parents. True to the messy multimedia style of Haynes’s early work, this simple story is told in a deliriously fractured, layered narrative that’s spread across three tiers of reality: the real world, the sitcom world, and the dream world. In the real world, the young boy is terrified of his emotionally distant father, a cold brute who mostly looms in doorways & watches football while his wife takes care of the actual parenting. The child escapes this tension by sitting inches away from the television and disappearing into the sitcom world, a black & white spoof of I Love Lucy era comedies (a fan-favorite of girls his age, which makes him out to be an outsider at school). In turn, this sitcom world informs the boy’s fantasies: surrealist De Chirico dreamscapes that become intensely erotic once a spanking episode of The Dottie Show introduces a burgeoning fetish into his nightly repertoire. It’s an uncomfortable but deeply relatable portrait of a young child discovering their first sexual impulses in a household where anything that’s not married heteros in the missionary position is considered an abomination & a personal moral failure. Because Haynes is behind the wheel, it’s implied that the young child is gay but unaware of that predilection, but the story is universal enough to hit home for anyone who’s ever discovered their queer identity or unexpected kink obsession while growing up in a conservative household.

Personally, I identified with this on a cellular level. It reminded me of recording sitcom episodes & other random television ephemera that overlapped with my own emerging kinks onto homemade VHS tapes in the 90s. It’s a shame those tapes were lost to flood waters in Hurricane Katrina; I imagine they might play with the same feverishly horny delirium that’s established in this film’s spanking dreams (or maybe the found footage video diary of a serial killer, if I’m being more honest with myself). A lot of those clips were likely pulled from PBS, appropriately enough, even though I don’t remember my local station’s programming being as boldly daring as the psychosexual overtones of Dottie Gets Spanked. But the whole point of this movie is that the content we fixate on while we’re mapping out our own erotic imaginations does not have to be direct or overt to be effective. Even when locked away from the broader spectrum of sexual play & identity in a morally buttoned-up household, we still find a way to indulge ourselves in what turns us on. That searching-for-scraps-of-kink scavenging may now be a relic of a pre-Internet world, considering how much access most children have to information outside their parents’ control, but it is perfectly captured in this playfully naughty Todd Haynes short from the 90s. Knowing that the movie’s production & distribution was at least partially publicly funded only makes its existence more perversely amusing.

-Brandon Ledet

Empathy & Politics in Shock Value Puppetry

Part of what’s so frustrating about our Movie of the Month, the 2006 stop-motion musical Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, is that it could be a truly transgressive work of comedic art. A cartoonish musical about the horrific crimes of The Manson Family certainly sounds like the kind of premise that can only lead to hack #edgy humor, but John Waters was making jokes about Charles Manson & Sharon Tate in Multiple Maniacs to great artistic success while the real-life story was still developing in the headlines. The difference there is that Waters’s Manson Family humor had strong political implications as both a challenge to actively-policed censorship & as a reflection of the nasty undercurrent of 1960s counterculture; Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, by contrast, plays as for-its-own-sake shock value entertainment with no clear political purpose. Multiple Maniacs at least proves that citing Charles Manson as a humorous subject can lead to substantive thematic territory, so it might be worth considering that it’s Live Freaky! Die Freaky!’s choice of medium that leaves the film artistically impotent. Using stop-motion animation, traditionally a children’s medium, to recreate Manson’s crimes in comedy-musical form does suggest that Live Freaky! Die Freaky! might have been too glib & self-amused from conception to genuinely engage with the politics & emotions of its sensationalist subject. There are exceptions that prove that theory untrue as well, however. Nearly two decades before Live Freaky! Die Freaky!’s release, Todd Haynes staged his own sensationalist, real-world tragedy with children’s dolls in a campy, over-the-top cult film – and managed to do so with genuine emotional impact & political messaging.

1988’s Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story is perhaps most infamous for its illegality. Depicting The Carpenters singer Karen Carpenter’s tragic death from anorexia in the early 1980s in a mixed media artform, Superstar was sued out of existence by Carpenter’s family, ordered to be destroyed by the courts for its use of uncleared music & archival footage. Bootleg VHS tapes & low-quality transfers on sites like YouTube have kept the film alive, however, affording it automatic cult status. Live Freaky! Die Freaky! posits itself as an act of punk-flavored subversion, but has no legal or moral censorship actually challenging its existence; Superstar, by contrast, is literally a work of illegal art. Its political subversiveness reaches far beyond uncleared needle drops too. The surface-level details of Superstar seem like they belong to the glib, uncaring, Politically Incorrect brand of humor perpetuated in Live Freaky! Die Freaky!: most of the narrative is acted out by Barbie dolls, the dialogue & narration are deliberately over-the-top melodrama, its initial warnings of the dangers of anorexia directly parody the tones & tactics of old-fashioned After-School Specials, etc. What makes Haynes’s film so enduringly effective is that he clashes that sense of self-aware camp with deeply cutting feminist politics & genuine tragedy. Self-described as “an extremely graphic picture of the internal experience of contemporary femininity,” the film finds grotesque evil in the calm, straight-laced surface of the Nixon era in which The Carpenters’ wholesome sound was meant to counterbalance the sexuality & anti-war protest of hippie music & “hard rock.” In tandem with a birth-to-death musician’s biopic of Karen Carpenter’s life & career, the film explains in documentary terms the symptoms & causes of Anorexia Nervosa, pulling no punches in its attacks on Carpenter’s family & society at large for the controlling, impossible standards they placed on her as a young woman in the public sphere. Her medical condition & subsequent death are explained to be a direct result of patriarchal evils in clear, direct, certain terms – which is automatically more of a genuine political & emotional approach to the subject than anything you’ll see in Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, all while its campiness earns better, more consistent laughs.

Todd Haynes’s approach to puppetry in Superstar is partly what alleviates the film’s potential glibness. Like in his other swing-for-the-fences multimedia works (Velvet Goldmine, Wonderstruck, Poison), it’s just one tool in his arsenal among many – including rear projection, archival footage of live performances, human actors, and on-the-street interviews. He also challenges the initial quirk-humor of the Barbie puppetry by shaving down the Karen Carpenter doll’s limbs as her condition worsens, finding genuine horror & tragedy in what starts as a tongue-in-cheek conceit. There is no such subversion in Live Freaky! Die Freaky!. That film remains so glib throughout, in fact, that it “ironically” participates in the same misogyny that Todd Haynes’s film condemns. While Superstar refuses to shy away from challenging the real-life evils that inspire & “cure” anorexia (including condemnations of Carpenter’s controlling brother/music partner & the practice of force-feeding anorexic patients as “treatment”), Live Freaky! Die Freaky! finds empty humor in Charles Manson physically & verbally abusing women: a supposedly hilarious subversion because he’s played by a doll. Long before Live Freaky! Die Freaky! was made, Todd Haynes proved that the same Charles Manson doll could have been deployed for much more potent political & emotional purposes, that its choice in medium wasn’t holding it back from being a substantial work of cult cinema artistry. There was nothing holding it back in either form or subject, just in limitation of imagination & political conviction – a void of artistic purpose or necessity.

For more on September’s Movie of the Month, the stop-motion animated Charles Manson musical Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, our look at the director’s follow-up, the Green Day documentary Heart Like a Hand Grenade, and last week’s exploration of how its political context differs from John Waters’s own Manson Family humor in Multiple Maniacs.

-Brandon Ledet

Wonderstruck (2017)

I seem to be at odds with most audiences on how we as a culture enjoy our Todd Haynes. Most people seem to prefer Haynes when he’s well-behaved, heaping ecstatic praise on his most straight-forward works like Far from Heaven & Carol. I’m much more into Haynes when he gets messy & experimental, like in the multimedia freakouts Poison & Velvet Goldmine. Considering that dissonance, I should have known better than to let the muted critical response to Haynes’s latest release deter me from seeing it big & loud when I had the chance, instead of sheepishly catching up with it months later upon its quiet streaming-platform release. Adapted from a children’s book by Brian Selznick (who also penned the source material for Scorsese’s Hugo, speaking of undervalued experiments from established auteurs), Wonderstruck is a deceptively well-mannered film that appeals to a younger audience in its tone, but formally sprawls into countless, ambitious directions. This film is just as fractured & mischievous as any of Haynes’s most out-there works, yet is thematically eager-to-please enough that its total lack of Academy Awards nominations feels like a deliberate injustice more than a harmless oversight (at the very least, it’s tied with mother! for being most over-looked in the Best Sound Editing category). I’d even argue it’s Haynes’s most impressive, satisfying work since Velvet Goldmine, which would make it his second-best film to date. If there’s one title I’m embarrassed to have not seen before filing my Best of 2017 list, it’s Wonderstruck, which only makes it all the more baffling why it was met with a series of yawns & shrugs instead of the rapturous adoration that was showered on the much more subdued Carol.

Two children, separated by 50 years and hundreds of miles, appear to be mysteriously linked in a shared destiny. They are both deaf, but do not speak sign language. Their parents are absent, but for wildly different reasons. They run away from home and are both drawn to the NYC Museum of Natural History for refuge. Their lives are temporally & geographically disparate, but supernaturally in sync, a mystery that untangles itself in intricate, multi-faceted ways as their stories converge in an unexpected (for them) shared space & time. In the stretch leading up to that convergence, the film busies itself contrasting the two adult worlds these out-on-their-own children perilously navigate. 1920s New York is framed with a traditionalist, black & white silent film palette, poisoning touchstones of Old Hollywood glamour with a distinct sense of NYC meanness. 1970s New York is a warm, sprawling mix of vibrant sounds & colors, even directly challenging the white hegemony of the earlier timeline by flooding the screen with PoC. Perhaps the reason I’m personally drawn to Wonderstruck is because the types of spaces that remain constant in both timelines & unite the two stories are the exact building blocks I’d use to construct an ideal universe: theaters, museums, libraries, bookstores, miniatures, etc. By the time the two deaf children’s parallel narratives converge in a whimsical, minutes-long stop motion sequence staged inside a meticulous miniature model of New York City, I was just completely broken down into pieces by the gorgeous, used book store universe Haynes (and Selznick) had constructed. It was only a kindness on his part to build me back up with the awe-inspiring tenderness of the film’s impossibly satisfying climax, a sweeping, meticulously calculated convergence of worlds that tied so many ethereal narrative threads together so concisely that it left me . . . well, you know the title.

Wonderstruck is far from the first film to attempt to revise & modernize “silent” filmmaking on an epic scale. Where it departs from past works like The Artist & Singin’ in the Rain, however, is in Haynes’s deliberately messy style as a collage artist. The sound design in this film is incredible, weaving effortlessly from immersion in the deaf children’s aural POV’s to the glam rock tapestries of Velvet Goldmine to the piano-accompanied silent era when the deaf & people with functional hearing had much more in common in their shared experiences at the movies. Haynes gleefully indulges in the most obviously attractive aspects of constructing a silent-era throwback, especially in scenes where he films & photographs his long-favorite collaborator Julianne Moore as a classic Old Hollywood starlet. The “silence” in the film’s choices of medium is much more than a question of aesthetic, however, as it’s distinctly, inextricably a part of its narrative DNA. For obvious reasons, Wonderstruck details at length the array of communication breakdowns that can cause havoc in a variety of interpersonal relationships once sound is removed from the communicators’ toolbox. The modes of communication the children and their friends & family must employ to get around their sound/language barrier are almost as varied as the visual media Haynes employs to communicate with his own audience: stop-motion, 3D models, silence, monologue, intensely colored lighting, black & white filmmaking, rapid fire montage, calm children’s film hangouts, etc. He even cast a deaf actress for the film’s lead to aid in the accuracy & immersion in the fractured narrative (Millicent Simmonds, who is also scheduled to appear in the upcoming horror film A Quiet Place). The movie’s silent era throwback vibe is far from empty nostalgia feel-goodery, even if it’s just as openly celebratory of the medium as simpler, more joyful works.

My favorite review of Wonderstruck I’ve seen so far was a blurb from John Waters’s Best of 2017 list, where he recommends parents show it to their kids as a kind of intelligence test, explaining “If your small-fry like the film, they’re smart. If they don’t, they’re stupid.” It’s a glib review that flippantly disregards questions of preference & taste, but it’s one I can’t help but agree with. In fact, I’d expand that uncalled-for insult to the adults who are bored or unmoved by the film as well. Complains that Wonderstruck is emotionless or “gets lost” in the Museum of Natural History baffle me. I can’t imagine a scenario where this many people don’t fall under the spell of Hayne’s kaleidoscopic mix of New York City models made entirely out of 1920s glamour magazines, Guy Maddin-style nightmare imagery of layered wolves, glam rock daydreams about stargazing, and so on. It’s unfair to fault anyone for not emotionally connecting with Wonderstruck’s children’s film tone or its narrative about deaf, fearless children who refuse to be treated like inconveniences by their reluctant adult guardians. That kind of subjective response is obviously personal, but people understanding the film as anything less than a technical marvel in fractured, multi-media storytelling makes me question what planet I’m living on.

To be fair, though no response to Wonderstruck could possibly be as idiotic as the one it’s getting from its own distributors. Amazon Studios is making no plans to release Wonderstruck on physical media, which is tragically ironic, considering the film’s obsession with the archival & preservation of physical objects. Todd Haynes’s latest work of ambitiously sprawling genius may be obsessed with libraries & museums, but Amazon’s going out of its way to make sure it never arrives in any such collections. Given the muted critical response to the film over the last few months, I’m afraid it might be lost in time to digital rot, which makes me want to cry over its delicate, misunderstood beauty all over again.

-Brandon Ledet

Safe (1995)

Although it’s told in three fractured, disjointed segments, there’s a unifying theme of unspoken menace in Todd Haynes’s debut film, Poison, that ties the whole thing together as a cohesive expression of queer anxiety. One segment in particular that involves a 1950s B-movie mad scientist who gradually transforms into a monster after accidentally ingesting his own experimental sex serum felt like a darkly comical, but ambiguously tense reflection on the AIDS crisis that wrecked queer communities in the 80s & 90s. That same thematic thread continued into Haynes’s follow-up feature, Safe, which also dwells on the menace of declining health without directly connecting the illness to a real world crisis in the text, but still feeling like direct commentary on a real life tragedy. I’m not sure if Safe is tackling AIDS (the way Poison does), the way women are discounted & disbelieved about dysfunction within their own bodies, the ills of modern culture at large, or some unholy combination of all three. Its continuation of playing an unknowable, unstoppable health menace as a kind of existential crisis is its strongest asset and the one that’s the most welcome contribution to Haynes’s overall oeuvre. Its only misstep is when it strays from that menace in its lackluster third act.

Julianne Moore stars as Carol (a protagonist name Haynes would later repurpose for much a more amplified effect), a milquetoast housewife to a wealthy California business prick. Carol’s suburban ennuii initially resembles a run of the mill indie drama conflict. Her sex life is unsatisfying, the constant renovation & redecoration of her home is a sign of discontent, and her alienation from her husband & violence-obsessed stepson becomes increasingly pronounced with every awkward meal they’re obligated to share. Things devolve into a “The Yellow Wallpaper”-style horror from there as Carol’s ennuii transforms into a physical illness that cannot be explained by the men in charge of her well being. Her headaches, nosebleeds, and coughing attacks suggest there’s something deathly wrong with her body, but her unsympathetic husband & doctor brush it off as hypochondria, since the ailment cannot be pinpointed by science as a virus or allergy or anything else scientifically measurable. Carol moves to a commune far outside the city to immerse herself in a chemical-phobic culture of New Age medicine, yet her health continues to decline, because there is no clear trigger for her expanding list of symptoms.

In Safe‘s best moments, it plays like an existential horror take on Douglas Sirk melodrama (an influence Haynes would later explore more fully in Far From Heaven). As Carol navigates a wide range of possible cures that include self help books, holistic medicines, fad diets, and an impromptu hair perm, the menace of her declining health is played both as a sly joke and as an existential nightmare with a John Carpenter-style score. The only plausible answer offered to the question of her illness is a flyer that reads “Are you allergic to the 20th Century?” That idea leads Carol down a rabbit hole of New Age conspiracy theories about “deep ecology,” “spiritual awareness of the planet,” and “the oneness of all life” that ultimately does her no good, but also no worse than what modern medicine has to offer. Haynes has a lot of fun clashing modern life with Nature in this way, shooting plants on VHS-quality camcorders and juxtaposing pop songs like “Lucky Star” & “Heaven is a Place on Earth” with one-with-the-Earth folk music feel-goodery. Unfortunately, it also feels as if Safe somewhat gets just as lost in examining this New Age bullshit as its slowly dying protagonist, however coldly. Once Carol adjusts to cult life on the “chemical free” commune early in the third act, there isn’t much left to what Safe has to say and all that the audience can do from there is wait for the credits, whereas earlier scenes felt like a nonstop onslaught of existential dread in a much more memorably satisfying way.

Although I’m underwhelmed by Safe’s ultimate destination at the New Age commune, it does lead to a great moment where Carol is pressured into giving a speech for her new cult family. There’s something horrifying about the way she babbles vaguely about toxins & pollutants in that moment with nothing solid or specific to say, especially after watching her suffer physically for so long in the scenes leading up to that moment. Julianne Moore is undeniably one of our greatest living actors and Safe offered her a fantastic early-career spotlight to generate both heartbreaking empathy & frustrating mystery in an existential plight. As much as I feel Safe‘s energy is zapped by its New Age cult criticism focus in its third act, I very much respect Haynes for offering Moore that platform, as well as the ways he managed to turn modern life & paranoia over health into Sirk-tinged horror in earlier sequences. Safe is far from the perfected Haynes heights of its follow-up, Velvet Goldmine, but it’s still memorably menacing all the same.

-Brandon Ledet

Velvet Goldmine (1998)

After watching Todd Haynes gradually shift towards traditionalist, Douglas Sirk-inspired dramas like Carol & Far From Heaven, it’s been fascinating to return to the wild, fractured, untamed excess of his earlier, more transgressive works. Haynes’s debut feature, Poison, was a roughly assembled, anxiously queer anthology that covered territory as widely varied as 1950s mad scientist B-pictures & Jean Genet’s masterful, poetic smut Our Lady of the Flowers. Before that debut, his name-making short Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story re-imagined a high profile celebrity tragedy through hand-operated Barbie dolls. It’d be near impossible to reconcile the two disparate ends of Haynes’s beautifully improbable career, the controlled drama & the wildly fractured art film, if it weren’t for his magnum opus, Velvet Goldmine, a glam rock opera that somehow encapsulates the totality of what the director has accomplished to date in a single picture. Velvet Goldmine remains Haynes’s grandest achievement by somehow elevating his youthful passion for melodrama, disorder, and camp to the level of the Oscar-minded prestige productions he’d later settle into as he aged within the industry, all while remaining aggressively, unapologetically queer. It’s overwhelming to watch a filmmaker this ambitious throw every possible tone & technique he can achieve at the screen, but drowning in Haynes’s chaotic, yet glamorous sensibilities is a pure, intoxicating pleasure.

Christian Bale stars as an ex-Brit reporter working out of NYC on an investigative assignment about the publicity stunt “murder” of a glam rock star he had worshipped religiously as a queer teen. It had been a decade since British rocker Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) faked his own death onstage & disappeared from the public limelight. It seems as if the glam rock lifestyle, with its outrageous gender-androgynous costumes & conspicuous absence of sexual norms, had died along with that persona. Through the relatively dull framing device of watching Bale’s gloomy reporter research the missing Slade, Haynes opens up the wild world of glam rock past in a series of disjointed vignettes following Slade’s life from birth to “death”. The film is primarily concerned with Slade’s musical collaboration & bisexual affair with American proto-punk icon Curt Wilde (Ewan McGregor), an obsessive relationship that wrecked his sobriety, his closeness with his wife (Toni Collette), and his overall ambition to change the world through the transformative power of rock n’ roll. Haynes crafts a deliberately messy, loose story out of this rock n’ roll romance by employing every tool he had in his arsenal: the Barbie doll performances of Superstar, the James Bidgood tableaus & Jean Genet allusions of Poison, the Douglas Sirk melodrama of Safe & Far From Heaven, flesh on flesh pansexual erotica, etc. He also conjures glam rock’s natural mystique by allowing X-Files style record company conspiracy theories & supernatural claims that Oscar Wilde’s origins as a space alien changeling to inform his narrative without batting an eye. The only restrained-feeling aspect of the plot is Bale’s investigative framing device, but even that boasts the perverse virtue of essentially reimagining Citizen Kane as a glam rock opera.

Although narratively loose & ambiguous, Velvet Goldmine clearly evokes two real-life romances/collaborations in this patchwork plot: David Bowie’s affair with Iggy Pop & Britain’s affair with American rock. Slade is a clear Bowie stand-in, a connection deliberately referenced in the title & unappreciated by Bowie himself, who threatened to sue before the script went into rewrites. The film mostly follows the Ziggy Stardust & post-hippie eras of Bowie’s career before his romace/heroin-sharing/music collaboration with Iggy Pop unraveled those glory days. It’s a relationship that’s understood more through myth & rumor than confirmed, openly admitted fact, so Haynes is smart to abstract any 1:1 comparison, even if it was a decision inspired by threat of a lawsuit. Bowie’s life story is blended with other pop stars like Marc Bolan & Buster Poindexter to create the figure of Brian Slade, while Curt Wilde emerges as a similar blend of Iggy Pop & Lou Reed. This abstraction & democratization of their characters leads to the film feeling like a larger, more mythical tale of American & British rock n’ roll’s endless back & forth romance & collaboration than an affair between two queer men in the 70s & 80s. A childhood Little Richard drag routine Slade stages in his parents’ living room feels just as essential to his stage persona evolution as any of the film’s Oscar Wilde space alien weirdness, making this moment in time shared between British & American rock to feel like a smaller thread in much larger tapestry, albeit an essential one. Velvet Goldmine depicts glam rock as less of a craze or a passing fad than a failed revolution that very nearly topped the world in a flood of glitter & lube before it lamely succumbed to the pitfalls of heroin & romantic jealousy. Bowie & Iggy were useful figured for that story, but the overall effect is much larger than anything two men could amount to alone.

Velvet Goldmine was a box office bomb that was met with middling, confused critical response upon its initial release. It’s the exact kind of overly ambitious, insularly passionate art picture that’s doomed for cult status over wide appeal, but I selfishly wish that were the kind of art Haynes were still making today. As much as I appreciate Carol‘s intoxicating allure, it feels like a film that could have been pulled off by any number of visually skilled, queer-minded craftsmen. Velvet Goldmine, by contrast, is undeniably a Todd Haynes film. The same way Citizen Kane posits that a man’s full persona can’t be contained by a single picture, Velvet Goldmine argues the same for the spirit of glam rock at large. Haynes structures this argument around a sprawling all-inclusive clusterfuck of every weird, passionate idea he’s ever projected onto the screen in his life. It’s a magnum opus that makes room for drag queens, Barbie dolls, Bowie worship, Oscar Wilde conspiracy theories, an extended cameo from glam-revivalist band Placebo, and Ewan McGregor’s spread-open butt cheeks. It’s risky, go-for-broke cinema that doesn’t have a 100% success rate in its individual elements at play (Christian Bale’s gloomy sulking is a lot to stomach), but consistently impresses in its visual beauty & sheer audacity. It’d be a cultural tragedy if we never see Haynes working in that mode again.

-Brandon Ledet

Poison (1991)

It’s a goddamn shame the world has not been treated to more Todd Haynes features. Although the director has a follow-up to his recent critical hit Carol already on its way, the near-ten year gap between Carol & its predecessor, I’m Not There., is alarming, to put it lightly. At the same time, though, it’s actually something of a miracle that Haynes has had a career at all. I’d count works like Velvet Goldmine & Safe among the greatest films I’ve seen in my lifetime (or they at least felt that way when I first saw them in high school), but it’s shocking that the director was even able to get them made, much less turn their minor indie world successes into more mainstream-friendly dramas like Carol or Far from Heaven. How is a director widely known for making an unsanctioned Karen Carpenter biopic with an all-Barbie doll cast or a pansexual glam rock opera that implies a rumored  romantic affair between Bowie & Iggy still around & pulling funding from prestigious, Oscar-worthy dramas? I love the improbability of his career. It’s an absurd unlikelihood that dates at least as far back as his first feature film, a fractured anthology about queer anxiety that somehow pulls influence from both 1950s drive-in creature features & Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers. Todd Haynes has always been a movie industry anomaly, a fact proven by that debut somehow winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance the year of its release.

Poison is an interwoven tryptic of three separate narratives. One story is a documentary shot in lurid Douglas Sirk colors about a young, constantly bullied boy who “murders his father and then flies away.” Another details unspoken homosexual desire between two 1940s prisoners that grows increasingly violent the longer it’s ignored. The third, most oddly lighthearted story, is a parody of 1950s B-pictures where a scientist accidentally consumes his own “sex drive serum” and becomes a monstrous, lethal leper. These stories might feel entirely disharmonious at first glance, even ranging from black & white to dull color to full Douglas Sirk indulgences in visual richness. However, they are each tied together by an expression of queer anxiety. Childhood bullying, living closeted, unexpressed desire, and the menace of HIV/AIDS inform so much of the film’s unspoken conflict that its context as a work of pure queer anxiety cannot be ignored. It’s felt as soon as the opening quote exclaims, “The whole world is dying of panicky fright” and never lets up as its three stories concurrently barrel towards their unavoidably sour ends. What’s most bizarre is the way Haynes can play this anxiety for varied effect. Sometimes hilarious, sometimes shockingly brutal, and often trafficking in the delicate, distilled imagery of a Guy Maddin picture, Poison’s intent & effect is a scattered, but consistently fascinating mess of anxious expressions of queerness.

As with a lot of first time features, this is a film that wears its influences proudly on its sleeve. It’s jarring how widely ranging Haynes allows those influences to be, though, touching on everything from John Waters & Roger Corman to Jean Genet & James Bidgood. I’m not sure you can detect the eventual greatness Haynes would eventually synthesize these influences into in titles like Velvet Goldmine, but it’s so much fun watching him clash them against each other in this fractured anthology piece. Poison is recognizably the work of a young, enthusiastic, queer man aching to unleash his weirdo sensibilities on the movie world at large. I find it both improbable & delightful that he’s been rewarded for it, even if his work has been despairingly infrequent as of late. As a film, it’s difficult to deny that Poison is rough around the edges, perhaps even by design, but as a cultural object it has a kind of punk art world shakeup quality that’s easy to find infectious. At times I wished during its runtime that I could have watched any one of its vignettes play out on its own instead of the three fighting each other for air, but they worked well together as a kind of anxious artist’s statement and initiative war cry for a rewarding career that’s only gotten more delightfully improbable as the decades have rolled on.

-Brandon Ledet

Office Killer (1997)

I’ve been singing the praises of the directorial debut of art world “it girl” Tara Subkoff, #horror, for at least a year now, but the film seems to have, um, limited appeal. A tongue-in-cheek art horror with a cartoonish hook in its premise (social media is killing our children!), #horror premiered at MoMA in NYC before being quietly dumped onto VOD platforms (including Netflix, eventually) to a tepid-at-best critical response. This is not the first time the directorial debut of an art world darling has been treated this way. In the mid 90s, visual artist Cindy Sherman joined in the then-blossoming indie film industry with her own cartoonish art horror. Like with Subkoff’s debut, Sherman’s Office Killer was trashed by critics, tanked financially, and was eyerolled quietly into home video oblivion. Sherman made a fun, visually gorgeous, sardonically humorous genre film that should have launched a whole new phase of her career, but instead was shrugged off & swept away.

One of the more infamous Cindy Sherman photography series (in my mind, anyway) was her early 80s collection of “fashion” photographs, which depicted women (often herself) wearing clothing that supposedly made them powerful, looking miserable, squirming under the microscope of the camera lens. The picture numbered #122 in this series finds Sherman disheveled, wearing one of those monstrous shoulder pad power suits, and grimacing under the harsh florescent light of what appears to be an office. This one image almost seems to be the roadmap for where her film Office Killer would go over a decade later. The harsh lighting, the visible discomfort, and the disruption of disorder eeking out from within the rigid business world containment of the clothing feel like the stirrings of what Office Killer would eventually come to be. The only pronounced difference is that Sherman would bring in a sense of absurdist humor from her other works into the project.

Although Office Killer has Cindy Sherman’s eye crawling over every inch of the film, the real highlight is Carol Kane’s lead performance. Starting off as the exact uncomfortable-in-her-designated-role archetype depicted in the above referenced Sherman series, Kane’s titular killer is a mousy homebody who cannot suffer the intense scrutiny of being a young woman in the modern workplace. Her murder spree begins by accident, but then develops into a conscious, cold-blooded effort to make herself comfortable in a more domestic work environment. Carol Kane is usually relegated​ to minor supporting roles in her career, like her violent fairy in Scrooged or her crazed landlord in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, but in Office Killer she’s allowed to command the screen whole-heartedly. What’s even better is that she’s given a chance to do so in a quietly campy, increasingly violent lead role that recalls Kathleen Turner’s performance in the John Waters classic Serial Mom, a comparison I evoke only as the highest of compliments.

Serving as a lowly, nobody office girl at a magazine publication, Kane’s anti-hero protagonist is an awkward ball of nervous energy. With a uniform of tightly-bunned hair, ratty sweaters, wire-framed glasses, and drawn-on eyebrows, she’s a sore thumb in the workplace, where more traditional Modern Women (including Molly Ringwald) poke fun at her discomfort & reclusiveness. The pressure of caring for her invalid mother (Alice Drummond of Ghostbusters fame) at home and fighting off the unwanted sexual advances of men at work tear her mind in half and she snaps. After accidentally killing a coworker after-hours, she takes the body home to her basement and finds them much easier to deal with that now that they’re lifelessly compliant with being manipulated and she’s in command. That’s when the killings become an intense obsession. She converts her basement into a “home office,” forgiving errands from her not at all alive victims to stave off search parties (in the same very early in the game Internet Age paranoia) and setting them up like mannequins at computers & typewriters. This is all in service of directly evoking a long simmering punchline about how she’s now able to “work from home.” It’s a deranged premise, but it’s all in good fun.

It took me a little while to get on the same wavelength as Office Killer. It’s the kind of film that improves exponentially each scene until it concludes at its most ridiculous point, so it makes sense to me that a contemporary audience in the 90s would turn on it early and never be able to land back on the same page as the film. Sherman has explained in interviews that the initial plan was for the film’s kills to be much bloodier & more gore-focused, but she scaled the violence back to focus on how Kane’s protagonist disposed (or doesn’t dispose) of the bodies instead of the actual acts of violence. I think this was ultimately the right decision, since it allows the film’s campy, Serial Mom vibe to play out much more brightly. The initial kills, which include electrocution, strangulations, and deaths by asthma inhaler, may not be bloody, but the softness of their initial impact makes way for a much more shocking, grotesque reveal once you get to see the full, gory scope of the killer’s self-made “home office” (which recalls John Landis’s “Family” episode of Masters of Horror). The dead bodies held together by scotch tape & Windex, including children, gives Office Killer the violent edge horror audiences may have been looking for throughout its runtime. Sherman chooses to save that mayhem for a morbid punchline that allows Carol Kane to shine in full Norman Bates glory before it hits. It may have been a decision that turned off audiences at the time, but plays in retrospect like an act of genius.

Cindy Sherman delivers exactly what I want from my genre films here, the exact formula that won me over in Tara Subkoff’s #horror. She mixes lowbrow camp with highbrow art production in an earnest, gleeful work that values both ends of that divide. As faintly silly as Carol Kane’s performance can be as a deranged killer, Sherman colors her background with a genuinely horrific history of sexual assault, where she constantly has to hear praise for her abuser in a work environment. She employs infamous provocateur Todd Haynes to provide “additional dialogue” to make sure that discomfort seeps in. The sickly, flickering florescent lights of her film’s office setting afford it a horror aesthetic long before the kills begin, especially when she focuses on the harsh, moving light of a copier running in the dark. Even the opening credits, which glides as projections across still, office environment objects, have an artfulness to them missing from a lot of tongue-in-cheek horror. Maybe some audiences don’t know what to do with that tonal clash and assumed Sherman similarly didn’t know what she was doing when she created it. Maybe it’s that exact attitude that also sank #horror before it really had a chance. All I can say for sure is that Office Killer deserved a much better response than the one it got and it’s criminal that Sherman hasn’t had a chance to make a follow-up to her near-perfect debut.

-Brandon Ledet

Carol (2015)

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fourstar

Todd Haynes is a genius filmmaker. Sometimes his genius is readily recognizable in its grand scale spectacle, like with the glam rock opera Velvet Goldmine. Other times, it’s  a more subtle kind of genius, like in Far From Heaven, a period drama about forbidden romance. Haynes’ latest, Carol, is firmly in the latter category. Carol has been topping a lot of Best of 2015 lists (including Britnee’s) & generating early awards-season buzz for its two stars (Cate Blanchett & Rooney Mara), but as is the case with the human-captivity drama Room, the buzz surrounding Carol might be working somewhat to the film’s detriment. At heart, Carol is a handsome, but muted drama about homosexual desire in a harsh environment where it can’t be expressed openly. The subtle glances & body language that make the film work as an epic romance are very delicate, sometimes barely perceptible. In fact, if you had no idea what the film’s about going in, it’s possible it’d take you a good 20min or so to piece it together. That kind of quiet grace is in no way detrimental to the film’s quality as a work of art. It’s just that the critical hype surrounding the picture puts an unnecessary ammount of pressure of what should be experienced as a collection of small, deeply intimate moments shared between two star-crossed lovers.

The titular Carol (Cate Blanchett) is a wealthy 1950s housewife undergoing a messy divorce with a husband who refuses to accept her homosexuality as a natural aspect of her personality. The much younger Therese (Rooney Mara) is a shop girl going through a similar romantic struggle with a young beau she knows she should be smitten with, but simply isn’t. At these romantic crossroads, our two heroines fall for one another at first glance. Unable to express exactly what they’re thinking in the public eye, they speak merely through a socially-acceptable customer-saleswoman dynamic until they feel free to push the boundaries of where they’ll allow their desire to take them. It isn’t until the two discover freedom through travel on the open road that their yearning reaches its tipping point, leading to all sorts of emotional & legal fallout thanks to the uncaring world that sees their passion as a question of poor morality & mental illness. The power dynamic of their relationship (with the learned, elegant Carol tending to mother the girlish, just-discovering-herself Therese in an uncomfortable way) also strains what feels like a wrong place/wrong time, but ultimately meant to be romance.

Haynes handles the delicate nature of Therese & Carol’s passion with a surgeon’s precision, expressing their unspoken desire through intensely focused looks at details like the nape of a neck, the curve of a lip, the fetishistic exploration of a pair of gloves. He matches the obscured way they express their desire by filming the couple through windows like a voyeur so that they’re one step removed, especially in the stretches where the film functions as a travelogue. He also directly nods to the very medium he’s working in, making a big to-do about Therese’s interest in photography & having a moviegoer explain directly that you have to pay close attention to what characters say vs. what they actually mean. Blanchett & Mara obviously deserve much of the credit for making the film work in its small, under the radar way. It’s incredible that they can communicate so much desire through body language & low, guarded voices while still selling humor in lines like “Just when you think it can’t get worse, you run out of cigarettes.” As a trio, Blanchett, Mara, and Haynes construct a deeply romantic, emotionally trying, and at times damn sexy narrative seemingly without ever lifting a finger.

Carol deserves each & every one of its accolades. If I had seen it before the year had ended it may have very well made our Top Films of 2015 list (distribution schedules are a cruel, confounding beast). It certainly would’ve been included with my 2015 Christmastime Counterprogramming list if nothing else. I don’t think that the film needs to be championed in that way to get its full due, though. It’s almost better that it can exist under the radar, hidden from the awards season glamour, much how like its characters’ homosexual subculture is a secret world in plain sight. Carol is an elegant, understated gift that needs to be handled with care. I’m hoping its longevity as a work lasts much longer than the end-of-the-year roundups & trophy distributions. Thankfully, Haynes’ career is fascinating enough as a whole that it most likely won’t be an issue. I look forward to revisiting this one in the years to come.

Side Note: Whoever negotiated Carrie Brownstein’s credit in the opening scroll deserves a raise. I don’t know if her part was cut down in the editing room or what, but she barely even makes an appearance. So, you know, don’t get too excited about spending time with her when you see that opening credit. There’s not much of her part to go around.

-Brandon Ledet