Category: Movies

The Effortless Cool of Desperately Seeking Susan


It isn’t referenced much in any well-informed critical film discussions. It isn’t typically put forth as a shining example of 80s cinema, or women-directed cinema, or Madonna-starring cinema. It probably isn’t used in many film classes. It isn’t especially well-remembered today, except as a kind of style footnote within the singer’s long and storied career. And yet, I would easily count Desperately Seeking Susan among my favorite films. And I consider it Important.

I remember the very first time I ever saw this movie. I think I was about 16, and I was home sick with a bad cold. I was in a fog all day but couldn’t sleep, so I hazily watched movies on cable tv all afternoon. This came on one of our movie channels and I immediately fell for its hip 80s New York world. I grew up in a boring suburb across the river from New York City, and easily imagined myself crossing the tunnel and joining a rock band and living a supercool city life and having wild but sexy fashion sense when I got older. I especially romanticized the punk/new wave scene of the 70s and 80s, when there was graffiti everywhere and cool musicians hanging out on every corner and young people could live in crumblingly bohemian apartments and no one ever seemed to need a day job. I wanted to be an independent young woman who exuded confidence and had street smarts and wore red lipstick and could somehow eat a puffy cheeto without getting cheese dust all over her body. Instead, I was stuck in my small whitebread town with my awkward teen body and a personal style that took many more years to cultivate into anything I could be comfortable with.

Basically, I was a Roberta. And I wanted to be a Susan.

desperately seeking susan

Combining wacky caper with romantic comedy with class satire, Desperately Seeking Susan is about a bored, lonely housewife named Roberta living in Fort Lee, NJ who longs for something to spice up her cookie-cutter existence. She knows she’s desperate, but she’s not sure for what, she just has a vague feeling of dissatisfaction, of disconnection from her bland husband and yuppie friends. It takes a total movie-comedy moment (in the form of an amnesia-inducing bump on the head) to free her from the lifestyle she’d fallen into, and a large portion of the film is dedicated to her coming into herself and finding her personality. Being mistaken for Susan means she can model herself after Susan, or at least the image everyone has of her. Without her memories and without any connection to her real life, Roberta is suddenly able to do anything, and to be anybody, a thought which obviously excites her. She starts (and immediately quits) smoking, makes out with a near-stranger, learns to do magic, dresses to kill, and foils a murderous criminal plot.

Madonna’s character Susan, on the other hand, is introduced as a sexy new wave nomad, breezing her way through relationships and hotel rooms across the country, presumably charming everyone she meets and never having to pay for anything herself. She wears mesh tops and chunky jewelry, her bold lipstick is never smudged, and she dates a cute boy in a rock band. She is effortlessly cool and fully self-assured, full of ideas and never ever boring. She struts around New York City without a care in the world, believing that everyone can come to her, and everything will work out the way she wants it to. The character was created to be an icon, a model for Roberta and other women like her, an image to hold in our heads of what life could be like if we just unleashed our inner pop star. But she’s also real enough that it feels like you might spot her in a hip nightclub, dancing uninhibited and having more fun than anyone else there just because she’s being herself.

desperately seeking susan

While not all of Roberta’s exploratory adventures actually suit her, she seems able to find a happy medium between her former good-natured housewife self and the wild-girl persona that was thrust upon her. And yes, part of that happens through finding love, real love that isn’t the watered-down marriage she’d been stuck in for four years, but the story isn’t about finding yourself through a man, or any relationship, it’s about finding yourself outside of those things. One of my favorite exchanges of the movie is towards the end when Roberta confronts her dopey (and hilariously terrible) husband, Gary, after he finally tracks her down to the club where she’s working as a magician’s assistant. “Look at me,” she says. His response is, “I looked at you, you look ridiculous.” “I mean, look at ME, Gary!” she implores. Her face and her inflection speak volumes, and it’s clear this is the most weight she has ever given to the word “me”, that this is the first time she really understands what the word means. And finally she asserts, “I’m not coming home with you.” It’s a really good moment.

I’m not saying Desperately Seeking Susan should be held up as some great, under-appreciated feminist text. I’m not saying Susan should be considered a role model, or that she served as mine specifically (for one thing, she smokes, so that’s a no, also, she’s not very polite). I’m not even saying you should watch it, because hey, let’s be honest, this movie is certainly not for everyone- it’s dated as hell in its style and themes, the premise is ludicrous, and everyone’s hair is impossibly big. (Personally, I love all those things, obviously.) What I am hoping for is a little respect. This film is primarily remembered for Madonna’s fashion and a string of musical cameos (John Lurie, Annie Golden, Richard Edson, Anne Magnuson, etc), and it’d be neat if it was more often cited as a small but significant entry into the never-big-enough genre of empowering women’s stories. Because, as a former sick teen sitting at home on the couch, forever uncool and unsure, it was nice to watch Roberta becoming her own person for the first time, Susan just being Susan. It still is.

Monstrous Females Double Feature: Ginger Snaps (2000) and American Mary (2012)

Ah, October, a month when talking obsessively about slashers, vampires, haunted houses, killer aliens, werewolves, and dismemberment is generally socially condoned. I have been enormously enjoying my own spooky season, an extension of my personal exploration of horror over the past year. Though I’ve seen many new-to-me horror films recently (most of which I write a little about on my letterboxd), it has been especially heartening to check out a few titles written and/or directed by women, which aren’t exactly common. Two of my favorites so far are the lycanthropy-as-metaphor-for-puberty drama Ginger Snaps, written by Karen Walton, and the body-mod gorefest American Mary, written and directed by the Soska Sisters. As a nice bonus, both happen to star Katharine Isabelle.

Ginger Snaps

Seen: On our projector set-up on blu-ray (borrowed from my friend Ben).

Morbid sisters Brigitte (Emily Perkins) and Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) are inseparable, determined to make it through high school together or possibly die trying, staging elaborate photographs of each others’ deaths as a creative coping mechanism. When the slightly older Ginger gets her period for the first time and is bit by a mysterious wolf-like creature on the same night, Brigitte becomes convinced that she’s turning into a werewolf, even though some of the signs are weirdly similar to puberty. Ginger drifts apart from her sister, suddenly interested in sex and drugs and parties, but her sister can see her rapidly losing control of herself both mentally and physically. Brigitte teams up with a local weed dealer who saw the original wolf and is inclined to believe in what’s happening, but they may not find a cure before Ginger fully wolfs out at the next full moon.

When I first heard the premise of Ginger Snaps I thought it would push the link between the “curse” of menstruation and the “curse” of werewolfism more. Like, get it? Women are MONSTERS when they’re surfing the crimson wave, can we talk about it? Women being emotional, uncontrollable monsters? Eh? But it turns out Ginger Snaps is really mostly about sisterhood and girlhood and growing up and hormones and turning into a werewolf obviously. It is primarily a well-paced supernatural drama, hinging on the mousy Brigitte as she works to save Ginger, a sister she is equally scared of and scared for. Emily Perkins is great in the role, affecting a telltale teenage shoulder hunch and an expression equal parts nervous and tenacious. Katharine Isabelle perfectly balances budding sexuality and over-confidence with an underlying vulnerability and eventual realization that she has lost control of everything she knew.

This movie combines all the confusion and excitement and terror of teenagedom–including fights with parents, personality changes, raging hormones and puberty, the perils of high school socialization, romantic melodrama–while simultaneously remaining a straight-up werewolf movie. I loved the theme of sisterhood and coming-of-age worked so believably into this darkly comic horror. Director John Fawcett’s insistence on practical effects works to everyone’s favor, and the story is original, unpredictable, and honestly quite touching. This is exactly the kind of feminist, femalecentric horror movie I wanted.


american mary

Seen: On our projector set-up, streamed through netflix.

My next foray into women-made horror was American Mary, written and directed by celebrated filmmaker twins Jen and Sylvia Soska. Katharine Isabelle stars again, this time as Mary, a medical student with financial troubles. Unable to make her loan or bill payments, she answers a craigslist ad looking for beautiful women to work at a strip club/bar. After the owner ropes her into an impromptu emergency surgery, she is unexpectedly hired by one of the club’s dancers, Beatress, to perform a body modification surgery on a woman who has been changing her appearance to resemble a Barbie-type doll. Mary is at first unsettled by the procedure, but soon finds herself a go-to surgeon for others in the body-modification community. When a party with her medical professors goes horribly wrong, she uses her newfound skills to enact revenge.

Without knowing too much about it, I imagined this film as a gory, seedy medical thriller with lots of gross operations and maybe body horror. In reality, it’s more a thoughtful take on the rape-revenge subgenre set within a unique subculture. While Mary’s rape is shown in awful, disgusting detail (the one scene I had to look away from during the whole movie), the rest of the story is more about the psychological aftermath than the “revenge” portion usually the focus of other movies with this theme. The body-mod stuff isn’t part of the horror, in face the film mostly offers a sympathetic and compassionate look at that community. The essential horror of the film lies in the lengths Mary finds herself going to as she tries to cope with this terrible experience, as she recognizes her own personality and moral code changing radically. Katharine Isabelle again puts in a memorable performance, at times betraying an uncertainty beneath a hardened, businesslike exterior. Her transformation from confident medical student to somewhat sadistic underground surgeon is a compelling one, and she completely sells it.

The main issue many viewers seem to have had with American Mary is the ending, and I definitely would consider that the film’s weak point. The climax is a bloody, murdery mess that suddenly introduces a new character who was barely mentioned halfway through, and it’s just not satisfying. I think the Soskas were trying to work in a commentary about male possessiveness of their female partners and the general idea that men often think they have control over women’s bodies, which is a very fair point and totally appropriate to raise in a film about body modification surgery. But the way it is introduced and haphazardly worked into the narrative does not fit, and instead a barely-there subplot jarringly becomes the deciding factor in Mary’s story in the last five minutes of the movie. Which is too bad, because up until that point I was very involved with her tale, and hoped for a more fitting conclusion.


Movie Review: Ookami kodomo no Ame to Yuki (Wolf Children) (2012)


Seen: On our projector set-up, streamed from Miles’s computer.

When university student Hana meets a quiet, lonely man in one of her lectures, the attraction is instantaneous. She soon discovers he is the last of a family of wolf-people, but that does not change her feelings for him. They move in together and have two children, and tragically he is killed in an accident shortly after the second child is born. Hana quickly realizes her offspring are shapeshifters, with the ability to turn into wolves, and she moves her family out to the country with the hope that they’ll be safe from prying eyes and can find a way to reconcile their dichroic heritage by being closer to nature. The daughter, Yuki, is a wild and emotional child, but once she goes to school she grows into a relatively average teenage girl, embarrassed by her abilities and endeavoring to live as a human first and foremost. Her little brother Ame is a shy and scared child, but finds his confidence and self-worth in giving in to his wolf side, retreating to the mountains surrounding their home instead of attending classes. Hana works hard to both provide for her children and understand what they are going through, but worries she cannot help them without wolf-knowledge of her own.

Despite its somewhat silly premise, Wolf Children is a complex and gut-wrenching drama that truly seeks to examine the intensity, challenges, and rewards of single motherhood. I know the title insinuates that the children are the focus, but for me Hana’s character was the true standout, she’s just this phenomenal, impossibly strong woman whose struggle felt real and significant and funny and fascinating. Her kids are downright adorable as only anime kids can be, and it was a real treat to watch them grow up, but I always came back to her story, her experience. Here is a woman who is left with a daunting task, and though she is unsure of herself she remains determined to see it through. She teaches herself about medicine, home improvement, farming, animals, sewing, and anything else she might require to provide for her family, and then she GETS TO WORK. She never asks for help, but takes it as it comes when her neighbors start to offer it, and she always puts Ame’s and Yuki’s needs before her own. I’ll admit that motherhood is a foreign concept to me, an instinct I’ve never had and not a path I’ve chosen not to go down, but I felt such admiration for Hana and her incredible dedication. She is basically a superwoman and yet is never recognized for it, and in the end it was her my heart went out to as Yuki narrated their story.

Rendered in soft colors and incredibly detailed in its depiction of movement, this film is easily one of the most visually stunning animes I’ve seen. Every surface, from water and foliage to domestic interiors and urban streets, is drawn with meticulousness and obvious relish. I remember being similarly wowed by director Mamoru Hosoda’s visual mastery with his previous effort, Summer Wars, but Wolf Children‘s natural wonders are far from the techno-futuristic sheen of that film’s standout scenes, indicating an impressive dexterity in Hosoda’s artistic vision. I loved the fluidity of motion and expression, the reflective surfaces, the use of sight gags throughout to add a dose of humor. I loved the clever transitions that showed the years passing as Ame and Yuki grew up. I loved how the music perfectly matched the visual style, hitting every emotional beat until I was (unsuccessfully) holding back tears at the end.

Wolf Children is a film composed primarily of small moments, of sibling squabbles and teen angst, of motherly devotion and lingering grief. Its story is inventive and strange but its themes are universal and affecting, with a trio of compelling characters at its center and a sophisticated animation style. I found the whole thing really beautiful.


Pair This Movie With: Terminator 2: Judgment Day. No, wait! Hear me out! Wolf Children is a movie about a kickass mom who fights like hell to protect her children from outside forces who might hurt them or take them away from her. She dedicates her whole life to them and her personality adjusts itself to fit this new role. This is basically the plot of T2, only that one has robots. OR for an equally excellent Mamoru Hosoda/Satoko Okudera team-up, there’s The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.

Movie Review: Borgman (2014)


Seen: On our projector set-up at home.

A trio of unkempt men living in hidden underground rooms in the forest are forced to flee when a gang of armed men (including a priest) raid their home. Their leader, Camiel (Jan Bijvoet), runs to a large, isolated estate and begs its owner–self-interested businessman Richard (Jeroen Perceval)–to allow him to use their shower. He refuses, and soon physically beats Camiel when he claims to have known Richard’s wife, Marina (Hadewych Minis). She takes pity on him and secretly invites him to use their bathroom, going so far as to make him dinner and agreeing to put him up in their guest house for a few nights as long as he keeps himself hidden. He soon ingratiates himself into her and her young children’s lives, and facilitates the dissolution of her marriage by sending her nightmares about Richard. Several friends join him at the house and things soon spiral out into weirder and weirder territory.

Borgman is the type of film during which I was never quite sure what was going on, but I was always utterly captivated. Writer/director/co-star (and poster designer) Alex van Warmerdam throws his audience into the action immediately, opening with a wordless hunt through the woods as three unidentified armed men tear through the protagonists’ underground homes. These men are never seen again, and their violent raid is never mentioned nor given reason. Camiel and his friends are immediately sympathetic because to our eyes they are victims, perhaps persecuted for living an alternative lifestyle. As the story progresses we come to realize the manipulative, vaguely paranormal power Camiel exerts over Marina and her family, and the brutal lengths he will go to for whatever his mysterious goal may be. The film rests in a cloud of uncertainty and ambiguity but the answer always feels like it’s lying just out of reach, perhaps just out of frame, so that as a viewer I was set on seeing things through and perhaps figuring things out. At times it’s almost intoxicatingly obtuse.

Of course, this isn’t just some hodge-podge of random scenes, there is narrative and character development and theme. This movie hates rich people, for example, and even though Camiel is shown to be fairly ruthless I couldn’t help but root for him since his target (the abusive, possessive, materialistic Richard) is so terrible. There is also a kind of mythology established, whether completely new or drawing from Dutch tradition I couldn’t say, but I did find it fascinating. Camiel sends dreams to Marina, has some kind of supernatural hold on the people around him, he and his friends can apparently turn into dogs (?), they all sport mysterious scars on their backs, and they can hypnotize/brainwash young people. They fluidly change identities and mercilessly murder and manipulate, but their actions are more interesting than dastardly. With unreadable motivations and impressive efficiency, Camiel and his followers bring a wonderful level of weirdness to this idyllic modern home and its unsuspecting inhabitants.

Van Warmerdam crafts this intriguing oddity superbly, with pitch-perfect camerawork and a gorgeous, deep color palette. Shots move throughout the large, stylized household with thoughtful tension, revealing and hiding in equal amounts. While the family feels real enough, it’s easy to assume the events of the film take place in a dream, given the slightly surreal tinge falling over every scene. The sets are too stagey, the action too contained, the characters too nestled in their own performances: the divide between real and unreal is inescapably blurred and even that is commented upon in a conceptual performance shown just before the climax. But the occasional intrusion of the world outside the main family’s home reminds us that this is taking place in the realm of reality (at least that of the film) and the surprisingly matter-of-fact ending jolts us out of the strange hold Camiel and his story had on us. Imaginative, unpredictable, and wholly singular, Borgman is not a film I’m likely to forget.


Pair This Movie With: Who the fuck knows. Lots of people compare this to Dogtooth, which I still haven’t seen (I know), so I guess that.

Movie Review: Times Square (1980)

times square

Seen: In 35mm at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge.

Set in that bygone era when downtown New York was overrun with punks and freaks and strip clubs and boomboxes and graffiti, Times Square follows the adventures of unlikely duo of Pamela Pearl (Trini Alvarado), a shy, lonely, wealthy 13-year-old girl, and Nicky Marotta (Robin Johnson), an abrasive, anti-authority 15-year-old punk . They meet in a hospital where they are undergoing tests for seizure-related issues, but they soon break out together and decide to make it on their own in the streets of New York City. They move into an abandoned warehouse (or train station? or something?) and do well enough for themselves stealing food, taking clothes from some old trunks they found, and dancing (clothed) at a club. But Pam’s father (Peter Coffield) is a high-ranking city official and a media frenzy erupts after her apparent kidnapping and later admitted disappearance, especially after over-opinionated DJ Johnny LaGuardia (Tim Curry) dedicates his radio show to encouraging the girls in their break for independence. Eventually Nicky decides she wants to be famous, working with LaGuardia to form a punk band.

I’ve been trying to see this movie for years but haven’t been able to get my hands on a copy, so I was excited when the Brattle Theatre screened a print as part of their Girls Rule! series (though admittedly their copy was pretty red/faded). It is flawed, but decidedly fun and feminist. I love any and all movies about female friendship, and this is one of the best I’ve seen in that it offers a very positive and open portrayal of a close female relationship, fraught with clashing personalities and divergent goals, but tightly bound by shared hardship and mutual admiration. There’s a bit of lesbian subtext in there, too, which I fully supported. These girls have grown accustomed to no one listening to them, and the film is largely about them each taking control of their own voices, and how even that kind of agency can be co-opted. The two leads are phenomenal, playing their actual ages (which surprised me) and lighting up the screen with their musical and youthful energy.

Trini Alvarado captivates with her porcelain features and soft but powerful speaking voice, spouting lines of poetry and throwing looks of longing across the room. Robin Johnson is the true standout, every expression equally rife with vitriol, swagger, and self-loathing, imbuing the character with a delicate balance of vulnerability and extreme antagonism. And god, that smoky voice of hers just slays me. Tim Curry inexplicably plays a very New York dj but keeps his accent (I don’t think he can really do an American accent, it’s why he didn’t end up playing Brad Majors in the Rocky Horror sequel), and his character primarily functions as a foil for Pam’s straitlaced, career-minded dad. LaGuardia is similarly self-obsessed, but uses his position of power to extoll the grit and grime of Times Square, to encourage these teen girls to resist any and all authority, and to generally fuck things up for Mr Pearl, who plans to “clean up” the city. Curry is charismatic and funny enough to make the role work, though it is largely a satirical caricature.

Times Square does focus on the friendship between Pam and Nicky, and that is its main strength, but it is also an exploration–and memorialization–of the culture of the period, albeit a watered-down version. The girls rock out to Talking Heads, The Ramones, and Suzi Quatro, they mix-and-match vintage clothing, they sneak into strip clubs and adult movie theaters. They stroll confidently around the titular neighborhood, allying themselves with apparently unemployed, delinquent, and/or homeless adults who fill the streets. Most of these extras are played by black men, but few have any lines or names, acting more as set dressing for these rebellious white girls trying to carve out a niche for themselves. Despite their youth and naivete, Pam and Nicky never seem to be in any danger, and their punk lifestyle never derails into sex, drug use, or serious violence. It’s all a bit tame, but admittedly I was grateful for that given their very young ages. My biggest actual problem with them as characters is their misguided appropriation of racist and ableist slurs to align themselves with self-imposed outsiders. Maybe this is just period-specific thing, like Patti Smith using the n-word in 1978’s “Rock n Roll N****r” to celebrate outsiders, minorities, and rebels. It is an interesting way to call out Pam’s dad on his hypocrisy, since she claims they are terms he uses in private, but he is never called on it or seen to re-evaluate his obviously racist and ableist views. Mostly the whole scene is just a reminder that these girls–sympathetic and wonderful as they are–are kind of deluded, and ultimately more privileged than they’ll ever realize.

With its grungy sets, girl-power plot, talented cast, and cultural commentary, Times Square is primarily an enjoyable comedy-drama that makes me want to rock out with my best lady friends. It’s a bit clumsy at times (mostly because the producers shoved some random scenes in to add to the soundtrack, without director Allan Moyle’s consent), and overly simplistic at others, but I came out really loving it. I immediately went home and found the soundtrack so I could relive my favorite moments. Attitude, friendship, rock and roll, fashion, feminism, parents just don’t understand: Yes.


Pair This Movie With: I feel like I could program a marathon around this movie, so many films came to mind that would go along with it. For blogging purposes I’ll limit it to three suggestions. For a fun, music-centric teen comedy with female leads, I do enthusiastically recommend Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. For a grittier exploration of teen girls forming a rock band, there is of course Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains. And for more adult look at the fading-but-fascinating punk rock subculture of early 80s New York City, I put forward Susan Seidelman’s Smithereens, whose caustic main character actually reminds me a bit of Nicky.