Our Lady of Bayside and Other Cryptids: Short movie notes

Our Lady of Bayside and Other Cryptids: Short movie notes May 1, 2023

As Netflix prepares to end its DVD service, I’ve been plowing through my queue as fast as I can. These are in order of when I watched them.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days: An unbearably tense 2007 Romanian movie, set in the 1980s, about a young woman trying to help her friend get an illegal abortion. From Cristian Mungiu, the director of the also-harrowing lesbian nun exorcism film Beyond the Hills. For much of its runtime it isn’t “about” abortion, but about other things that accumulate around this specific abortion: the ubiquity of the black market, and of lying in general; the comfort we find in blaming somebody when things go awry, The woman whom you put here with me–she gave me fruit from the tree, so I ate it; how a party feels when you can’t tell anybody what is really on your mind.

Nobody bothers considering the moral rightness or wrongness of Gabita’s decision, and this too felt very real in its way–the fact of a choice gets obscured beneath all the practical chores you have to do to hustle that choice across the finish line. Mungiu was influenced by the Dardenne brothers (Kid with a Bike, The Unknown WomanThe Son), and he shares their attentiveness to the time and effort it takes to do anything. All the cigarettes you have to gather for bribes, all the excuses and conversations, everybody you have to placate or evade or endure.

The abortion is horrible because it’s illegal; there’s no one Gabita or her friend Otilia can tell about the cruelty inflicted on both of them. And then once the abortion has happened something changes. Most of the movie has the tension of a heist or suspense film without any of the fun. But now the film starts to feel like genre horror: shuddering electric lights, a woman running in and out of streetlights in a night full of threatening footsteps and barking dogs. Only now do the characters, and the film itself, raise the question of the unborn child. Everything about this final stretch of the film seems to me designed to make you feel the child’s humanity, even (in the final scene) in a somewhat heavyhanded way. It ends on a note of repressed anguish. The film feels like it is an attempt to say everything that couldn’t be said for so long–not just some things, but everything.

Victor Morton noted how often the film uses mirroring and images of crossings, like the trains that rattle past one another in opposite directions. He suggests that this imagery is how Mungiu casts the shadow of choice across this otherwise choiceless film. Doubling figures and crossing paths represent the fact that one’s actions are not inevitable, the possibility of living a different way. I don’t know that this is quite how it hit me. The trains, especially, seemed to me like a representation of how it feels when you think that another life exists, but not for you. That feeling is usually false but it is very convincing.

Thieves’ Highway: Set along the California coastline, this 1949 drama follows returning soldier Nick and his quest to avenge his father by exposing the crook who not only swindled the father, but arranged an accident in which he lost his legs. Nick’s scheme involves hauling apples to San Francisco before anybody else can get their load in. For me, the best things about this picture were the long and harrowing scene of Nick trying not to fall asleep at the wheel; the attentiveness, in general, to the physical tasks and risks of long-haul driving; the brutal scene when one trucker dies after an accident in which a couple low-level goon/shlimazls were complicit; and the slightly febrile, hard-bitten bad girl (Valentina Cortese), who wins the day.

The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love: Oh, you know, God bless the 1990s! I watched this thing in the theater when it first came out, and I kind of assumed it wouldn’t hold up. Maybe it doesn’t? But I was completely charmed by it, even though it is a precursor of all the Wholesome queer media in which we’re currently drowning. Maybe that’s okay sometimes???

Working-class white stoner butch Randy falls for well-combed, wealthy black honor-student Evie, and their relationship causes havoc in their high school and their differently- but equally-catawampus families. Laurel Holloman and Nicole Ari Parker are endearing as the girls, everything’s handled lightly but with desperate adolescent sincerity, all problems are solved through individual effort because it’s the 1990s. The humor is slight but pleasing (there’s a refrain of “…Nice car” whenever a new character spots Evie’s Range Rover) and Randy listens to some of the same bands I did.

Final moments rewrite Walt Whitman in a way that every “side B” homosexual has already written a full thesis on. Fine! Of course! Whatever!

The Watermelon Woman: Also very charming! The first feature directed by an out Black lesbian, this 1996 mockumentary does the audience the favor of not “unpacking” or lecturing us on its themes. It simply presents us with Cheryl’s (writer/director/star Cheryl Dunye) quest to find the truth behind the mysterious 1930s Black actress, “the Watermelon Woman.” Representation, our relationship to #problematic art of the past, interracial dating, Who Tells Your Story (TM)–all of these things get mentioned, but there’s no thesis or conclusion, it’s more that Dunye is showing us how these seemingly-abstract “issues” weave into our daily lives.

It’s all driven by Dunye’s performance as a comically youthful and adorable butch. Valarie Walker is also great as her long-suffering partner in video serfdom. There are cameos from Cheryl Clarke and Toshi Reagon, and a very funny cameo by Sarah Schulman. AND let me say, AND there is one other cameo, which I will not spoil because you guys deserve to have your jaws drop as fast as mine did, but it is HILARIOUS and is perhaps the only humble thing that specific lesbian has ever done.

Rambling, sweetly serious but also willing to do some self-deprecating satire, equal parts time capsule and still-relevant sheaf of questions.

Flaming Ears: Unintelligible queer punk science-fiction atmosphere piece. I regret to say that I found the first word in that sentence to be the important one. “The revolution of love is bloody. A melancholy bird flies over a sea of cruelty. Do you feel the moisture in your armpits?” An ominously roller-skating androgyne pours gasoline over a desk, then humps it, then lights it on fire. I know you think that sounds fun, and it was at first, but the more it just accumulated in a heap, the less I cared. Why is German cinema like this?!

Cropsey: “That was the summer all the kids from Staten Island discovered that the urban legend was real.”

OK, this is a true-crime documentary about whether a specific person or group of people were the real-life kidnappers and child killers behind the local legend of “Cropsey.” It turns out that at least one missing child really was buried in the woods near a shuttered institution for children with intellectual disabilities. One former orderly at the hospital really had returned to its grounds to live in camps in the woods. People really did (probably) live in the tunnel system underneath the hospital.

I don’t want to go into too much more detail, since Cropsey is really well-paced in doling out both large and small revelations. I will say that there are a few themes here that made this a genuinely memorable film for me. It’s a film about the dehumanization of people with intellectual disabilities–that theme emerges from more than one angle. It’s about the elusiveness of certainty–what happened, whodunnit, and why it happened remain unresolved. It’s got some startling Catholic cameos, including an appearance by Veronica Lueken, hence the title of this post. Everybody’s got a different line they draw with true-crime stuff, but to me, at least, this film felt more haunting than exploitative–at least in part because so much of its story is about the worth and belovedness of children with Down’s Syndrome and other disabilities.

On an artistic level, my main criticism is that the music is bland. I think it’s being used to add a tragic note, to recall us to the real misery at the heart of this story rather than letting us skid off into “oohhh a spooky mental hospital!!!” land, but the thing is that true-crime stuff always wants to fake respectable, so the sad music feels more like a disclaimer than like an elegy. Either no music, or more unique music, might have been better.

She-Devil: I must be getting old. This 1989 comedy from the director of Smithereens and Desperately Seeking Susan felt mean-spirited and a bit rote. Yes, I know we’re all supposed to cheer for the neglected and despised wife (played with real panache by Roseanne Barr) who finally snaps and seeks revenge on her philandering fraudster of a husband (Ed Begley Jr, sure) and his romance-novelist mistress (Meryl Streep). She starts an employment agency to give other struggling women a chance! She rescues a tiny, downtrodden nurse from an abusive old-folks’ home! But idk… there’s a self-absorption here, an expectation that we’ll only ever take the She-Devil’s perspective; it’s funny that she handles her children’s emotions casually because they’re awful, it’s funny that the mistress’s beloved pet dies because it’s a poodle. It’s not the events themselves but the expectation that you don’t have to work to wring comedy from them–of course it’s funny, can’t you see Meryl Streep overacting? A lot of the choices, from Streep’s acting to her pink-princess mansion, seem like they’re aiming for camp but don’t go hard enough.

I loved Susan desperately (heh). That movie is rough-edged and willing to be weird; its interiors and lighting are more extreme, its characters are grittier (Madonna drying her armpits in the ladies’ room) and less knowable, more mysterious in their motivations, both to the audience and to themselves. Lol it is also fairly sapphic, whereas She-Devil is v. v. heteronormative, but I promise that is not the only reason for my preference! Susan is also willing to be poignant; it doesn’t need to win. It doesn’t need you to despise anybody in order to be funny. Again, I am getting old, I know.

Stack of DVDs photographed by RadioKAOS, found via Wikimedia Commons and used under a Creative Commons license.

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