Monday, February 11, 2019

Shelf Life (#s): 31 & 4 LITTLE GIRLS

by Erika Bromley and Patrick Bromley
A new column about working our way through the DVD alphabet.

Erika and I have been collecting movies for as long as we’ve known each other -- for as long as DVDs have existed, pretty much. When we first started dating, we agreed to not buy any of the same titles because we knew we would one day be living together and didn’t want to go through the hassle of owning two copies of Gone in 60 Seconds or the remake of Shaft. This is just foresight and good planning.

Lately, we have been watching a ton of movies -- everything from classic ‘30s screwball comedies to ‘70s exploitation to 2018 screeners -- trying to fill in the gaps in our shared movie knowledge (follow us at E_and_P on Letterboxd!). Fortunately, we have a substantial library of DVDs and Blu-rays to help us in this (fun) process. It’s with this in mind that Erika suggested a new column called “Shelf Life,” in which we each pick a title from our collection that’s new to one or both of us and work our way through the entire alphabet. Because of the way our discs are organized, that means starting with numeric titles.

Without further ado...Shelf Life.

Patrick: First of all, Beu, thanks for thinking of and suggesting this column. You know better than anyone that writing has been next to impossible for me these last few months, so having not just someone to write with but also a clear objective about which to write is a huge help. Plus, it helps justify all the years and money spent amassing our movie collection! This is a really good idea.

What was your very first movie watched for our very first installment of this column? I’m asking for the readers. I already know the answer.

Erika: Hi Babe! Thanks for supporting my early collecting addiction (including an overpriced copy of Xanadu and a small indie film that we never watched and may or may not be on our shelves in its original Best Buy packaging right now) and for suggesting we not purchase the same stuff. You were smart!
There are a handful of numeric titles living quietly on our shelves that I haven’t seen, but I was able to make my choice quite easily. I think you’ve spoken on the podcast a few different times about my love of Rob Zombie movies (and love of the Zombies in general), right? Yet I had never seen his 2016 film, 31. I remember very little about the film’s release -- just that it was not well-received and that after you saw it you suggested that I not waste my time! Now, if I had more time (I love my career, but it sure does take me away from my hobbies sometimes), I would have seen it no matter what. But you really, really seemed disappointed in it, so I’m sure I watched House of 1000 Corpses again instead.

I’m really glad I picked this, because as a Rob Zombie fanatic (I’ll never forget the experience of seeing House of 1000 Corpses or The Devil’s Rejects in the theater when they first opened; I felt like they were made for me and tapped in to certain elements that truly instill fear in me -- not that that’s required for a horror film), I’d hate to leave out anything from his body of work. And I have found myself thinking about it more than I thought I would! That said, your analysis was pretty spot-on: it’s a weak outing for him. It reflects areas he’s explored before (kidnapping, being trapped, torture), but it feels like it’s missing something. I remember an early thought being that it felt rushed; suddenly we were kidnapped and in the game (a group called “The Heads” runs the game “31” every year on Halloween, and whoever they kidnap has to survive this murder game for 12 hours if they want out alive). But none of the exposition of the first 30 minutes or so felt like it mattered or was important in any way. You know I love nudity in movies (and life!), and we got some of that, so it didn’t lose my attention. But really, what did we learn in that opening sequence? Did any of it matter? Maybe that’s ok. Maybe it didn’t have to matter? What was your take on the opening sequence?

Patrick: I’m totally with you that the opening feels like padding. It’s designed, I think, just to introduce us to the characters; instead, it really only introduces us to the actors. I couldn’t tell you a single thing about any of the people in this movie except for what they look like and who plays them. It doesn’t help that Zombie writes every one of them in the same voice, further burying any individual personalities inside a lot of bickering and curse words. There’s a version of this movie in which all this setup endears us to these people enough that we care about them (at least a little) and invest in their survival, but this isn’t that movie. Like I said when we were watching it, 31 never tells a story -- it’s just an execution of a premise.
Knowing how much you’ve responded to RZ’s movies in the past, I found myself wondering if you would like 31 a lot more if it was the first Rob Zombie movie you ever saw. As you pointed out, there are still things in it to which you responded and that speaks to certain primal fears of yours. But then I get frustrated that there’s no context for any of it -- just a bunch of random “fucked up” stuff thrown together. It bums me out how much Zombie falls back on including every single element of his previous movies for which he has been mercilessly criticized in the past. I know it was probably annoying how much I said “edgelord” every time some new “disturbing” but totally free-floating image was put on screen -- evil clowns, Nazi paraphernalia, cannibalism, that horrible sex scene -- but I found myself disappointed all over again at how much 31 becomes self-parody. It serves almost no purpose but to give lots more ammunition to the Rob Zombie haters. Are you at least happy to have finally seen it?

Erika: I’m definitely happy to have seen it. You said it perfectly: “it’s just an execution of a premise.” I don’t find any deeper meaning in anything in the film, which is fine; I by no means think every piece of art needs to have deep meanings or metaphors or pieces of symbolism. Yet this just feels like all style (and not Zombie’s best) and no substance…which brings me to your favorite word (only your favorite while watching this film): “edgelord.” My goodness. It is all that. Just throw a handful of edgy (but are they?) images and explicit (maybe?) lines of dialogue out at a dirty, grimy canvas and you have 50% of 31? And what’s with all the extreme close-ups? I don’t think they worked at all.

I always love seeing Sherri Moon Zombie, even if this wasn’t my favorite of her performances. (I know you do too; I loved the piece you wrote about her a few years back.) And I LOVED seeing Jeff Daniel Phillips (swoon) who was also in Lords of Salem (swoon) and is from Chicago (swoon) and reminds me of Dave Grohl (swoon) and maybe-I-can-meet-him-and-touch-his-beard-and-why-hasn’t-this-happened-yet-I’m-just-wondering. I genuinely enjoyed Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs’s performance and felt for his character when he met his (spoiler alert!) end. And I can’t forget Richard Brake’s monologue at the start of the film. It put me on edge in the right way (the way Zombie’s other works always do) and reminded me that I should see more of his movies (maybe I’ll rewatch Mandy tonight -- one of my favorites from 2018). It’s such a strong performance; too bad it’s not met with strong storytelling overall.
I must add, it does not go unnoticed that Zombie casts actors of all ages, races, and levels of popularity in his films, and that is so appreciated. EG Daily, Ginger Lynn, Meg Foster. I believed in the emotion behind every single one of Meg Foster’s lines. She was fantastic, too. Side note: you have met her! I’m pretty sure she hugged you! We have a picture somewhere! Gosh, you are so cool. Well whatever. I met Batman. MORE THAN ONE Batman.

Isn’t there supposed to be a “Zombie Cut” featuring the cut and/or deleted scenes that were removed to make way for the R rating? Or did I make that up? You mentioned a “horrible sex scene” earlier. I’d like a not horrible one, thankyouverymuch. Blu-ray extras?

Patrick: I have great news: Jeff Daniel Phillips has appeared at Flashback before. I’ll cross my fingers that he makes a return appearance this year and that he brings his beard with him. Let’s start saving up now for bail money.

Our friend Heather Wixson saw the movie when it premiered at Sundance and says it was a pretty different cut, but I don’t know what all was changed. She said there was more character stuff, especially with Meg Foster. I would have welcomed any of that, because turning any of these people into humans would help the whole thing feel scarier and more brutal, which I know is what RZ was going for. Both this one and Lords of Salem changed a lot on their way to their final cuts, and I wish there was some way for us to see what was originally intended.

I like the cast, too, and wish they were appearing in a movie that made better use of their talents instead of just trading in on their iconography. (It’s Lawrence Hilton Jacobs! Remember Welcome Back, Kotter? It’s Malcolm McDowell! Remember Franklin & Bash?) Richard Brake and Sherri Moon Zombie come off the best, and I like their last moment together enough that it leaves me thinking I like the movie more than I actually do...even if it’s a big unfair cheat.
My pick for the ‘numbers’ section of our movie shelves couldn’t be further away from the edgelord nonsense of 31. It’s Spike Lee’s documentary 4 Little Girls, which I had never seen until now. Rob and Adam just wrote about it recently after seeing it for the first time, too, because great minds or something, so I don’t want to repeat too much of what they said here. We’ve been planning to go through Spike Lee’s entire filmography once we finish with Walter Hill, so I thought that picking 4 Little Girls got us a little bit ahead. Plus, I’ve never seen any of Spike Lee’s documentaries outside of The Original Kings of Comedy, which is really just a concert film.

I’m avoiding talking about 4 Little Girls because it broke my heart.

Erika: I was happy you picked 4 Little Girls -- even though I have already seen it -- because I love, love, love Spike Lee and am so happy that he has finally been nominated for a Best Director Oscar (even if it is WAY overdue). But yes, heartbreaking barely touches it. As we were watching it together, I noticed your reaction to a few different parts. One was when Denise McNair’s parents were talking about how much she loved dolls and toys. It’s probably impossible to watch this as a parent and not think about your own kids during those scenes. Another moment that stands out was when her dad was talking about this beautiful photograph he had snapped of her and his memories of realizing how great it was and printing an enlargement. These simple memories are devastating.

Spike Lee uses a lot of extreme close ups (might be the only connection to what we wrote about 31!) while interviewing friends, family, and other important witnesses. At times, I was wishing the camera would pull away a little, but I think I understand what he was going for: the audience is forced to be focused on this important history. The camera doesn’t give the us space from the subject because their words are critical and urgent. Black history was missing from schools and wider life in general for too long (and still is, sadly). Documentaries like this one serve as essential education; the film becomes a necessary historical artifact just in the way it collects and presents the memories of these beautiful lives that were cut too short.
Patrick: I like what you say about the closeups and the need to eliminate any distance between the stories and the viewer. I was also struck by what struck me as a real interest in the human side of the movie’s subjects. Spike Lee is so, so great, but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen him be so interested in humanity the way he is here; his movies tend to be about ideas more than people (with some obvious exceptions). He even offers George Wallace a chance at redemption by putting him on camera and including him in the film. Spike doesn’t editorialize about him, either. He just lets Wallace be the pathetic, racist piece of shit he’s always been. That’s not Spike’s fault.

The word that kept going through my head as we watched the film was “brave.” How brave these families are for surviving this tragedy, for being able to sit down and tell these stories. How brave an entire people are for persevering through 100+ years of bigotry and oppression and violence and hate. I’m just not that brave, not that strong.

Erika: I’m not either. And I’m so glad you mention bravery, because I was thinking about Mamie Till, Emmett Till’s mother, as I was watching 4 Little Girls. Mamie Till could have mourned quietly and gone back to Chicago (after the trial where Emmett Till’s murderers were “found” innocent), but instead she insisted on an open casket funeral and spoke out across the country about the terrible tragedy and injustice she was forced to endure. She refused to let Emmett’s memory fade -- and in turn made his murder a catalyst for change. She has always been a hero to me because of her bravery through grief and pain, and the families in 4 Little Girls show that same strength.
Patrick: I think I feel about 4 Little Girls the way you do about 31, but for totally different reasons: I’m glad to have seen it because it was an unseen entry in the filmography of someone I really like, but I probably won’t be going back to it.

Erika: Too heartbreaking. But so important to see at least once. You know my theory: I have to deal with difficult subjects and sadness to honor the people who actually experienced them. It’s literally the least I can do. Knowing more about the history hopefully helps us work to not let it repeat (and helps us to raise our kids the way we want to raise them). Let’s go have a good cry.

Patrick: Deal. But then we have to move on to the “A” titles. American Ninja isn’t going to watch itself.


  1. I have not as much stuff as you guys, so the 'unwatched' list is more managable. Though i bought a lot of tv series lately (the entire stargate series and spiniffs for example) so the movie pile is just growing while i watch one season of a thing.

  2. Thank you Erica for being the first to say what I have always thought about JDP - HE DOES LOOK LIKE DAVE GROHL

    1. Sorry - Erika not Erica. Hey, speaking of shelves, remember "Found on Shelf" from Blockbuster?

    2. Yes and yes! Also, will JDP or Dave Grohl let me touch his face?

  3. Great idea for a column! As someone fairly new to collecting I have always been fascinated by those with huge collections and how they get through everything. Looking forward to this and now followed on Letterboxd.

  4. Before I get to anything god, I lust over those shelves. Please, tell me where you got them because they're magnificent.

  5. This is a great column and it's always awesome to see you two do things on the site together.