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Please Baby Please (Amanda Kramer, 2022)

A musician-turned-filmmaker with a background in theater, Amanda Kramer has—with only four features and four shorts to her name—put together one of the most idiosyncratic and original filmographies to come out of the American indie scene in recent years. It’s a body of work populated with outcasts fumbling after repressed desires, and filled with unhinged performances, eerie set designs, and extravagant costumes. Kramer’s films straddle multiple genres and modes, from the girls-only Lord of the Flies retelling of 2018’s Ladyworld to the nightmarish TV-variety-hour format of Give Me Pity! to the quasi-musical trappings of Please Baby Please.

The director describes Please Baby Please as a “fucked-up, queer, upside-down West Side Story.” The film premiered at this year’s Rotterdam Film Festival as part of a stellar retrospective of Kramer’s work, which also included her other 2022 feature, Give Me Pity!Please Baby Please stars Andrea Riseborough and Harry Melling as Suze and Arthur, a married couple navigating an ostensibly “straight” relationship in 1950s New York. Prowling their neighborhood is a small platoon of leather-clad thugs: as the couple both fall for the gang’s hottest, Teddy (a brutish cherub played by Karl Glusman, the star of Gaspar Noé’s Love), Arthur and Suze realize that they aren’t tied to the roles society has laid out for them. There are other identities they can embrace, other desires they can pursue. Arthur wants to sleep with Teddy; Suze wants to be Teddy.

Like Give Me Pity!, a tale of stardom undone set in the world of a kitschy 1970s TV special, Please Baby Please is a period piece, though nothing about Kramer’s fascination with the era feels retro or nostalgic. The Brando-inspired world of 1950s street gangs is filtered through ’80s neon lights to paint a portrait of New York that remixes different decades and aesthetics, evoking the films of John Waters, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Kenneth Anger. Blending camp melodrama with snappy dialogue, romantic songs, and S&M dance routines, the lurid alternate universe Kramer conjures is as rebellious and playful as her unlikely heroes.

Halfway through this year’s Rotterdam Film Festival, I spoke with the director about Please Baby Please, her approach to the past, and her idea of an “all-cinema.”

You seem to have very little interest in anything close to the realm of realism. This is a leitmotif in all your films, but it’s perhaps most prominent in Please Baby Please.

I think artifice and fantasy are major themes in my work. With the imagery in my films, I don’t want to reveal anything of the world I live in; I’d rather go somewhere else. There are people who do this in all different kinds of calibrations—I’m thinking of Fellini, of Lynch. It’s a desire to design life rather than reflect or mirror it. And that’s where I sit.

In the case of Please Baby Please, I was very inspired by the aesthetics of the 1950s. It’s one of our most haunted decades, especially in American filmmaking—an era awash with images that became part of the iconography of the “model American life.” But it’s also dotted with these perverse icons like James Dean, Marlon Brando, the disaffected subcultures of the time—which I’m obsessed with! You blend that all together and you get something very strange: a world of secrets and lies and spectral images. Not to mention an entire hidden narrative of gay and queer themes…

Which is just what you explore in Please Baby Please: the ultra-macho street-gang members are contrasted with someone as vulnerable and bold as Arthur, who proudly says, “I am a man, but I don’t feel like acting male.” 

I think any great work of feminism needs to discuss masculinity as much as anything else. I’m really interested in men who are willing to say: “I’m proud to be my gender, I like being a man, but I don’t want to be pushed into a stereotype, or have to land in a macho landscape.” The conversations between Suze and Arthur, on the roles they should play in their relationship, are conversations you could have today. I don’t want to be retro; I’m not interested in recreating the era as a movie like Carol might, or talking about homophobia in the 1950s. I want to talk about subcultures and the underground, to show you that a couple traveling through a “queerification” of their relationship can find a way to stay and evolve together.

I know Please Baby Please is a period piece, but it doesn’t strike me as a super-faithful or rose-tinted recreation of the 1950s. “Nostalgia” isn’t a word I’d feel comfortable using to describe any of your films. 

Thank you for saying that. When you make super-contemporary culture—say, things like Euphoria—you know your job is to be as trendy as possible; you need to turn into a cultural critic of the “now.” Whereas when you make a period piece, your job is supposed to be to make sure everything is as accurate and authentic as it can be, and I’m furious that there’s no blending of these two [approaches]. Where are the Julien Temples making Absolute Beginners and saying, “don’t worry, the 1950s are the 1980s”? We’re missing this mash-up of then and now. That’s what creates the most iconic imagery.

I know you don’t do auditions, so I was curious to hear how you go about casting your actors. 

I think what someone can offer you in an audition is an on-the-day, in-the-moment impression. I need to pay a lot longer attention to a person’s career; I need to speak to them as a human, to see if they get a joke, if we can have a rapport. I try to understand when an actor is perfect for a role, or when they’re the opposite of perfect for a role—in which case they must have it, because then that means I can do something fucked up and interesting with them! I think you need a certain savvy when you’re asked to read work where there’s a lot of thematic jamming and it’s not as plot-driven. I also need to explain to my actors that they’re going to embody caricature and not human qualities. “Are you good at being weird?” is a very different question than “are you good at being real?” If I could make my films as flat as possible, I’d do it.

As flat as possible? What do you mean by that?

Well, my dream scenario is to make a film like Coppola’s One From the Heart, where every single solitary thing is built, and everything is under control. You go from scene to scene and it looks as though the sets are pulled away to reveal other sets. This is a flattening of the world. It’s anti-cinema, but also all-cinema. It’s an enormous spectacle, what Coppola’s able to do. Same with Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. That’s all a set, and very flat, and it’s all cinema. This is what I want: to bring the theater into cinema and show not only other acting styles, but also other ways of building sets. A non-reality—an almost out-of-perspective stage expressionism.

This reminds me of this beautiful moment in one of your early shorts, Requests (2017), when a character suddenly pulls a curtain inside this hazy bar he’s drinking at, only to reveal a gelatinous blob of swirling stars. It’s such a strange, entrancing sight.

I love that. And I mean, haven’t we reached a stage in this medium where people can finally experiment in the narrative linear form? We have experimental filmmaking, mainstream filmmaking, and art cinema, which we’re constantly reminded is “boring” and “never sells.” The demonization of art is the biggest trick Hollywood has ever pulled. And yet we’re at a phase now where we have such sophisticated viewing, with hundreds of thousands of platforms, and millions of people making content—it’s so overwhelming! So why is there not more of this blending of forms? Why are there not more people experimenting within actual commercial work? It’s possible. I fear experimentation is not applauded in America; I think that there are European provocateurs who do it, and do it very well. I’m looking for that here in America—I’m looking for that kind of transgression and punk edge.

Leonardo Goi is a film critic and journalist. A staff writer at MUBI Notebook, he runs the Berlinale Talent Press, an international platform for emerging film critics.