Air Conditioner (2020)

I think of myself as someone who doesn’t need much story or overtly stated themes to fall in love with a movie. Cinema is such an immersive sensory experience that just the juxtaposition of powerful images & sounds should alone be enough to fully grab my attention, with narrative & thematic purpose falling to the side as secondary concerns. That personal resolve is routinely tested to its limits at film festivals, though, where I’m used to seeing exciting experiments with image & sound in movies that just . . . meander, never really arriving anywhere in particular. This challenge to my presumed comfort with a high-style/low-story imbalance apparently extends to the at-home, online film fests that have cropped up this summer thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, most notably the We Are One festival’s recent presentation of the film Air Conditioner.

Thematically, Air Conditioner is very up-front about what its central conflict is meant to represent. It even opens with dictionary definitions of “air”, “conditioning”, and “air conditioner” to sketch out allegorical battle lines between natural living conditions and an artificially controlled society. The simple household appliance of the air conditioner is positioned to represent some kind of unnatural, man-made distortion of how we’re supposed to naturally live as a community. Story-wise, there’s even a clear central protagonist deployed to give this vague metaphor practical in-the-moment meaning, especially in relation to societally constructed & enforced class divisions in Angola, Africa. We watch a quiet, calm handyman travel between small jobs & customers in the middle of an air-conditioner related phenomenon in his city, while endless grids of window-unit ACs hanging above him out of every apartment window. He mostly keeps his thoughts to himself, so you have to infer his reaction to the sights & sounds of the bizarre air conditioner crisis yourself. Mostly it just seems like he’s trying to minimize being hassled while the world around him is falling apart, which is at least a universally relatable impulse.

The hassle of the day in this instance is a big one. All air conditioners in the city are malfunctioning and falling from their windowsill perches to the ground, threatening the lives of pedestrians below and drastically raising the temperature of the rooms they’re meant to cool. The closer you live to the Equator the more that premise will sound like a horror film to you, as even just in New Orleans I can tell you that a summer without an air conditioner is miserable (if not borderline life-threatening). While this premise could have easily been molded around a sentient killer-objects horror genre the way of Rubber, The Lift, or Death Bed: The Bed that Eats, however, Air Conditioner takes a much more esoteric route. Our handyman takes a customer’s fallen air conditioner to a repair shop, where a mad scientist converts it into bizarre machinery that projects working-class people’s memories onto video screens and conjures their visions of the future. Elsewhere, working-class men converse through telepathy in the alleys between the buildings the ACs are falling from. A sparse, jazzy score punctuates the handyman’s travels between these mysterious figures and his far less interesting bosses above. It’s all very loose, observational, and aesthetically pretty.

The opening credits of Air Conditioner include a montage of still photographs, including one where a subject is wearing a dress that declares “Art is resistance.” Maybe the point of the movie was not to say anything particular about class disparity in Angola, nor to stage a narratively satisfying story around that theme, but to simply point out that it exists. Maybe illustrating class disparity through something as ubiquitous as air conditioners was the intended resistance. If that’s the case, the film might have fared better as a short than a feature, as the themes & narrative were so loosely defined that all I could really focus on was how eerie the score could be in its better moments and how well the film functions as fine-art portraiture of Angolan locals. I’d usually like to think that kind of pure sensory immersion is enough to fully leave me satisfied, but it ended up testing my patience by the time it fully settled into its groove. There’s something alluring about the idea of common household appliances rebelling against their duty and inciting a class system rift through abandonment of their post, so much so that I wish that this particular movie had taken a more straight-forward path in exploring that idea. I’m a little ashamed to admit it, but I wish it were a little more grounded & basic.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #112 of The Swampflix Podcast: Wrinkles the Clown (2019) & A Mid-Year Return to the Best of 2019

Welcome to Episode #112 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Britnee, James, and Brandon discuss the most noteworthy movies from last year theyve seen in the six months since they made their respective Top Films of 2019 lists, with a particular focus on Uncut Gems, The Farewell, and Wrinkles the Clown. Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, YouTube, TuneIn, or by following the links below.

– Britnee Lombas, James Cohn, and Brandon Ledet

Spawn (1997)

Oof. I remember enjoying this post-Batman superhero action-horror as a mouth-breathing 11y.o. dingus, which inspired me to revisit it despite its garbage reputation. I still don’t think I was entirely wrong. Spawn has plenty of great raw material for a belated cult classic reclamation. Along with Blade & Black Panther, it’s one of the few major instances of a black superhero headlining their own comic book movie. Its grotesque practical effects & Satanic 90s aesthetic also make for a fun novelty in stops & starts, and its notoriously shoddy CGI work is so outrageously bad that it almost achieves something outright surreal. Too bad the film is ultimately a bore. And an annoying one at that. It’s embarrassingly cheap, inert schlock, which is a shame because it otherwise has the makings of an all-timer in retro cult action-horror.

After an assault of X-treme 90s fonts & soundtrack cues steamroll over the opening credits, an insanely rushed over-ambitious info dump sets Spawn up as a fallen mercenary soldier who’s been chosen by the Devil to lead Hell’s army as it conquers Earth. And because stopping all the demons of Hell from invading Earth is not enough motivation for him to turn superhero, we’re also dragged through some domestic melodrama about the widow he left behind in death, providing him personal reasons to care about the fate of humanity at large. Naturally, Spawn defects from the Devil’s plans and attempts to save the planet from his evil reign. There’s also a weapons-trading espionage subplot that keeps the newly formed Hell Hero busy for a chunk of the runtime, but I couldn’t imagine giving enough of a shit to bother recapping it here.

There are two major faults at the core of this movie: one adorable and one reprehensible. Firstly, the effects are just unfathomably bad. The practical gore stunts are a joyful reminder of how tactile & grotesque this kind of action-horror media used to be before computer effects took over as an industry standard, which only makes the film’s early-PC-gaming CGI effects look even goofier by contrast. The set pieces in Hell are particularly embarrassing, unworthy even of the original DOOM desktop game. At least those effects are laughably bad and so bizarrely unreal that they make you feel like you’re losing your mind after being immersed in them for minutes on end. The movie’s other problem is much less endearing, and it’s one that Spawn shares with far too many other films: John Leguizamo just will not shut the fuck up.

Despite playing the titular Spawn and proving himself to be a compelling marital arts performer in many other films, Michael Jai White does not earn top billing here. That honor belongs to Leguizamo, playing a phenomenally annoying demon clown named Violator who’s dispatched to pester Spawn into acting out the Devil’s commands. The film’s grotesque practical effects work is at its most beautifully upsetting in Violator’s prosthetic costuming. His shapeshifting abilities allow him to transform into a variety of nightmarish clown monstrosities, each more hideous than the last. The only problem is that he’s impossible to listen to for as long as he shrieks & rambles about Spawn’s duties as the Devil’s servant. It’s the kind of untethered, out-of-control performance that you get when hyperactive comedians like Jim Carrey & Robin Williams aren’t reined in with a strong, guiding hand. Except that Leguizamo isn’t nearly as talented nor as adorable as either of those (equally annoying) goofs, so even when he’s at his best it still feels you’re like babysitting a hyperactive child.

I almost want to give this movie a pass despite its glaring faults, because it feels like the exact kind of superhero media I wish we could return to. After over a decade of being asked to take superhero movies super seriously as grim philosophical epics in a post-Nolan world, it’s really refreshing to return to the goofier ones that play like live-action versions of Saturday Morning cartoons: Catwoman, Batman & Robin, Corman’s Fantastic 4, etc. You know, kids’ stuff. For kids. These movies aren’t “bad” the way their reputations would suggest. They’re just goofy & over-the-top, which is at least more personality than you’ll see in the three-hour behemoths we get now every time Marvel releases another big-budget-spectacle-of-the-month. Spawn should be a commendable example of that kind of retro-juvenile superhero relic, especially since its gory Satanic imagery makes it a novelty in the genre: an R-rated kids’ film. You could even argue that John Leguizamo’s annoying presence enhances that experience by making it feel even more authentically juvenile; his is the only performance that actually matches the cartoon energy of the film’s intensely artificial backdrops & backstory.

I’ve seen this exact R-rated kids’ action horror sensibility done worse (The Guyver), but I’ve also seen it done much better (Yuzna’s Faust). Ultimately, I can’t fully warm up to Spawn because it has so much potential as a reclaimable cult classic that it’s incredibly frustrating that it falls short of earning it. If you have fond memories of this vintage superhero action-horror leftover from your childhood I recommend leaving them that way and just revisiting Blade instead (or, better yet, Blade II). As fun as the Satanic iconography & absurdly cheap CGI can be in flashes, neither are worth the Leguizamo-flavored headache they accompany.

-Brandon Ledet

Movies to Stream at Home This Week 7/9/20 – 7/15/20

For the past few months, I’ve shifted our weekly “What’s Playing in Local Theaters” report to a list of Swampflix-recommended movies you can stream at home. This choice was initially a no-brainer, as the governor had ordered the closure of all Louisiana movie theaters in response to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.  More recently, cinemas are allowed to operate again as part of the state’s gradual re-opening strategy, but I’m personally not confident that’s such a great idea yet. So, I’m still going to stick with Online Streaming options as a moviegoing substitute for the time being.

In that spirit, here are some suggestions for movies that you can stream at home while under quarantine: a grab bag of movies Swampflix has rated highly that are currently available for home viewing.

Streaming with Subscription

Hail, Ceasar! (2016) – From my review: “Loaded with beautiful tributes to every Old Hollywood genre I can think of and pretty damn hilarious in a subtle, quirky way that I think ranks up there with the very best of the Coen Brothers’ work, an accolade I wouldn’t use lightly. If you need a litmus test for whether or not you’ll enjoy the film yourself, Barton Fink might be a good place to start. If you hold Barton Fink in high regard, I encourage you to give Hail, Caesar! a chance.” Currently streaming on Netflix.

Tourist Trap (1979)– From Britnee’s review: “Tourist Trap instantly became one of my favorite horror films of all-time. I literally got goosebumps several times throughout the film, and I’m not one who gets scared easily. I highly recommend Tourist Trap for anyone remotely disturbed by mannequins or psychopaths.” Currently streaming on Shudder and for free (with ads) on TubiTV.

Big Business (1988) – From our Movie of the Month discussion: “The swapped-twins plot of Big Business feels like it’s straight out of an Old Hollywood comedy, the kind that Fred & Ginger might’ve starred in if it had been released 50 years earlier. The nature-over-nurture value system of the movie is very much an antiquated line of thinking and (although there’s some confusion about who winds up with whom at the end) the film’s intense concern with finding each sister a potential mate is very much in line with the structure of a traditional comedy. Instead of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Big Business is more like A Million Beaus for Four Sisters.” Currently streaming on Disney+.

Streaming VOD

To Die For (1995) From my review: “By 1995, neither celebrating nor satirizing the attention-seeking narcissism of tabloid-friendly criminals were especially novel; John Waters alone was nine features deep on the topic with Serial Mom the year before. Still, the specific textures of Pamela Smart’s bizarre circumstances, Nicole Kidman’s sweetly cruel performance, and Gus Van Sant’s playfully ironic (and, frankly, patronizing) tone make the film a sadistic delight.” A $3 rental on all major VOD platforms.

Little Women (2019) From Boomer’s review: “This is a beautiful film, a timeless piece of literature made fresh once more with a cast overbrimming with talent and filmed with an eye for chromatic storytelling and such beautiful Northeast scenery that when I tell you I was there, I was there. This is also such a talented cast that they breathe a new life into characters that, in the original text and in previous film incarnations, were at times sullen, unlikable, or intolerable.” A $5 rental on all major VOD platforms.

Violence Voyager (2019) – From my review: “Feels as if it were made entirely by one loner-creep in some far-off basement, as if he were racing to publish his work before being raided by the authorities for crimes against society & good taste. It’s the rare work of modern outsider filmmaking that feels genuinely dangerous, with all the excitement & unease that descriptor implies.” A $4 rental on all major VOD platforms.

-Brandon Ledet

Zombi Child (2020)

Bertrand Bonello’s follow-up to the wonderfully icy teen-terrorist drama Nocturama is a from-the-ground-up renovation of the zombie film. Zombi Child directly reckons with the racist, colonialist history of onscreen zombie lore, and pushes through that decades-old barrier to draw from the untapped potential of its roots in legitimate Vodou religious practices. It’s a deceptively well-balanced film that evokes both Michael Haneke’s cold, academic political provocations and Celine Sciamma’s emotionally rich coming-of-age narratives while somehow also delivering the genre goods teased in its title. The only film I can recall that attempts its same wryly funny but passionately political subversion of long-established horror tropes is the recent festival circuit curio I Am Not a Witch, and yet it’s clearly part of the same lineage as its genre’s pre-Romero beginnings in titles like I Walked With a Zombie. Gore hounds and horror essentialists are likely to be bored by the thoughtful, delicate deconstruction of the genre attempted here, but if you can get on-board with Bonello’s academic evisceration of zombie cinema tropes the movie feels almost outright revolutionary.

The narrative is split between two dominant timelines. In 1960s Haiti, a man is zombified by a Vodou ritual that drags his body out of the grave only to force him to work as a slave on a sugar cane plantation. In 2010s Paris, his teenage descendant is struggling to adapt to her new life at a bougie boarding school for (mostly white) French legacy kids, gradually losing touch with her Haitian heritage. The modernism of the contemporary timeline at first feels entirely disconnected from the eerie atmosphere of the historical Haitian setting. Teen girl bonding rituals and casual discussions of Rihanna’s discography don’t immediately feel as if they have anything to do with zombie plantation slaves an ocean & a half-century away. Gradually, though, it becomes clear that the subjugative evils of the past cannot be severed from their echo in the present; it is impossible to have a normal, healthy relationship across class, cultural, and racial borders without acknowledging the colonialist abuses of our ancestors. At least half of Zombi Child is an observational coming-of-age drama that plainly presents modern teen girlhood at its most natural, but it still manages to establish a direct tether from that setting to a centuries-old Vodou tradition long before the connection becomes explicit at the film’s crescendo.

The most impressive aspect of Bonello’s touch here is how out in the open the film’s academic explorations can be, even though a significant portion of the screentime is focused on teens just hanging out, being kids. Classroom lectures at the boarding school about the unfulfilled promises of the French Revolution and the imperialist legacy of Napoleon Bonaparte (the school’s founder, no less) are allowed to simmer for minutes on end. The girls themselves are self-designated literature nerds, which means they get to discuss the evolution of the zombie movie in-dialogue and to recite poems with lines like “Listen, white world, as our dead roar. Listen to my zombie voice honoring the dead.” The historical Haiti setting is much less vocal, as it mostly follows a zombified plantation slave’s sublingual path back to human consciousness. It’s no less overtly academic in its themes, though, pushing discussions of how cinema represents “black bodies” and slave labor to its most literal extreme. Sequences of zombie field workers despondently hacking at sugar cane with machetes—too pathetically drained of human life to even remain vertical without assistance—are just as horrifying as any brain-eating or disemboweling undead carnage you’re likely to see in a more straightforward genre exercise.

The zombie genre has become an over-saturated market in the last few decades, especially when it comes to grim post-Apocalyptic melodramas like The Walking Dead. At this point, the term “zombie apocalypse” alone is enough to send even the most horror-hungry audiences running to the hills out of madness & boredom. The continued appeal of zombies as a genre device is understandable though, especially when you consider the flexibility of the metaphor. There’s nothing especially novel or compelling about the survivalist, doomsday prepper bent of most modern zombie media, but there are still plenty of outlier examples where storytellers uncover new thematic purposes for the undead in metaphor: Indigenous peoples’ frayed relationships with white settlers in Blood Quantum, the monstrous stench beneath America’s idealized Conservative past in Fido, the unwelcome return of Nazi ideology in Overlord & Dead Snow, etc. Zombi Child feels like a slightly different beast, though, and not only because it’s not a straight-up Horror film. Bonello’s contribution to the genre stands out because he dials the clock back even further than these equally political Romero riffs to directly engage with zombie lore at its original, real-world birthplace. It scorches the earth so it can start entirely anew, calling into question whether our cultural zombie obsession is itself a continuation of colonialist pilfering. More impressive yet, it does so while also taking time to declare “Diamonds” to be the best Rihanna song.

-Brandon Ledet

Tongues Untied (1989)

The most impressive, inspiring films are always the ones that achieve a transcendent artistic effect with subprofessional resources or distribution. By that metric, Tongues Untied is one of the most impressive films I’ve seen in a long while. Its means are severely limited by its VHS aesthetic & camcorder-level resources, which makes it initially register more as D.I.Y. video art than legitimized Cinema. Still, it pushes through that financial gatekeeping barrier to achieve a fantastic poetic effect that’s frequently surreal, furious, grief-stricken, hilarious, and erotic, sometimes all at once. The film’s distribution was controversial to the point of near-extinction, sparking a highly-publicized national debate about whether or not it should be allowed to be broadcast on the PBS network because of its explicit sexuality (no doubt largely due to that sexuality’s homosexual orientation). Still, it lives on decades later as one of the most vital, fearless documents of American gay life in its era, legendary on the same level as more frequently canonized works like Paris is Burning & The Queen. Tongues Untied is D.I.Y. filmmaking at its most potent and least timid, throwing stylistic & political punches far above its budgetary weight class and landing each one square on America’s crooked jaw.

At its core, this is an essay film about black gay life in the United States during the darkest days of the AIDS crisis. Building off the thesis that “Black men loving Black men is a revolutionary act,” a small sample of interviewees (including director Marlon Riggs himself) intimately share their life experiences as a kind of collective Oral History. They start by explaining how they’re outsiders in every community they inhabit, demonized & othered either through racism or through homophobia in every direction they turn. These confessionals gradually give way to an overt call to action as the film continues. They demand that more queer black men untie their tongues and become vocal about their own sexuality, so that their shared identity can become more normalized and less of a shamefully hidden peculiarity. The direct-to-the-camera messaging, photoshoot backdrops, and VHS patina of these interviews often recall a 90s anti-drug PSA or a local doc from a PBS affiliate, but the raw pain & sensuality of their stories smash through any potential aesthetic roadblocks. This is a doubly marginalized group who have to muster all of their collective strength just to be able to proclaim “We are worth wanting each other,” a revolutionary act after centuries of being told from all sides that they are worthless.

Even if it were just limited to these oral history interviews & editorials, the film would still be an essential document of black homosexual identity in late-80s America. Marlon Riggs pushes his work far beyond that humble act of self-anthropology, though, and instead aims to achieve pure cinematic poetry. Collaborating closely with the poet Essex Hemphill (who appears onscreen just as often as Riggs), he abstracts the interviews & essays at the core of the film by warping them into a layered, rhythmic vocal performance – as if all onscreen subjects were sharing the same artistic voice. The effect can be surreal or literary, making direct allusions to Ralph Ellison & Langston Hughes to tie the film into a black poetic tradition, and using a Gertrude Stein-style punishing repetition of phrases like “Brother to brother, brother to brother” to completely obliterate the audience’s senses. It can also be hilarious in a sketch comedy way, allowing for out-of-nowhere tangents into the sassy art of snapping or the playful sleaze of 1-900 dial-up phone sex. Most importantly, it unlocks the film’s full potential so that it’s not just a vocal diary of black gay men’s lived experiences but rather a soul-deep expression of all the pain, anger, lust, and joy they feel all at once within a society that would prefer they didn’t feel anything, or exist at all.

Tongues Untied uses the vocal rhythms and subliminal associations of poetry to crack its videotaped oral histories wide open, unlocking something much greater and more resonant than its means should allow. It is a transcendent work of art just as much as it is an anthropological time capsule, which makes it uniquely valuable to both cinephiles & political academics. There are plenty of examples of video art that pushed past the boundaries of fringe D.I.Y. experimentation to genuinely achieve cultural significance. However, I doubt there are many that could legitimately claim to be one of the greatest films of all time the way this scrappy, urgent VHS poetry relic could.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Marjoe (1972)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made Britnee, Hanna, and Brandon watch Marjoe (1972).

Boomer: Well, well, well. Here we are. The world is in utter chaos, and we are a rudderless nation in the middle of dealing with a global pandemic by reopening too early. Meanwhile, a strong and moral resistance to centuries of racial inequality and police violence is being met with more militarized police violence, garnering so much attention that even Uncle Jed is questioning his long-held Lost Cause beliefs and moms and dads across the country are being radicalized against fascism in a way unseen since WWII, calling for the abolition of “policing” as we know it. But why are we leaderless? Could it have anything to do with the fact that the greatest weakness of church-going Americans is that they can be manipulated by a man who espouses their faith but is in fact nothing but a con-man and a snake oil salesman?

Marjoe is a 1972 documentary produced and directed by Howard Smith and Sarah Kernochan about the life and “ministry” of Marjoe Gortner. Marjoe is (as we are told more than once) the fourth in a line of evangelical pastors, and his parents Marge and Vernon Gortner, were real pieces of work. After spending his entire childhood from age 4 to 14 as a gimmicky “child” preacher, complete with the cadences of the Evangelical movement then and now (“And the wrath-uh of God-uh” etc.), the now-adult Marjoe is on one last tour through the revival-style meetings happening throughout 1971 America, tailed by a documentary film crew. Along the way, he reveals the way that the movers and shakers of the contemporary revival scene scam, guilt, and browbeat their congregants and simple believers in order to rake in the all-mighty dollar.

Marjoe’s life is not all that different from that of any other child celebrity: haunted by child abuse, being used as a source of immense wealth from which he does not directly benefit as an adult, the pressures of maintaining a public persona that supports a certain narrative. He cites examples of being mock-drowned by his mother (so as not to leave marks and bruises on him that might be noticed due to his presence in the public eye) among other examples, which is horrifying. Creating the narrative that God reached down from Heaven to give him a divine mission to convert the unwashed masses (“the teenagers, the narcotics, the dopeheads”), his parents put him in front of an audience before an age most would be in kindergarten. As a result, there was never a time in his life where Marjoe Gortner ever truly believed the message that he was preaching, as he was exposed to the truths of the revivalist circuit as a pit of liars and confidence artists from before he could read.

Horrifying as his childhood is, the doc doesn’t treat Marjoe as a brave exposer of the truth. There’s definitely a human being in there, and he’s humanized to an extent, but when it comes to remorse, he feels more guilty that his rhetoric has to be so laden with fire and brimstone, wishing he could use more love-oriented language than the punishment-avoidance conversion technique of the Southern Evangelical movement. In a lounging position on a waterbed from which he pontificates about the various gimmicks of different religious leaders within the movement, he never seems anything other than at ease with himself, no doubt a result of having to get over the innate fear of public speaking before losing any baby teeth. There’s no remorse when he pours bills out of a brown paper bag and recalls how much bigger the “take” was in his youth. He’s just pulling the lid off of a large scale sleight of hand grift because his particular gimmick is on its last legs. Whether he’s coaching his film crew about how to interact with the True Believers that they will encounter along the way, imitating the way that a particular matriarchal church leader hisses into the microphone in an early form of ASMR, or casually agreeing to go with one of the hosting church families to their Brazilian “farm” (possibly referring to a practice that continues to this day), he’s never not performing, either in his life as Brother Marjoe or Marjoe the narc. There’s a disconnect, always.

Marjoe won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1972, but shockingly for a film that won such an award, it was lost for decades. During its original release, the film was never released further south than Des Moines, Iowa, which is ironically where the church behind the Thief in the Night Rapture series was located, and where those films were shot (Thief likewise came out in 1972). Other than a rare (and shoddy) VHS release, the film was largely forgotten until the original negatives were rediscovered in 2002 and released as a DVD in 2005. Although it gets a little thin in parts (sometimes containing long shots of entire church musical numbers), there are some truly great images in this film that imbue it with a fair amount of comedic irony. There’s never any menace, and Marjoe’s outing of not only himself but his cohorts as morally bankrupt scammers convincing little old ladies to send them their “cookie jar money” is never treated as a threat, just an inevitability. And yet, nearly half a century later, this malicious predation on the financial security of middle and lower class people under the banner of their faith is not only still happening, it’s happened at such a scale that it managed to reach the White House. All of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.

Brandon, one of the things I noticed on this watch was a similarity between the shooting style of some of the party scenes and the nonsexual parts of the parties in Funeral Parade of Roses. There’s definitely an element of Gonzo documentarianism on the part of the film crew (love the shot of an usher pocketing an offering) as they immerse themselves in this society that runs parallel to but separate from the mainstream. Where do you stand on this kind of punk aesthetic, either in documentaries in general or Marjoe specifically?

Brandon: I don’t know if “punk” is the first cultural touchstone that came to mind here, if only because the movie was so entrenched in the youth counterculture of its own time: hippies. Even Gortner’s desire to shift his sermons away from the language of Fear towards the language of Love feels very much tied to hippie-dippy sentiments, but that’s not to say that the political thrust of the film is toothless or purposeless. One of the most electrifying sequences is the hotel room debriefing early in the film when Gortner preps the documentary crew as if they were going into war behind enemy lines. As he explains they can’t smoke, have sex, or literally let their hair down while attending the tent revivals, you get a clear sense of just how different the two worlds that Gortner alternates between truly are, drawing clear cultural battle lines between The Hippies and The Evangelists as two opposing factions. That rundown also gives the film a genuine thrilling purpose as political insurgency, a reminder that loosey-goosey “Peace & Love” hippie ideologies actually had strong roots in direct, genuine political action through student-movement protests. They were more or less punks with a different wardrobe & soundtrack (and apparently smoked the same abundance of cigarettes), so it makes sense their cinema would share similar D.I.Y. sensibilities.

It’s difficult to be mindful of just how politically incendiary this movie would have been when it was released a half-century ago. Its peek behind the scenes of Southern-fried religious exploitation has become such familiar territory in the decades since that it now has a sitcom version in HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones. As Boomer mentioned, though, its anti-evangelism subject was considered so taboo at the time that it wasn’t theatrically distributed anywhere in the American South. Even just recording & broadcasting in plain, no-frills terms the financial side of evangelist preaching was met as an anti-social political act that had to be extinguished. Although Marjoe does not touch on our current, global moment of protest in opposition to systemic racist injustice (outside the aforementioned Christian voter base that keeps Trump in office, despite him being the least Christian man alive), that kind of fearless infiltration & subversion of a powerful, corrupt institution very much resonates as an admirable document of political action. That only becomes more apparent as you get a sense of how limited the means & resources of the hippies behind the picture would have been compared to the big-money evangelists they intended to expose, which the film contrasts in Marjoe’s backroom money-counting in church vs. the low-key hippie party scenes he floats through when he’s off-duty.

In terms of style, the gonzo approach reminded me most of the Maysles Brothers documentaries of the era, often referred to as “Direct Cinema.” Given that this was made just a couple years after the Maysles’ landmark door-to-door Bible shilling doc Salesman, I have to imagine Marjoe pulled some influence from their intimate, handheld cinema verité approach to documentary filmmaking. That’s to be expected. What really surprised me as the film went on, however, was how much it also reminded me of a concert film. Gortner was trained (read: tormented) from a young age to be a live entertainer, and once the film settles into its groove it really becomes fascinated with taking in his performances in full, as if this were a document of a charismatic rock n’ roll singer’s farewell tour. Allowing his lengthy, somewhat repetitive sermons play out in full was a risk, as the film might have felt like actually being in church if the audience were allowed to become bored (which is how I remember what it was like being in church, anyway). Gortner is such a peculiarly entertaining presence (especially once you realize he doesn’t believe a word he’s preaching) that the film more or less gets away with that gamble, though. Marjoe ultimately feels like a Maylses-style concert doc with gleefully subversive politics, which is to say that it’s very much of its time in countercultural context & aesthetics.

Since both this movie’s form (1970s direct-cinema documentary filmmaking) and its broader subject (financial exploitation in modern Christian evangelism) have become somewhat familiar to audiences over the decades—however powerful—it seems to me that the most unique factor at play here is Marjoe Gortner himself. It’s easy to see why someone would want to build an entire feature film around him; he’s damn peculiar, truly one-of-a-kind. Hanna, what do you see as being Marjoe’s most distinguishing, most fascinating characteristics? What’s most captivating to you about him, either as a performer or as a latent political subversive?

Hanna: I think the thing I found most captivating about Marjoe is that, despite the fact that he’s a dope-smoking radical who disavows organized religion, he commands attention in the way I imagine a prophet would, whether he’s writhing onstage or calmly discussing the corruption of the holy circuit with the shaggy-maned camera crew. Marjoe’s tender vulnerability in quiet moments is touching; he is completely honest about his relationship with his parents, his movement away from religion, his inclinations towards showmanship, and his own culpability in the exploitation of God-fearing old biddies. In his role as a preacher, he is totally enrapturing and convincing, even when the subject of salvation is a (very confused) black lab. I found myself believing in him in every frame, even when he was praising a God that I knew he didn’t believe in, which was an uncomfortable feeling as a very secular, politically left human. There is some kind of ecstatic divinity in showmanship which, like all things, can be used to gain power over people, and Marjoe was built to harness that from the beginning.

Beyond his natural charisma, Marjoe’s an absolutely effective subject because he’s a true infiltrator into the corruption of the Pentecostal circuit, having lived and breathed the gospel of Godly performance as a child. I’ve seen documentaries that are similar to Marjoe in the past, where an investigative reporter infiltrates a community either as a show of empathetic curiosity or as a straight-up exposé. In the live taping of Darren Brown’s Miracle, for instance, Brown simulates the illusory healing of a gospel revival for his crowd to prove, with a smirk, that it’s all bullshit. This approach is effective, and independent critique of any system is obviously important, but it means something totally different for an insider to step out and expose the rot of a tightly-knit and corrupt community, especially when that insider benefits from the corruption. When Marjoe went into detail about the practices that preachers pushed to get a buck, I felt like I was in a war behind enemy lines.

All of this is complicated, obviously, by the fact of Marjoe’s participation as a preacher all these years, knowing that his paid performances and claims of Godliness are immoral. He even admits to dipping back into preaching when he’s running low on cash, just because he doesn’t really know what else to do. We catch him at just the right time in his life, when his hypocrisy is at a boiling point; he enjoys the showmanship and the spectacle of the Pentecostal church, but can’t reconcile the moral implications of his capitalist evangelism. He says he wants to shed a light on the exploitation of parishioners in these churches through the documentary; Britnee, do you think he succeeds in redeeming himself? What do you think about the tension between his politics and his preaching?

Britnee: My thoughts on Marjoe as an individual constantly changed throughout the documentary. At first, I thought he was going to be this badass who would expose the cruel world that exists behind the scenes of evangelicalism, but that’s not really how it went down. He never showed true remorse for the scamming that he was partaking in during the documentary. In a way, he seemed to be proud of how smart he was for getting away with it. There were moments where I started to think that his followers were foolish, and if they were willing to throw their money at him so willingly, then that’s on them. But then I spent some time reading the crowd. The documentary does focus intently on the crowds at all of Marjoe’s events, and it’s clearly purposeful. The crowds are made up of the elderly, the disabled, and people who show how hard life has ridden them through the expressions on their faces. These are people who are desperate for hope, and Marjoe has no shame in lying to them to take what little money they have to offer. If he was truly trying to expose the crimes of the evangelical world, he would have revealed the truth to his followers at some point during the filming of the documentary. He never really redeems himself in the way that I expected him to.

Being the star of this documentary gave him the same high as being the star of his revivals, and I found this so fascinating to watch. Marjoe loves attention so much that he doesn’t really care what he needs to do to get it. He didn’t agree to do this documentary because he wanted to do something good; he did it because it was a documentary about himself. I’m currently watching The Comeback, and Marjoe definitely has his share of Valerie Cherish moments. This isn’t exactly his fault, since he’s been groomed to be a scamming showman since the age of four. Our early childhood years are so important to the way that we develop mentally, and he was robbed of any chance of being an empathetic human being by his parents. I don’t think that Marjoe is a good, genuine person, but I don’t hold that against him because he never had a chance to be one.

Lagniappe

Hanna: I found Marjoe’s rockstar aspirations to be pretty fascinating, because he does a good job of exuding that raw physical sensuality while yelping his praises to God. Don’t tell me you don’t love those hips, congregation! In another universe, Prince might have been an A+ preacher.

Brandon: I was delighted to discover that Marjoe was able to convert his hammy charisma into a modest career as a B-movie actor in the 1970s, including a starring role in the Italian Star Wars knockoff Starcrash. It’s fun to imagine an alternate reality where his acting career really took off and you could buy official Marjoe® wigs at every Halloween costume store.

Boomer: My favorite (and also most infuriating) visual is from the church near the end, in which the lady preacher is talking about how hard up her church is and is really, really milking the congregation for their tithe . . . only for the camera to zoom in on her jewel-encrusted brooch

Britnee: Other than the occasional Universalist service, I don’t really attend church. I also grew up Catholic, where the services were extremely quiet. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to attend an evangelical service, but I’m too scared to do it. Mega churches and evangelical preaching have always made me uncomfortable. I get a horrible knot in my stomach just by seeing a picture of Joel Olsteen or passing by a megachurch. Watching Marjoe sparked the curiosity in me again to know what that experience is like in person. Does the charisma of these preachers come across stronger in person than they do in the YouTube videos I’ve watched? I’ve fallen down the Kenneth Copeland YouTube rabbit hole since his wild COVID-19 video was posted, and I am just blown away by the idea of anyone giving a penny to someone like this. I guess not much has changed since Marjoe.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
August: Britnee presents Three Women (1977)
September: Hanna presents Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)
October: Brandon presents Monster Brawl (2011)

-The Swampflix Crew

Inserts (1975)

When the New Hollywood movement made movies dangerous & vulgar again in the 1970s, there was a kind of nostalgia in the air for pre-Code filmmaking of the 1920s & 30s. It’s the same way that punk dialed the clock back from mid-70s stadium rock to straight-forward 60s garage. Counterculture touchstones of the era like The Cockettes, Cabaret, and Kenneth Anger’s Magick Lantern Cycle all pulled influence from an idealized vision of Old Hollywood hedonism in the industry’s pre-Code era. The forgotten X-rated drama Inserts is no exception to this indulgence in pre-Code nostalgia, but it takes a more direct, literal approach to mourning the loss of the Hollywood that could have been if it weren’t for the moralistic censorship of The Hays Code and it’s fiercest enforcer, Joseph Breen. While most 1970s artists were romanticizing the first couple decades of amoral Hollywood excess at its heights, Inserts instead visits the era at its death bed to have one final swig of liquor with its corpse before it’s hauled off to the morgue. It’s more of a grim memorial than a celebration, which likely contributed to the film being forgotten by critics & audiences over time.

A pre-Jaws Richard Dreyfuss stars opposite a pre-Suspiria Jessica Harper as a 1930s director/actress duo scrounging at the outskirts of the Old Hollywood system. Dreyfuss is the lead: a once reputable Silent Film director who floundered when the industry shifted into making Talkies. Bitter about his fall from fame and, subsequently, blind-drunk, he wastes his directorial talents by shooting stag pornos in his decrepit Los Angeles mansion. Harper enters his life as a wannabe actress who volunteers to shoot anonymous “inserts” for an incomplete porno that goes off the rails when its original star overdoses on heroin. In exchange, she pushes Dreyfuss to return to his former glory as a fully engaged, passionate filmmaker and to teach her the ropes of her desired profession as a Hollywood starlet. Their miserable struggle to complete the picture is sequenced as if in real-time, while other doomed characters drift in and out of the shoot (most significantly Bob Hoskins as a blustering porno financier and Veronica Cartright as a more, um, experienced performer). The whole thing feels like a well-written & performed but incurably misanthropic one-act stage play.

While Inserts is effectively about the death of Hollywood’s hedonistic first wave, visions of that fallen empire are mostly left to play in your imagination off-screen. Names like Strondheim, DeMille, and Gish are shamelessly dropped in non-sequitur anecdotes. Meanwhile, the much-buzzed-about new kid in town Clark Gable periodically knocks on the door of the mansion the movie rots in, but he’s never invited inside. Hollywood is changing outside, but it’s not deliberately leaving Dreyfuss’s drunken misanthrope behind; that’s a decision he’s made himself. We’re mostly left to rot with him in the choices he’s made: his choice of cheap booze, his choice of self-destructive associates, his choice of violent, vulgar “art.” The core of the film’s overwhelming sense of boozy, sweaty desperation is in his budding relationship with his newest starlet, Harper. The volatile pair turn shooting inserts for a throwaway stag porno into a game of dominance & mutual self-destruction. It’s a sick S&M game where he tries to scare her away from the industry by referring to her naked flesh as “meat” and acting as the domineering auteur. In turn, she playfully tops him from the bottom – mocking the sexual & creative impotence caused by his alcoholism in a humiliating display. Their collaboration is the act of filmmaking at its ugliest and most corrosive, an extreme exaggeration of the industry’s worst tendencies.

Inserts isn’t all smut & gloom. The film is viciously miserable, but it’s also shockingly amusing when it wants to be. It’s darkly funny the way a lot of stage plays are, often interrupting its cruelest offenses with a withering quip or a burst of slapstick humor. It constantly tempers its 1920s filmmaking nostalgia with Hollywood Babylon-style shock value in heroin addiction, necrophilia, and casting-couch abuses. Still, that nostalgia manages to shine through the grime, and the film mostly feels like a belated funeral for a well-loved era that was cut short by Breen & Hays. It might not be as fun to watch as a Richard Dreyfuss porno-drama sounds on paper, but it’s a rattling, captivating experience that deserves to be dusted off & re-evaluated now that we’ve all had enough time & distance to properly sober up.

-Brandon Ledet

Movies to Stream at Home This Week 7/2/20 – 7/8/20

For the past few months, I’ve shifted our weekly “What’s Playing in Local Theaters” report to a list of Swampflix-recommended movies you can stream at home. This choice was initially a no-brainer, as the governor had ordered the closure of all Louisiana movie theaters in response to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.  More recently, cinemas are allowed to operate again as part of the state’s gradual re-opening strategy, but I’m personally not confident that’s such a great idea yet. So, I’m still going to stick with Online Streaming options as a moviegoing substitute for the time being.

In that spirit, here are some suggestions for movies that you can stream at home while under quarantine: a grab bag of movies Swampflix has rated highly that are currently available for home viewing.

Streaming with Subscription

Jubilee (1978) – From my review: “Its sci-fi vision of London’s cracked concrete future is essentially just a portrait of its present-day moment in punk discontent, snapshotting the female teen degenerates, queer burnouts, and hedonistic vandals who defined the scene at its purest. Crass already declared that ‘Punk is dead’ in 1978, only a year after the scene had broken out of its urban subculture dungeons to reach a wider audience through proper record distribution (and magazine-promoted fashion trends). Jarman seems to be on the same page but finds his own sense of beauty while gazing at the movement’s rotting corpse.” Currently streaming on The Criterion Channel and for free (with a library membership) on Kanopy.

Citizen Ruth (1996) – From our Movie of the Month discussion: “The balance between emotional devastation and (pitch black) comedy is a major part of what struck me about Citizen Ruth (besides Laura Dern’s career-consistent brilliance, obviously). Ruth’s not a ‘bad’ person, necessarily. She’s just been turned into something of a feral animal by her addiction, making her play onscreen like a hyper-realistic version of Jerri Blank (who is a bad person, I should add) in her more amusing moments.” Currently streaming for free (with a library membership) on Hoopla.

Boy (2012) – From my review: “Boy is by every measurement a triumph. It’s at times hilarious, devastating, life-affirming, brutally cold, etc. Taika Waititi risked taking his time to deliver a fully-realized, personal work on his own terms and the final product moves you in the way only the best cinema can.” Currently streaming for free (with library membership) on Kanopy & Hoopla and for free (with ads) on Vudu.

Streaming VOD

Birds of Prey (2020) From my review: “More superhero movies could stand to be this excessive in their violence, this shamelessly broad in their humor, and this fabulous in their costuming. We’d all be better off.” A $6 rental on all major VOD platforms.

Shazam! (2019) From Boomer’s review: “A whole hell of a lot of fun, a modern day kid’s wish fulfillment film that harkens back to a time when it was still possible for such a thing to be dark, vulgar, and tongue-in-cheek. I was surprised at how much it was able to manipulate my emotions – I mean ‘move me’ – in its emotional moments. It has a lot of heart, is what I’m saying, but manages to avoid getting treacly by balancing its emotionality with good jokes and the occasional supernatural murder.” A $10 rental on all major VOD platforms (and for free with a subscription to HBOGo).

Darkman (1990) – From my review: “A comic book-inspired noir riding on the coattails of Tim Burton’s Batman, Darkman is a masterfully goofy work of genre cinema. Its comic book framing, over-the-top performances, and stray Ken Russell-esque freakouts were all perfection in terms of trashy entertainment value, pushing the lowest-common-denominator of trash media into the realm of high art. Darkman is not only the finest Sam Raimi film I’ve ever encountered, it’s also one of the most striking comic book movies ever made … which is saying a lot considering that it wasn’t even based off of a comic book.” A $3 rental on all major VOD platforms.

-Brandon Ledet

Dogs Don’t Wear Pants (2020)

The recent Finnish drama Dogs Don’t Wear Pants shamefully stumbles into some major Kink Movie clichés that I would love to see abolished entirely. This is a movie about an icy dominatrix who—surprise—allows her heart to melt for the first client who shows her romantic tenderness. That client is a father who—shocker—cannot fulfill his familial responsibilities because of his all-encompassing obsession with kinky sex. Other well-worn clichés about pre-scene negotiation and non-simulated violence also apply. And yet, I still very much adore this film, if not only because it follows what might be my all-time favorite plot template: Our protagonist is obsessed with something they know is going to eventually kill them but they keep returning to it anyway because it makes them super horny.

A widower processes the grief of not being able to save his wife from drowning by hiring a dominatrix to help him explore an emerging kink for breath play. As a respected brain surgeon, he logically knows just how dangerously irresponsible it is to have your air supply cut off by choking, even if through consenting to erotic asphyxiation. However, once he accidentally stumbles into a dominatrix’s play dungeon and experiences his first euphoric blackout by choking on her whip, he can’t help himself. The man spirals out from low-key depressed widower to depraved stalker who won’t let women be until they literally choke the life out of him so he can re-experience his near-death euphoria. The problem is that the dominatrix (besides not wanting to participate in his death wish) grows an unexpected soft spot for the doomed soul and can’t safely give him what he wants in a controlled environment. Breath play is already a dangerous enough risk under the best circumstances; his obsession with the most extreme end of that risk is absolutely terrifying to anyone unfortunate enough to be pulled into his self-destructive orbit.

As kink-misinformed as Dogs Don’t Wear Pants can be in terms of its fictional clichés, it at least takes genuine erotic delight in its femdom dungeon sessions. Giallo-esque red gel lights reflect off the dominatrix’s patent leather catsuits with an eye-searing intensity as she issues commands to her latest, most troubled client as if he were a lowly dog (thus the title). The actual kink sessions are long, lingering, and genuinely erotic. While the breath play itself is essentially assisted suicide, the way the widower masturbates to his wife’s left-behind perfume & wardrobe within and outside the sessions registers as genuine fetishism. The movie even has a positive outlook on kink as a therapeutic tool once he experiences a personal breakthrough that shakes him out of his rut (even if he takes a long, dark road to get there). Personally, I would have loved to see that breakthrough occur in the second or third act so we could experience the peculiar romance that develops once the film pushes past its genre’s most often repeated clichés. But, hey, maybe I’ll get my wish and this indie Euro fetish drama will somehow land a sequel. It ends at its most interesting point, and I would love to see that trajectory pushed even further.

I assume that if you leave a movie wanting more, it must qualify as some sort of a success. I may be frustrated by the way Dogs Don’t Wear Pants repeats the worst sins of the kinky erotic thriller genre, but it’s more than peculiar & stylish enough to be forgiven for the transgression. Or maybe I’m just too much of a sucker for neon lights & form-fitting leather to get hung up on its faults.

-Brandon Ledet