Welcome to Episode #143 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, James, Brandon, and Hanna discuss all four debaculous attempts to adapt Dr. Seuss’s illustrations into live-action, starting with the Technicolor musical The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953).
04:40 United 93 (2005) 10:05 Popstar (2016) 14:30 Riders of Justice (2021)
20:58 The 5000 Fingers of Dr T (1953) 34:40 In Search of Dr. Seuss (1994)
43:43 How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) 51:12 The Cat in the Hat (2003)
The unspoken allure for documentaries as a medium is the promise that you’ll see raw, honest footage from real life that could never be captured in narrative filmmaking. No matter how well a doc is fortified by talking-head interviews, firmly contextualized historical research, or a strong editorial POV, its main selling point to most audiences is going to be the carnival-barker promise of never-before-seen wonders you won’t find elsewhere in cinema. I was thinking a lot about that tension between raw archival footage & carefully curated supplementary material during Soleil Moon Frye’s self-portrait documentary Kid90. A reflection on her post-Punky Brewster years as a party-hard teenager with a constantly running camcorder among other Famous 90s Kids, Kid90 is a vintage backstage tour of teenage celebrity you’re likely to never see with such raw, intimate candor again. Its modern talking-head interviews & narration often cheapen the impact of those video diary clips, but the camcorder footage is such a powerful clash of pop culture nostalgia & miserable decadence that it doesn’t matter much. Kid90 delivers on the promise of unveiling raw, honest footage of its subjects that you’d never see in their carefully curated public appearances, but we’re at the mercy of how Frye chooses to contextualize (or withhold) that footage as the director/narrator. We only get a peek into the window, but it’s a privilege to be invited into her world at all.
It makes sense that a former child celebrity would be protective of the private footage she has of herself and her friends (both alive and dead) struggling with the early-onset-adulthood of growing up in the entertainment industry. I don’t know every Teen Beat star of her time by name, so I spent a lot of the movie asking questions like “Is that the guy who played Zach Morris?” as I failed to recognize some of her peers in their adult form. There are some incredibly intimate glimpses of celebrities like David Arquette, Corey Feldman, and Leonardo DiCaprio in her camcorder diary footage, though, and seeing them act like actual teenagers instead of PR-polished entertainers is outright jarring. Frye herself was lost in the 1990s, often cast as a teenage sex symbol after growing out of her sassy cutie-pie phase, to the point where name-calling taunts of “Punky Boobster” drove her to de-sexualize her body with a very public breast reduction surgery. She fully understands the value of her video diaries of that pre-internet era, when celebrities young & old were much less conscious of their candid, off-stage footage leaking out into the world at large. In one brief montage, clips of Famous 90s Kids like Stephen Dorff & Jenny Lewis drinking & getting high are intercut with their PSA participation in the “Just Say No” campaigns of the Reagan Era, which feels like a glimpse of what this film might’ve been at feature length if the footage had fallen out of Frye’s hands. Instead, she’s careful what information to disclose and when, and you always feel as if there’s even more sensational footage on these tapes that we’ll never be allowed to see.
I’m glad that Kid90 is 100% the story Soleil Moon Frye wanted to tell, how she wanted to tell it. So much of her private life was already in the public eye from such a young age that it’s surprising she’d offer even more of herself & her inner circle for wide consumption like this, instead of defensively locking it away. The only letdown is how much of the film is comprised of modern-day footage of her famous friends all-growed-up, when those interviews cannot compete with the potency & enormity of what she captured on her camcorder as a teenager. There are already much braver, more vulnerable versions of this kind of self-reflective filmmaking to be found in titles like Stories We Tell, Shirkers, and You Cannot Kill David Arquette. Frye is more than candid enough about the abuse & heartache she suffered as a kid for us to understand why this project is a cathartic, therapeutic experience for her, and it would be unfair to ask for more than what she already shares. The problem is that when we’re submerged in the vintage VHS nostalgia and cursed found-footage horror of her teenage video diaries, there’s just no denying that we’re watching something truly special & raw that you could not find anywhere else. Being pulled out of that footage for a modern-day check-in is a constant disappointment, but I feel privileged to have seen even a minute of her home video footage in the first place. I need to let go of the nagging thought that there’s even more of it that’s just outside my reach.
Certified master of horror George A. Romero was never shy about the political messaging of his work. An entire industry of repurposing zombies as metaphors for various social ills was built on the foundation of Romero’s decades-spanning Living Dead series, which touched on subjects as varied as Civil Rights Era racial tensions (Night of the Living Dead, 1968), consumer-culture excess (Dawn of the Dead, 1978), and the grotesque showmanship of George Bush-era Conservatism (Land of the Dead, 2005). None of these overt message pieces were especially subtle in their central metaphors, despite the complaints you might hear from online goons about how much better horror was when it was “apolitical”. Yet, Romero really outdid himself on that front with his “lost” 1973 horror curio The Amusement Park. Commissioned by a Lutheran church somewhere between production of Season of the Witch and The Crazies, The Amusement Park finds Romero graduating from presenting his movies’ politics as thinly veiled subtext to directing a full-on, straight-up PSA. Unfortunately, The Lutheran Service Society of Western Pennsylvania found Romero’s other filmmaking interests (i.e. his obsession with the fragility of the human body) too morbid for public consumption despite the director’s do-gooder politics, and so The Amusement Park was allowed to fester unseen for decades … until it was recently restored and properly released for the first time by IndieCollect.
The Amusement Park is an aggressively unsubtle message piece about America’s cruel disregard for the well-being of our elderly. There is no room for interpretation of that thematic purpose, as it’s stated directly to the camera—in plain terms—twice. Actor Lincoln Maazel addresses the audience about the horrors of being geriatric in the United States, especially if you’re lower class. The loneliness, exploitation, and abuse he describes hasn’t changed much in the half-century since this hour-long PSA was filmed, so it’s not as if its politics have become at all irrelevant. They’re just a little hammy, recalling classic scare films about the dangers of recreational drug use that caution you to consider whether you’d like to have scrambled eggs for brains or take so much LSD that you scream at a hotdog. Maazel explains that the film is meant to make the audience “feel the problem” of ageing in a country that treats its elderly like week-old garbage. He warns “One day, you will be old” in what feels like an outright threat. Then, once all that thematic groundwork is laid to justify the indulgence, Romero starts playing with the Lutheran church’s money, staging a nightmare-logic horror show in a traveling-carnival setting – featuring Lincoln Maazel in-character as an avatar for our nation’s abused elderly as he stumbles through the indignities of This Amusement Park We Call Life.
Since it’s so thematically blatant and thin, The Amusement Park is most worthwhile for its grimy D.I.Y. surrealism. Romero obviously cared a lot about the political messaging in his work, but you can also tell he’s just having fun inserting jarring, horrific images into the film’s mundane carnival scenarios. Lincoln Maazel starts his journey in a sterile, all-white prototype of the Good Place lobby. He emerges from that limbo through a magical door to a carnival of metaphors, where various elderly victims are bullied around from attraction to attraction by disrespectful youts. The bumper cars are subject to traffic laws enforced by disbelieving cops who disregard elderly women’s statements as the mutterings of old biddies. Rollercoasters post unfair eligibility requirements for ticketholders, declaring you must be THIS wealthy to ride. Fortune tellers predict young lovers will grow old together in lonely, decrepit slums with no social infrastructure to help them age in good health or dignity. It’s all very obvious and to-the-point, but Romero treats each set-up with a matter-of-fact absurdism that feels daringly artistic & nightmarish for a Christian-funded PSA. It’s hard to tell exactly where he crossed the line for his Lutheran backers (the eerie intrusions of The Grimm Reaper in the back rows of carnival rides? the vicious beatings & head wounds suffered by Maazel’s cipher protagonist? the time loop narrative structure?), but it’s also not shocking that this isn’t the PSA they felt they had agreed to fund & distribute.
There are certainly better places to find the kind of grimy, low-budget surrealism Romero plays with in The Amusement Park – from Carnival of Souls to Messiah of Evil to even the director’s own Martin. Still, this is a wonderfully disorienting curio with some genuine anger behind its dirt-cheap mindfuckery. The artificial version of life presented here is confusing, overwhelming, exhausting, and lonely. Our most vulnerable populations are doomed to be taxed, robbed, neglected, beaten, and imprisoned in nursing homes until they die alone, out of sight and out of mind. No matter how much fun Romero is having in the background with carnival barker parodies and rubber monster masks, you can tell he’s fired up about the political task at hand. You just don’t have to go digging for what that political messaging might possibly be, as it’s announced loudly and often like ticket prices at a carnival booth.
Between Fried Barry, Slaxx, and Psycho Goreman, I’ve been having a disappointing run with silly-on-purpose schlock this year. I was starting to worry that I’m losing my taste for the self-aware “Bad” Movie as a genre, at least until I borrowed a DVD copy of Willy’s Wonderland from the New Orleans Public Library. Unlike most of this year’s gimmick movies, Willy’s Wonderland commits to the absurdity of its premise without constantly pointing out how Funny it is in self-deprecating humor (give or take a couple wisecracking teens in bit roles, who do occasionally spoil the mood). Instead of a self-mocking throwback to over-the-top 80s schlock like Death Spa or The Lift, it’s a genuine specimen of that machines-gone-haywire genre that just happened to crash land in the wrong decade. It’s not exactly novel or expectations-defying in any way (if nothing else, it shares a lot of DNA with 2019’s Banana Splits Movie), but it still felt like a breath of fresh air in a year where every new release with a silly premise feels the need to constantly remind the audience it’s just having a goof.
I’m purposefully burying the lede here. Willy’s Wonderland is a Nic Cage stunt film in which the much-mocked actor fights killer animatronic Chuck E Cheese knockoffs for a slim 80 minutes and does not speak a single word of dialogue. There isn’t much to the film beyond that stunt, besides the bizarro casting of Beth Grant as a small-town sheriff and a few shithead teens who mostly hang around to up the body count. For the most part, it’s an impressively efficient meme movie, wherein Cage routinely rips the mechanical throats out of animatronic characters with names like Willy Weasel, Arty Alligator, and Knighty Knight – silently gloating over their dead robot bodies in victory. He also occasionally takes breaks between those slayings to play with a pinball machine he has a much more . . . sensual relationship with. It’s a shame the film felt the need to stray from those simple pleasures with sarcastic teenage victims-to-be, but they barely distract from the spectacle of Nic Cage doing a stripped down version of his schtick in an obnoxious pizza arcade setting.
Mandy remains the artistic high of the modern Nic Cage stunt movie, but Willy’s Wonderland still stands out as a pure-essence distillation of that genre. Cage is more of a prop than an actor here, as if the abstract idea of Nic Cage were more valuable than the performer himself. Outside of his absurdly over-manicured beard and pinball-playing hip thrusts, there’s nothing about Cage’s presence in Willy’s Wonderland especially worthy of the YouTube highlight reels that have reduced one of our mostly electrically entertaining actors into everyone’s favorite human meme. And yet the very idea of a feature-length movie in which Nic Cage fights a band of Chuck E Cheese knockoffs to the death is enough of a novelty worth seeking out – with or without the expected Nic Cage freakouts. In its best moments, the movie is weirdly reserved, allowing the absurdity of that stunt to entertain on it own terms without being mocked or underlined. If it had watered down that absurdity with the self-aware strand of LOL! So Random! humor that’s souring so many silly-on-purpose horror premises these days, it’d be miserable. It’s oddly refreshing in its restraint, and if it had held back even more of its overtly goofy humor it might’ve been something truly great.
It’s not unusual for a high-concept, single-location sci-fi thriller to quietly emerge on Netflix to little fanfare. That’s a regular routine for the streaming behemoth, which is wholeheartedly committed to a quantity-over-quality ethos (give or take the few high-profile projects a year it desperately promotes for Oscars attention). It is unusual, however, to immediately recognize the director & star of said sci-fi streaming schlock. I was under the impression that the bulk of Netflix’s disposable sci-fi was entirely generated by algorithm, the same as Hallmark Christmas movies and SyFy Channel mockbusters. I was shocked, then, to stumble onto Oxygen, the latest film from Crawland High Tension director Alexandre Aja. Oxygen is visually and effectively indistinguishable from any generic sci-fi cheapie that magically populates on the Netflix homescreen from week to week, despite Aja’s usual command over in-the-moment tension and the obvious talents of his main collaborator, Inglorious Basterds star Melanie Laurent. I also can’t fault Aja for collecting a pandemic paycheck where he could; after all, someone’s gotta point the camera in the right direction before the algorithm autofills the rest of the details.
I will admit that for the first fifteen minutes or so of Oxygen, Aja does feel alive and actively engaged with the material. The film opens with a kind of humanoid egg hatching, with Laurent emerging from a synthetic skin sack inside what appears to be an Apple-store purchased iCoffin. Confused about who she is or how she got there, she fights against the restraints that keep her in place inside the locked sleeping pod to no avail. The flashing emergency lights, warnings of drained oxygen levels, and emerging hallucinations & memories that introduce us to this far-fetched, high concept scenario are effectively nerve-racking . . . for a while. Then, Oxygen stops being a shock-a-second thriller and settles into mystery-box sci-fi at its emptiest. Laurent’s distraught future-prisoner solves the mystery of her own past and her current predicament by effectively Googling herself for the rest of the runtime, with the aid of a voice-command Internet surrogate. If you strip away a couple jump scares and CG-aided camera twirls, the film is basically just someone talking to an iTunes visualizer for two hours. That set-up is no more thrilling now than it was when your buddy Kevin tripped too hard on mushrooms and debated a laptop screen in your 2007 dorm room.
It’s not impossible to sustain feature-length tension with just one on-screen character and a series of phone calls and Google searches. It’s wild how much more tension I felt in Locke, for instance, where there’s pretty much no visual flavor and the movie’s basically about listening to concrete dry. And, hell, if there was ever going to be a time to release a film about someone being isolated in a small, locked space with only a series of talking screens to connect them to the outside world, this might be it. Still, there’s nothing about Oxygen that stands out from the week-to-week sci-fi sludge that oozes up from the streaming service sewer grates on Netflix, despite the pedigree of the names behind it. I was basically pleading out loud at my television for more boobytraps and fewer Google searches by the end of the film, which I doubt is the kind of squirming-in-your seat anguish Aja was aiming for. If I was that desperate for a new sci-fi release where a trapped woman makes a series of desperate phone calls, I should have just rewatched the bizarro action-horror Shadow in the Cloud. At least that one has some personality to it, albeit a goofy one.
I was a little apprehensive about returning to the coming-of-age horror comedy Teeth, even though I’ve been holding onto my DVD copy of the film for well over a decade. The appeal of a gory, supernatural rape revenge thriller about a teenage girl with teeth in her vagina just had an entirely different appeal to me in my early 20s than it does now, long after I’ve lost my taste for edgelord shock humor. The biggest shock of returning to the film, then, is that it actually holds up incredibly well – especially considering what you’d expect from a mid-00s Dimension Extreme title with that premise. That’s because the film pushes itself way past the single-joke gimmick most over-the-top, on-purpose schlock would settle for (think Aquaslash, WolfCop, Zombeavers,etc). It’s a wonderfully thoughtful, surprisingly sweet satire about the horrors of puritanical sex education in American high schools. Who knew? Or rather, who remembered?
Jess Weixler stars as Dawn, a naïve high school student whose growing attraction to her own sexuality is directly at odds with her Christian Evangelical abstinence training. While I remembered the film’s more over-the-top gore gags & the discomfort of the violence, I had completely forgotten how much of it is aSaved! style satire about regressive Evangelical sex “education”. While she’s encouraged to publicly promise to remain a virgin until marriage (going as far as to spread the good word about Promise Rings to her fellow schoolmates at class assemblies), she privately indulges in exploring her own body and yearns for physical contact with boys for the first time. Like with every puberty experience, her body violently betrays her in those early sexual awakenings, although admittedly on a larger, more absurdist scale than what most of us suffer. When she dares to explore her genitals, they bite back in warning. When boys impatiently force themselves onto her the results are even more horrific. The film itself is notably not sex-negative, though. If anything, it openly mocks the cultural sex negativity of high school textbooks censoring illustrations of human vulvas or Christian pop songs spreading harmful messages like “Love is worth waiting for”. Her vaginal mutation is just presented as a newfound superpower that has to be handled responsibly, which is a pretty decent metaphor for teenagers who are just learning about the pleasures & pitfalls of sexual activity – especially in a world with so many Conservative roadblocks deliberately preventing them from learning how to do things the right way.
I shouldn’t downplay how much of Teeth indulges in the edgelord button-pushing promised in its premise. Dawn does leave behind a bloody trail of severed fingers & penises that enter her boobytrapped vagina without her consent, an unavoidable aspect of the film that lands it firmly in the queasy subgenre of Rape Revenge Comedy. I just think it’s selling the movie short to remember it as a feature-length punchline where an abusive OBGYN nurses his fingerless hand while screaming “Vagina dentata! Vagina dentata!” purely for the audience’s amusement. There are plenty of gross-out gore gags and self-amused punchlines of that ilk in the movie (including a lot of onscreen peen for an R-rated American film), but there’s also thoughtful critique to be found elsewhere about the real-world evil of Abstinence Only sex education and young men’s dangerous obliviousness to the importance of active, enthusiastic consent. The vaginal teeth Dawn discovers in herself are presented as a kind of evolutionary growth that’s advantageous for her survival, both against obvious villains who consciously aim to assault her and against “Nice Guys” who are selfishly clueless & harmful in their societally reinforced relationship with their own macho sexuality. Finding humor in that abuse will likely, rightfully be an automatic turnoff for a lot of audiences, but it’s at least taking direct aim at the right satirical targets—both institutional and individual—not invoking easy moral panic over teen-girl sexuality.
If you can get past your discomfort with its depictions of onscreen sexual assault, Teeth is a shockingly invigorating entry in the Teen Girl Horror canon. It reminds me a lot of more frequently lauded films like Ginger Snaps, Carrie, and Jennifer’s Body, wherein a teen girl’s transformative experience with puberty unlocks both a supernatural horror and a supernatural power. In this case, the political points made in that long-running metaphor are a little crasser and more on the surface than in its cohorts, but it’s at least taking aim at a specific satirical target: America’s puritanical, actively harmful approach to teen sex education. I was tempted to dismiss it as a shock-comedy relic from my embarrassing edgelord past, but it very much deserves to be revisited and reevaluated as potential cult classic from that mostly disposable era. And hey, if it’s too genuinely icky to earn that kind of widespread appreciation, there’s always the more wholesome version of it lurking in Saved!.
Much to everyone’s shock, Tubi has proven to be of the most surprisingly substantial players in the online streaming game over the past year or so. What used to be a low-rent platform for disposable horror schlock that falls just outside the public domain is now a staggering online library of great works on the level of a Criterion Channel or an HBO Max. To solidify its legitimacy as a formidable streaming giant, Tubi is now apparently getting into the business of premiering artsy indie films from the festival circuit, a far cry from its origins as a last resort destination to watch Wishmaster 3, or whatever.
Tubi’s bold foray into prestigious festival acquisitions is Beast Beast, a very Sundancey teen drama about gun violence. Think of it as a Gen-Z update of Elephant. The lives of three average suburban teens interweave in the weeks leading up to a fatal shooting, which shockingly does not take place on a high school campus. The movie does nothing to hide the identity of the eventual shooter, making it obvious who’s going to do the killing even if their targets are obscured. You know exactly where the movie’s going until it gets there . . . and then there’s fifteen extra minutes of unexpected, pulpy denouement. This movie is the ultimate example of the dictum “It’s not what happens but how it happens,” as the hyperkinetic, youthful style entirely overpowers its afternoon-special PSA plotting.
The three youths profiled here are all distinct in their public & private personae, but like most kids born in The Internet Age, they all share a compulsion to produce online #content, building their personal brands on platforms like YouTube & Instagram. As their disparate hobbies of drumming, skateboarding, amateur filmmaking, and firing assault weapons in the woods collide in frantic montage, it’s clear that we’re living in a post-context world. One of those afterschool activities is way more sinister than the others, and it’s shocking to see it presented so casually in a teen melodrama with an inevitable tragic ending. What’s exciting about Beast Beast is how aware the kids are of their online presence’s effect on the world, allowing them to weaponize Public Perception while avenging that tragedy once it occurs. Its a film both horrified by and in reverent awe of the Internet as a creative & destructive tool, depending on who’s wielding it.
Beast Beast is the exact kind of low-budget filmmaking that earns a lot of unfair eyerolls, but it really worked for me. Its multimedia approach to photography and its exponentially intense sound design genuinely rattled me in a way few dramas have managed to in the past year, thanks to the general emotional numbness of the pandemic. Unfortunately, that’s the exact reason it’s such a poor fit for Tubi as a streaming platform. Instead of being able to fully immerse myself in that tension for that full 85 runtime, I was frequently iced down by Tubi’s randomly interjected commercial breaks, the platform’s Achilles heel. If Tubi’s going to be getting into smaller arthouse films, I’m not sure the commercial breaks are entirely worth it. Beast Beast is one of the best new releases I’ve seen so far this year, but I’d likely be even more over the moon for it if it weren’t interrupted by Verizon shills & Charmin bears.
Usually, when I review outright pornography on this blog, it’s got some kind of vintage appeal. Somewhere in the back of my repressed Catholic skull, I must believe smut can only be assessed as Legitimate Art after a few decades have passed, whether it’s the exquisitely refined melodrama of Equation to an Unknown (1980) or the crass home movies amateurism of Bat Pussy (197?). 2004’s Ecstasy in Berlin, 1926 snuck past that personal bias in the most obvious way: by looking vintage in its 1920s setting & fabricated sepia tone, in contrast to standard mid-00s pornography’s flat, digital sheen. Ecstasy in Berlin is artsy BDSM erotica with an aesthetic that falls somewhere between Guy Maddin’s wryly retro film textures & Annie Sprinkle’s DIY video-art pornos. Its Black & White patina & ambient score announce its intention to be considered Art, but its 40min slack-jawed stare at lingeried women relentlessly spanking each other is a purely prurient indulgence. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
As you can imagine, there isn’t much plot to speak of here. A woman in Weimer era Germany shoots up in her boudoir, the camera lingering on the needle & her bare crotch for a relative eternity. Her subsequent doped-out fantasy is one of drowsy lesbian erotica – mostly consisting of spanking, bootlicking, and light bondage. Any motions towards storytelling are restricted to juxtaposition: our de-facto “protagonist” split-screened with her erotic fantasy; a corset fitting paired with an actual hourglass; lipstick smears contrasted against the razor-sharp arches of 1920s eyebrows. Meanwhile, director Maria Beatty is clearly having fun with editing room trickery, establishing an intoxicating rhythm with some intense vignette framing, triple exposures, and languid dissolves. The film looks great. Still, the spanking sequences are endless and never really escalate to anything substantial, which can test even the most dedicated kinkster’s patience at feature length no matter how many costume changes reset the scene.
I don’t know if Ecstasy in Berlin has convinced me to seek out & assess more narrative-free, post-VHS pornography as Legitimate Art, but it works well enough as a calling card for Maria Beatty as a filmmaker. There’s an exciting mix of aesthetic beauty & unashamed transgression at work here, even if it’s purely in service of erotic titillation. Like most long-working porno directors, Beatty’s got a couple horror films listed in her credits (lurking among titles like The Elegant Spanking & Strap-on Motel), which are now calling my name like softcore siren songs. I may not know how to properly approach a plotless, over-stylized porno, but plotless & over-stylized is my exact sweet spot when it comes to genre schlock.
When reviewing the few feature films I caught at this year’s (mostly virtual) New Orleans Film Festival, I found myself constantly writing about how the context of the COVID-19 pandemic shaped my experience with them. It’s been a long nine months since I last attended a film festival in person (French Film Fest, which was snugly slotted in between Mardi Gras and the city’s initial coronavirus lockdown orders), so it was impossible to not compare & contrast this year’s NOFF with similar events in the past.
To the festival’s credit, the programmers addressed this unavoidable preoccupation head-on, platforming a wealth of short films that directly commented on COVID-era New Orleans culture. They also adjusted the scope & structure of the festival to offer as safe of an experience as possible, including an online streaming option for most of their selections as well as a few outdoor, socially distanced screenings for in-person events.
COVID undeniably reshaped my usual New Orleans Film Festival experience this year, at the very least in how it limited the range & volume of movies I could make time for during the fest’s short window. It didn’t halt the ritual entirely; it just hung over it as an unignorable dark cloud.
Here’s a list of the four features I’ve reviewed from this year’s New Orleans Film Festival. CC & I will record a more fleshed-out recap of our COVID-era festival experience on an upcoming episode of the podcast, in case you’re interested in hearing about our favorite shorts from the line-up or our thoughts on the ways the fest had to adapt to the constrictions of a pandemic. This list is a more bare-bones kind of recap: a best-to-least-best ranking of the features we managed to catch at this year’s NOFF.
Each title includes a link to a corresponding review. Enjoy!
A local documentary that captures how drastically different the New Orleans drag scene is now vs. the traditional Southern Pageant Drag scene I remember growing up with. It was great to see a community I love (including a couple friends who perform) documented for posterity, but also bittersweet because the very last in-the-flesh social event I attended was a drag show in March and I miss it very much.
A local documentary about avant garde zydeco-turned-new-wave musician Valerie Sassyfras, who’s a very specific kind of New Orleans eccentric. It’s a jarring mix of fun outsider-art punk aggression and severely upsetting social & mental dysfunction; the exact kind of niche-interest no-budget filmmaking you only see at festivals.
A conceptual art piece about Black women’s relationships with their own bodies and the meaning of “feeling safe.” It’s a little impenetrable the way a lot of experimental essay films can be, but it also packs a powerful wallop when it feels like going for the jugular. There’s also some incredible Nina Simone footage interspersed throughout.
Christian Petzold’s latest is Good, but not entirely My Thing. I can’t imagine being the kind of person who watches The Lure and thinks “What if this was a quiet, understated drama instead?” but apparently that kind of person is out there.
My single-favorite film discovery so far this year is James Bidgood’s D.I.Y. porno reverie Pink Narcissus, a transcendent fantasy piece filmed almost entirely inside the beefcake photographer’s own NYC apartment. I like to think I’d have fallen in love with the gorgeous, hand-built artifice of that film in any context, but it struck a particular chord in the earliest months of the COVID pandemic when most of us were still adhering to strict social-distancing measures. The idea that you could construct your own beautiful dreamworld inside your cramped living space with just the right amount of artistic (and prurient) self-motivation was genuinely inspiring to me back in April, when the reality of how confined the next year of my life was going to be just started to sink in. And now, a few hellish months later, I’ve been confronted with Pink Narcissus‘s spiritual opposite in The Wolf House: a relentlessly grim, ugly film made under similarly confined domestic circumstances. Instead of reaching for artistic transcendence or beauty, it’s a D.I.Y. fantasy experiment that pummels you into the dirt with the communal cruelty, betrayal, oppression of the world as it really is: a confusing, alienating nightmare that only worsens the longer you survive it.
An experiment in stop-motion animation, The Wolf House filters historic atrocities committed by exiled-Nazi communes in Chile through a loose, haunting fairy tale narrative. It’s traumatizingly bleak, often difficult to comprehend, and I think I loved it. Contextualized as a “lost” classroom propaganda film warning locals against stepping on the commune’s toes (and commune members from attempting to escape its bounds), its paper-thin story is a simple tongue-in-cheek allegory about acceptable behavior in & around an exiled-Nazi stronghold. The Colony proudly reports itself to be an “isolated and pure” oasis in an otherwise menacing South American locale, and disparages a fictional young girl who dared to dream & play for her own amusement instead of working tirelessly to maintain The Colony’s glory. Thinking herself above subservience to The Colony, she runs away to play house with her disgusting pig children in a nearby shack, gradually starving to death without the sweet subsistence provided by the commune’s main export: honey. Meanwhile, wolves lurk outside the family’s door, waiting to devour them as soon as they step outside. This allegory is rooted in specific, real-life atrocities committed by German-Chilean communes like Colonia Dignidad, which can be difficult to fully digest without a post-film Wikipedia deep dive. However, it’s all anchored to two universally familiar cultural touchstones that cut through the confusion: Brothers Grimm fairy tales and the fact that Nazis are subhuman scum.
The Wolf House is much more immediately impressive in its visual craft than it is in its narrative. It recalls a cruder, less dignified version of Jann Švankmajer’s work, as if he were a reclusive serial killer rather than an erudite who went to art school for puppetry. Most of the film is quarantined in the pig-family’s dingy shack, with characters represented both as two-dimensional figures painted onto the walls & furniture (think Adventure Time‘s Prismo) and as barely-functional paper mâché grotesqueries. The entire three-dimensional space of their decrepit home is treated as a canvas, with objects being destroyed, painted over, reconfigured, and mutated in an ever-shifting, impossibly ugly nightmare. Every crudely animated movement within that hellish space is matched to an even more hideous sound cue: pig snorts, wolf breaths, wet smacks of paper mâché bodies breaking down & reforming, etc. It’s a relentlessly grotesque display, one that fully conveys the hideous evils of its fairy tale allegory’s real-life parallels even if you aren’t familiar with that particular pocket of fascism history. The Wolf House is one of those D.I.Y. art objects that feels more haunted than inspired, which is understandable considering the cultural history it’s attempting to process. It’s the ugly mirrorworld reflection of PinkNarcissus: a contained, domestic fantasy realm driven by pain instead of pleasure, grief instead of sensual exuberance. Its vision of domestic isolation is completely fucked, something that resonates deeply right now despite the film’s more alienating allegorical details.