When I visited a close friend during post-Katrina exile in their home state of Alabama, one of their favorite ways to pass the time was listening to a swap meet radio show that negotiated a buy-sell-trade market of second-hand items among their audience. It was a fascinating listen, not only for the absurdism & obscurity of the items being bartered, but also because of the eccentric personalities of the people who’d call in to haggle over them. That memory flooded back to me watching the documentary/narrative hybrid film Socks on Fire, which disrupts its central drama with reenactments of that exact call-in swap meet show, deployed as Greek-chorus chapter breaks. Even more so than its subjects/characters endlessly chanting “Roll tide!” and dressing in crimson red, that radio show device placed me in its Alabama setting with an uncanny specificity I never thought possible, considering it’s a state I’ve only visited a handful of times in my life.
As its title promises, Socks on Fire opens with flaming socks pinned to a backyard clothesline, with filmmaker-poet Bo McGuire narrating questions of what you’re supposed to do with a loved one’s leftover possessions after they pass away. What to do with his deceased grandmother’s used socks has a clear-enough answer: burn ’em. It’s much trickier for the family to decide what to do with her lifelong home, of which she did not leave a living will to assign possession to any of her surviving children or grandchildren. The most obvious answer is to hand the empty house over to McGuire’s uncle, a near-destitute drag queen who doesn’t have another place to live. McGuire’s fiercely homophobic aunt opposes that plan, despite her supposedly Christian values, and viciously fights to leave her brother homeless. McGuire uses the documentary as an excuse to prod at how the siblings’ relationship got to be so poisoned in the first place, and how that friction distorts his own sense of place as a gay artist in his insular Alabama hometown.
I want to describe Socks on Fire as a Southern-fried revision of this year’s auto-documentary Madame, but that doesn’t quite capture the camp or sardonicism of its humor. It operates more like an earnest version of the over-the-top Southern theatrics of Sordid Lives, played like a tell-all airing of a family’s dirty laundry instead of a sitcom. Bo McGuire illustrates his sordid family history with a mixed-media approach, breaking from traditional documentary storytelling with photo album collages, home video tape distortions, fine art photography of suspended household objects, and poetic monologues that ominously refer to decades of conflicts that have gnarled his family tree. It’s when his uncle & fellow queens start re-creating those conflicts in camped-up drag routines that the movie touches on something really special, though. Turning his homophobic aunt into a drag character was an especially inspired choice, and it’s one that clues you into McGuire’s deliciously fucked up boundaries between humor & heartbreak.
I’m not entirely convinced that Socks on Fire is about the disputes over McGuire’s grandmother’s estate, so much as it’s about his own relationship with his isolated hometown. The swap-meet radio show, the Steel Magnolias-style trips to the hair salon, and the awed references to Reba McEntire as a living god are all tied into his aunt & uncle’s battle over a home that only one of them needs, but they feel more personal to Bo McGuire as the narrator than they feel relevant to that story. By the time he collects all the small-town women who shaped his life & persona for a single photoshoot, it’s clear that he’s mostly returning to that place of origin to uncover something about himself, not necessarily about his family. It’s all hyper-specific, intensely intimate, and playfully experimental in its internal visual language, which is pretty much all I ever ask for out of a movie. It’s a privilege to be invited into McGuire’s boozy Southern psyche like this, an old-fashioned flavor of Alabama hospitality.