Welcome to Episode #187 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, Hanna, and Britnee discuss Terrence Malick’s signature works, starting with the brief-history-of-time family drama The Tree of Life (2011).
01:14 Missing (2023) 03:44 The Little Mermaid (2023) 10:55 The Last Laugh (1924) 14:50 Breakdown (1997) 18:30 Sibling Rivalry (1990) 21:03 Stripper (1986) 22:52 Flashdance (1983)
28:28 The Tree of Life (2011) 55:22 Badlands (1973) 1:09:35 Days of Heaven (1978) 1:23:30 The New World (2005)
If you follow enough fired-up cynics on Twitter, you’d think that queer youth culture is suddenly going soft after decades of consistent, unified radical politics. There are surely some fruitful debates to be had about the ways corporate & police presence have been welcomed into Pride celebrations recently, especially when it comes at the expense of freer, kinkier expressions of queer sexuality. However, I’m a little more skeptical about the recent in-house dogpiling on “tenderqueer” Zoomers for their generational desire to see wholesome, conflict-free Gay Representation onscreen, as if that impulse is anything new. Politically edgier queer audiences have been debating Gay Assimilationists about the value of presenting “the right kind of representation” to the public at large since at least as far back as Stonewall, which has led to much controversy over “the wrong kind of representation” in movies like Basic Instinct, Cruising, and The Boys in the Band for presenting their queer characters as flawed & villainous when they had no wholesome mainstream counterbalance. I have to wonder how much that eternal controversy has dulled the career & reputation of queer provocateur Gregg Araki, whose signature works have been left to rot in censored, out-of-print obscurity since he first made a splash in the New Queer Cinema era of the 1990s. All those decades ago, Araki got enough pushback for making hyperviolent, oversexed queer art he describes as “too punk rock for gay people” that he thought it’d be easier to sneak his edgier, more outrageous ideas into his version of a straight film. Araki’s breakout 1995 road trip flick The Doom Generation is even subtitled “A heterosexual movie by Gregg Araki,” a cheeky in-joke about how it’s easier to get away with making his provocative, overtly queer outsider art within a heterosexual dynamic, since there’s much less pressure to deliver “the right kind of representation” in that context. Or, as Araki put it in a recent interview, “I made this heterosexual movie, but in a very punk rock bratty way, made it so gay.”
That hetero cosplay may have landed Araki easier production funding, but the prudish straights in charge of mainstream movie distribution were not fooled. The Doom Generation has been heavily, viciously censored since it first premiered at Sundance, with its various R-rated home video cuts removing up to 20 minutes of footage so that what’s left onscreen is borderline incoherent. Although some of those Blockbuster Video-friendly edits removed scenes of cartoonish ultraviolence, you will not be surprised to learn that a majority of what has been removed is its queer sexual content, which drives most of the relationship dynamics between its trio of disaffected Gen-X leads. So, it’s a huge deal that The Doom Generation has been recently restored to fit Araki’s original vision nearly three decades after its film festival premiere, re-released into a post-She-Ra, post-Steven Universe tenderqueer world that’s just as squeamish about the wrong kinds of representation as it’s always been. Its theatrical victory lap is a bittersweet blessing for me personally, in that I wish it was around in my life when I was a John Waters-obsessed edgelord teen, but I also cherished getting to see it for the first time with a rowdy crowd of queer weirdos who hooted & hollered the entire screening. Laughing along with like-minded genre freaks made every horned-up, airheaded line reading hit way harder than it would have if I watched it alone on VHS in the 90s, with or without the prudish MPAA censorship. There was something heartwarming about sharing that experience with multiple generations of in-the-flesh human weirdos who might be inclined to snipe at each other for minor political differences online but can’t help but cackle & gasp in unison at campy, radical queer art when it’s presented IRL. It’s just not that often that boundary-pushing queer art survives the controversy cycle to reach queer audiences in the first place, and it turns out that costuming itself as “heterosexual” can only help it get so far.
Internal gay debates about positive representation in American media may have not changed much in the past few decades, but to be fair neither has America at large. If The Doom Generation lives up to its “heterosexual” subtitle in any authentic way, it’s in its depiction of an apocalyptic USA in cultural decline. It’s one the best movies out there about how boring, rotten, and beautifully cheap life in America can be, defining US culture as a putrid pile of junk food, junk television, fundamentalist Christians, and Nazi right-wingers. Set in an America where everything costs $6.66 and is protected by loaded gun, the film responds to the nation’s final moments before Rapture with pure Gen-X apathy, shrugging off every grotesque fascist afront with a Valley Girl “Whatever!” worthy of Cher Horowitz herself. Rose McGowan & James Duvall star as a pair of aimless, politically numb punks whose teenage puppylove is disrupted by the intrusion of Johnathon Schaech, a leather-clad agent of chaos. After the third-wheel interloper makes them accomplices in the brutal (and somewhat accidental) murder of a gas station clerk, the trio go on a cross-country, Natural Born Killers crime spree touring the nation’s cheapest fast-food joints & honeymoon motels. The reluctant throuple’s initial sexual dynamic starts as adulterous betrayal, but quickly devolves into a bisexual free-for-all that edges the audience to desperately want to see the two male leads kiss (and more). Only, Araki interrupts the gay male tension in that central threesome with a violent reminder of just how broken & violent life in America can be, concluding their road trip with a shock of strobelit Nazi brutality that fucks everything up just when it things are starting to get properly heated. The Doom Generation might feature characters exploring the boundaries of their emerging queer sexual identities, but it’s also honest about how horrific it can feel to do so among the straight Christian psychopaths who run the USA – something all generations of queer audiences can relate to, no matter how sensitive they are to onscreen sex & violence.
I could go on all day about how sexually, politically transgressive The Doom Generation is in both its modern & retro American contexts, but really its greatest strength is that it’s extremely cool. McGowan’s Gen-X punk uniform of plastic gas station sunglasses, see-through plastic raincoat, and blunt, dyed goth bob looks just as hip now as it ever did. Every motel room & dive bar interior is a gorgeously cheap fantasy realm of D.I.Y. decor & artifice, so much so that I mistook the out-of-context screengrabs I’ve seen over the years for a momentary dream sequence instead of the overall art design. Decades before anyone would think to tweet “Give Parker Posey a sword,” Gregg Araki gave Parker Posey a sword, casting her as a crazed lesbian stalker in a cheap drag queen wig. And yet Duvall’s performance stands out as the coolest detail of all, nailing the kind of puppydog himbo humor that would have made him a beloved Keanu Reeves-level cult figure if this film were given the proper, uncensored distribution it deserved. It’s not often you see a movie combine the finer points of Heathers, Freeway, Blood Diner, and Terminal U.S.A. into one toxic Gen-X gumbo, even if it’s one that crassly force-feeds the concoction to its audience through an unwashed beer funnel. I was overjoyed to gulp down The Doom Generation unfiltered with a full crowd of fellow filth-hungry weirdos, if not only for the reminder that radical queer art has always been controversial by nature, and America has always been an apocalyptic cesspool. At the same time, I also left the theater angry that the film hadn’t been funneled into my brain sooner, and that so much of Araki’s back catalog of bad-representation punk provocations are still not readily accessible to the modern public. Here’s to hoping that titles like Nowhere, Splendor, and Totally Fucked Up get this same digital-restoration victory lap soon—theatrical re-release and all—before Christian America gets the Rapture it so desperately wants.
I’ve been struggling to find much to get excited about in theaters lately, now that “Summer” Blockbuster Season has encroached well into Spring, and multiplex marquees are once again all superheroes all of the time. The general vibe among moviegoing audiences is that the superhero era is winding down post-Endgame, but it’s going to take a long time for Hollywood studios to adjust to that dwindling enthusiasm, since these billion-dollar behemoths take years to produce & market. Personally, I’m so deeply, incurably bored by American superhero media that I’m avoiding all four-quadrant crowd-pleasers out there, not just the usual suspects like the new Guardians, the new Ant-Man, and the new Shazam. If I stare at the poster or trailer for any tentpole blockbuster above a 6-figure production budget for long enough, they all appear to follow the same MCU superhero action template. Super Mario Bros, Dungeons & Dragons, and Fast X are all essentially superhero movies to me, each with their own invincible, quippy gods among men who save the day by extending their IP. I can’t hide from the new release calendar forever, though, so I need to re-learn how to enjoy a superhero movie or two until Hollywood fully moves onto the next money-printing fad. Given that there are already dozens of Marvel & DC movies slated for release over the next few summers, it’s likely going to take a long time for this lumbering industry to correct course. So, it’s somewhat fortuitous that the Italian supernatural action epic Freaks vs. The Reich finally landed a US release in this dire time of need, after years of stumbling over international distribution hurdles. It’s the most convincing evidence I’ve seen in a while that there is still some juice left in the superhero genre, despite Hollywood’s determination to squeeze it dry and pummel the rind.
If there’s anything more frustratingly slow than Hollywood’s response to public appetite, it’s the distribution of international art films, which often fall into a years-long limbo between their initial festival runs and their wide US premieres. I’ve been waiting to see Freaks vs. The Reich for so long that its earliest roadblocks were COVID related, and its original title has since been changed to give it a fresher, more recognizable appeal. I suppose rebranding the film from Freaks Out to its new, more descriptive title is a useful warning for the shocking amount of Nazi imagery you’ll find in this supernatural circus sideshow fantasy. It also helps explain why it’s so easy to cheer on the titular, superpowered freaks who take those Nazis down. I wonder if some of its distribution delays had to do with clearing song rights, since the main Nazi supervillain in question abuses ether to mentally time-travel into the future, returning to the battlefields of WWII with visions of smartphones, video game controllers, and old-timey renditions of Radiohead’s “Creep” & Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child o’ Mine.” The inclusion of “Creep” is important to note there, since the song also happens to be featured in the more traditional, straightforward superhero epic Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, which is currently eating up a grotesque amount of American screen space. Whether you think it’s more interesting to hear that song played on a Spotify algorithm mixtape to evoke easy nostalgia points or performed by a drugged-out, time-traveling Nazi supervillain is a question of taste, but I can at least personally attest to appreciating a sense of variety within this oppressively omnipresent genre template.
Freaks vs. The Reich opens with a full circus sideshow act, introducing our Italian superhero freaks one at a time as they show off their individual talents – a magnetic dwarf, an electric ballerina, a real-life wolf-man, etc. Before they can bow for audience applause, however, their tent is blown to shreds by Nazi warplanes, and they spend the rest of the movie rebuilding the team so they can end the war themselves. Caught up in concentration camp processing, Italian militia resistance, and general wartime disorientation, they are all eventually reunited by the ether-huffing, time-travelling Nazi who’s convinced he can win the war for Hitler if he assembles the freaks to fight for Deutschland. This all culminates in a grand superpowers battle in an open field (the way most superhero epics do), and I will admit that the journey to get to that predetermined conclusion can be a little overlong & draining (the way most superhero epics are). There’s at least some novelty in the film’s antique circus sideshow aesthetic and WWII historical contexts, though, and novelty is a precious commodity for a genre that’s been so prevalent over the past decade. It’s like watching the cast of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children act out the plot of Guillermo del Toro’s stop-motion Pinocchio on the leftover sets of Matteo Garrone’s live-action Pinocchio – an antique Italo horror show. You won’t find that kind of aesthetic deviance in the upcoming Flash or Captain Marvel sequels, which you can pretty much already picture start to end in your head sight-unseen. These superhero freaks are flawed, messy, and they fuck, including the wolfman archetype in what has to be the hairiest sex scene since The Howling Part II: Your Sister is a Werewolf. Meanwhile, Marvel & DC are still stubbornly stuck in a chaste, sanitized universe where “everyone is beautiful and no one is horny.” They also murder Nazis, a universally agreeable target that hasn’t been attacked with such sincere patriotism since Marvel peaked in 2011 with Captain America: The First Avenger.
I’m probably doing this movie no favors by comparing it against American superhero media, since everyone’s starting to feel the same way about the genre as we felt about zombie media 17 seasons into The Walking Dead: numbly apathetic. Within that context, though, it’s a breath of fresh ether – one of the strangest, most upsetting superhero stories since James Gunn made Super, at least five James Gunn superhero movies ago. Maybe Freaks vs. The Reich would have fared better before our culture-wide superhero fatigue fully settled (it was initially set to be released less than a year after Endgame), but I personally needed it now more than ever, just so something in this genre didn’t look like a total snooze.
Whether it’s to avoid dating itself with the rapidly evolving technology of smartphones & social media or if it’s to avoid the practical problem-solving that modern tech offers, a lot of contemporary horror drags its settings back to earlier, grimier eras of the genre’s past. Personally, I’m getting bored with how much current horror product is an echo of 1970s grindhouse & 1980s neon sleaze. That nostalgic impulse is getting really shortsighted in its avoidance of documenting & processing the world we actually live in now, if not outright cowardly & lazy. So, if most contemporary horror has to live in the past for narrative convenience, I’m going to be more excited to see movies set outside that genre heyday of the first slasher wave. For instance, the recent slasher prequel Pearl is inherently more interesting than its grimy sister film X, since its own tongue-in-cheek genre pastiche of Technicolor melodramas is way less familiar & less overmined than the grindhouse Texas Chainsaw riff it followed. The same goes for the truck stop sex worker slasher Candy Land, which is set in the grunge & grime of the mid-1990s, after the first slasher wave crested and the second, meta-comedic wave began post-Scream. As soon as the film opens with a montage of transactional sex scenes set to Porno for Pyros’ “Pets,” it already feels like a much-needed break from the digitally added 1970s grain and the Carpenter-nostalgic 1980s synths of its fellow low-budget festival horrors, which have long been a matter of routine.
What endears me most to Candy Land‘s grunge-90s setting is that it doesn’t appear to be nostalgic about past horror trends at all. It’s instead nostalgic for the film festival boom of the Sundance era that made names like Soderbergh, Araki, and Haynes stars of the indie scene. Candy Land starts as a very cool, loose hangout dramedy about the daily rituals of truck stop sex workers (or “lot lizards” in CB radio lingo) before it gradually turns into a rigidly formulaic slasher to pay the bills. The true glory days of independent filmmaking are over, and most low-budget productions that want to score wide distribution have to resort to flashy genre gimmicks to earn streaming sales on the festival market. And so, we have a workplace drama that opens with sex work and ends with murder, holding back the necessary kill rhythms of a body count slasher as long as it can until it’s time to deliver the goods. Unlike most slashers that dive headfirst into the bloodbath, that delayed payoff allows you space to care about the characters in peril: a good-girl-gone-bad played by The Deuce‘s Olivia Luccardi, a sweetheart hedonist gigolo played by X‘s Owen Campbell, a shit-heel sheriff played by Sliver‘s Billy Baldwin, etc. There’s a built-in tension & danger in the main characters’ profession that makes for a great horror setting (something it’s most frank about in an extensive, brutal scene of male-on-male rape), but writer-director John Swab appears to be more interested in making a truck stop Working Girls than a truck stop Friday the 13th. I admire his practicality. Not everyone gets to be Sean Baker; sometimes you gotta cosplay as Rob Zombie to land your funding.
Candy Land excels more in its minor character observations than in the tension release of its cathartic violence. It’s set in an insular world where all sex is transactional, all sexuality is fluid, and all cops are bastards. The truck stop brothel has a grunge-fashionista uniform of leather jackets, acrylic nails, booty shorts, and heavy metal t-shirts. The girls shower, menstruate, and parade puffs of pubic & armpit hair in defiantly casual, thoughtless exhibitionism. There’s a pronounced overlap in the rules & rituals of working the truck stop and the rules & rituals of the fundamentalist Christian cult Luccardi’s newbie abandoned to get there, both with their own built-in, complex lingo. There’s also some unmistakable political commentary in which of those two insular cults proves to be harmful to the community at large – first to the johns, then to the workers. Its Christmastime setting underlines the tension between those two warring worlds with a bitter irony that’s been present in the slasher genre as far back as its pre-Halloween landmark Black Christmas. The movie might have been more rewarding if it didn’t have to sweep aside its observations of social minutia to make room for bloody hyperviolence, but I doubt it could’ve been widely distributed or even made at all without that genre hook. At least Swab didn’t default to the industry’s current go-to setting for that horror hook; he instead recalls a brighter time in indie filmmaking when you could make a notable, low-key sex worker drama without having to hit a specific body count metric.
Welcome to Episode #186 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, Hanna, and Britnee discuss a grab bag of passion projects from one-and-done directors, starting with Ester Krumbachová’s The Murder of Mr. Devil (1970).
02:02 The Doom Generation (1995) 07:13 The Black Tower (1987) 08:45 The House is Black (1963) 11:25 The Year Between (2023) 14:40 The Canyons (2013) 20:47 White Palace (1990)
25:37 The Murder of Mr. Devil (1970) 44:45 Wanda (1970) 1:03:42 Harlem Nights (1989) 1:19:25 The Evil Within (2017)
As I mentioned when reviewing the Kollywood bank heist thriller Thunivu, my selection of newly released Indian action blockbusters has been severely limited in recent months, as I don’t currently have access to a car. The only theater that screens the gloriously over-the-top action cinema I’ve taken for granted in recent years is all the way out in the suburbs, far beyond a reasonable bus ride, so I have to settle for whatever titles trickle down from its distant marquees to the streaming services I pay for at home. Between Thunivu and the new Tollywood action-romance epic Dasara, Netflix has been the quickest to deliver the goods so far this year – give or take Pathaan, which I was lucky to catch on the big screen before it populated on Amazon Prime. In Dasara‘s case, Netflix even premiered the film in its original language of Telugu, which isn’t always a guarantee for home viewing (even in big-name cases like S.S. Rajamouli’s Baahubali & RRR, which are still primarily presented in their Hindi dubs on the same platform). As much as I appreciate Dasara making its way to my living room so quickly, though, I know in my stupid little heart that I would have enjoyed it much more had I caught it at the suburban multiplex. The immense spectacles & body-rattling sound mixes of these movies demand the theatrical experience. That environment makes a throwaway romcom like Radhe Shyam play like an action-hero riff on Cameron’s Titanic, crushing you so flat beneath its towering CG mayhem that you hardly have time to notice that the flirty jokes between its action sequences aren’t especially cute or funny. For its part, Dasara also delivers the goods when it comes to large-scale CG action spectacle, but that can only carry you so far at home, so the lengthy lulls between its explosions tend to spoil the mood. I’ve greatly enjoyed a few masala films I happened to see at home for the first time instead of the theater—Master, Karnan, Enthiran, the aforementioned Baahubali, to name a few—but they all would have been even more enjoyable & memorable had I seen them big & loud, which is an unignorable problem in more middling titles like Dasara.
Dasara details a lifelong friendship & romantic rivalry between a pair of mining-town besties. After a youth wasted stealing coal off mining trains for liquor money and pining after the same childhood friend, the two ambitionless hedonists are forced to get serious about the politicians who poison their village – both through alcohol sales and through coal-mining air pollution. The alcohol is treated as the bigger threat to local morale, in that it makes wastoid addicts out of every able-bodied man in their community (an anti-vice sentiment underlined by the opening credits’ health hazard warnings and a barn-burner monologue in the final scene). Booze is also the main driver of local politics, as the powerful positions of bar owner & cashier are essentially treated as public offices, violently contested through rigged elections. In establishing all of this big-picture conflict within the mining community, Dasara only leaves room for three major action sequences: a daring coal-train robbery, a vicious massacre of local drunks via machete militia, and a climactic act of revenge in which the evilest politician of all is decapitated via flaming machete after his goons are slaughtered one at a time. There are some incredible moments & images in those sequences that highlight how India’s various film industries are regularly producing the greatest action movies on the market today, if not the greatest since Hong Kong action’s independent heyday in the 80s & 90s. There is a lot of downtime between those moments, though, especially for a film with so thin of a moralist lesson (alcohol = bad) and with such cliché love-triangle tension. A few weddings, cricket matches, and religious festivals liven up the dead space between the action payoffs, but not enough to make the picture especially worth seeking out at home. Even when enjoying how its all-out explosive climax filled my TV screen with a wall of flames, all I could think about is how much cooler those flames would look if they were 30 feet taller and came with a bucket of popcorn.
Even though Dasara is a mixed bag overall, it’s really just one catchy composer short of being a stunner. It’s got plenty explosive imagery, but its songs are mostly duds, so the time drags heavily between fires & beheadings. To its credit, I was happy to see the musical numbers directly integrated into the narrative, when so many modern films in this genre separate them out as music video asides. Unfortunately, they do so by adopting a plodding stage-musical songwriting style that never fully meshes with the score’s rapid, relentless percussion with any coherence. Music is certainly one of the genre’s primary joys, but I’m not even sure that a louder theatrical environment would’ve helped the songs hit all that harder, even with the spectacle of dancers kicking up black coal dust in frantic choreography. However, I do suspect that the constant coal-mine blasts of fireballs & air pollution would’ve been so much more vivid at the multiplex that I wouldn’t have cared about the mediocre music they interrupt. Speaking from past experience, three great action sequences is usually more than enough to make one of these cheap-o epics worthwhile in that environment, whether or not the music is memorable. Without that boost in scale & volume, Dasara is unraveled by its own thinness, which it appears to be aware of itself by the second flashback montage of earlier, more exciting scenes. The action is too sparse for its songs to be this bland, and so the movie was only worth seeking out for the one week it screened at AMC Elmwood (or your local equivalent), when its few explosions would’ve stunned you for the longest stretches. I don’t regret watching it at home, though, and I don’t think this experience will deter me from seeking out other Indian action streamers in the future. In the past, I may have positively reviewed so-so masala films like Shamshera & Radhe Shyam for the enjoyment of the theatrical experience rather than the actual quality of the product, but that’s how they were intended to be watched. Catching up with Dasara on my couch is only the Great Value™ equivalent of the real deal, and it will have to do until I have a car again or until one of the three remaining theaters in the city catches up with how fun these crowd-pleasers can be.
In Bertrand Bonello’s 2016 political provocation Nocturama, a group of young, hip domestic terrorists set off a disparate series of homemade bombs in modern Paris, then await the state’s violent military response in a shopping mall. In Daniel Goldhaber’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline, a group of young, hip domestic terrorists set off two homemade bombs along a Texan desert pipeline, then await the state’s violent military response in the hot American sand. The Parisian kids never fully explain the reasoning behind their explosives beyond a vague sense of economic unrest & cultural ennui. The central point of Nocturama is making its teenage dissidents look cool—which it does—before they all meet a violent end. By contrast, the American kids explain the ideology behind their explosive Direct Actions at length, intending to disrupt the economic viability of crude oil as a means to slow down Climate Change. The point of How to Blow Up a Pipeline isn’t to inform the audience how to replicate this violence ourselves, but to motivate us to get serious about Climate Change as a mass extinction event that needs to be directly, immediately combated. Both films are structured as non-linear heist thrillers, joining their hip teen terrorists in the hours before their respective bombings before flashing back to the planning stages of those attacks. They both function as feature-length Building the Team montages as a result, which is always the most satisfying sequence in heist movies anyway. In contrast, the American version of Nocturama is less pretty & more explainy than the French one, but it’s also a much more useful political motivator, which counts for a lot in this context.
Goldhaber & crew do their best to make this Lefty manifesto traditionally entertaining so that its incendiary politics ignite the widest audience possible. This was never a concern of Bonello’s, who made a provocative aesthetic object to be appreciated by a small audience of art nerds. How to Blow Up a Pipeline uses retro synth scoring & 90s blockbuster fonts to disguise itself as a throwback to crowd-pleaser heist thrillers like Point Break, but its full-hearted advocacy of its climate activists’ property destruction is much more daring & modern than the genre’s cop-friendly past. Most of the shocking plot twists are the exact kind of undercover, double-crossing character reveals we’re used to in that context, but the movie loudly endorses the titular bombing and the activists behind it every chance it gets. The most Goldhaber & editor Daniel Garber shake up the traditional blockbuster heist film formula is by cutting away from explosions seconds before detonation to retreat into flashbacks, letting the tension ride for several minutes before returning to the Bruckheimerian balls of fire. Otherwise, it works within a familiar, comforting Dad Movie story template that this time just happens to be populated by pissed-off crust punks & college campus leftists. The tension of whether a homemade explosive will be jolted the wrong way by those nervous rioters before they reach their targeted pipeline is continuously effective in the moment, but it’s all in service of stringing the audience along to listen to the reason behind their planned property destruction in their downtime between backroom chemistry experiments.
It’s extremely shallow of me to compare Pipeline‘s cool-cred endorsement of violent political action to the much more nihilist, beauty-obsessed Nocturama, as if they’re the only two films of their kind. There’s a wide range of uncivil unrest advocacy cinema in this movie’s lineage, from 2018’s Empty Metal to 1983’s Born in Flames to 1966’s Battle of Algiers. It would also be shallow of me to assign an auteurist reading to its production, given that it’s officially credited as “a film by Daniel Goldhaber, Ariela Barar, Jordan Sjol, and Daniel Garber” (a list that includes the director’s co-writers and aforementioned editor). I’m going to do it anyway, though, because I’m a shallow guy. I appreciate that some of the paranoid technophobia from Goldhaber’s debut feature Cam bled through to this follow-up, represented in Pipeline by characters’ constant awareness of being surveilled via their smartphones, even when dormant. Still, I miss the slick, fantastical aesthetics of that indoor sex-work cyberthriller, which are traded in here for the grit & sweat of the outdoor American West. That cinematic preference for beauty & artifice over more practical, real-world concerns is likely why Nocturama was at the forefront of my mind throughout Pipeline. I felt as if I had already seen my ideal version of this picture in Bonello’s puzzle-box terrorist thriller, so even when admiring the big-picture politics & scene-to-scene tension of Goldhaber’s version, I could never fully crossover into zealous love for it. It’s a consistently entertaining, ideologically solid eco-activist thriller that never fully shook me out of my cowardly complacency as a passive political thinker & pop media consumer. Or, that’s at least what I want to convey to the FBI.
I should be too ashamed to admit this in a public forum, but I’ve never fully understood the appeal of zydeco. My preferred mode of background-noise Louisiana kitsch is New Orleans brass, which hits a lot closer to home – literally, since I live on a major second line route where brass & bounce reverberate down the street practically every other week. I’m most used to hearing zydeco mixed with cornball swamp pop in French Quarter tourist shops, seconds at a time as I pass by on my way to a downtown theater or bar. I may be from Southeast Louisiana, but I’m a city boy through & through, and the routine regurgitation of folksy local traditions for spend-crazy out-of-towners always raises the hairs on neck. I was delighted to have those biases challenged by the Les Blank documentary J’ai Été Au Bal (I Went to the Dance), though, which recently screened in a 4K digital restoration at The Broad to celebrate this year’s Jazz Fest happenings down the street. Blank’s Always for Pleasure is just about the only documentary that has genuinely captured New Orleans culture onscreen in a way that doesn’t make this local cynic cringe, so I very much needed this extension of his humanist awe with Louisiana to the meanings & traditions of zydeco. To prime the pump, the programmers also invited musician Michael Doucet to open the show with his zydeco band BeauSoleil, since he is one of the few surviving performers from the film still alive to provide insight & context. The music was good, the crowd of WWOZ devotees was lively & chatty, and the film made a convincing argument for an artform I’ve been knee-jerk dismissive of my entire life. It was a lovely evening.
It’s a shame I didn’t see I Went to the Dance when I was in my Folk Punk phase a couple decades ago; its contextual positioning of zydeco as raucous, resilient roots music would have clicked a lot sooner & louder. In my defense, though, a large part of this film is about zydeco musicians having to explain the artform’s appeal to each generation of bratty children who are distracted from their heritage by popular music fads like rock ‘n roll. It turns out even swamp pop has its merits as a youth-outreach genre hybrid, attempting to inject a little Beatles & 60s New Orleans R&B into the usual zydeco formula to make it palatable for the kids. I Went to the Dance is more straightforward as an informational doc on the linear history of zydeco than Always for Pleasure‘s loose portrait of local Mardi Gras customs, possibly due to the influence of Blank’s more traditionalist co-director Chris Strachwitz. It provides a quick historical context for the migration of Cajun & Creole communities to Southwest Louisiana, moves on to explain the basic compositional structures & instrumentations that distinguish zydeco as a genre, and then tracks its struggles to remain popular yet authentic as it welcomed influence from blues, soul, country, and rock fads that energized the core musicians’ children throughout the decades. By the time the film concludes with a contemporary Jazz Fest performance from the R&B-infused Clifton “King of Zydeco” Chenier, a backyard cookout performance of the 80s novelty swamp pop hit “(Don’t Mess with) My Toot Toot”, and a cheeseball fais-dodo rock-out from what appeared to be the Reaganite frat bros of zydeco, I was fully won over – my cynicism thoroughly, methodically replaced with a smile.
I don’t think this academically minded zydeco explainer would be worth all that much without the Les Blank touch, though. As useful as it is in providing historical & cultural context for where the genre comes from and what pop-music indignities it has to endure for survival, it’s Blank’s loving, amused observations of Louisiana customs that qualify J’ai Été Au Bal as substantial filmmaking. The dancefloor audience is just as important as the fiddlers, washboarders, and accordionists onstage, as Blank’s camera searches contemporary bars & archival photographs for signs of vitality & exuberance in the people that made this music popular because it gave them an excuse to get tipsy & dance. Since he moved his camera too far inland to capture the wetland landscapes that have so quickly eroded in the past few decades, the Louisiana he captures here is exactly the one I remember growing up with “down the road” in St. Bernard Parish around when this was made. It’s also uncannily accurate to Louisiana today, as long as you avert your gaze from concrete & billboards to instead focus on the hand-painted signs & D.I.Y. dance parties that are forever encroached on but never fully extinguished here. There’s an authenticity to Blank’s portraits of this state as a people that I have found in no other outsider media, making him one of the most fully integrated Tulane University bros who ever passed through New Orleans for an education and never had the heart to fully leave us behind. It appears his estate is keeping that work alive & up to date by producing physical media restorations of his work to sell at high rates to university libraries as education tools, which is great but doesn’t fully convey how entertaining & endearing they are for a casual audience.
When I report that the Jazz Fest-adjacent screening of J’ai Été Au Bal at The Broad was a lovely evening, I’m brushing aside a lot of technical hiccups that disrupted the flow of the film. Getting the screening going in earnest involved the theater staff abandoning the DCP and climbing on a ladder to hook up a Vimeo stream with a laptop, an HDMI cable, and a smartphone hotspot crammed inside the projector box. There were many stops & starts before that Plan C was launched, which meant that the first fifteen minutes of the film were frequently broken up by premature Q&As with Blank’s surviving collaborators and bonus performances from Doucet sans band. If I’m not mistaken, there were also impromptu chime-ins from Belizaire the Cajun director Glen Pitre from the front seats of the audience. Some moviegoers’ patience was tested beyond its limits that night, but I soaked it all up as a Community Event, the strangest screening I’ve been to since The Broad ran The Mothman Prophecies a couple months ago. It also didn’t stress me out because I knew even while watching J’ai Été Au Bal that my first viewing would not be my last. Every year I squeeze in a screening of Always for Pleasure as a quick, convenient way to get into the Mardi Gras spirit (usually while working on costumes), and I can easily see throwing on Blank’s zydeco doc for the same purpose at the start of every Spring festival season. Jazz Fest is going to happen in my neighborhood regardless of whether I’m in the mood; French Quarter Fest is just a few blocks away from where I work. It was untenable to think I could live a full, happy life in Louisiana without appreciating swamp pop or zydeco, and I’m glad this movie is being kept in distro to help my cynical ass lighten up.