Nailed It (2018)

Nailed It: Vietnamese and the Nail Industry does everything exactly right within the bounds of microbudget documentary filmmaking. At roughly sixty minutes, it’s too short to drastically overstay its welcome the way many niche-subject docs do. It’s rich in both interview subjects & extratextual material, collecting oral history anecdotes from generations of participants and pulling news & pop culture clips from the darkest corners of YouTube. It has its own distinct sense of style, thanks largely to anthropomorphic hands adorned with acrylic nails strutting their stuff across the screen in Flash-style 2D animation. Most importantly, Nailed It works hard to investigate an overlooked, understudied subject: Why is more than half of the American nail salon industry Vietnamese? Who were the first Vietnamese people to do nails? Is the industry a source of pride for the communities it supports or more of a necessary evil? As fascinating, succinct, and stylish as Nailed It can be, however, the film never really transcends its limited means to become something especially great. It’s the kind of moderately successful documentary that gets by on the interest of its subject, when it has the promise to be so much more.

The answer to how the first Vietnamese people got involved in the nail salon industry arrives early and with certainty, although maybe not from the source that you would expect. The Birds star Tippi Hedren is explained to be the instigator of the Vietnamese nail industry boom. South Vietnamese families who cooperated with American soldiers during the Vietnam War were granted asylum in the US once the North Vietnam government was declared victor. As a humanitarian effort, Hedren traveled to Vietnam with her personal manicurist to prepare local women with a potentially lucrative trade so that they weren’t arriving empty-handed. Because this history stretches just one generation back, most of the participants are still alive for interviews, even reuniting with Hedren & her manicurist to rehash the past. The stories of how workers who could not speak English transformed a crash course in manicurist skills into entire chains of self-owned salons (and even nail polish production factories, effectively become their own suppliers) is still stupefying regardless of the explanation. The ways they survive outside competition by outpricing them or seeking increasingly more lavish novelty nail designs eventually makes it so that Vietnamese salons encompass a majority of the market – something that has since been accepted as a decades-old fact, with little consideration for how we got there.

Where Nailed It might fall a little short as a feat in documentary filmmaking is that its subject isn’t quite as niche as it initially seems. There’s enough thematic material in Tippi Hedren’s initial crop of manicurist trainees alone to support an hour-long documentary, but the film extends far beyond that historical account. Nailed It condemns racist caricatures of Vietnamese nail techs in popular media like sketch comedy & stand-up routines, likening it to Donald Trump’s jingoistic “shithole countries” rhetoric. It seeks to contrast sensationalist news reports about how filthy & health-hazardous (supposedly) unsanitary nail salons can be with intimate documents of their community-supporting reality. At the same time, it advocates for healthier working conditions for manicurists who spend hours on end inhaling harmful chemicals. The histories of notable notorious salons and decades-long emotional bonds formed between specific manicurists & clients are profiled at length. Director Adele Pham also inserts her own relationship with her Vietnamese heritage into the already-sprawling narrative, even interviewing her own family members who aren’t directly connected to the industry. Any one of those individual topics might support an hour-long documentary; the stunning artistry of over-the-top novelty nail designs in particular isn’t afforded enough attention, which is understandable given the political implications of the subjects it has to share screentime with, but also frustrating because the few glimpses we get are so gorgeous.

Nailed It appears from the outset to be a short, concise documentary on a niche topic. By the time it’s over it instead plays like a surface-level overview of a much larger, more sprawling subject that deserves more extensive documentation. It feels more like a promising start than a compete work, with dozens of tangential threads that could be better served in isolation & elaboration.

-Brandon Ledet

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This One’s for the Ladies . . . (2018)

It’s difficult to pinpoint what separates a truly great niche-subject documentary from a mediocre one, especially in a film festival environment. At a certain budgetary & distribution level, the festival-circuit indie documentary is only going to have so much variation in its successes & failures (give or take a form-breaking bomb-thrower like Rat Film or The World is Mine). They all usually excite in their initial rush, thanks to the novelty of their subject matter that likely landed them festival screenings in the first place. The Litmus Test for a great niche-subject doc then, as opposed to a merely serviceable one, might be in sustaining that initial rush throughout. Whether in finding deeper political or societal implications in its subject beyond surface-level interest or in exploiting those surface pleasures for all they’re worth, the well-behaved small budget doc has to work tirelessly to sustain its initial, opening-minutes appeal. A straight-forward, small budget documentary about the raunchy black male erotic dancer circuit, This One’s for the Ladies has an even harder (heh) time than most keeping it up (heh heh) once its initial rush settles into a well-worn filmmaking groove. The initial immersion into the explosive hedonism of its subject is a tough act to either follow up or maintain, so the movie instead just coasts on that initial appeal. It mostly gets away with it.

The black erotic male dancer circuit may not see much mainstream media exposure (outside maybe the Atlanta mansion sequence in Magic Mike XXL), but it’s explained to be long-established, self-contained culture in This One’s for the Ladies, one with its own celebrities & legendary figures. Pulling clips of VHS footage from “dance events” dating back to at least the 1990s, the doc sketches out a densely populated world of celebrity dancers & dedicated fans. Oiled up muscle-men with gigantic cocks stuffed into colorful sleeves boast over-the-top monikers like Smoove, Raw Dawg, Mr. Capable, Fever, and Satan. The more well-established regulars in their audience have their own nicknames (women like Mamma Joe, Pound Cake, and Double Trouble), as their own contributions to the dance events are just as crucial as the erotic performers’. These are self-catered D.I.Y. happenings staged in living rooms, cruise ships, and rented event halls. The more infamous dancers might sell merchandise like DVD compilations, autographed headshots, and erotic wall calendars, but their art is also the center of a community where performer & patron have to pull equal weight to keep the scene alive. It’s a weirdly wholesome subculture, considering that its anchor is a group of muscled-up dancers who mime making love to strangers who wave dollar bills at their face & genitals, but its existence outside a brick & mortar strip club establishment affords it a genuine sense of community.

As compelling (and visually interesting) as that subject matter can be, it’s undeniable that This One’s for the Ladies hits a wall somewhere in its brief 80min runtime. The pro wrestling & ball culture-style pageantry of the dance events never gets tiring, and the times the film documents the prurient pleasures therein it’s a hoot. Dancers licking chocolate syrup from a blushing participant’s inner thigh or simulating making them squirt with a concealed water hose rig is some A+ cinematic content, and those indulgences never feel repetitive or dull. Where it struggles to maintain that excitement is in the behind the scenes interviews with participants, which stray from discussing the dance event circuit to touch on issues of racial & economic inequality the film makes no point to explore in a distinct or substantive way. It’s an understandable impulse from a filmmaker’s perspective, but this search for wider cultural context only feels satisfying when it creeps up naturally through the subject. For instance, interviews with a butch lesbian dancer named Blaze about her conflicts with fiercely Christian parents or unaccepting male dancers who don’t want her working “their” circuit both opens the film to wider cultural context and feels specific to the subject at hand (so much so that a doc just about Blaze could easily be justifiable). The same just isn’t true about tangential commentary on underfunded neighborhood schools or childhood Autism; they’re worthwhile topics in isolation, but too disconnected to be explored here in earnest.

My quick fix for This One’s for the Ladies would either be to come in 20min shorter or 20min raunchier. There’s no way the movie could ever have time to fully tackle the wide world of systemic racism outside the dance events, so it might as well just lean into the prurient strengths of its subject instead and let the implications of those cultural circumstances creep up naturally (as they do with Blaze). There may not be enough time to solve racism or poverty in a documentary of this scale, but there’s certainly time for more exposed erect dick (there’s only one!) and erotic pageantry, leaving the cultural subtext implied. Whether or not that’s the correct fix for this fine-not-great doc, it definitely needed something to help sustain the initial rush of its subject’s inherent interest – the documentary equivalent of a cock ring.

-Brandon Ledet

United Skates (2018)

There’s a threshold a lot of niche-subject, microbudget documentaries struggle to cross: maintaining audience interest after the initial appeal of their subject fades. United Skates has a lot to live up to in that respect, as the initial rush of its documentation of black skating rink culture is so fun & visually stunning that it seems nearly impossible to sustain that energy. In the early days of hip-hop it was difficult for acts to book legitimate venues outside of house & block parties, and the open-floor venues of skating rinks were some of the first spaces to fulfill that need (as you can see depicted in narrative biopic films like Straight Outta Compton, White Boy Rick, and CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story). Skating rink hip-hop culture evolved from there to flourish on a national level, with regional scenes in cities like Chicago, L.A., and Miami developing their own unique skating styles & soundtracks. United Skates documents this culture in decline, with many of the most significant venues in the culture closing their doors forever, long after performers like N.W.A., Naughty by Nature, and Salt & Peppa had moved on to other venues (and eventually faded away in their own right). United Skates finds plenty of distinct visual fodder in documenting the fashions & skating styles of each participating region, but where it really develops into something special is documenting the means & methods of those closures.

United Skates is a documentary “about” black skating rink culture that’s actually about how all pockets of black culture are policed & legislated out of existence in small, cumulative increments. This is a subculture that was only forged in the first place because rinks would unofficially segregate their weekly schedule by signaling a “black night,” promoting events like Soul Night, Martin Luther King Jr. Night, and Adult Night. The “Adult Night” designation in particular unified black skating rink culture with a clear signifier that created the very culture white rink owners were attempting to discourage from developing. Two decades later, Adult Night parties are being policed out of existence in both small-scale rules applications and systemic city-level legislation. On a rink-to-rink level, cops are hired to provide “security” (read: intimidation) at Adult Night events that rinks don’t bother to enforce otherwise. Custom skates (along with more universally discriminated clothing markers like “saggy” pants) are outlawed from rinks as a private policy to discourage black patronage. On a city level, skating rinks are zoned out of existence to supposedly make way for condos & corporate retailers, only to rot in vacant lots, unused & blighted. United Skates’s titular subject is incredibly niche in its specificity, but the way it’s documented here has much larger, systemic implications on how black culture is legislated into oblivion.

Watching Adult Night skaters from all over the country show off their particular performance styles and custom skating gear as the cinematographer glides in the rinks beside them is incredibly endearing, but it’s a pleasure that can only carry the film so far. Where United Skates excels is in framing that Adult Night partying as an act of political resistance. Black-owned skating rinks, national Adult Night travelers, and decades-running “rink rats” are demonstrated to be direct political resistors to a system that would like nothing more than for them to just give up & fade away. The flashy hip-hop parties that gave birth to this culture are long gone, but continuing its existence is explained to be far more than empty, stubborn nostalgia. It’s a refusal to give into micro & macro policing of a culture that’s being pushed out only because of the racial demographics of the community behind it. It’s that larger political importance that makes United Skates much more rewarding & substantial than you might initially expect, given the scale of tis budget (perhaps explaining its Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature at this year’s New Orleans Film Festival).

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #69 of The Swampflix Podcast: Pregnant Men & Little Otik (2000)

Welcome to Episode #69 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our sixty-ninth episode (nice!), Brandon & Britnee discuss everyone’s favorite aspect of sex: pregnancy & giving birth. They review a trio of comedies from the 70s & 90s about pregnant men; also Britnee makes Brandon watch the surreal Czech fairy tale horror Little Otik (2000), about a couple who “gives birth” to a flesh-eating tree root. Enjoy!

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

– Britnee Lombas & Brandon Ledet

Suspiria (2018)

On an aesthetic level, Luca Guadagnino’s Suspriria bears very little resemblance to Dario Argento’s Supsiria. If anything, this 40 years-later reimagining of that cult-favorite resembles an entirely different flavor of intensely stylized, European arthouse horror: Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession. Guadagnino’s picture may have maintained the witchy dance academy setting & central character names from the Argento original, but it ditches all of that film’s intense giallo cross-lighting & prog rock sensibilities for the cold, greyed-out concrete & infectious madness of Possession. Where Suspriria (2018) deviates in tone & imagery from its source material, however, it did zero in on the most vital aspect of Argento’s work: excess. Everything about Guadagnino’s Suspiria is indulgently excessive: at 142 minutes, it’s structured as six acts & an epilogue; Tilda Swinton appears in multiple roles among an already sprawling cast of witchy women (including actors from the original film); unsatisfied with merely being a stylish tale of witchcraft, it also attempts to engage with the politics of post-war Germany; it features an original soundtrack from Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke. The most Suspiria (1977) thing about Suspiria (2018) is that it’s wholly confident that every self-indulgent impulse it has is worth exploring; the only difference in that respect is that the Argento version was more frequently correct in that shared delusion.

One of my favorite tactics that carries over from Original Flavor Suspiria to Nu Suspiria is that neither waste any effort hiding that they are about dance schools “secretly” run by a coven of witches. In the original, this mystery is “spoiled” by an early sequence of a frightened dance academy student fleeing into the woods while the prog band Goblin whispers, “Witch, witch-witch-witch” over the soundtrack. In the new version, that same freaked-out runaway character (Chloë Grace Moretz) blurts, “They are witches” in blatant terms to her old-man psychiatrist (a gender-blind cast Tilda Swinton) before continuing, “They’ll hollow me out and eat my cunt on a plate.” The psychiatrist, of course, believes this paranoia to be delusional and a large part of the narrative likens his dismissal of her cries of witchcraft to the ways he failed his long-gone wife during The Holocaust. That post-war grief & guilt swirls outside the dance academy, while inside the flesh-eating witches in question are undergoing a more insular political crisis of their own. Unbeknownst to the young dancers in their care, the women who run the academy as an incognito coven are experiencing a kind of civil war on two key issues: choosing new leadership & selecting an unwitting student for a mysterious ritual that will secure the school’s future (at the student’s own peril, of course). That freshly-arrived American student’s name is Susie Banion (Dakota Johnson in a role originated by Jessica Harper), who is afforded her own lengthy backstory in a distant Mennonite community, just in case the narrative wasn’t already overstuffed without it.

It’s probably safe to say that no one loves the original Suspiria for the strengths of its story. Like most giallo-related media, it’s a film best appreciated for its overbearing sense of style more so than the cohesion of its narrative. This only became increasingly apparent as Argento attempted to retroactively make sense of his witchcraft lore in the Suspiria sequels Inferno & Mother of Tears, expanding the original film’s elevator pitch of “A ballet school run by witches” into an unwieldy (but still charming) mess now known as the Three Mothers Trilogy. Guadagnino greedily eats up this now-sprawling mythology and attempts to reinforce each element with even more over-explained backstory: how the dance school relates to its German setting; why Susie Banion is targeted and what her life was like before the ritual was initiated; how the coven negotiates & organizes its collective will across hundreds of women in three separate locales. Beyond skewing its overall aesthetic closer to Żuławski than any gialli, Guadagno’s Suspiria avoids becoming a pointless retread of its Argento source material by pulling its narrative to the opposite extreme – from vaguely stretched-out elevator pitch to overly complex, unnecessarily dense mythology. Paradoxically, the effect of that overcorrection is oddly similar to how plot & lore work in the original film; its narrative is such an overdose of information that very little of it sticks to the walls and what’s mostly left for the audience to digest is the overbearing sense of style it’s delivered through.

As much as I admire Guadagningo’s dedication to excess here, this is the exact kind of messy ambition that invites viewers to pick and choose individual elements at play to praise or critique—as opposed to the more unified vision of the Argento original, which is more of an all-or-nothing proposition. Personally, my favorite aspect of the new Suspiria is the purposeful ways that the act of dance (modern here instead of ballet) is linked to the practice of witchcraft, establishing a cause & effect relationship between dancers’ beautifully contorted bodies and their grotesquely contorted victims’, left to stew in their own piss & mucus. I was also in love with the complexly detailed imagery of Susie Banion’s nightmare montages, each individual flash of a tableau carefully staged like fine art photography. At the same time, there were two glaring stylistic choices that harshed my buzz throughout: a camcorder-level choppy frame rate effect worthy of a Milli Vanilli music video & the jarring inclusion of Thom Yorke’s crooning vocals in an otherwise phenomenal soundtrack. My aversion to those choices are likely personal biases, given that they’ve also bothered me in previous works (specifically, the choppy frame rate in Daughters of the Dust, and Sufjan Stevens’s voice in Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name), but I can’t help but find them cheapening & distracting all the same for crashing me down from the film’s otherworldly spell to a much more pedestrian tone.

There’s so much on the screen in Suspiria that most audiences will find something to nitpick in their personal experience with its relentless over-indulgences in gore-soaked, lore-obsessed witchcraft horror. I envy those who weren’t distracted by stray choices like Yorke’s mewing, appreciating this love letter to excess in its overwhelming entirety. I also pity those who can’t find anything to enjoy here; Guadagnino offers so much to choose from that if you can’t latch onto something the problem is you. I’m personally falling somewhere in the vast middle between those extremes—in impressed, but frustrated appreciation of the film’s dedication to the extremes.

-Brandon Ledet

Beyond the Black Anthill

When I first reviewed Phase IV (1974) for this site in our earliest months of film-blogging, I approached it as a surprisingly solid 4-star effort that I expected to be much schlockier in its payoffs, given its place in the larger genre of killer-ants cinema. Upon revisiting the film to track its influence on our current Movie of the Month, Panos Cosmatos’s psychedelic freak-out Beyond the Black Rainbow, that 4-star rating reads like an insult. My engagement with Phase IV as transcendent schlock that impresses only as a subversion of genre expectations was one intensely colored by its context as an early Mystery Science 3000 victim and a participant in an often-campy killer-ants cinema tradition. Seeing the film through Cosmatos’s eyes, which often blend camp & transcendent art aesthetics until the two tones are indistinguishable, has only elevated Phase IV in my esteem. I’ve learned to disregard its alignment with genre tradition, to engage with it as a one-of-a-kind object. I now see Phase IV for what it is: one of the greatest cinematic achievement of all time, no caveats.

A significant part of Beyond the Black Rainbow’s lore involves Panos Cosmatos’s childhood trips to a video rental store in the 1980s, a holy ground named Video Addict. There he would browse the cover art images of horror movies he was too young to rent and imagine what those movies were like based on that advertising alone. His stated goal for Beyond the Black Rainbow was to create “an imaging of an old film that does not exist,” which effectively captures the film’s unique balance between nostalgic pastiche & genuinely eerie, otherworldly menace. Of course, Cosmatos has seen a movie or two since he was too young to rent those Video Addict cassettes without parental supervision, so there are plenty of actually-realized titles he also cites as a direct influence on Beyond the Black Rainbow, along with the nonexistent ones he imagined as a child: Dark Star, Manhunter, Phase IV, The Keep. Phase IV is the most illuminating citation listed among those titles, as it adds a new wrinkle to those Video Addict daydreams; there were existing old films that approximated Beyond the Black Rainbow’s general eerie psychedelia aesthetic in an era when that would have been current, not nostalgic. They were just commercial flops hardly anyone saw in their initial run.

Phase IV’s influence on Beyond the Black Rainbow’s psychedelic parascience is immediately apparent in its animated outer space intro, which feels like it could have been pulled from an infomercial for the fictional Arboria Institute. While an information dump of opening narration explains how a mysterious signal from outer space triggered an evolution & militarization of ants on Earth to usurp mankind’s place on the food chain, legendary graphic designer Saul Bass’s psychedelic visuals wash the screen in intense, saturated hues. Eventually that narration gives way to a lengthy, dialogue-free stretch of eerie, up-close nature footage of ants communicating & organizing in artificial environments to a snythy horror score. It’s a hypnotic, immersive vision of paranormal menace, one that could easily play as outdated kitsch but instead triggers a nightmarish trance. It’s the same effect that’s achieved throughout Beyond the Black Rainbow, especially in its Altered States-reminiscent LSD experiment flashback where its main antagonist “looks into the Eye of God.” It’s an effect that returns full-force in Phase IV’s psychedelic, nihilistic conclusion as well, which describes a next stage in human evolution triggered by the paranormal ants’ attacks on mankind, a much more fully-committed exercise in this spiritual psychedelia than the prankish slasher-throwback ending of Cosmatos’s film.

There are more narratively-based parallels between these two works that reach beyond their aesthetics’ similarities, despite Cosmatos’s work having nothing to do with killer ants. Like Beyond the Black Rainbow, Phase IV is mostly staged at a remote science research facility where a small cast, including a captive young woman, are disconnected from the world at large as they approach the precipice of the next stage of human evolution. Phase IV also concludes with its head researcher in a rambling, decrepit state, recalling the physical & mental degradation of Dr. Arboria in the latter half of Beyond the Black Rainbow. Still, discussing either film in terms of plot details feels entirely beside the point. These are works that largely tell their stories through the art of editing, evoking subliminal responses in their imagery more than guiding audiences through a traditional A-B narrative. Phase IV’s influence on Cosmatos’s work is most potent in its long, silent stretches where the screen is washed with color (whether the sickly yellow of pesticides or the rich reds of outer space) or filtered through the kaleidoscopic vision of the ants’ POV, repurposed from dorm poster psychedelia for a new, genuinely unnerving effect. Their narrative parallels are mostly just lagniappe.

Interestingly enough, Cosmatos’s mission of evoking “an imagining of an old film that does not exist” in Beyond the Black Rainbow is not at all at odds with its more concrete citation of Phase IV as a direct influence, when that film (as far as I can tell) actually does exist. The most Beyond the Black Rainbow reminiscent-footage from Saul Bass’s film is its “lost” alternate ending, cut by the studio before Phase IV’s release against the director’s wishes. In a four-minute montage recalling the vibrantly edited imagery of Bass’s credits-sequence design work for legendary directors like Hitchcock, the “lost” ending of Phase IV depicts the next evolution of man triggered by the ants in a dialogue-free swirl of stoney baloney imagery that matches, if not surpasses, anything depicted within the Arboria Institute in pure psychedelic potency. As Beyond the Black Rainbow was released two full years before this recovered final montage of Phase IV finally screened for the public in 2012, Cosmatos’s general estimation of those “lost” minutes’ effect & aesthetic in Beyond the Black Rainbow is just as much of an extension of his effort to imagine an old film that does not exist (at least in the public eye), as it is further proof that he & Bass were on a spiritually paralleled vibe when they made these two narratively dissonant sci-fi thrillers.

Saul Bass & Panos Cosmatos’s parallels as kindred spirits have negative connotations as well as positive ones. Phase IV was Bass’s sole feature film as a director (despite this clout as an Academy Award-Wining filmmaker for his graphic design work). It was met with middling reviews, disastrous box office, studio meddling that mutilated its ending, and eventually ironic MST3k mockery. Even now, five years after its “lost” ending was screened for select audiences, no restorative Director’s Cut of the film has been released on home video with that ending intact (or even included as a Special Feature), so that the only place to watch it is in shoddy camcorder footage on YouTube from those initial screenings. Despite the transcendent achievements of his own debut, Cosmatos has also suffered a slow road to respectability, taking a full 8-year gestation period to realize his follow-up, this year’s (more widely-seen & revered) Mandy. Cosmatos has largely survived early dismissals of his work as empty, self-indulgent nostalgia bait, but his struggle to follow up Beyond the Black Rainbow with a sophomore effort does recall Saul Bass’s own struggles to get another feature off the ground in Phase IV’s wake.

These are two visionary weirdo auteurs who invite off-hand dismissal of their sensory-suffocating art, despite delivering some of the most distinct films ever made. Even in Saul Bass’s case, I feel guilty for not taking his work seriously enough on its own terms beyond the context of my genre biases until a years-later second look. These are singular achievements that only feel familiar in their initial impact, as if we’re imaging similarities to old films that do not exist.

For more on November’s Movie of the Month, Panos Cosmatos’s psychedelic debut Beyond the Black Rainbow, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Empty Metal (2018)

There aren’t many ways left for small-budget indie cinema to truly upset or transgress, but advocating for direct, violent political action is certainly one of them. Born in Flames’s World Trade Center-exploding conclusion has only gotten more potent since the film’s initial 1982 release. Noctruama’s stubborn refusal to condemn bomb-setting teenage terrorists in 2010s Paris is just as morally reckless as it is invigorating. Now comes Empty Metal, a no-budget crust punk sci-fi narrative that asks why we haven’t collectively retaliated against known killer-cops who’ve executed young black men like Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown. We know the names of their killers; we know where they live. Why hasn’t mob justice righted the wrongs that the legal system has deliberately failed? Empty Metal’s greatest strength is in its direct, assertive call for violent uprising against these vile public figures. It’s a shame some of that direct, assertive messaging is lost in such a messy, loosely edited-together sci-fi narrative that just can’t muster up the enthusiastic momentum needed to match the energy of its politics.

Where Empty Metal loses some of its tonal intensity is in its early stabs at a crust-punk scene satirical humor. A noise trio named Alien talks a big radical game about changing the world through their political but unfocused music. Yet, they can’t even hold the attention of peers on their local scene, who wander off gazing at their smartphones during the band’s debut set. The mockery of a radical-politics punk band wasting their time on a go-nowhere art project instead of direct, tangible action is on-point. However, the band’s backstage dynamic lands awkwardly with jokey crust scene inside-humor, where the comedy feels like wasted time in the lead-up to the film’s much more vividly realized sci-fi thriller elements. This intense spark arrives via a trio of militias headed by Native American protestors, Rastafarian militants, and Timothy McVeigh style conspiracy theorists. By the time these militias recruit the members of Alien into direct, useful political action (read: the assassination of real-life evil public figures), the film finds a fascinating groove all of its own; but even that momentum is occasionally disrupted by fleeting moments of amateur sketch comedy.

I admire so much about Empty Metal as an inflammatory act of political filmmaking that I can’t help but be frustrated by the other ways in which it falls short. Its collage of staged drone surveillance of radical militias, computer simulations of real-life police shootings, and seemingly authentic cellphone footage of protests of events like the instillation of the Keystone Pipeline swirls into a deeply upsetting, eerie gestalt. Telepathic communication and past-tense discussion of the Apocalypse & complete societal collapse (even though the film is set in present-day) push this real-life discussion of political unrest into the realm of sci-fi & fantasy in a consistently fascinating way. The core political messaging of “We must have an enemy to exist” remains potent throughout as well, so that all the visual aesthetic experimentation feels like it’s in service of something purposeful & worthwhile. The thing about that same radical messaging in Born in Flames, though, is that it’s too relentlessly energetic to ever lose focus. In Nocturama, it’s so richly gorgeous that its moments of loose, eerie quiet still land with intense impact. Empty Metal fails to match either predecessor on those respective, disparate terms and instead risks losing its most distinct impulses on nonstarter comedic bits shared among its punk scene performers (and, later, their macho militia counterparts). I very much appreciate it political outrage, but it would have been better served if the film were either eerier or more relentlessly energetic, as opposed to comedically meandering.

-Brandon Ledet

Is the Unfriended Gimmick Growing Up or Going Stale?

It should be no surprise to anyone who regularly reads this site than I’m a massive fan of the 2015 found footage cyber-horror Unfriended. That Blumhouse production has become an exceptionally useful touchstone when describing my beloved Evil Internet horror genre, which exploits the average user’s vague understanding of the mechanics of the Internet for easy, eerie scares of the unknown. Shot from the POV of a laptop screen, where all images & sounds are generated by applications like Skype, Facebook, and Windows Media Player, operated by an unseen user, Unfriended is the epitome of the Evil Internet cyber-horror. Its full-on dedication to its commanding gimmick both creates an eerie recognition in its audience of what daily life online looks & feels like (give or take a vengeful computer-ghost) and preserves that cultural experience in a user interface time capsule in a way more “respectable” cinema wouldn’t dare. As was inevitable, this once-fresh, of-the-moment laptop interface gimmick has since been assimilated into more consciously diluted works. For years, I’ve been taken with Unfriended-style documentation & exploitation of user interface horror in trashier genre fare: the way Sickhouse recreates The Blair Witch Project in Snapchat posts; the way Nerve turns online games like Pokémon Go into voyeuristic horror shows; the way #horror finds unexpected terror in the sugary inanity of emojis & CandyCrush, etc. These shamelessly trashy tactics have shown no sign of slowing down in the lower dregs of genre cinema, but 2018 has seen a major change to the Evil Internet user interface horror that I was dreading: my preciously guarded subgenre is gradually going mainstream.

Curiously enough, you can detect this dilution of the Unfriended gimmick even in Unfriended 2: Dark Web, the film’s recent sequel. The usual tactic of sequels to low-budget, high concept horror curios is to avoid redundancy by pushing the original premise to a greater extreme (even if only in extremity of gore). Dark Web shies away from that challenge and instead makes its central conceit more palatable for the average moviegoer. Like in the first Unfriended film, a group of online teens in a shared Skype chat are terrorized by forces beyond their control, held hostage before their monitors at the threat of death. Instead of an all-powerful computer ghost threatening their lives, however, the kids of Dark Web are tormented by a vast network of powerful lurkers on the dark net – real life, evil reprobates who can seemingly hack into anything electronic to dispose of their victims. In any other context, that would be a preposterous, over-the-top premise for a horror film. As a follow-up to the computer ghost hauntings of the first Unfriended film, however, it feels like a conscious toning down of a supernatural conceit some audiences felt went too far. Dark Web is likely a far better gateway film to appreciating the gimmicky cyber-horror genre as a result, but its dilution of the Unfriended premise’s supernatural horror makes it less distinct or useful as an isolated example of that genre. The first Unfriended bests its sequel in its audacity to reach beyond the real-life limitations of the internet by melding the technological with the supernatural. In its own references to the dark net’s ties to ancient mythology and in its villains’ deployment of impossible identity-obscuring glitch software, Dark Web teases notes of supernatural forces at work in its online hostage crisis, but those aspects of the conflict mostly amount to go-nowhere intimidation tactics used by its in-the-flesh cyber-criminals. It’s almost as if the movie were too embarrassed to fully commit to those supernatural conceits, and it feels all the weaker for it.

Any nitpicking complaints I may have about Unfriended: Dark Web are likely a result of my too-high personal esteem for the genre territory it echoes without expansion or evolution. Ultimately, it’s a solid Evil Internet technohorror that might even be a boon for the genre in its potential to reel in new fans. I cannot say the same for the recent hit cyberthriller Searching, which outright apologizes for the trashiness of the user interface horror as a concept in its (successful) bid to reach a wide audience. In Searching, John Cho plays a single, widower father using context clues from his missing daughter’s laptop to investigate her disappearance. The film uses the same tactics & efforts pioneered in Unfriended to tell its Lifetime Original-ready story, but with an added layer of cowardice. Afraid to allow the audience to search for their own point of focus as its twisty story unfolds, the film directs the eye by zooming in to make active cursors & text boxes take up the entire screen, as if it were worried that the grandma in the back of the theater’s eyesight would prevent her from following along. This affords the film the patina of a TV commercial for an operating system, which isn’t surprising given director Aneesh Chaganty’s background as a tech bro Google employee. The film’s cowardice extends far beyond its advertising aesthetic & lack of commitment to its user interface gimmick too (which it also cheats on by incorporating news footage & Google Maps graphics). Searching is a thriller that’s afraid of danger. It teases threats of what parents fear their kids might be up to online (gambling, hiding sexual affairs, drug trade, secret identities) but then defangs each danger seconds after introducing them to reinforce that “The kids are alright” & the Internet is a tool for Good just as much as it is a tool for Evil (if not more so). This should be a genre that preys on the eeriness of life online, but here plays like a tech-friendly advertisement. It’s cleaning up a trashy genre I love for its illogical fearmongering by turning it into a safe, This Is Us-style melodrama. Basically, it’s Unfriended for the corniest of suburban parents, an embarrassment to the user-interface cyberthriller – and its being met with the greatest praise the genre has seen to date.

I’m not entirely against Unfriended user interface horrors evolving & maturing in less gimmicky, more respectable corners of indie cinema. It’s a mode of filmmaking I believe could be useful in any modern-set film’s toolkit, as evidenced by recent films like Eighth Grade & Ingrid Goes West that depict troubled protagonist’s emotional unraveling through their immersion in Instagram feeds. The Instagram scroll set to Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” in Eighth Grade is especially striking, layering imagery into a beautifully eerie cyber psychedelia that stands out as one of the year’s most distinct cinematic Moments. That Instagram immersion & the film’s mood-setting YouTube tutorial videos don’t comprise the entirety of Eighth Grade’s visual or emotional substance, but rather serve as just one tool in its arsenal, ready to be deployed when helpful. It’s in this way that trashier genre fare like Unfriended has become useful in its influence. It was once gauche to heavily incorporate user interface imagery in a proper movie, but the trash-horror soldiers have since laid the groundwork at the frontlines to normalize & develop that tactic. For Eighth Grade or Ingrid Goes West to incorporate that imagery into less genre-faithful narratives means the tactic is maturing in a useful, rewarding way that can only benefit the future of modernist cinema. What’s much less useful is when a film like Searching dilutes Unfriended’s exact tactics at feature length with wide-audience friendly sappiness stripping the original work of its riskier gambles to make its gimmick more palatable. Even Unfriended: Dark Web is guilty of this dilution, although to a lesser extent. By normalizing the Unfriended gimmick, they’re making it less distinct & notable, running the risk of allowing new, exciting cinematic territory to grow stale in familiarity, rather than to evolve the way it has in films like Eighth Grade.

My biggest fear is that all this griping about the future of highly specific genre I unabashedly love is likening me to one of those joyless Star Wars “fans” complaining about that series’ recent batch of sequels because of what they didn’t do instead of celebrating them for what they are. After all, there are still plenty of gimmicky, high-concept cyber-horrors being released all the time. Snapchat filters were recently given the horror treatment in this year’s Truth or Dare; Facebook timeless were made out to be spooky hell-rides in last year’s Friend Request; Assassination Nation just dug into the stomach-turning nausea of private data leaks just a few weeks ago; and smaller, cheaper titles like Selfie from Hell hit VOD so frequently I can’t even keep up with them. Still, I can’t help but have complicated feelings about the ways the Unfriended gimmick is being assimilated into more respectable, higher profile releases to wider critical success. It warms my technophobic heart to recognize its influence on works like Eighth Grade, only to have my heat broken when its dilution & normalization in cowardly works like Searching lead to critical praise that implies it was a broken gimmick that has since been “fixed” through a tonal sobriety. If Unfriended weren’t extremely preposterous & attention-grabbing its influence would have never leaked this far into the ether in the first place; all Searching is doing is lazily reaping the benefits. I shouldn’t complain too loudly, as that film’s critical & financial success can only mean good things for the further production of a genre I can’t help but love. I just worry that its more normalized, safer tones will risk running the gimmick stale, when it should be mutating into new, exciting possibilities in modern filmmaking aesthetics.

-Brandon Ledet

Pig Film (2018)

Although I have no problem conceding that the legendary auteur was immensely, distinctly talented as a visual artist, I personally struggle to enjoy Andrei Tarkovsky works like Solaris or Stalker as genre film entertainment. Josh Gibson’s microbudget sci-fi indie Pig Film (which saw its U.S. premiere at the 2018 New Orleans Film Festival) has cracked that code for me, re-configuring the basic elements of a Tarkovsky genre film into something I wholeheartedly enjoy. An hour-long, black & white sci-fi musical (!) that reinvigorates the Tarkovsky aesthetic by infusing it with the grimy textures of indie genre-film classics like Eraserhead & Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Pig Film indulges in the exact amount of art film pretension I can stomach before I start rolling my eyes. A lean, self-contained industrial nightmare that only disrupts its pensive oceans of silence for moments of ethereal, operatic beauty, Pig Film is Tarkovsky perfected – or, if you’re already a Tarkovsky convert – Tarkovsky streamlined, like a punk rock Stalker.

A mysterious, unnamed woman tends to an industrial pig farm as its only worker and, seemingly, the only person left alive. She sees to the entire life cycle of a farmed pig (from insemination to slaughter & rendering) all by her lonesome, a one-woman factory staff. Her only company is a stockpile of outdated industrial infomercials from the 1950s: real-life propaganda artifacts recorded on celluloid, projector slides, and vinyl records. Her only “spoken” dialogue is privately-sung operatic repetition of word-for-word snippets of text from those industrial artifacts, accompanied by an eerie synth soundtrack. She sings about the importance of pumping pigs full of antibiotics while vacantly executing the daily drudgery of preparing the animals for a likely non-existent post-Apocalyptic market, as if she’s learning the fundamental tenants of language & reality from these industrial ads. Her basic humanity comes into question as the film slips into an unmistakable sci-fi horror tone– until eventually settling for a quiet, alienating drama in a perfect closed-loop.

It’s difficult to report with any certainty whether Pig Film is saying anything concrete about the meat industry or the labor class or pollution or societal collapse or any number of issues that inevitably rise given its setting. These topics mostly inform the proceedings the way anxieties & memories of daily occurrences inform the narratives of our nightmares. The degradation of the picture quality (as it was shot entirely on expired, second-hand film stock) combines with the grimy art-instillation surreality of its pig farm setting to establish an overriding sense of isolation & rot that feels more emotional & subliminal than overtly political. Human or not, our sole on-screen character is the last shred of humanity left stalking the mess of a planet we’ll soon leave behind, emptily mimicking the records of our behavior she finds in our rubble and converting that industrial garbage into beautiful song. It’s a gorgeous, grimy nightmare – a sinister poem.

I’ve already praised November & Annihilation this year for mutating the Tarkovsky aesthetic I find so frustrating as entertainment media into something I can wholeheartedly embrace. Pig Film might not ever match the distribution reach of those two (already underseen) films, but I’d just as readily recommend it with the same enthusiasm. For a director I struggle to appreciate on his own terms, Tarkovsky’s influence is becoming something I look forward to seeing updated & reinterpreted in other works. Beyond that influence, I’d recommend Pig Film to just about anyone who’d be in the market for a dreamlike, largely silent, post-Apocalyptic sci-fi opera set on a pig farm and filmed through a nauseating black & white; but that’s a much more difficult elevator pitch than “Tarkovsky, but concise,” or “Stalker, but punk.”

-Brandon Ledet

Cane River (1982)

There are plenty of examples of long-out-of-print cinematic artifacts getting the 4k digital restoration treatment in recent years, but few restorations can match Cane River’s storied path to 2010s rehabilitation & reassessment. “Unseen for 36 years,” Cane River premiered to a New Orleans audience in 1982 before being considered lost in distribution limbo ever since, largely due to the untimely death of its wirer-director-producer Horace B. Jenkins. While in town filming The Toy, Richard Pryor happened to attend the film’s 80s premiere and offered to help the director land proper national distribution, but Jenkins died before anything came of it. A recovered print of the film surfaced in 2013 and (thanks to financial support from Chaz Ebert & a couple lengthy write-ups from The New York Times promoting its legacy) has been meticulously restored over the last few years as funding has allowed. Even the restored version of the film that marked its second official screening in 36 years was announced to be a work-in-progress, with several glaring sound-mixing issues needing to be addressed before the film is ready for physical media distribution. Still, Cane River’s recent screening at the 29th annual New Orleans Film Festival felt like a righted wrong, a momentous correction to a historic cinematic tragedy.

A large part of Cane River’s historical significance is that it was filmed with a black cast & crew and funded independently by black arts-patrons at a time when that feat would have been incredibly rare (as if it wouldn’t also be rare today). The film also carries hefty cultural cachet in the specificity of its setting: the real-life Cane River region near Natchitoches, Louisiana – one of the country’s first “free communities of color.” Where the film excels is in seeking accessible entertainment value to soften those more academic, cultural accomplishments. Effectively a Romeo & Juliet love story without all that pesky tragedy & bloodshed getting it the way of its humor & romantic melodrama, Cane River is just as much of an escapist fantasy as it is a political screed & a historical document. The small-stakes love story at its center is so playfully sweet that it’s easy to frequently forget that it’s all in service of illustrating a culture clash within a geographically specific black community – one with implications of class & skin-tone discrimination with much larger cultural significance. Cane River takes the Mary Poppins edict “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” to heart, burying the audience under so much sugar that it easy gets away with clearly stating its political messaging in the dialogue without detracting from the romance that sweetens it.

A local football hero returns from big-city college life with the intent to live out the rest of his days in his Cane River community as a farmer & a poet, leaving a professional athlete career he found to be distastefully exploitative behind. He immediately falls for a young woman the small community of busybodies believes to be below his class (and below the cultural prestige of his lighter skin-tone). This class politics divide, socially policed on the basis of centuries-old resentments, simmers loudly in the background but the two young lovers’ conflict is mostly defined by their respective desires to remain in or flee Cane River. One intends to live a quaint, poetic life of rural calm after being disenchanted by the world outside. The other can’t wait to leave the community’s various confines and make something of herself on her own terms as a New Orleans college student, refusing to settle for a life as a local farmer-poet’s housewife. The Romeo & Juliet influence on this dynamic dictates that these conflicts build to a tragic end, but Cane River smartly allows its stakes to remain intimate & contained. The class, feminist, and racial politics that arise in its community-defying romance are just as delicately handled as the consequences of the controversy the two lovers stir. Their story is frustrating & politically complex, but also endearingly sweet and a really smart anchor for the film’s more emotionally detached, academic concerns.

Nothing about Cane River is subtle – neither in its romance nor in its politics. The history of Cane River’s significance as an early free community of color is so clearly stated in the dialogue that the characters recommend specific reading material to the audience on the topic: a book titled The Forgotten People. Its romantic melodrama is relentlessly scored by a soundtrack of original songs by local soul singer Phillip Manuel, whose singing is so pervasive & repetitive that his in-the-flesh appearance behind a microphone at a mid-film house party feels like a surprise celebrity cameo. Our lead is established as a poet by riding around horseback and tenderly writing into his trusty notebook while making eyes at his steed, like a precursor to Mariah Carey’s “Butterfly” video. When a character over-indulges in drinks after work, an accompanying novelty song jokes “Chug-a-lug, have a slug, drink your blues away” before the implications of that alcoholism spoils the mood.

Cane River is, at heart, regional cinema – like a John Waters film, a Matt Farley joint, or a romantic melodrama parallel to The Pit. As a result, the mood is generally light, the talent of the cast varies wildly, and a large part of its inherent fascination is in documenting a very specific community that isn’t often represented onscreen (along with more frequently-seen French Quarter tourism by natural extension). The further we get away from its initial release the more useful & interesting that documentation inevitably becomes to people outside that community. The brilliance of Horace B. Jenkins’s work on the film is that he reinforced it with enough wide-appeal entertainment value & substantive political messaging that its fascination as a regional cinema curio and an act of ethnographic documentation aren’t the limit of its cultural cachet. Like other underseen black cinema artifacts recently given new life in restoration – Daughters of the Dust, Born in Flames, The Watermelon WomanCane River is too politically significant & creatively appealing to have been allowed to slip into obscurity for so many decades. Its politics may be a little less radical and more sugar-coated than those other examples, but the level of obscurity it’s been allowed to slip into without official distribution is unmatched in that subset.

Every year I see amazing, potent titles at New Orleans Film Fest that never land proper theatrical distribution, so I doubt Cane River is the only “lost” film of its kind that deserves the restoration treatment; but I’m joyed to see that the one that got through is so endearingly romantic & thoughtfully political.

-Brandon Ledet