Episode #71 of The Swampflix Podcast: #NOFF2018

Welcome to Episode #71 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our seventy-first episode, Brandon and CC review the overwhelming list of oddball films they caught at this year’s New Orleans Film Fest: shorts, documentaries, and narrative features. Enjoy!

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– CC Chapman & Brandon Ledet

#NOFF2018 Ranked & Reviewed

Here we are almost a full month since the 29th annual New Orleans Film Festival has concluded and I’m finally gathering all of titles I caught at the fest in one spot. CC & I will be recording a more fleshed-out recap of our festival experience on a near-future episode of the podcast (Episode 71, due early December) – in case you’re interested in hearing about the goings-on at the handful of downtown theaters where the festival was held, the various short films that preceded some of those screenings, and the reasons why we suspect Vox Lux is going to be the mother! of 2018. This list is a more bare-bones kind of recap: a ranking from the best to the . . . least best of the features we managed to catch at this year’s festival. Each title includes a link to a corresponding review. Enjoy!

1. Vox LuxLike mother!, Vox Lux is a divisive, gleefully unsubtle work that gets outright Biblical in its internal, philosophical conflicts. It dares you to hate it, then asks for forgiveness. It spits in your face, then blows you a kiss.”

2. Pig Film “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.”

3. Chained for Life “At times eerie, howlingly funny, cruel, sweet, and disorienting, Chained for Life mines a lot of rich cinematic material out if its initial conceit of discussing Hollywood’s historic tradition of exploiting disabled & disfigured performers for gross-out scares & sideshow exploitation. Freaks isn’t the movie’s target so much as its jumping point, so that Browning’s self-contradictory act of empathetic exploitation is demonstrative of how disabled & disfigured people are represented onscreen at large.”

4. The Gospel of Eureka “The documentary finds its most satisfying groove in cutting back & forth between performances of the Gospel drag show & the Passion Play as they separately cycle through their respective routines. Performers on both sides apply their own make-up, lip-sync to pre-recorded soundtracks, and exaggerate their religious narratives to the point of over-the-top caricature – practically in unison thanks to editing room cross-cutting. More so than a shared passion for Biblical scholarship, they share a weakness for over-the-top pageantry; the only difference is that the drag end of the divide is self-aware of that commitment to camp & caricature, whereas the other end believes they’re merely being devout.”

5. United Skates “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.”

6. Cane River (1982) – “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.”

7. Jules of Light and Dark“Dual coming of age stories— one for a smart kid in their early 20s and one for an overgrown man-child in their early 50s— are allowed to remain largely separate throughout Jules of Light and Dark, but they converge early when the fallout from ‘the last rave of the year’ leaves several characters in need of intensive post-trauma physical therapy. Estranged from their families because of their sexuality, our two disparate protagonists find unlikely kinship & emotional support in each other; their parallel tales of recovery are both quietly transformative, although never grand nor overachieving.”

8. Empty MetalEmpty Metal‘s greatest strength is in its direct, assertive call for violent uprising against vile real-life 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.”

9. Nailed It “As fascinating, succinct, and stylish as Nailed It can be, 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.”

10. This One’s for the Ladies . . . “As compelling (and visually interesting) as its 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. 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.”

-Brandon Ledet

Chained for Life (2018)

For a long time, I considered myself a huge fan of Tod Browning’s 1930s cult-horror curio Freaks, but a recent revisit complicated my feelings on its ethics as entertainment media in a way I never really stopped to consider as a jaded youngster. A circus-performer-turned-director in the pre-Code Hollywood Era, Browning asks his audience to think twice about treating the disabled & disfigured sideshow performers in his cast as inhuman monstrosities, but then parades them through horror genre conventions that require them to be exactly that. Most of Freaks functions like an empathetic hangout comedy where the titular “circus freaks” are afforded screentime outside the exploitative context that usually presents them as monsters. However, Browning’s choice of horror genre convention to tell that story eventually sinks them back down to that exploitative, dehumanizing lens. That exact self-contradiction of phony empathy for disabled & disfigured performers justifying Hollywood’s continued exploitation of those very same people for cheap entertainment is largely the subject of the new melancholy meta-comedy Chained for Life (which borrows its title from a drama starring Freaks vets The Hilton Sisters). An acerbic, behind-the-scenes satire on the set of a European auteur’s first English-language film (after building mystique around himself as a former circus performer runaway), Chained for Life starts by darkly poking fun at Freaks’s legacy in particular, but then expands its critiques to encompass all of Hollywood filmmaking, horror and beyond, from the Studio System past to present day.

Although set in modern day and guided by a post-modern narrative structure, Chained for Life still carries the tone of Old Hollywood pastiche. The supposedly artsy-fartsy indie film with “European sensibilities” its fictional crew is filming feels like an especially sleazy, colorized artifact from Universal’s Famous Monsters cycle. Among a cast of genuinely disabled & disfigured performers with abnormalities like gigantism, conjoined twinning, and disfiguring tumors, a “slumming-it” famous actress (Teeth’s Jess Weixler) gets attention & adoration from the press for “bravely” playing a blind woman. Chained for Life asks, somewhat cheekily, what the difference is between an able-bodied actor playing disabled and an actor performing in blackface, offering real-life award-winning examples like Peter Sellers, Orson Welles, and Daniel Day Lewis as food for thought. The actress’s initial awkwardness around her disfigured cast members is complicated by her increasingly intimate relationship with her co-star (Under the Skin’s Adam Pearson) whose neurofibromatosis exaggerates his facial features with large, appearance-altering tumors. A hint of schmaltzy Old Hollywood romance bleeds over from the movie the co-leads are filming to their “real” backstage dynamic, but Chained for Life is less interested in developing that dynamic than it is in exploring the social divisions between its abled & disabled crew and indulging in the loopy, post-modern structure of its meta-Hollywood satire. As the divisions between the crew break down, so do the divisions between the movie and the movie-within-the-movie, so that any linear romance melodrama or personal-growth narratives are lost to more academic, intellectually detached pursuits.

For a small-budget indie drama shot on super-16mm filmstock, Chained for Life is ambitiously sprawling in its narrative. Its non-linear, loopily meta plot structure allows it to feature a considerably large cast of well-defined characters (although one largely anchored by Pearson & Weixler). Outside its Beware of a Holy Whore film industry satire, the movie also stages a background police investigation for a string of local violent attacks by a disfigured man, subverting the audience’s cravings for this tradition of exploitation by never showing his face as the mystery unfolds. At times eerie, howlingly funny, cruel, sweet, and disorienting, Chained for Life mines a lot of rich cinematic material out if its initial conceit of discussing Hollywood’s historic tradition of exploiting disabled & disfigured performers for gross-out scares & sideshow exploitation. Freaks isn’t the movie’s target so much as its jumping point, so that Browning’s self-contradictory act of empathetic exploitation is demonstrative of how disfigured people are represented onscreen at large. This is an ambitious work with broad political & cinematic ideas that far outweigh its scale & budget, which is the exact balance you’d generally want from indie releases on the film festival circuit (perhaps explaining its Jury Prize for Best Narrative Feature at this year’s New Orleans Film Festival). That ambition is only amplified by its willingness to frankly discuss a socially award, taboo subject while admitting its own medium’s limitations in addressing it.

-Brandon Ledet

Bound by Flesh (2012)

The major shortcoming of Tod Browning’s Freaks is that its commitment to the horror genre ultimately requires it to betray its empathy for its “circus freak” performers. The majority of Freaks plays like a hangout comedy that just happens to be set in a circus full of amputees, little people, microcephalics, etc., an intentional plea to the audience to find the common humanity in the “ABNORMAL” & “UNWANTED” societal castoffs that work the film’s traveling sideshow. All of this work is undone at the climax when the titular “freaks” wordlessly creep up on & mutilate the physically abled erotic dancer who wrongs them, essentially playing the part of a Universal Monsters-style creature. Largely missing from the violence of this conclusion are the famed conjoined twins The Hilton Sisters. Daisy and Violet Hilton largely manage to escape the more nastily exploitative aspects of Freaks, only enjoying the benefits of its more empathetic opening half, but they weren’t so lucky in real life. From birth, the sisters were exploited for entertainment on public display, often suffering the worst side of show business without ever fully reaping its benefits. The documentary Bound by Flesh attempts to give The Hilton Sisters their full due with posthumous praise for their successes in sideshows, vaudeville, and Freaks, but unfortunately also falls short in fully honoring the value of their entertainment industry legacy in the way they deserved.

Leslie Zemeckis, longtime romantic & creative partner with “Mr. CGI” himself, Robert Zemeckis, has been quietly toiling away as a documentarian in recent years. She’s been directing a series lowkey profiles on long-forgotten female entertainers like burlesque dancers, tiger trainers, and of course, in Bound by Flesh, The Hilton Sisters. Even where her still-developing sense of craft as a filmmaker fails the legacy of her subjects, Zemeckis’s intent in glorifying the conjoined twin vaudeville singers is an unquestionably admirable effort. Essentially sold at birth to a pub owner, the twins were raised from day one to serve as entertaining curiosities for strangers & drunks. As babies, they were displayed for barroom patrons to prod in wonder at the flesh that connected them; their earliest memories were of being curiously touched by strangers for amusement. Their career was built from there, without their consent, by shuffling them from traveling road shows to amusement parks to wax museums as life-long entertainers. By the time they appeared in musical vaudeville acts as young adults, they had no real talent or skill besides being able to sing, dance, and play the piano & saxophone. They had plenty of peak-years struggles with crooked managers, sham marriages and constant emotional abuse, but the toughest times in their life didn’t start until they drifted away from the spotlight entirely and were left unprepared to function as autonomous adults in the real world, much less pull themselves out of financial ruin. Zemeckis does an okay enough job balancing enthusiasm for their onstage accomplishments with honesty about the abusive exploitation that fueled them, but the story being told is consistently more fascinating than its method of delivery. Bound by Flesh is a mediocre film about an incredibly fascinating subject.

One thing Bound by Flesh benefits greatly from is how well the Hiltons’ lives were documented in the public eye. Combining photographs with reel footage of their two motion picture appearances, Freaks & the (very) loosely autobiographical Chained for Life, finds plenty of visual stimulation to accompany its talking head accounts of the history of their lives in carnivals & vaudeville. One of the better side effects of those interviews is in getting a general glimpse of what 1920s carnival sideshows & vaudeville-era exploitation entertainment was like, even including footage of ancient amusement park attractions & attendees. I also appreciated the way its general look is informed by vintage promotional material for sideshow attractions. Much less effective is the employment of former Zemeckis collaborators Lea Thompson & Nancy Allen to vocally dramatize accounts from The Hilton Sisters’ point of view, as filtered through an old-timey gramaphone effect. The movie also disappoints in its lack of interest in the behind the camera war stories from the twins’ two feature film appearances, what they’re currently best know for, and in its gradual decline in enthusiasm when discussing their most tragic, post-fame years (for obvious reasons), despite stretching out coverage of that period of their lives as much as better-documented eras. If you can excuse the lackluster execution in some of the technical details, however, Bound by Flesh is a welcome exalting of a pair of performers who spent their entire lives on the wrong end of exploitation entertainment. There might be a better movie to be made about their lives as empathy-worthy tragedy, like the way David Lynch lovingly profiled John Merrick in The Elephant Man. Either way, Zemeckis’s documentary is worthy enough for the way it draws attention to the often-dehumanized Hilton Sisters and the ugly industry that displayed them as oddities for profit and then dumped them into obscurity with no resources but the limited use of their vaudevillian talents.

-Brandon Ledet