Lagniappe Podcast: Salesman (1969)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and Alli discuss the Maysles Brothers’ door-to-door Bible salesmen documentary Salesman (1969)

00:00 Welcome

05:09 Triangle of Sadness (2022)
12:00 Heavenly Creatures (1994)
14:00 Skinamarink (2023)
20:22 Glass Onion (2022)
22:32 Luminous Procuress (1971)

29:42 Salesman (1969)

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

-The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Medusa (2022)

Like a lot of film nerds, my October ritual is to cram in as many new-to-me horror movies as I can before Halloween passes by. Outside of attending film festivals, Spooktober is my favorite time of year to share titles & takes with my online movie buds, but it can be an exhausting, self-defeating effort if you don’t find enough balance in your movie diet.  You cannot watch 31 new-to-you slashers or 31 new-to-you zombie comedies without getting sick of the genre.  So, that search for balance often sends me to the outer limits of what can comfortably be categorized as horror, which is where you find genre-defiant headscratchers like Medusa.  A loose, dreamworld descent into hedonism & blasphemy, Medusa indulges in some Saved!style Evangelical satire, purgatorial coma ward occultism, hints of Exorcist body possession, and violent street attacks from history’s least-cool girl gang.  It only qualifies as horror because that’s the only genre that can accommodate its loopy nightmare logic.  Thankfully, that edge-of-horror grey area is where the greatest movies ever made tend to dwell.

The thing holding Medusa back from achieving that greatness isn’t its resistance to categorization; it’s the high bar set by its fellow genre-defiant South American contemporaries like Good Manners, Ema, Bacurau, and Electric Swan.  It’s visually striking throughout, relying on some tried-and-true neon lighting & synthpop aesthetic cues to trigger a pithy “Pure Cinema” Letterboxd review or two.  There’s just not much that actually happens between its opening & closing bookends, when we meet a misogynistic Christian girl gang in a near-future Brazil and when they’re collectively possessed by the feminist spirit of a wanton woman who’s been wronged by their kind.  Like the demonized, sexually liberated woman they fear so much, the movie effectively slips into a coma between those two points, lucidly dreaming about Evangelical vocal choirs, spon-con influencer videos, atheist dance parties, and sex in the jungle.  It gradually emerges from that comatose delirium as feminism & hedonism spread through the woman-beating girl gang like an infection, culminating with the girls finally snapping out of it in high-pitched screams to the camera.  I was anxious for them to wake up & reorganize the entire runtime, but I guess if I wanted to watch a sharper, more propulsive version of this story I could always just revisit Ema.

Comparisons to other recent South American genre-benders are easy to make here, since that industry has continued to share a post-Buñuel dream-logic approach to narrative structure, each film lightly surreal in its loose progress of events.  The slow-motion music video loopiness of Medusa likely shares more in common with Jennifer Reeder’s Knives & Skin than any of its localized contemporaries, though, and it often feels like a bigger-scale, slightly bigger-budget version of that American indie.  It just also not any more coherent or streamlined.  The runtime crosses the 2-hour barrier for no particular reason other than its dripping-IV momentum never allows for its badass images to flow to the screen with any urgency.  Still, the Christian girl gang’s conversion to feminist liberators is a satisfying emersion from that pious, medicated dreamworld. It may not be the most finely tuned example of its kind, but it’s at least one of the few body-possession horrors you’re likely to find that isn’t just another riff on one of the usual suspects: Body Snatchers, The Exorcist, The Thing, etc. If you watch enough horror movies, that kind of novelty is invaluable, especially this time of year.

-Brandon Ledet

Lagniappe Podcast: The Great Satan (2018)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, BoomerBrandon, and Alli discuss The Great Satan (2018), Everything is Terrible!’s retelling of the story of the fallen angel Lucifer, conveyed in a hyperactive mixtape of obscure VHS clips. 

00:00 Welcome

01:40 The Black Cat (1934)
02:52 The Lure (2017)
05:10 StageFright: Aquarius (1987)
08:30 Landscape Suicide (1987)
10:25 Into the Inferno (2016)
14:45 The End of Evangelion (1997)
22:35 Dune (2021)
32:00 Elvira: Mistress of the Dark (1988)
33:13 Nightmares on Elm Street
37:40 Jennifer’s Body (2009)
39:18 Return of the Living Dead (1985)
44:35 The French Dispatch (2021)

47:25 The Great Satan (2018)

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Saint Maud (2021)

Around this time in 2020, I was eagerly anticipating watching the A24 Horror creeper Saint Maud in a dark, loud movie theater. Instead, it was released an entire year later, free with a week-trial subscription to some obscure, dire streaming platform called Epix (first I’ve ever heard of it). This never-ending pandemic has been an absolute motherfucker. I suspect the full immersive, communal movie theater experience would’ve greatly amplified the small moments & eerie tension that make Saint Maud great. I can only confirm that even at home, watching from my couch, underscored by the hum of traffic outside, the movie is still a recognizably substantial work. I still naively hope to see it projected in a proper movie theater someday.

Saint Maud‘s internal struggle between hedonism & religious zealotry speaks both to my unquenchable thirst for the grotesque as a horror nerd and my unending guilt-horniness-guilt cycle as a lapsed Catholic. The Catholicism angle is somewhat abstracted, though, as the title character (played by Morfydd Clark) subscribes to a unique religious doctrine of her own manic making one adorned by spirals, beetles, and holy acetone. Maud is an at-home caretaker to a retired, famous dancer (Jennifer Ehle) who is dying of lymphoma. Her internal voiceover track is a direct conversation with God, as she makes it her personal mission to save the lesbian, drunkard artist’s soul before she perishes. Bored, the dancer plays along with this religious conversion to pass the time, cheekily referring to Maud as a living saint and her “Saviour”. She doesn’t realize she’s playing with fire, but the audience is fully aware that the charade can only end disastrously once Maud catches on that she’s being mocked.

If Saint Maud were purely an intergenerational struggle between a godless artist & her religious-nut nurse, it might have been an all-timer. In its best moments, it works like a psychobiddy thriller in reverse, with a deranged younger woman threatening to destroy the vulnerable employer in her care, and it could have generated a lot more throat-hold tension if it dwelled for longer on that relationship. Instead, the film is more of a fucked-up character study of a very specific, very broken mind. The erotic intimacy of the two women’s physical therapy sessions is just a fraction of the complex sexual mania swimming around in Maud’s head, which she often mistakes for religious ecstasy & divine bodily possession. When she kneels on rice or steps on nails as repentance for her “fallen” lapses into hedonism, it reads almost as a solitary act of BDSM as much as it is religious ritual. Her brain is on fire, and the longer it’s allowed to burn the further the movie escalates into spectacular, supernatural horror.

I might’ve liked Saint Maud even more if it weren’t so immersed in its main character’s psyche, since there was so much delicious tension brewing with her potential, captive victim. I also might’ve liked it more if I were further immersed in my own head while watching it, better isolated from the distractions of the world outside. As is, it’s still a solidly effective creep-out, a portrait of a sinister modern saint taking it upon herself to execute God’s will on Earth (often as a means of self-punishment for Impure desires). Despite the circumstances, it was well worth the wait.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Marjoe (1972)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made Britnee, Hanna, and Brandon watch Marjoe (1972).

Boomer: Well, well, well. Here we are. The world is in utter chaos, and we are a rudderless nation in the middle of dealing with a global pandemic by reopening too early. Meanwhile, a strong and moral resistance to centuries of racial inequality and police violence is being met with more militarized police violence, garnering so much attention that even Uncle Jed is questioning his long-held Lost Cause beliefs and moms and dads across the country are being radicalized against fascism in a way unseen since WWII, calling for the abolition of “policing” as we know it. But why are we leaderless? Could it have anything to do with the fact that the greatest weakness of church-going Americans is that they can be manipulated by a man who espouses their faith but is in fact nothing but a con-man and a snake oil salesman?

Marjoe is a 1972 documentary produced and directed by Howard Smith and Sarah Kernochan about the life and “ministry” of Marjoe Gortner. Marjoe is (as we are told more than once) the fourth in a line of evangelical pastors, and his parents Marge and Vernon Gortner, were real pieces of work. After spending his entire childhood from age 4 to 14 as a gimmicky “child” preacher, complete with the cadences of the Evangelical movement then and now (“And the wrath-uh of God-uh” etc.), the now-adult Marjoe is on one last tour through the revival-style meetings happening throughout 1971 America, tailed by a documentary film crew. Along the way, he reveals the way that the movers and shakers of the contemporary revival scene scam, guilt, and browbeat their congregants and simple believers in order to rake in the all-mighty dollar.

Marjoe’s life is not all that different from that of any other child celebrity: haunted by child abuse, being used as a source of immense wealth from which he does not directly benefit as an adult, the pressures of maintaining a public persona that supports a certain narrative. He cites examples of being mock-drowned by his mother (so as not to leave marks and bruises on him that might be noticed due to his presence in the public eye) among other examples, which is horrifying. Creating the narrative that God reached down from Heaven to give him a divine mission to convert the unwashed masses (“the teenagers, the narcotics, the dopeheads”), his parents put him in front of an audience before an age most would be in kindergarten. As a result, there was never a time in his life where Marjoe Gortner ever truly believed the message that he was preaching, as he was exposed to the truths of the revivalist circuit as a pit of liars and confidence artists from before he could read.

Horrifying as his childhood is, the doc doesn’t treat Marjoe as a brave exposer of the truth. There’s definitely a human being in there, and he’s humanized to an extent, but when it comes to remorse, he feels more guilty that his rhetoric has to be so laden with fire and brimstone, wishing he could use more love-oriented language than the punishment-avoidance conversion technique of the Southern Evangelical movement. In a lounging position on a waterbed from which he pontificates about the various gimmicks of different religious leaders within the movement, he never seems anything other than at ease with himself, no doubt a result of having to get over the innate fear of public speaking before losing any baby teeth. There’s no remorse when he pours bills out of a brown paper bag and recalls how much bigger the “take” was in his youth. He’s just pulling the lid off of a large scale sleight of hand grift because his particular gimmick is on its last legs. Whether he’s coaching his film crew about how to interact with the True Believers that they will encounter along the way, imitating the way that a particular matriarchal church leader hisses into the microphone in an early form of ASMR, or casually agreeing to go with one of the hosting church families to their Brazilian “farm” (possibly referring to a practice that continues to this day), he’s never not performing, either in his life as Brother Marjoe or Marjoe the narc. There’s a disconnect, always.

Marjoe won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1972, but shockingly for a film that won such an award, it was lost for decades. During its original release, the film was never released further south than Des Moines, Iowa, which is ironically where the church behind the Thief in the Night Rapture series was located, and where those films were shot (Thief likewise came out in 1972). Other than a rare (and shoddy) VHS release, the film was largely forgotten until the original negatives were rediscovered in 2002 and released as a DVD in 2005. Although it gets a little thin in parts (sometimes containing long shots of entire church musical numbers), there are some truly great images in this film that imbue it with a fair amount of comedic irony. There’s never any menace, and Marjoe’s outing of not only himself but his cohorts as morally bankrupt scammers convincing little old ladies to send them their “cookie jar money” is never treated as a threat, just an inevitability. And yet, nearly half a century later, this malicious predation on the financial security of middle and lower class people under the banner of their faith is not only still happening, it’s happened at such a scale that it managed to reach the White House. All of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.

Brandon, one of the things I noticed on this watch was a similarity between the shooting style of some of the party scenes and the nonsexual parts of the parties in Funeral Parade of Roses. There’s definitely an element of Gonzo documentarianism on the part of the film crew (love the shot of an usher pocketing an offering) as they immerse themselves in this society that runs parallel to but separate from the mainstream. Where do you stand on this kind of punk aesthetic, either in documentaries in general or Marjoe specifically?

Brandon: I don’t know if “punk” is the first cultural touchstone that came to mind here, if only because the movie was so entrenched in the youth counterculture of its own time: hippies. Even Gortner’s desire to shift his sermons away from the language of Fear towards the language of Love feels very much tied to hippie-dippy sentiments, but that’s not to say that the political thrust of the film is toothless or purposeless. One of the most electrifying sequences is the hotel room debriefing early in the film when Gortner preps the documentary crew as if they were going into war behind enemy lines. As he explains they can’t smoke, have sex, or literally let their hair down while attending the tent revivals, you get a clear sense of just how different the two worlds that Gortner alternates between truly are, drawing clear cultural battle lines between The Hippies and The Evangelists as two opposing factions. That rundown also gives the film a genuine thrilling purpose as political insurgency, a reminder that loosey-goosey “Peace & Love” hippie ideologies actually had strong roots in direct, genuine political action through student-movement protests. They were more or less punks with a different wardrobe & soundtrack (and apparently smoked the same abundance of cigarettes), so it makes sense their cinema would share similar D.I.Y. sensibilities.

It’s difficult to be mindful of just how politically incendiary this movie would have been when it was released a half-century ago. Its peek behind the scenes of Southern-fried religious exploitation has become such familiar territory in the decades since that it now has a sitcom version in HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones. As Boomer mentioned, though, its anti-evangelism subject was considered so taboo at the time that it wasn’t theatrically distributed anywhere in the American South. Even just recording & broadcasting in plain, no-frills terms the financial side of evangelist preaching was met as an anti-social political act that had to be extinguished. Although Marjoe does not touch on our current, global moment of protest in opposition to systemic racist injustice (outside the aforementioned Christian voter base that keeps Trump in office, despite him being the least Christian man alive), that kind of fearless infiltration & subversion of a powerful, corrupt institution very much resonates as an admirable document of political action. That only becomes more apparent as you get a sense of how limited the means & resources of the hippies behind the picture would have been compared to the big-money evangelists they intended to expose, which the film contrasts in Marjoe’s backroom money-counting in church vs. the low-key hippie party scenes he floats through when he’s off-duty.

In terms of style, the gonzo approach reminded me most of the Maysles Brothers documentaries of the era, often referred to as “Direct Cinema.” Given that this was made just a couple years after the Maysles’ landmark door-to-door Bible shilling doc Salesman, I have to imagine Marjoe pulled some influence from their intimate, handheld cinema verité approach to documentary filmmaking. That’s to be expected. What really surprised me as the film went on, however, was how much it also reminded me of a concert film. Gortner was trained (read: tormented) from a young age to be a live entertainer, and once the film settles into its groove it really becomes fascinated with taking in his performances in full, as if this were a document of a charismatic rock n’ roll singer’s farewell tour. Allowing his lengthy, somewhat repetitive sermons play out in full was a risk, as the film might have felt like actually being in church if the audience were allowed to become bored (which is how I remember what it was like being in church, anyway). Gortner is such a peculiarly entertaining presence (especially once you realize he doesn’t believe a word he’s preaching) that the film more or less gets away with that gamble, though. Marjoe ultimately feels like a Maylses-style concert doc with gleefully subversive politics, which is to say that it’s very much of its time in countercultural context & aesthetics.

Since both this movie’s form (1970s direct-cinema documentary filmmaking) and its broader subject (financial exploitation in modern Christian evangelism) have become somewhat familiar to audiences over the decades—however powerful—it seems to me that the most unique factor at play here is Marjoe Gortner himself. It’s easy to see why someone would want to build an entire feature film around him; he’s damn peculiar, truly one-of-a-kind. Hanna, what do you see as being Marjoe’s most distinguishing, most fascinating characteristics? What’s most captivating to you about him, either as a performer or as a latent political subversive?

Hanna: I think the thing I found most captivating about Marjoe is that, despite the fact that he’s a dope-smoking radical who disavows organized religion, he commands attention in the way I imagine a prophet would, whether he’s writhing onstage or calmly discussing the corruption of the holy circuit with the shaggy-maned camera crew. Marjoe’s tender vulnerability in quiet moments is touching; he is completely honest about his relationship with his parents, his movement away from religion, his inclinations towards showmanship, and his own culpability in the exploitation of God-fearing old biddies. In his role as a preacher, he is totally enrapturing and convincing, even when the subject of salvation is a (very confused) black lab. I found myself believing in him in every frame, even when he was praising a God that I knew he didn’t believe in, which was an uncomfortable feeling as a very secular, politically left human. There is some kind of ecstatic divinity in showmanship which, like all things, can be used to gain power over people, and Marjoe was built to harness that from the beginning.

Beyond his natural charisma, Marjoe’s an absolutely effective subject because he’s a true infiltrator into the corruption of the Pentecostal circuit, having lived and breathed the gospel of Godly performance as a child. I’ve seen documentaries that are similar to Marjoe in the past, where an investigative reporter infiltrates a community either as a show of empathetic curiosity or as a straight-up exposé. In the live taping of Darren Brown’s Miracle, for instance, Brown simulates the illusory healing of a gospel revival for his crowd to prove, with a smirk, that it’s all bullshit. This approach is effective, and independent critique of any system is obviously important, but it means something totally different for an insider to step out and expose the rot of a tightly-knit and corrupt community, especially when that insider benefits from the corruption. When Marjoe went into detail about the practices that preachers pushed to get a buck, I felt like I was in a war behind enemy lines.

All of this is complicated, obviously, by the fact of Marjoe’s participation as a preacher all these years, knowing that his paid performances and claims of Godliness are immoral. He even admits to dipping back into preaching when he’s running low on cash, just because he doesn’t really know what else to do. We catch him at just the right time in his life, when his hypocrisy is at a boiling point; he enjoys the showmanship and the spectacle of the Pentecostal church, but can’t reconcile the moral implications of his capitalist evangelism. He says he wants to shed a light on the exploitation of parishioners in these churches through the documentary; Britnee, do you think he succeeds in redeeming himself? What do you think about the tension between his politics and his preaching?

Britnee: My thoughts on Marjoe as an individual constantly changed throughout the documentary. At first, I thought he was going to be this badass who would expose the cruel world that exists behind the scenes of evangelicalism, but that’s not really how it went down. He never showed true remorse for the scamming that he was partaking in during the documentary. In a way, he seemed to be proud of how smart he was for getting away with it. There were moments where I started to think that his followers were foolish, and if they were willing to throw their money at him so willingly, then that’s on them. But then I spent some time reading the crowd. The documentary does focus intently on the crowds at all of Marjoe’s events, and it’s clearly purposeful. The crowds are made up of the elderly, the disabled, and people who show how hard life has ridden them through the expressions on their faces. These are people who are desperate for hope, and Marjoe has no shame in lying to them to take what little money they have to offer. If he was truly trying to expose the crimes of the evangelical world, he would have revealed the truth to his followers at some point during the filming of the documentary. He never really redeems himself in the way that I expected him to.

Being the star of this documentary gave him the same high as being the star of his revivals, and I found this so fascinating to watch. Marjoe loves attention so much that he doesn’t really care what he needs to do to get it. He didn’t agree to do this documentary because he wanted to do something good; he did it because it was a documentary about himself. I’m currently watching The Comeback, and Marjoe definitely has his share of Valerie Cherish moments. This isn’t exactly his fault, since he’s been groomed to be a scamming showman since the age of four. Our early childhood years are so important to the way that we develop mentally, and he was robbed of any chance of being an empathetic human being by his parents. I don’t think that Marjoe is a good, genuine person, but I don’t hold that against him because he never had a chance to be one.

Lagniappe

Hanna: I found Marjoe’s rockstar aspirations to be pretty fascinating, because he does a good job of exuding that raw physical sensuality while yelping his praises to God. Don’t tell me you don’t love those hips, congregation! In another universe, Prince might have been an A+ preacher.

Brandon: I was delighted to discover that Marjoe was able to convert his hammy charisma into a modest career as a B-movie actor in the 1970s, including a starring role in the Italian Star Wars knockoff Starcrash. It’s fun to imagine an alternate reality where his acting career really took off and you could buy official Marjoe® wigs at every Halloween costume store.

Boomer: My favorite (and also most infuriating) visual is from the church near the end, in which the lady preacher is talking about how hard up her church is and is really, really milking the congregation for their tithe . . . only for the camera to zoom in on her jewel-encrusted brooch

Britnee: Other than the occasional Universalist service, I don’t really attend church. I also grew up Catholic, where the services were extremely quiet. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to attend an evangelical service, but I’m too scared to do it. Mega churches and evangelical preaching have always made me uncomfortable. I get a horrible knot in my stomach just by seeing a picture of Joel Olsteen or passing by a megachurch. Watching Marjoe sparked the curiosity in me again to know what that experience is like in person. Does the charisma of these preachers come across stronger in person than they do in the YouTube videos I’ve watched? I’ve fallen down the Kenneth Copeland YouTube rabbit hole since his wild COVID-19 video was posted, and I am just blown away by the idea of anyone giving a penny to someone like this. I guess not much has changed since Marjoe.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
August: Britnee presents Three Women (1977)
September: Hanna presents Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)
October: Brandon presents Monster Brawl (2011)

-The Swampflix Crew

The Garden (1990)

Derek Jarman’s process for creating the look of his 1990 experimental feature The Garden was to put the film through an exhausting gauntlet of format transfers. Shot on super-8, then recorded to video, before finally being printed on 35mm film, the physical shape of The Garden had been put through the ringer to achieve its deliberately scuzzy, highly color-saturated patina. The general effect of the film on the audience is much the same. Non-narrative, mostly dialogue-free, and constantly shifting in both mood & technique, the film feels more like a process meant to break its audience down than it does a piece of creative entertainment. It opens as a vibrant, playful experiment in overlapping visions of homoromantic tableaus & Biblical Christian iconography, but its titular Edenic tone is gradually soured into a somber, morbidly violent affair that loses all of its initial energy to disorganized doom & gloom. It’s exhausting, purposefully so, and it’s easy to leave the film feeling just as worn out as its imagery was by the time it reached its final form.

My assumption is that Jarman intended The Garden’s soul-deep exhaustion to be a kind of diary of his own emotional state in the early 90s. Suffering from a series of AIDS-related health crises at the time of production (a sign of declining health that would eventually end his life just a few years later), Jarman filmed this disjointed series of Biblical tableaus & scenes of homophobic violence around the bleak exteriors of his coastal home in Dungeness, England. Self-described early in the proceedings as a tour though a “wilderness of failure,” the film’s backslide from paradisiac peace into morbid atonement serves as a kind of eulogy to the loss of an entire queer generation to a single virus, one which would eventually claim the filmmaker himself. We open with James Bidgood-esque visions of queer love & harmony (similar to Todd Haynes’s contemporary work in Poison), but the onscreen couple being depicted is eventually arrested, beaten, and shamed into disorder & dissolution. Religious imagery like a lynched Judas dressed as a leather-clad punk shilling credit cards, a young Tilda Swinton appearing as a Madonna figure hounded by paparazzi, and old women playing wine glass tones as the twelve apostles at the Last Supper interrupt this reverie, until it finally sours into an official funeral for the real-life dead in Jarman’s familial circle. The film can be occasionally beautiful, but it’s pretty fucking grim on the whole.

As an aesthetic object, The Garden is wonderfully exciting in its stabs of surreal shot-on-video era imagery. Its experiments in Ken Russellian green screen fuckery in which the entire sky is supplanted with flowers & other poetic, Polaroid-grade images are especially wondrous. The film also clearly has a sense of humor, despite its overall descent into despair, often breaking for absurdist musical numbers – such as a bargain bin music video for the showtune “Think Pink” from Funny Face. I don’t know if it’s the kind of film I’d recommend watching at home, though, where smartphones & other distractions are readily available. Even seeing it digitally restored in a proper theatrical environment (thanks to Zeitgeist’s summer-long queer cinema series Wildfire), I struggled to stay awake for the final 20-minute stretch. Not only is the film deliberately draining its trajectory from Eden to funeral service, it also suffers from the same attention-level difficulty that many feature-length works from directors who mostly work in short films suffer, the same exhaustion that tanks a lot of Guy Maddin’s films. As interesting as each homoerotic image, Biblical tableau, or outbreak of bigoted violence may be in isolation, they never really congeal as a cohesive, unified collection.

Jarman was at least aware of how miserable & patience-testing The Garden would be for his audience. The opening introduction in his woefully sparse narration includes the invitation, “I want to share this emptiness with you.” By the closing sequence wherein Tilda Swinton’s Madonna figure conducts a memorial for the homoromantic Eden lost over the course of the picture (a quiet ceremony involving cheap paper lanterns), I definitely felt that emptiness to some extent. It wasn’t the most pleasant or even the most clearly decipherable feeling to leave a movie theater with, but it was effective nonetheless. If you ever find yourself braving this “wilderness of failure” to “share this emptiness” with Jarman, just go into the journey armed with patience & a willingness to feel hopelessly miserable by the end credits. An experimental art film dispatch from the grimmest days of the AIDS crisis will apparently do that to you.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #81 of The Swampflix Podcast: The Shack (2017) & Christian Evangelicalism

Welcome to Episode #81 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our eighty-first episode, the podcast is born again with a new & improved format. James Brandon are joined by Hanna Räsänen to discuss the Christian fantasy film The Shack (2017) and recommend two pairings to help illuminate what makes it unique as Christian Evangelical cinema: God’s Not Dead (2014) & Saved! (2004). Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

-James Cohn & Brandon Ledet

The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018)

As a shithead atheist teenager, I always made an obnoxious show out of not participating in the Catholic rituals my parents dragged me through. This bratty rebellion reached its pinnacle when I was enrolled in Confirmation classes in high school, which I agreed to complete as a final favor for my family before never stepping foot in a church again (wedding & funerals excepted). I was a total ass in these Confirmation classes, joining forces with the few fellow over-this-bullshit weirdos who had gotten pulled into that orbit to just generally disrupt the process in a way I’m sure annoyed the more earnest participants around us. I recognized a lot of that same dynamic in Desiree Akhavan’s sophomore feature The Miseducation of Cameron Post. It’s just that the film’s gay “conversation” camp (read: emotional torture camp) setting makes for much higher emotional stakes than whether I could shut my bratty suburban mouth during a lecture about the sins of abortion or masturbation. The Miseducation of Cameron Post offers a sympathetic eye to that kind of bratty camaraderie in the face of religious evangelism, using the setting of gay conversion “therapy” (again, torture) to frame that snotty attitude as an essential act of political rebellion. It even goes a step further to offer the same sympathy to the counselors on the other end of the dynamic, lost souls who do not know the extent of the damage they’re causing to the teens in their “care.” If I were a mature, well-rounded adult I would praise the radical empathy of that approach. The truth is, though, that a large part of me is still a shithead teenage atheist who wants to see the piss taken out of those evangelizing counselors. I much prefer the glibber takes on this same material like Saved! & But, I’m a Cheerleader!, because at heart I’m still a combative brat.

Chloë Grace Moretz stars as the titular brat of this particular religious battle, sent to conversion therapy when she’s caught smoking weed & having sex with her closeted girlfriend in the parking lot outside their high school prom. I’ve always had a difficult time taking Moretz seriously as a dramatic actor, but her casting here leans into her strengths as dazed, confused participant in a culture she doesn’t believe in. From her awkward body language when trying to fit in as a straight girl with a boyfriend to her puzzled expression at the sermons of her God’s Promise prison, her visible discomfort fits the character & script here, when it’s often distracting in other projects (this year’s Suspiria, for one). The Christian instructors at God’s Promise are just as confused & uneasy, using “stern love” (abuse) and reinforced gendered roles to attempt guiding hormonally-rattled teens back to a Godly, de-sexed lifestyle. The truth is that they don’t have any more idea what they’re doing there than the kids do, and there’s a humanizing vulnerability in that lack of confidence. They’re essentially attempting to erase identities that haven’t been fully forged yet, as teenage years are a time of transformation & self-discovery. They push our protagonist to admit who she is (gay) and why that’s wrong (it’s not), but she struggles with the exercise because she’s too young to be sure of the answers. For fellow campers who take the Christianity portion of the therapy dead seriously, this forced, unnecessary identity crisis can lead to volatile, life-threatening results. For our more dismissive, out-of-place POV character it’s more a disorienting haze of psychobabble & mixed messages. She holds onto the other non-Christian weirdos in her vicinity (including American Honey’s Sasha Lane) for life support as she resists “the treatment” offered by God’s Promise. The resulting US vs. Them battle of stubborn wills unfolds in a mature, even-handed, tender drama; it’s an admirable search for kindness & understanding when what I really wanted was for the kids to lash out & burn it all down.

There’s a highly-specific version of queerness bucking against religious conservatism in Akhavan’s debut, Appropriate Behavior, that feels like it’s largely missing in this follow-up. The entire film has a kind of sanitized YA sensibility that feels entirely foreign to the NYC hedonism of Akhavan’s particular POV. The times when her wilder, more passionate depictions of queer sexuality do crop up (mostly in the protagonist’s nighttime sex dreams & erotic memories) it feels like an out-of-nowhere intrusion on an otherwise delicately told story. The Miseducation of Cameron Post could have used some of that rebellious hedonism in its daytime drama, whether or not it would have been faithful to its source material novel. The closest we get to an open act of bratty rebellion is in the inclusion of a so-bad-it’s-good Christian workout video titled Blessercize, a real-life found object that offers some much-needed levity to the film’s soundtrack & imagery. Mostly, our bratty non-Christian rebels restrict their resistance to hushed eyerolls, hikes to smoke ditch-weed in the woods, and smuggled copies of The Breeders’ Last Splash on cassette (to be fair, it’s a really good album). There’s a brief moment when they stage a forbidden singalong to 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up?,” but the less I say about that tragically corny coup the better (it may be my least favorite scene of the year?). As someone who was lucky enough to escape any indoctrination worse than a few (hundred) Catholic masses and a mind-numbing Confirmation course, it’s not my place to say if anything more than those minor, hushed rebellions would have been appropriate to the story told here. I can only report that I was personally much more pleased by the cathartic, disruptive, over-the-top rebellions of Appropriate Behavior, Saved!, and But, I’m a Cheerleader!. This is a well-staged, well-performed, admirably empathetic drama mired in a subject I love to see treated with a snottier attitude unconcerned with those qualities.

-Brandon Ledet

The Gospel of Eureka (2018)

The Gospel of Eureka has a tough needle to thread in its establishment of tone & POV. Two Portland filmmakers descend upon the quaint Christian bohemia of Eureka, Arkansas as outsiders, intending to document the parallels between two local arts scene novelties: a Gospel-themed dive bar drag show & an elaborate Passion Play production that supports the town’s lucrative Christian tourism industry. This outsider POV opens the film to a Waiting for Guffman style of local-theatre mockery, where the absurdism of the Passion Play & the old-fashioned pageant drag’s co-existence are contrasted for yuck-em-up laughter. That ironic, outsider humor does crop up in stray moments of the film, but co-directors Donal Mosher & Michael Palmieri mostly allow the audience to find them on our own in their matter-of-fact tone, making us complicit in the culture-gawking. Instead of pushing for absurdist humor, they lean heavily into the surreal parallels between the drag & Passion Play pageantry. These are two disparate modes of artistic expression that offer plenty of intense visual fodder for the film to pilfer. What The Gospel of Eureka does best is in explaining how they’re also two sides of the same performative coin.

Narrated by one of the drag queens as if it were an animated storybook, The Gospel of Eureka closes the gap between its local drag queen community & the Evangelist Christians who run the Passion Play production by tracking the proposal of & voting on a transgender “bathroom bill” that landed their shared small town in the national spotlight. That impulse for linear storytelling & narrative structure proves to be unnecessary, however, as the parallels between the two supposedly opposing contingents require very little explanation. 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.

Both the Gospel drag show & the oversized Passion Play could justify their own documentary in isolation. The drag bar owners’ history as a same-sex married couple in a small Christian town that has historically attempted to eradicate homosexuality & transgender identity through exorcism & conversion therapy is rich enough on its own to deserve documentation (as is especially apparent in their 1980s AIDS crisis battle stories). The Passion Play, which has blossomed from the homophobic & anti-Semitic Evangelism of public figures like Anita Baker in the 1970s to become a 2010s tourist attraction for tens of thousands of visiting outsiders, is even more worthy of its own documentary. It operates on the massive scale of an amusement park attraction, even though its effect is roughly the same as a dive bar drag act. Just the sight of the town’s massive statue of Jesus Christ, the largest of its kind in the US, is indication enough that Eureka’s outsized modes of religious expression are worthy of a documentarian’s attention. The Gospel of Eureka’s pinpointing of the most extreme possible binary within that expression and the unmistakable parallels between both sides (despite their apparent political opposition) is far more interesting – often to the point of being outright surreal – than the ironic mockery a lesser film might have exploited for easy laughs.

-Brandon Ledet

First Reformed (2018)

Sometime in the mid-2000s, back when I would do this kind of thing regularly, I found myself at an outdoor punk show at a squat/co-op in the Marigny, waiting to see a traveling hardcore band called Talk Me Off. One of the opening acts, the only one I honestly remember, was not another noisy rock act, but rather a slideshow and a political sermon. I sat in the warm, boot-stomped grass listening to a lengthy spiel about an environmental activist group’s successes in deforestation protests, patiently nodding along with the local punks who were gracious to not nod off entirely. I was mentally transported back to that oddly booked punk show this week while watching Paul Schrader’s latest directorial effort, First Reformed. Like the environmentally-minded slideshow enthusiasts who did their best to keep a gaggle of riled-up punks’ attention that night, First Reformed offers an admirable political sermon about modern humanity’s responsibility in the face of world-devastating climate change, but in an entertainment medium that’s not especially useful or interesting. Both Schrader and those real-life activists made a worthwhile political point in their respective sermons, but they did so in such bizarrely niche settings that they were essentially preaching to the already-converted. Given the audience & the delivery in both settings, it all just felt like wasted effort.

Hawke stars in First Reformed as Reverend Toller, an alcoholic holy man in crisis. His crisis of Faith is slightly different from the usual Silence of God anxieties expressed by Bergman & Scorsese in the past. He’s more worried here about whether humanity deserves God’s forgiveness for what it’s done to a planet in peril. He preaches to a tiny congregation in a historical church in Albany, New York that has become more of a souvenir shop than an effective religious institution. Cedric the Entertainer costars as the pastor of a nearby, nondenominational megachurch that is much more successful in reaching people (and making money), but also fearful of alienating its patrons with substantial political rhetoric. The politics of modern religion weigh on Reverend Toller’s mind with great anguish as he counsels a young mother from his delegation (Amanda Seyfried), who is afraid she is losing her husband to radical environmental activist causes. Long, drawn-out theological discussions about what Earth will look like in 2050 and what responsibility Christian leadership has in challenging political apathy to the world’s gradual destruction eat up most of the film’s runtime, often in hideous digital photography close-ups. Occasional bursts of violence or slips into supernatural mediation will disrupt these theological & political debates, but for the most part the film is an environmentalist tirade that alternates between being a frustrated call to action and a gradual acceptance of humanity’s impending doom.

There’s a clear parallel between Reverend Toller’s voiceover narration here and the similarly structured sermons Robert De Niro delivers in Schrader’s early-career script for Taxi Driver. The difference is that Toller’s righteous, dangerously violent theological stance actually has a worthwhile point to it, while Bickle’s misanthropy was coded as vile moral decay. Toller shares many of Bickle’s self-destructive tendencies, barely covering up his declining health with gallons of hard liquor & Pepto Bismol as he limps towards making a grand political statement at the film’s cathartic end. There might a figurative correlation between his failing body and the continual desecration of the planet, but for the most part his deliberately poor health recalls the self-destructive martyrdom that runs throughout Taxi Driver as well. Toller also shares Bickle’s unseemly sexual repression (a very common theme in Schrader’s writing), but doesn’t allow that guilt to express itself externally in as pronounced of a way. The main difference between them is that Bickle’s “cause” was mostly an excuse to enact male rage in a society that he found despicable for (to put it lightly) questionable reasons, while Toller’s own moral anguish about humanity’s negative impact on the planet actually as a point. The agreeability of the moral outrage makes the approach much less distinct & engaging in the process, leaving only room for the audience to nod along in recognition. The comparison also does First Reformed no favors in that Scorsese directed the hell out of Taxi Driver, capturing one of the dingiest visions of NYC grime to ever stain celluloid, while Schrader’s vision only escapes the limitations of its digital cinematography in two standout scenes (you’ll know ‘em when you see ‘em) and the production design choice of a really cool, eyeball-shaped lamp.

It’s probably safe to say that Schrader is well aware that First Reformed is “a little preachy,” but I think it’s worth questioning who, exactly, he’s preaching to. I can’t deny the truth of a character pleading that the Earth’s destruction “isn’t some distant future. You will live to see this,” but it’s likely to safe to say that the arthouse cinema crowd who will turn out for this picture in the first place already knows that. Reductively speaking, First Reformed is two good scenes & one great lamp, all tied together by an agreeable political sermon. That’s not going to do much to grab the attention of anyone besides the people who already support your cause, no more so than dragging our slide projector out to a late-night punk show. Without Travis Bickle’s moral repugnance making his physical & mental decline a complexly difficult crisis to engage with, Reverend Toller’s unraveling feels like a much less interesting, less essential retread of territory Schrader has explored onscreen before, even if the political anxiety driving it this time is more relatable.

-Brandon Ledet