The Florida Project (2017)

Youth is the key ingredient to the court jester defiance of D.I.Y. punk as a culture & as a philosophy. There’s a defiant, punk as fuck spirit that drives Sean Baker’s breakout feature Tangerine in a way that made it an easy pick for one of my favorite films of 2015 and one of the 2010s releases I’d most want to watch with the unintentional godfather of youthful punk defiance, John Waters (Wetlands would be up there as well). Baker distills that youthful, punk defiance even further in his follow-up to that iPhone-shot whirlwind of sex workers on the war path by looking to even younger, more defiant protagonists: actual children. The Florida Project is already facing early waves of backlash for its cultural sins as poverty porn (and it’s honestly a miracle that Tangerine largely escaped the same). These accusations are understandable given the film’s children-in-peril setting in the extended-stay slum motels just outside the Disney World amusement parks in Florida, but they presume that the film’s sole goal is to merely report that these impoverished communities exist just outside the tourist industry playgrounds they surround. The Florida Project is not the miserable, poverty-exploiting drama that reading frames it to be. Rather, it captures the defiant punk spirit that laughs in the face of all authority & life obstacles among the children who run wild in those insular, run-down motel communities. The Florida Project doesn’t dwell on or exploit the less-than-ideal conditions its pint-sized punks grow up in, even when depicting their most dire consequences; it instead celebrates the kids’ anarchic energy and refusal to buckle under the false authority of adults.

Willem Dafoe (in Willem Dafriend mode here) stars as the only recognizable face in a crowd of “nonprofessional” actors (give or take a Macon Blair or a Caleb Landy Jones), mostly children & young women. His exasperated motel manager, Bobby, is a reluctant caretaker of the single mother families that rent his rooms by the week. He attempts to maintain a professional emotional distance from these near-homeless families, whom he occasionally has to police & evict, but fails miserably due to direct contact & a soft heart. Like all adults & authority figures, however, Bobby is only a periphery presence to be mocked & subverted by the punk-as-fuck little rascals that play throughout the purple pastel stucco buildings that cater to Disney World tourist runoff. Their ring leader is our POV character, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), a dangerously sharp child who runs wild around the motel as if it were a playground, with the approval of her sex worker mother. Instead of solemnly gawking at her small family’s limited means, The Florida Project celebrates the minor successes Moonee pulls off in the tropical Florida heat: scheming tourists out of ice cream money, crashing fancier hotels’ breakfast buffets, initiating newcomer kids into the joys of smashing the fragile semblance of routine normality authority figures like Bobby are tasked to maintain, spitting on cars. It’s no mistake that the opening credits are set to the disco hit “Celebration,” since the entire intent of the film is to celebrate good times, even in the face of the harsher realities at the story’s fringes. Although Moonee & her cronies are financially locked out of The Happiest Place on Earth, they defiantly turn the Magic Castle & Futureland Inn knockoffs they are allowed to occupy into a punk rock amusement park of its own.

Many reviewers are discussing The Florida Project in the same modern American poverty documentation terms used to describe last year’s (much less jubilant) American Honey. I believe the film’s vibe is much more in line with the young court jester punks of titles like We Are the Best!, Daisies, Female Trouble, etc. There’s certainly a detectable quality of documentation of hyper-specific “at risk” Floridians who live at the tourism industry’s fringes, following them with a detailed eye as they pass theme park-style gift shops & listen to trap music on smartphone speakers. Baker’s filmmaking style is much less kinetic & haphazard here than it was in the iPhone-shot sugar rush of Tangerine, but the rich 35mm colors & fixed camera precision of The Florida Project only stabilizes & beautifies the world of its children-in-peril punks enough to emphasize their exuberance & imagination. The pure, dangerous joy these kids find in the palm tree-lined parking lots of an urban Florida wasteland is infectiously genuine. The movie doesn’t ask for your pity, but rather a hearty cry of “Up the punks!” and recognition that “All Cops Are Bastards,” even well-meaning motel managers. The court jester youthfulness of punk requires you to take no authority or life challenge too seriously (even though situations are often physically & emotionally dangerous here) and the little kids who run free in The Florida Project’s miniature domain laugh in the face of it all without caution and without apology.

-Brandon Ledet

Searching for Divine Inspiration at Walt Disney World

Mere hours after debuting our Divine-inspired, Swampflix-sponsored Mardi Gras krewe this past Fat Tuesday, CC & I found ourselves riding in the back seat of an SUV, exhausted, and headed toward Disney World. An immersive, three day adventure to the Happiest Place on Earth is always going to be a disorienting vacation no matter what mental state you’re in. Yet, there was something especially absurd about diving head first into such a wholesome fantasy space after running rampant through the French Quarter all morning, dressed as famous drag queen and frequent John Waters collaborator Divine in the alcohol-enhanced sunshine. 

At first, I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to accomplish while at Disney World besides checking off a few boxes as a film buff. That part was easy. A visit to a Walt Disney memorabilia museum titled One Man’s Dream, a similar Star Wars exhibit, a charmingly outdated 3-D Muppets screening, and a regularly-running “short film festival” of interactive Disney & Pixar selections all satisfied my apparent addiction to sitting in the dark, watching moving images. What was a much more difficult itch to scratch was maintaining our focus on our previously most recent task of keeping Divine’s legacy alive. You’d think that finding anything related to Divine or John Waters at large would be an impossible feat in such an aggressively clean environment, but Divine’s presence can be found in all things. And in Disney World, it can be found in Ursula.

The sea witch Ursula, of course, is the main villain in Disney’s modern animated classic The Little Mermaid. Although the construction of her persona can be attributed to many different influences, including both Elaine Stritch & Joan Collins, Ursula’s physical form was directly modeled after Divine (the top, non-octopus half was, anyway). The Little Mermaid‘s animators scrapped an initial idea to adorn Ursula with a hairstyle similar to the one Divine rocks in Pink Flamingos for being “too over the top,” but they did notably maintain her signature eye makeup & unmistakable body type for Ursula’s final form. The characters’ resemblance isn’t exactly uncanny, but it is blatant.

Ursula’s gigantic presence in The Little Mermaid, both physical & narrative, is a difficult effect to replicate in a kids’ amusement park, not least of all because the park would likely want to avoid scaring the shit out of children. It makes sense, then, that human actors would only be asked to portray Ariel from the film for the park’s rigidly scheduled photo ops & daily Festival of Fantasy parade. That doesn’t mean Ursula (and, by extension, Divine) has been locked out of the park entirely, though. She’s lurking around with her slithering eel accomplices (mostly in the form of large animatronic puppets) if you know where to look for her. Hopefully our search for Divine inspiration within Disney World parks will help expedite others’ in the future, in case anyone finds themselves visiting Orlando while as thirsty for Divine content as we were.

We started with the most obvious place you’d think to find Ursula lurking in the Walt Disney World parks: Magic Kingdom. There is exactly one The Little Mermaid-themed ride in Disney World’s oldest & most iconic park: Under the Sea – Journey of the Little Mermaid. Outside the ride you can wait in line to meet & take pictures with a professional Ariel cosplayer in her “grotto.” In line for the actual ride, Scuttle, the hoarder seagull, tries his best to simplify & recount the film’s plot in a digestible morsel to temper your boredom & distract you from heat exhaustion. Once inside, you’re strapped into a slow-moving clamshell vehicle that glides peacefully by two animatronic Ariels. One sings, “Part of Your World” and the other dances along to the ride’s centerpiece: a colorful, puppet-filled rendition of “Under the Sea” that’s doused with the widest variety of day-glo paint you’re ever likely to see in a single room.

None of that underwater glitz & glamor is our concern here, though. We’re looking for Divine. Ursula arrives in the ride just after the second Ariel in the “Under the Sea” number, isolated all by herself in a dark cove. She is a beautiful, oversized mechanical puppet I can only picture in my memory as cackling maniacally, even though in reality she sings a song. The purple sea witch is a breath of fresh, menacing air in a literal sea of smiling faces. Soak it in, because it will not last for long. After a glorious moment of hearing Ursula belt out the chorus of her show-stopping number “Poor Unfortunate Souls” in front of her giant crystal ball, she fades from the rest of the ride (or at least her inhuman, Divine-inspired form does), never to be heard from again. It was an all-too-brief Ursula encounter, but it fortunately wouldn’t be our last.

The next stop for Ursula content was a little less obvious and just happened to be something we stumbled into. As a park, Disney’s Hollywood Studios (formerly Disney-MGM Studios) is a little less cartoon-heavy than Magic Kingdom. This will be especially true once its current in-progress overhaul bulks up its Star Wars & MCU-themed attractions (for obviou$ rea$on$). The park is intensely focused on live theater, though, with attractions like The Tower of Terror & whatever the monstrously obnoxious Aerosmith rollercoaster is called existing as total outliers in an environment typically dedicated to more traditionally dramatic modes of entertainment. We were already having enough fun in the park being traumatized by the uncanny valley nightmare of the Robert Osbourne-hosted The Great Movie Ride (R.I.P.) and the distinctly Norman Bates theatricality of our server at the 50’s Prime Time Café, but there’s no good time that can’t be improved by a little Divine. Thankfully, the Divine lurking in Hollywood Studios was a large one. Freakishly large, even.

Located in the park’s Animated Courtyard area, the routinely performed indoor show Voyage of the Little Mermaid is very similar in content to the Journey of the Little Mermaid ride at Magic Kingdom (as if you couldn’t tell by their titles). Fish sing “Under the Sea;” Ariel sings “Part of Your World;” Ursula sings “Poor Unfortunate Souls” and then promptly disappears before the happily ever afters. It’s the same tidy retelling of the animated film with one major exception: the puppets. Whereas the Journey of the Little Mermaid ride is all 100% animatronic puppetry, the Voyage of the Little Mermaid is more of a mixed media affair. The fish puppets are all hand-operated by performers working in the stage’s shadows, Ariel & her boy toy Eric are portrayed by live human actors (as is the more degrading role of Eric’s dog), and the whole show is substantially beefed up by projections from the original animated film, laser light displays, and a waterfall curtain that smells authentically like seawater (whether or not the effect is intentional). It’s a totally pleasant, refreshingly cool way to spend 17 minutes of your life in the park, but what’s most impressive is the way the mini-play brings Ursula to life.

While Ariel & her fishy friends are given a new form of representation in Voyage of the Little Mermaid to distinguish them from Journey of the Little Mermaid, Ursula remains animatronic puppet. She’s so much more impressive in the show than she is in the ride, though, as her size is blown up to 12 feet high & 10 feet wide. I already fell in love with the mechanical puppet from the Little Mermaid ride (which is the more strikingly beautiful one in terms of basic visual craft), but it’s just absolutely dwarfed by the intimidatingly gigantic puppet from the show. It’s the kind of scale & magnificence that almost makes you want to fall to your knees in worship. In other words, it’s absolutely Divine.

That giant puppet would be the last Divine presence we located at Disney World, but, honestly, her magnificent size would’ve been difficult to top by any other display. Maybe there was an Ursula lurking somewhere in one of the three parks we didn’t have a chance to visit (Animal Kingdom, Typhoon Lagoon, Blizzard Beach), but that seems highly unlikely. The only other places to search for our Divine inspiration, then, would be the park’s other other main attraction besides rides & shows: merchandise.

Disney villains from decades-old cartoons aren’t going to move nearly as much merch as the likes of an Elsa or an Olaf or an, um, Other Thing from Frozen. That doesn’t mean there’s no Ursula merch to be found in the parks, though. You just sometimes have to accept her as a package deal with other characters. For instance, outside the Finding Nemo ride at Epcot (which dumps you into a surprisingly decent aquarium), there’s an underwater-themed gift shop that sells a collection of Little Mermaid “squeeze toy” figurines. Ursula’s included, but you have to buy the whole collection to get her. Similarly, I found (and, of course, purchased) a purple baseball cap that features several of Disney’s more infamous female villains like Maleficent, the Evil Queen from Snow White, and, duh, Ursula. According to a brief search of the term “The Little Mermaid” on Disney World’s creepily helpful Disney Go app, there were some really nice Ursula “couture de force” figurines, art prints, and blouses for sale, but we never laid eyes on them (and they would’ve been far outside our price range anyway).

If you really want to take home Ursula’s visage isolated on some affordable merchandise, your only viable option is to find her on an enamel pin. We happened to purchase some Ursula pins at a kiosk located outside Space Mountain, but Disney has a surprisingly strong, park-wide enamel pin culture. You could probably find the damn things in any shop you poke your head into, as a lot of the stores seem to carry overlapping merch. (The same also goes with the squeeze toy figurines we found outside the Finding Nemo ride.) There’s also a lot of annual turnover on the merch that’s sold within the parks, so not only is it possible that we missed out on some sweet Ursula gear when we happened to be there, but you can also likely find excessed deadstock of old Ursula merch at the various Disney outlet malls sprinkled throughout Orlando.

We really have no clue where Krewe Divine’s headed in the future in terms of scale or membership. It’s only a matter of time until one of us dresses as Ursula on Fat Tuesday, though, so it really was a treat to cap off our first year as a microscopic Mardi Gras krewe by treating Walt Disney World like an unofficial Divine scavenger hunt. As the release of The Little Mermaid is already nearly three decades behind us, it’s likely that Ursula’s Divine presence within the amusement park is on borrowed time. As is, she’s seemingly only represented in the form of two (beautiful) animatronic puppets and a few enamel pins already. Even that’s enough representation worth celebrating, though. I was overjoyed to see her there in any form. In a way it’s a kind of a miracle that there was ever any John Waters-adjacent content to be found at Disney World at all. It’s even more of a miracle that it happened to be Divine.

-Brandon Ledet

Escape from Tomorrow (2013)

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The tale of Escape from Tomorrow’s production is much more infamous than anything within the film itself. As the story goes, writer/director Randy Moore was hammering out some daddy issues he associates with the Disney World theme park in Orlando, Florida by staging a guerilla film shoot within the park. Filmed without Walt Disney’s permission, Escape from Tomorrow follows a family of tourists around the park, including shots staged in the resort hotel rooms, restaurants, and the amusement park rides themselves. Promising to turn the fantasy land into a live-action nightmare, the film has essentially been reduced to an anecdote about its production, without a whole lot being said about its actual quality. I went in expecting a dark, twisted sci-fi slow-burner that milks the park’s artificiality for an unnerving effect, but what was actually delivered was much more playful & amusing.

Backing up the director’s claim that he made the film as an exploration of his relationship with his father, Escape from Tomorrow’s protagonist is a hapless, lecherous doof of a man who drags his miserable family through Disney World as a means to forget his troubled employment status & loveless marriage. The characters sport the subtlety & nuance of an 80s sitcom family here. The kids are more or less whiny brats. The mother is a humorless shrew. The father is slack-jawed lecher that gets obnoxiously drunk & openly ogles giggling teen girls in the park in plain view of a wife he openly despises. As I’m sure happens often in that Florida sunshine, this group of Disney World tourists is having a full familial meltdown, even without the more sinister aspects of the plot & imagery coming into play.

The acting leaves a lot to be desired in Escape from Tomorrow (I desperately wish the idiot dad were played by Rob Huebel or Ken Marino), but there’s a sense of purpose to the family’s phony, exaggerated mannerisms. The whole film just feels playfully & intentionally . . . off. There are CGI decapitations, a pious reverence to the Epcot dome as a religious symbol, intentionally crude green screen shots that counteract the documentary feel, real life evil Disney queens (sex-crazed, of course), and a persistently cheesy Old Hollywood score that underlines the intense artificiality of the whole affair. It’s not a subtle film. It is, however, a delightfully goofy & irreverent one.

Anyone looking for a deep, prodding indictment of the nuclear, American family unit or a super creepy sci-fi freakout are likely to be disappointed by Escape from Tomorrow‘s who cares/nothing matters tone. The film succeeds in its quest to compose a film almost entirely from shots “stolen” from within Disney World (although the word “Disney” is bleeped out for legal reasons), but much like with all merchandise shoplifted from within those gates, the narrative it runs away with is frighteningly empty, like well-crafted kitsch. Much like with a lot of Disney products, it looks great & has an interesting backstory, but it’s a lot more satisfying as an eccentrically goofy trifle than a work of “serious” art.

-Brandon Ledet