J’ai Été Au Bal (I Went to the Dance, 1989)

I should be too ashamed to admit this in a public forum, but I’ve never fully understood the appeal of zydeco.  My preferred mode of background-noise Louisiana kitsch is New Orleans brass, which hits a lot closer to home – literally, since I live on a major second line route where brass & bounce reverberate down the street practically every other week.  I’m most used to hearing zydeco mixed with cornball swamp pop in French Quarter tourist shops, seconds at a time as I pass by on my way to a downtown theater or bar.  I may be from Southeast Louisiana, but I’m a city boy through & through, and the routine regurgitation of folksy local traditions for spend-crazy out-of-towners always raises the hairs on neck.  I was delighted to have those biases challenged by the Les Blank documentary J’ai Été Au Bal (I Went to the Dance), though, which recently screened in a 4K digital restoration at The Broad to celebrate this year’s Jazz Fest happenings down the street.  Blank’s Always for Pleasure is just about the only documentary that has genuinely captured New Orleans culture onscreen in a way that doesn’t make this local cynic cringe, so I very much needed this extension of his humanist awe with Louisiana to the meanings & traditions of zydeco.  To prime the pump, the programmers also invited musician Michael Doucet to open the show with his zydeco band BeauSoleil, since he is one of the few surviving performers from the film still alive to provide insight & context.  The music was good, the crowd of WWOZ devotees was lively & chatty, and the film made a convincing argument for an artform I’ve been knee-jerk dismissive of my entire life.  It was a lovely evening.

It’s a shame I didn’t see I Went to the Dance when I was in my Folk Punk phase a couple decades ago; its contextual positioning of zydeco as raucous, resilient roots music would have clicked a lot sooner & louder.  In my defense, though, a large part of this film is about zydeco musicians having to explain the artform’s appeal to each generation of bratty children who are distracted from their heritage by popular music fads like rock ‘n roll.  It turns out even swamp pop has its merits as a youth-outreach genre hybrid, attempting to inject a little Beatles & 60s New Orleans R&B into the usual zydeco formula to make it palatable for the kids. I Went to the Dance is more straightforward as an informational doc on the linear history of zydeco than Always for Pleasure‘s loose portrait of local Mardi Gras customs, possibly due to the influence of Blank’s more traditionalist co-director Chris Strachwitz.  It provides a quick historical context for the migration of Cajun & Creole communities to Southwest Louisiana, moves on to explain the basic compositional structures & instrumentations that distinguish zydeco as a genre, and then tracks its struggles to remain popular yet authentic as it welcomed influence from blues, soul, country, and rock fads that energized the core musicians’ children throughout the decades.  By the time the film concludes with a contemporary Jazz Fest performance from the R&B-infused Clifton “King of Zydeco” Chenier, a backyard cookout performance of the 80s novelty swamp pop hit “(Don’t Mess with) My Toot Toot”, and a cheeseball fais-dodo rock-out from what appeared to be the Reaganite frat bros of zydeco, I was fully won over – my cynicism thoroughly, methodically replaced with a smile.

I don’t think this academically minded zydeco explainer would be worth all that much without the Les Blank touch, though.  As useful as it is in providing historical & cultural context for where the genre comes from and what pop-music indignities it has to endure for survival, it’s Blank’s loving, amused observations of Louisiana customs that qualify J’ai Été Au Bal as substantial filmmaking.  The dancefloor audience is just as important as the fiddlers, washboarders, and accordionists onstage, as Blank’s camera searches contemporary bars & archival photographs for signs of vitality & exuberance in the people that made this music popular because it gave them an excuse to get tipsy & dance.  Since he moved his camera too far inland to capture the wetland landscapes that have so quickly eroded in the past few decades, the Louisiana he captures here is exactly the one I remember growing up with “down the road” in St. Bernard Parish around when this was made.  It’s also uncannily accurate to Louisiana today, as long as you avert your gaze from concrete & billboards to instead focus on the hand-painted signs & D.I.Y. dance parties that are forever encroached on but never fully extinguished here.  There’s an authenticity to Blank’s portraits of this state as a people that I have found in no other outsider media, making him one of the most fully integrated Tulane University bros who ever passed through New Orleans for an education and never had the heart to fully leave us behind.  It appears his estate is keeping that work alive & up to date by producing physical media restorations of his work to sell at high rates to university libraries as education tools, which is great but doesn’t fully convey how entertaining & endearing they are for a casual audience.

When I report that the Jazz Fest-adjacent screening of J’ai Été Au Bal at The Broad was a lovely evening, I’m brushing aside a lot of technical hiccups that disrupted the flow of the film.  Getting the screening going in earnest involved the theater staff abandoning the DCP and climbing on a ladder to hook up a Vimeo stream with a laptop, an HDMI cable, and a smartphone hotspot crammed inside the projector box.  There were many stops & starts before that Plan C was launched, which meant that the first fifteen minutes of the film were frequently broken up by premature Q&As with Blank’s surviving collaborators and bonus performances from Doucet sans band.  If I’m not mistaken, there were also impromptu chime-ins from Belizaire the Cajun director Glen Pitre from the front seats of the audience.  Some moviegoers’ patience was tested beyond its limits that night, but I soaked it all up as a Community Event, the strangest screening I’ve been to since The Broad ran The Mothman Prophecies a couple months ago.  It also didn’t stress me out because I knew even while watching J’ai Été Au Bal that my first viewing would not be my last.  Every year I squeeze in a screening of Always for Pleasure as a quick, convenient way to get into the Mardi Gras spirit (usually while working on costumes), and I can easily see throwing on Blank’s zydeco doc for the same purpose at the start of every Spring festival season.  Jazz Fest is going to happen in my neighborhood regardless of whether I’m in the mood; French Quarter Fest is just a few blocks away from where I work.  It was untenable to think I could live a full, happy life in Louisiana without appreciating swamp pop or zydeco, and I’m glad this movie is being kept in distro to help my cynical ass lighten up.

-Brandon Ledet

D.I.Y. or Die: How to Survive as an Independent Artist (2002)

I had an unusually difficult time pinning down the intended purpose of the early-aughts punk culture documentary D.I.Y. or Die, despite its multiple subtitles’ attempts to provide context.  The DVD copy of the film I picked up at my neighborhood thrift store was titled D.I.Y. or Die: Burn This DVD, proposing that this low-budget, low-effort documentary was intended to function as a kind of motion-picture zine, to be shared freely among aspiring punk artists who would benefit from its scene-specific insights & inspiration.  The more official subtitle on its IMDb & Wikipedia pages is D.I.Y. or Die: How to Survive as an Independent Artist, which proposes that it’s more of a how-to guide for those sure-to-be-struggling punk artists, desperate for pointers on how to keep their half-shaved heads above water.  The third, most robust title that populates under heavy pixelations and antiqued digital film grain effects in the movie proper is D.I.Y. or Die: “A documentary by Michael W. Dean on the means, modes, and methods on independent American artists in different genres & mediums.”  That last one at least hints at the college-essay structuring of the piece, which includes an intro thesis paragraph delivered by Director Dean before he asks generic, rigidly segmented “What inspires you?” questions to an admittedly impressive collection of artists he’s roped in as talking heads.  It’s the bragging rights of assembling those interviewees that gives the film its true sense of purpose, as evidenced by its DVD cover art attempting to squeeze each of their faces into a gargantuan Brady Bunch grid.  D.I.Y. or Die is not the only place you can hear always-welcome punk proselytizers like Ian MacKaye, Richard Kern, and Lydia Lunch pontificate about the virtues of maintaining a D.I.Y. ethos in your outsider art, but it is a convenient check-in on how they were all holding up in the early aughts. 

None of the writers, painters, sculptors, poets, musicians, or software developers interviewed here actually provide useful tips on how to survive as an independent artist.  The closest the film comes to achieving that stated goal is in a DVD extra where longtime punk grumpa Steve Albini explains that it’s naive to expect a large enough audience will want or need your Art that you won’t have to maintain a day job to sustain yourself.  The practicality of that sentiment is directly opposed to the vague anti-corporate rhetoric of the interviews that made it into the final edit, which mostly consist of artists wistfully explaining why they create, not how they eat or pay rent.  For an actually useful guide on how to survive as an independent artist in the internet age, there’s no better resource than Matt Farley’s auto-fictional Local Legends, which sketches out a practical roadmap of how artists can have fun strategically “selling out” in minor, playful ways that keep the lights on.  For its part, D.I.Y. or Die is a time capsule of the last possible minute when the countercultural betrayal of “selling out” meant something about your integrity, back when the internet was mostly made of fan pages & message boards and hadn’t yet turned the users ourselves into product via social media.  There’s a tipping point between physical zine culture and intangible online ephemera incidentally documented here, both in how the DVD extras include “weblinks” to long dead URLs and how the founder of Craigslist is included alongside Ian MacKaye’s self-operated Dischord record label as if both companies were born of the same punk ethos.  A more honest integration of what self-distributed art looked like in the early internet age would have included amateur pornographers instead, who are not represented here (unless you want to squint at Lunch & Kern from the most reductive angle possible).  At the very least, I can’t imagine it would’ve been hard to track down Annie Sprinkle for a quick Q&A, considering how many of the contributors were filmed in NYC.  Whether it’s because Dean didn’t think through why he was grouping together these exact interview subjects beyond how cool they’d be to talk to or it’s because D.I.Y. culture itself was in a confused, liminal stasis at the time, D.I.Y. or Die is unclear on what it wants to say about the state of punk culture in the early 2000s beyond “Fuck yeah.”

I don’t relish being a cynic here, two entire decades after this hour-long tribute to art-for-art’s sake creativity last meant something to anyone.  If anything, I’m likely a little touchy about its intellectual laziness because it’s so similar to my own for-its-own-sake hobby of running this film blog & podcast.  As an independent artistic project, Swampflix is equally confused about how to carry over zine culture ethos & aesthetics into the digital age, and I do sometimes worry that my casual, Xeroxed blogging stye comes across as the same kind of performative laziness that’s passed off as “punk” here.  There’s something about the director presenting himself in wrinkled t-shirts and presenting his interviewees in unflattering, unconsidered angles & lighting that really bothers me.  It’s often charming when an artist leaves noticeable fingerprints on a rough-around-the-edges work, leaving in mistakes and glimpses of the tools of production.  It’s annoying when “punk” is misinterpreted as “no effort”, though, and I’m always looking for artists to use their available resources—no matter how limited—in the most passionate, effective ways possible.  D.I.Y. or Die is from an earlier, easier era in online culture when self-distributed art like this motion-zine DVD could actually reach a wide, excited audience, because the digital landscape wasn’t so constantly flooded with #content — independent, corporate, or otherwise.  I cut a lot of corners running this website, most notably in how often I’ll recycle the same Sharpie doodle illustrations over & over again instead of drafting new ones every post.  For example, the little mohawked icon at the top of this review is a slightly doctored illustration I drew when reviewing Bulletproof Monk eight years ago, hastily edited in MS Paint.  I’m not using the tools available to me to make the most effective, passionate #content I can, but I’m also a sell-out with a full-time desk job who does this stuff on the side for fun, so I don’t think I should be held to the same standards of artistic integrity.  Steve Albini may have been sidelined to the DVD extras, but he still inevitably won the “debate.”

All that said, there was one aspect of D.I.Y. or Die that I did find genuinely inspiring: the inclusion of punk-scene cellist Madigan Shive.  Shive enjoyed some brief notoriety in the 1990s when her band Tattle Tale was picked up by the tastemaker label Kill Rock Stars and landed a single on the foundational CD soundtrack for But, I’m a Cheerleader.  Around the time D.I.Y. or Die was released in the early 2000s, her mostly-solo musical act Bonfire Madigan was an even more niche interest, which I can confirm anecdotally from having attended a concert of hers in a mostly empty Zeitgeist art gallery within a year of this documentary’s release, when my high school era obsession with her music was at its most intense.  Shive is adorably earnest in her interviews here, and genuinely seems like a cool, intelligent person.  What most inspired me, though, was following up after the film was over to see that she still regularly plays concerts (mostly in the Bay Area, where most of these interviews were filmed) and stays engaged with dedicated fans online, two decades since I last heard anyone say “Bonfire Madigan” out loud (besides when asking me about my now-ratty Bonfire Madigan t-shirt, purchased at that sparsely attended concert).  I have no intel on whether Shive had to take the Albini advice on maintaining a day job to keep herself afloat, but I also don’t think that distinction matters.  She’s continued to make passionate, independent art for decades now, regardless of the ebbs & flows of audience interest & commercial appeal, which is genuinely inspiring to me as a writer with no clear incentives left to keep writing.  Maybe D.I.Y. or Die didn’t include any practical tips on how to survive as an independent artist because the only real tip you need is to “Just keep doing the work” and let momentum take care of the rest.  That doesn’t mean the work shouldn’t have integrity in its artistic standards beyond the punk street cred of its production, though, which is where most of my cynicism is coming from here.

-Brandon Ledet

Lagniappe Podcast: We Kill for Love & Overlook Film Fest 2023

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Brandon, James, Hanna, and guest Bill Arceneaux discuss a selection of genre films that screened at this year’s Overlook Film Fest, including the exhaustive direct-to-video erotic thriller documentary We Kill for Love (2023).

00:00 Welcome

03:32 Aberrance (2023)
09:04 Appendage (2023)
15:18 The Five Devils (2023)
21:31 Smoking Causes Coughing (2023)

27:03 We Kill for Love (2023)

1:01:31 Moviegoing with Bill
1:05:15 A Street Cat Named Desire (2023)
1:08:04 FROM.BEYOND (2023)
1:11:45 Give Me an A (2023)
1:19:35 Birth/Rebirth (2023)
1:24:15 Mister Organ (2023)
1:27:05 Late Night with the Devil (2023)

Overlook Film Fest 2023 Selections Ranked & Reviewed

1. Smoking Causes Coughing
2. The Five Devils
3. We Kill for Love
4. Late Night with the Devil
5. Birth/Rebirth
6. Appendage
7. Mister Organ
8. The Artifice Girl
9. Aberrance

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

-The Podcast Crew

Identity & Artifice @ Overlook Film Fest 2023

After I happened to spend an entire day watching horror movies about motherhood at this year’s Overlook Film Fest, I found myself searching for patterns in the festival’s programming wherein the movies were communicating with each other just as much as they were provoking the audience.  I didn’t have to squint too hard at my next double-feature to see their thematic connections, since the word “artifice” was already staring back at me in the first film’s title.  My third & final day at this year’s Overlook was all about the tension between identity & artifice, and how the latter obscures the former.  In the philosophical sci-fi horror at the top of that self-programmed double bill, the opaque surface of artifice is stripped away to reveal a complex, futuristic sense of identity underneath.  In the true crime documentary that followed, the surface of artifice is removed to uncover no discernible human identity at all, which makes for a much bleaker, scarier reveal.  Please forgive me for the inanity of reporting that this is an instance where the truth is stranger than fiction; I watched these particular movies hungover in a chilly downtown shopping mall, and I’m not sure my brain has fully recovered from watching two twisty thrillers about the complexities of human identity in that hazy state.

That morning’s theme-unlocking opener, The Artifice Girl, is a well-timed A.I. chatbot technothriller, turning just a few actors running lines in drab office spaces into a complex study of the fuzzy borders between human & artificial identity.  Approached with the same unrushed, underplayed drama as the similarly structured Marjorie Prime, The Artifice Girl jumps time frames between acts as the titular A.I. chatbot is introduced in her infancy, gains sentience, and eventually earns her autonomy.  She is initially created with queasy but altruistic intentions: designed to bait and indict online child molesters with the visage of a little girl who does not actually, physically exist.  As the technology behind her “brain” patterns exponentially evolves, the ethics of giving something with even a simulation of intelligence & emotion that horrifically shitty of a job becomes a lot murkier.  By the time she’s creating art and expressing genuine feelings, her entire purpose becomes explicitly immoral, since there’s no foolproof way to determine what counts as her identity or free will vs. what counts as her user-determined programming.  The Artifice Girl does a lot with a little, asking big questions with limited resources.  The closest it gets to feeling like a professional production is in the climactic intrusion of genre legend Lance Henriksen in the cast, whose journey as Bishop in the Alien series has already traveled these same A.I. autonomy roads on a much larger scale in the past.  It’s got enough surprisingly complex stage play dialogue to stand on its own without Henriksen’s support, but his weighty late-career presence is the exact kind of hook it needs to draw an audience’s attention.

By contrast, David Farrier’s new documentary Mister Organ desperately searches for an attention-grabbing hook but never finds one.  The New Zealand journalist drives himself mad attempting to recapture the lighting-in-a-bottle exposé he engineered in Tickled, investigating another unbelievable shit-heel subject who “earns” his living in nefarious, exploitative ways.  At first, it seems like Farrier is really onto something.  The titular Mr. Organ is an obvious conman, introduced to Farrier as a parking lot bully who “clamps” locals’ tires for daring to park in the wrong lot, then shakes them down for exorbitant piles of cash to remove the boots – making the high-end antique store he patrols a front for a much more lucrative, predatory side hustle.  With only a little digging, that parking lot thug turns out to be a much bigger news story, one with fascinating anecdotes about stolen yachts, abandoned asylums, micro cults, and forged royal bloodlines.  Or so Farrier thinks.  The more he digs into his latest subject’s past to uncover his cleverly obscured identity, the more Farrier comes away empty-handed & bewildered.  Mr. Organ is more an obnoxious Ricky Gervais caricature of a human being than he is a genuine one.  He babbles for hours on end about nothing, holding Farrier hostage on speakerphone with the promise of a gotcha breakthrough moment that will never come.  Organ is a literal ghoul, a real-life energy vampire, an artificial surface with no identity underneath.  As a result, the documentary is a creepy but frustrating journey to nowhere, one where by the end the artist behind it is just as unsure what the point of the entire exercise was as the audience. It is a document of a failure.

Normally, when I contrast & compare two similarly themed features I walk away with a clearer understanding of both.  In this case, my opinion of this unlikely pair only becomes more conflicted as I weigh them against each other.  In the controlled, clinical, fictional environment of The Artifice Girl, an identity-obscuring layer of artifice is methodically, scientifically removed to reveal a complex post-human persona underneath.  In the messy, real-world manipulations of Mister Organ, the surface-level artifice is all there is, and stripping it away reveals nothing that can be cleanly interpreted nor understood.  Of course, the fictional stage play version of that exercise is more narratively satisfying than the reality-bound mechanics of true crime storytelling, which often leads to unsolved cases & loose, frayed ends.  The Artifice Girl tells you exactly how to feel at the end of its artificially engineered drama, which is effective in the moment but leaves little room for its story to linger after the credits.  The open-ended frustration of Mister Organ is maybe worthier to dwell in as you leave the theater, then, even if its own conclusion amounts to Farrier throwing up his hands in forfeit, walking away from an opaque nothing of a subject – the abstract personification of Bad Vibes.  As a result, neither film was wholly satisfying either in comparison or in isolation, and I don’t know that I’ll ever fully make sense of my dehydrated, dispirited afternoon spent pondering them.

-Brandon Ledet

A Self-Induced Hallucination (2018)

I have a huge soft spot for archival preservation of disposable internet ephemera.  Even from just running this blog, I’m constantly reminded how vulnerable online content is to digital rot, with most of our posts from over a year ago featuring dead links to nonexistent YouTube clips that used to bolster & illustrate our lukewarm film takes. Internet culture documentaries like The Road Movie (which archives Russian dashcam footage), Wrinkles the Clown (which chronicles the online hoax of real-world horror clown sightings) and We Met in Virtual Reality (which documents a community of VR enthusiasts navigating the early stages of the pandemic) aren’t widely beloved or even respected, but they are loved by me, and I believe their cultural value will only increase the further we get away from their subjects.  We spend a lot of our time online interacting with temporary, disposable imagery that will be lost to time without active, academic preservation of the user-interface hellscape we’ve trapped ourselves in. It’s a shame that most cinema is too timid to do that work, mostly out of fear of appearing cheap or dated.  This kind of serious, thoughtful archival work was especially hard to come by back in 2017, when I positively reviewed the HBO Doc Beware the Slenderman even while noting that it devolves into true crime exploitation and “Won’t somebody please think of the children?” fearmongering.  It turns out I should have just waited a year to see the definitive Slenderman documentary, A Self-Induced Hallucination, directed by Jane Schoenbrun before developing their breakout indie hit We’re All Going to the World’s Fair.  Comprised entirely of 2009-2018 YouTube clips, Schoenbrun’s document of the Slenderman creepypasta phenomenon is such a comprehensive, insightful record of its ephemeral online subject that it even includes criticism of & fallout from the exploitative HBO documentary that was released to a much wider audience & higher praise a year earlier.  It’s undeniably great that Schoenbrun has been able to graduate from D.I.Y. bedroom art to professional productions in the years since, but A Self-Induced Hallucination is not just background prep work for World’s Fair.  It’s a significant work in its own right, especially as an internet culture time capsule from one of the darkest moments in the history of memes.

YouTube is a brilliant catch-all for chronicling the full history of the Slenderman tragedy, which played out on much less cinematic (and only slightly more toxic) platforms like Something Awful, 4Chan, and Reddit before it was regurgitated as viral video content.  In the earliest stirrings of Slenderman creepypasta memery, a loose collection of juvenile “experts” explain to their small audience of YouTube subscribers exactly how & where the Slenderman legend spread online, and how you can tell that the “evidence” presented on the originating forums were fake (or real, depending on the poster’s perspective).  The meme evolves from that Slenderman 101 crash course to include Slenderman short films, Slenderman novelty raps, and Slenderman confessionals from World’s Fair-style loners desperate for online community.  There isn’t much to the tall, faceless, suited figure in either iconography or lore, which makes him the perfect blank screen for users to project meaning onto.  Of course, that memetic potency eventually proved deadly when two 12-year-old girls repeatedly stabbed a friend at the supposed command of the Slenderman.  That’s when Schoenbrun’s archival work gets really interesting, pushing beyond the rundown of basic creepypasta mechanics that you’ll find in Wrinkles the Clown & Beware the Slenderman to examine how real-life tragedy is digested into entertainment #content, both online and in traditional media outlets.  On the amateur level, YouTube creators casually discuss & dissect the details of the stabbing case while playing Minecraft and 1st-person shooter games.  Meanwhile, professional media turns the Slenderman stabbing into vapid news chatter and then, worse yet, fictional fodder for the aforementioned Beware the Slenderman documentary, an official Slender Man horror film, and a legally shaky “inspired by” Lifetime movie of the week: Terror in the Woods.  We catch glimpses of these Slenderman-branded true-crime cash-ins through Fan Reaction Videos to their various trailers and through YouTuber interviews with young actors making their PR rounds.  A Self-Induced Hallucination documents the full metamorphosis cycle of amateur content to real-world tragedy to professional product back to amateur content again that the Slenderman creepypasta uniquely traveled, only commenting on the phenomenon through the sequence of its presentation.

There’s something wryly funny about Schoenbreun’s editing style here, which simulates what it would be like if the Everything is Terrible! team remade Unfriended entirely through amateur YouTube clips (the same way they “remade” Holy Mountain with pet videos in Doggiewoggiez! Poochiewoochiez!). Its opening credits’ presentation as real-time screen capture of a word processor document, its full-spectrum omnibus of the embarrassing shades of YouTube Voice, and the throwback CG news recaps from TomoNews are all amusingly absurd, even if only in fits.  Mostly, though, A Self-Induced Hallucination is just deeply eerie & sad in the exact way that We’re All Going to the World’s Fair eventually proved to be.  If the heartbreaking isolation and vulnerability of the literal children posting about their personal experiences with Slenderman doesn’t hit you by the time one of those children are stabbed by their schoolmates, it’s certain to sink it during the end credits, where each featured video is listed alongside their view counts as of the film’s final edit in 2018 – typically millions of views for professional content like Sony Pictures’ Slender Man horror trailer and dozens of views for amateur users’ bedroom broadcasts into the online abyss.  As someone who regularly posts sincere diaries of my day-to-day Movie Thoughts for a near-nonexistent audience, I’m highly sensitive to that embarrassment & loneliness.  I assume Schoenbrun is too, or at least they were at the time of assembling this completionist’s archive of Slenderman lore & cultural fallout.  This is clearly the work of someone who’s submerged in online culture.  It’s both heartwarming to see that disposable culture taken seriously as its own cinematic texture and devastating to see how destructive & isolating it can be to users with no other outlet for social interaction.  There’s no doubt this earlier text deepens & enriches what Schoenbrun would later achieve in We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, but in a lot of ways it’s a purer, more streamlined version of the same story, one that clearly deserves to be engaged with as substantial art regardless of its connections to its dramatic sister film.

-Brandon Ledet

Altered Docs

My happy place is the Altered Innocence logo card.  When I close my eyes, I’m often transported to that James Bidgoodian terrarium, which is just as often tacked to the front of the best films on the modern media landscape.  Not everything the high-style, queer distributor releases can be as transcendent as all-star titles like The Wild Boys, Knife+Heart, Arrebato, and Equation to an Unknown, though.  Like all small-operation film labels, they’re also in the business of releasing minor, low-budget festival acquisitions that would otherwise drift into the great distribution abyss.  And if you’ve ever been to a film festival, you know that distro model is going to include a lot of documentaries – a medium that’s cheap to produce but difficult to market.  I’ve run across a couple Altered Innocence documentaries before on both ends of that distribution path: I caught their couture culture documentary House of Cardin at New Orleans French Film Fest before it was certain to land proper distro, and I sought out the personal coming-out essay film Madame because it already had the Altered Innocence stamp of approval.  I love Altered Innocence most for its proud, consistent platforming of arthouse weirdos Yann Gonzalez & Bertrand Mandico, but I also respect that their stated mission to release “LGBTQ & Coming-of-Age films with an artistic edge” extends to smaller, no-name directors whose work would otherwise screen once at venues like Outfest, then fade into oblivion.  In that spirit, I’d like to highlight two recent queer-culture documentaries distributed by Altered Innocence that might not have as flashy of a premise as phantasmagorical fiction titles like After Blue: Dirty Paradise (a sci-fi acid Western in which a lesbian orgy planet cowers in fear of a demonic assassin named Kate Bush) but still deserve wide attention & distribution anyway.

The more innocuous title of this pair is 2019’s Queer Japan, a densely packed, low-budget documentary about contemporary queer culture in—you guessed it—Japan.  I’m calling it innocuous because it’s relatively soft in its political advocacy, over-explaining basic concepts that are common to most queer subcultures regardless of region.  It argues that drag is art, bisexuality is real, and lesbian spaces are too often trans-exclusionary, all while scrolling through a never-ending glossary of basic terms in onscreen text & Instagram graphics.  It’s somewhat illuminating as an update to the semi-fictional, half-century-old street interviews in Funeral Parade of Roses but, overall, the film’s queer politics are largely understated & unspecific.  Thankfully, its region-specific details are much more prominent in the “artistic edge” Altered Innocence seeks to platform.  At its best, Queer Japan is an extensive catalog of beautiful queer visual artists, ranging from avant garde drag performers to gay manga illustrators to high-fashion latex & puppy play fetishists.  It also doubles as a tourist roadmap to popular queer nightclubs & pride events in its titular country, which I suppose might be of use to travelers using the doc as a quick crash-course primer.  There’s a wide enough range of vibrant pop art footage that it’s instantly clear why director Graham Kobeins decided they had enough raw material to justify a feature length documentary here; it must’ve been daunting to edit.  If anything, though, that overabundance of subject material is almost too wide of a scope for one documentary.   I would have been a lot more enthusiastic about it as a whole if it dropped its onscreen dictionary of political terms and instead focused entirely on profiling queer Japanese artists in particular, since that’s where its heart appeared to be.

By contrast, the 2017 punk scene documentary Queer Core: How to Punk a Revolution did pull off the trick of tackling both queer art & queer politics without overextending itself.  A talking-heads nostalgia trip into the queer zine culture of punk’s hardcore & riot grrrl eras, there’s nothing particularly revolutionary about the film in terms of form, but its revolutionary content more than makes up for it.  It has plenty furious things to say about assimilation politics that continue to resonate beyond its vintage punk scene infighting & self-mythology, loudly decrying assimilation a “death trap”.  It also has a stylistic upper hand over Queer Japan in its archival footage’s vintage zine aesthetics, cobbling together a loose art scene between such disparate artists as Bruce LaBruce, Vaginal Davis, Team Dresch, Tribe 8, and Bikini Kill (citing earlier provocateurs like Quentin Crisp, John Waters, and William S. Burroughs as their queer elders).  Somehow, though, its political advocacy comes across as much sharper & more specific than its corollary in Queer Japan.  It throws punches at supposed counterculture movements like hippies & punks for continuing the retrograde sexual politics of their Right Wing enemies, pointing out “punk”‘s origins as an explicitly queer term and pushing back against the macho hardcore scene & AIDS paranoia of the Reagan Era.  As soon as Queer Core opens with a cumshot title card, its goal to make straight-boy punks uncomfortable is loud & clear, and all of its hagiographic interviews of queercore, homocore, and riot grrrl artists are filtered through that viscus lens.  Director Yony Leyser’s only real misstep is an early narration track that’s quickly dropped to instead let the subjects speak for themselves, since they’re all loudly, politically opinionated enough to carry the movie on their own.  The art cataloged in Queer Japan is on par with the art cataloged in Queer Core, but only one movie makes great use of the political meaning behind its creation.

You don’t have to be a physical media collector to access these titles.  Queer Japan is currently streaming for free (with a library membership) on Kanopy, and Queer Core is streaming for free (with ad breaks) on Tubi.  As strongly as I preferred Queer Core out of the two, they’re both worth your time if you have any interest in their respective subjects.  I’d even extend that to say that I’ve yet to see an Altered Innocence release that isn’t worth your time.  They’re the best distributor of “LGBTQ & Coming-of-Age films with an artistic edge” that I can name, give or take a Strand Releasing.

-Brandon Ledet

Jackass Forever (2022)

When we revisited 2002’s Jackass: The Movie for the podcast, I was thinking of the Jackass series as a reality-TV update to Pink Flamingos.  There’s an old-fashioned geek show quality to Jackass‘s ever-escalating gross-out “stunts” that feels perfectly in tune with the infamous singing butthole & dogshit-eating gags of John Waters’s midnight-circuit cult classic.  Twenty years later, that shock cinema tradition is still very much alive in Jackass Forever, the fourth (and likely final) film in the Jackass canon.  Refreshingly, it features the most onscreen peen I’ve ever seen in a mainstream American film, but the penises in question are being punched, bitten, stomped, flattened, stung, and otherwise mangled for the audience’s freaked-out amusement.  If there’s been any discernible evolution in the types of stunts the Jackass crew have zeroed in on over the decades, they’ve clearly become less invested in skateboarding & BMX culture and a lot more intrigued by the durability of dicks & balls.  Laughing along with each new stab of jovial genital torture, I was again reminded of watching Pink Flamingos and other John Waters classics in the theater with fellow weirdos, where the laughs always hit way harder than they do alone on your couch. 

The thing is, though, I don’t know that Pink Flamingos ever reached as wide or as otherwise unadventurous of an audience as Jackass has.  Someone in my suburban megaplex theater brought their baby, which I’ve definitely never seen at a John Waters repertory screening, and I think that’s beautiful.  I also don’t know that I’ve ever found a Waters film to be this heartfelt & sentimental.  For all of Jackass‘s boneheaded commitment to gross-out gags, it’s also now a beautiful decades-long story about friendship; that friendship just happens to be illustrated with smeared feces & genital mutilation.  If not only through the virtue of having been around for over twenty years, Jackass has graduated from MTV-flavored geek show to undeniable cultural institution.  It’s like an absurdly idiotic version of the Seven Up! documentary series, except that we learn less about its subjects’ decades of personal growth than we learn about their ongoing quest to light an underwater fart on fire.  Jackass Forever concludes with clips from the original Jackass film & television series juxtaposed against “stunts” that were revised or repeated for this final installment, and it’s easy to get emotional about how far the performers have come in the past twenty years – even though they are doing the exact same shit in middle age that they were doing as near-suicidal twentysomethings.  And since that growth happened on television & suburban megaplex screens instead of exclusively in hipster arthouse theaters, there’s a huge, mainstream audience out there who was along for the entire bumpy ride (including an all-growed-up generation of critics who now get to make lofty comparisons to cultural institutions like Seven Up! & Buster Keaton with a straight face).

One major advantage of having a generation of like-minded sickos grow up laughing along to Jackass stunts is that the old guard no longer have to take the brunt of their own idiocy.  Jackass Forever is functionally a passing of the torch to a new crop of social media geek show performers who are willing to risk concussion, suffer electrocution, and belly-splash into cacti, while most of the veterans stand back to provide color commentary.  That’s not to say the original crew don’t get their dicks sliced & mashed alongside the baby geeks under their wings; you can just feel a “We’re getting too old for this shit” sentiment cropping up when it comes to the harder-hitting stunts – understandably.  I always found the absurdism of the more convoluted gags to be a bigger draw than the neck-breaking life-riskers anyway, and Jackass Forever delivers plenty of those over-the-top novelties: penile bees’ nests, penile ping-pong paddles, penile kaiju, penile everything.  I don’t know that the next generation of performers highlighted here carry enough of that absurdist streak to effectively echo the Jackass brand into the future, but they do have the fearlessness of youth on their side, which makes them useful human shields for the stunts performed here.  The only memorable personality among them is a goofball YouTuber named Poopies, and it’s only because his name is endlessly fun to say. Poopies.

The best way I can advocate for Jackass Forever as essential 2022 cinema is to report that I laughed for the entirety of its 96min runtime, to the point of total physical exhaustion.  It was a cathartic theatrical experience, given how few comedies I’ve seen with a crowd in the past two years – a difficult circumstance to ignore given that there were two scenes featuring cameraman Lance Bangs puking into his COVID mask.  I ended up clearing an entire workday to go see it with friends, a couple of whom could not tag along because they already had other plans to see it opening weekend.  What I’m saying is it’s the can’t-miss Event Film of the season, and it doesn’t need high-brow accolades from the likes of Kirsten Johnson or The New Yorker to legitimize its artistic value or wide-audience appeal.  You can expect those accolades to only get loftier & more hyperbolic in the decades to come, though, so it’s very much worthwhile to catch up with Jackass while it’s still a populist crowd-pleaser and not just one of the more transgressive cult curios in the Criterion Collection (alongside Female Trouble, In the Realm of the Senses, Salò and, if we’re counting laser discs, Pink Flamingos).

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #135 of The Swampflix Podcast: Devil Master Diary

Welcome to Episode #135 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Britnee and Brandon discuss notorious schlockteur Donald G. Jackson’s directorial debut, 1977’s The Demon Lover (aka The Devil Master) and its buzzkill behind-the-scenes documentary Demon Lover Diary (1980).

00:00 Welcome

03:50 Those Who Wish Me Dead (2021)
08:40 The Woman in the Window (2021)
15:17 Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
22:12 Out of the Dark (1988)

27:20 The Demon Lover (aka The Devil Master, 1977)
38:40 Demon Lover Diary (1980)

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcher, or by following the links below.

– Britnee Lombas and Brandon Ledet

Episode #126 of The Swampflix Podcast: Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, and 2020’s Honorable Mentions

Welcome to Episode #126 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, and Britnee continue our discussion of the Top Films of 2020 with some honorable mentions, starting with the quasi-local quasi-documentary Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. Enjoy!

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

– The Podcast Crew

The NYC Art Gallery Concert Film

I recently found myself falling down a hyperspecific rabbit hole watching live performances of bands that meant a lot to me in high school. It started with the David Byrne concert film American Utopia, which I caught up with on HBO as part of the late-in-the-year hunt for potential Best of the Year list-toppers. Even more so than the landmark Talking Heads documentary Stop Making Sense, American Utopia is a unique specimen within the concert film genre. Unlike most rock concert docs, it doesn’t aim to energize or throttle the audience in any discernible way. It’s an upbeat but gentle work, staged with regimented, clinical precision within the rigid confines of a Broadway theatrical setting. Spike Lee directs the film with a controlled, observant formalism that only appears in flashes in his messier, more idiosyncratic works. As a movie, American Utopia is more like stumbling across a performance art piece in an NYC art gallery than attending a rock show or even a typical Broadway musical. It’s not the only concert film of that exact ilk, though, and I soon found myself seeking out more heady art gallery concert docs on its wavelength to keep the arty party going.

I was lucky enough to catch the traveling American Utopia show live at the 2018 Jazz Fest, but it was a lot more of a traditional rock performance than what’s captured in the movie version. Watching Byrne perform for the first time live in the afternoon sunshine, I found myself crying while dancing in a rare moment of ecstatic happiness – maybe the second time I’ve ever experienced such euphoria at a concert. That Jazz Fest set was an abbreviated version of the show, one that cut out a few songs and, more importantly, abbreviated the spoken monologues that act as the show’s thematic throughline. In the movie (and, presumably, most live performances of the act), Byrne’s parade of solo & Talking Heads hits are bookended by short lectures that examine the function & the soul of American culture from a distanced outsider perspective; it’s a kind of spiritual sequel to Byrne’s small-town America portrait True Stories in that way. It’s an honest but optimistic temperature check of where America is today, both acknowledging the horrors of racially-motivated police brutality that have long been a stain on this country’s honor and pointing to our current moment of change as a possibly transformative turning point towards a better future. Meanwhile, everything onstage is rigidly uniformed & regimented like a dystopian sci-fi film, with the traditional rock performers’ instruments & colorful costuming stripped away to mimic the minimalism of modern performance art.

American Utopia has earned plenty accolades as one of the best cinematic experiences of the year, but it’s not the only NYC Art Gallery Concert Film that was recently highlighted as a Cultural Event. In an effort to stay visible as a cultural institution despite ongoing COVID-lockdowns, the Brooklyn concert venue St. Ann’s Warehouse has been periodically broadcasting past shows on YouTube, free-to-the-public. A recent one that caught my eye (thanks to write-ups on sites like the New York Times) was a 2007 concert film version of Lou Reed’s Berlin. The follow-up to Reed’s cult solo record Transformer, Berlin was a critical & financial flop in 1973, a failure that broke the rock ‘n roller’s heart to the point where he refused to play songs from the album live. The 2007 performance at St. Ann’s Warehouse is a decades-in-the-making event, then, finding Reed performing the proggy concept album in its entirety with a sprawling backup band that included contributions from Sharon Jones, Antony, and a full children’s choir. It also translated Berlin into the world of Visual Art, layering in dramatic visualizations of the album’s loose “narrative” (as projections on the stage and interjections on the screen) as if they were fuzzy memories bubbling up to the surface of the songs. The film’s director, fine art painter Julian Schnabel, does his best to turn the concert film experience into an instillation piece, achieving an art gallery aesthetic in a much uglier, more somber way than Byrne’s work. Weirdly enough, both movies also happen to share a cinematographer in Ellen Kuras.

After watching Berlin & American Utopia in short succession, I caught myself wondering what the ultimate NYC Art Gallery Concert Film would be. The answer was immediately obvious, although I had not yet seen the film myself because of its limited availability. Laurie Anderson’s 1986 concert film Home of the Brave is a 90min distillation of her two-night concert piece United States I-IV. Having now only seen a fuzzy rip of the film that’s lurking on YouTube (as it unforgivably has never made the format leap from VHS & laserdisc to DVD), I’m fairly confident in calling it The Greatest Concert Film of All Time. I know that title has been communally bestowed upon Stop Making Sense, but Anderson’s piece certainly belongs in that conversation, if not only for highlighting how her work pioneered a lot of the more Conceptual Art elements that goes into Byrne’s stage shows. Anderson also observes the soul & structure of America in a series of abstracted, outsider-POV lectures the way Byrne does in American Utopia, but those monologues are interwoven into her avant-garde new wave songs to the point where there’s no boundary between them. Projectors, voice modulators, newly invented instruments, and guest appearances from William S. Burroughs of all people are prominently featured in her show as if they were the hallmarks of a rock ‘n roll music video instead of weirdo outsider-artist eccentricities. While American Utopia & Berlin evoke the mood & setting of an art gallery, Home of the Brave is an art gallery, and it’s a shame that it’s the only film of the three that you can’t currently access in Blu-ray quality.

Although she’s less of a household name elsewhere, Laurie Anderson was very much an equal & a contemporary alongside David Byrne & Lou Reed in NYC art snob circles (and Reed’s spouse in the final years of his life, a pain explored in the experimental essay film Heart of a Dog). Stop Making Sense might have preceded the concert film version of her United States I-IV act by a few years, but she was already pushing its more out-there ideas (especially its use of projectors) to their furthest extremes in her own stage work at that same time. If anything, American Utopia finds David Byrne leaning even further into the Laurie Anersonisms of his own work, to the point where it feels like it’s turning Home of the Brave‘s idiosyncrasies into a concert film subgenre all of its own. The only other concert doc I can name that approaches these films’ shared NYC art gallery aesthetic is Bjork’s Biophilia project, which is great company to be in. They might not be the most raucous or chaotic specimens of rock ‘n roll hedonism, but they collectively strive to elevate the concert film to new artistic highs; and Anderson clearly stands as the mastermind of the medium.

-Brandon Ledet