House of Cardin (2020)

I saw two fashion documentaries at this year’s New Orleans French Film Festival. The more artistically ambitious one—Celebration—was an eerily atmospheric, shot-on-16mm abstraction capturing the aging Yves Saint Laurent in the lead-up to his final show in 1998. It was an aesthetically pleasant bore. The more straight-forward, less stylistic film—House of Cardin—was a biographical fluff piece shamelessly promoting the legacy of its own aging subject, designer Pierre Cardin. It was a delight. House of Cardin is not at all interested in matching the avant-garde artistry of its subject in any formal way; it’s about as forward-thinking in its filmmaking style as an I Love the 60s special on VH1. However, the vibrant, playful art of Pierre Cardin more than speaks for itself, and stepping out of that portfolio’s way read to me like a great sign of respect. By contrast, the stylistic flourishes of Celebration constantly call attention to itself in a showy way that feels almost deliberately disrespectful to its own subject. Whether or not it’s the refined, Intellectual thing to say, the charming Fluff Piece was simply more enjoyable & more useful to me as an audience than the Art Film.

I fell in love with Pierre Cardin’s mod-defining, Pop Art fashion designs over the course of this movie. By recalling his career path from haute couturier to ready-to-wear name brand, the movie is able to touch on such cultural touchstones as Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, the mod style revolution of The Beatles, and the injections of Space Race futurism into women’s everyday fashion – all of which Cardin had a major hand in. More importantly, the film knows that its strongest asset is the bold graphic imagery of Cardin’s designs – relying heavily on archival footage of the designer’s life’s work as illustrated in its own time. It’s totally in love with Cardin, even taking amusement in his self-dilution by licensing his brand to products as wide-ranging as sunglasses, cars, perfumes, telephones, you name it. This is practically more of a narrated slideshow than it is a proper film, and it’s cheesily wonderful for it. The truth is that Cardin himself is charmingly tacky (especially the further away he gets from his 1960s heyday), so it’s appropriate that he’d have a flashy fluff-piece doc where a parade of celebrities stop by just to gush about how wonderful he is.  Cheesy or not, it’s near impossible to walk away from this film without falling a little further in love with Cardin; the adoration is infectious.

I could see how a much more learned fashionista who’s already scholarly informed on all the ins & outs of both Cardin’s & YSL’s careers could have the exact opposite reaction than me. Maybe the contextless atmospheric dread of Celebration would have registered with more heft if I knew more about YSL’s life & career going in. Likewise, maybe House of Cardin’s no-frills presentation of its own designer’s career highlights would have been a bore. As a fashion-curious newbie who needs a little informational handholding, though, I much preferred the puff piece.

-Brandon Ledet

Celebration (2019)

At the same New Orleans French Film Festival where I saw an aging auteur say goodbye to her audience in a direct, personable way in the wonderful Varda by Agnès, it was difficult to not feel let down by the insincere, unceremonious goodbye of Celebration. Whereas the Varda film invites the audience into the heart & mind of its director/subject before they disappear from the world forever, Celebration keeps the audience at a guarded, cold distance. Maybe that distanced approach is more appropriate for Celebration’s more curmudgeonly subject, but it makes for a much less engaging & coherent film as a result. What’s fascinating about that difference between these two works to me is that the superior Varda by Agnès was seemingly constructed & distributed with casual ease in its director’s dying days, whereas Celebration has been fighting for its right to exist for decades – finally arriving long after its subject’s death and, maybe, long after its own expired significance.

The occasion for Celebration is the final show for legendary fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, filmed in 1998. The title is deliberately ironic, as the entirety of the preparation & execution of this event is thoroughly somber in tone. You could maybe blame that grim atmosphere on the significance of YSL’s retirement, as his was reportedly the last of the great haute couture houses still in operation under their original designer. In practice, it’s clear that the sour mood is more a result of YSL’s own everyday temperament. He skulks about with a constant, disapproving frown that only lights up when he pampers his pet bulldog or encounters the gorgeous, young supermodels who advertise his creations. He hardly speaks at all in the film, retreating mostly to black & white solitude while his hundreds of uncredited employees do most of the day-to-day work in grainy flurries of color. YSL gives his documentarians very little to work with, and even just that morsel was yanked away from them in post-production.

Initially shot in the late 90s on 16mm film, Celebration took nearly a decade to fully shape itself into a proper feature – an early draft of which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2007. It has since been bullied out of existence by the closest business partners of YSL (who has since passed away). Their protectiveness is somewhat understandable, as the void created by YSL’s grumpy isolation is filled by his closest collaborators’ unseemly vanity & aggression while staging the show. In short, the movie is bad PR. It easily could have padded its thinly-provided raw material with a glowing career overview of YSL’s significance in Haute Couture. Instead, it allows a few glimpses at Art History-inspired gowns & women’s tuxedos to substitute that background info. Most of the runtime is dedicated to capturing the eerie, miserable atmosphere behind the scenes at YSL’s final show – accentuated by a creepy score from horror cinema composer François-Eudes Chanfrault (who has also passed away during the wait for this film’s release).

Without any contextual info about how this late-career misery differs from YSL’s earlier, more youthful fashion shows, this behind-the-scenes glimpse fails to communicate anything coherent or concrete. Like the worst of the “elevated horrors” of recent years that it stylistically emulates, it’s all atmosphere and no substance.

-Brandon Ledet

Varda by Agnès (2019)

I remember thinking that Agnès Varda’s recent collaboration with French photographer JR, Faces Places, was an excellent crash course in the director’s professional history as an artist. The way that project synthesized Varda’s past work in still photography, art instillations, and the blending of documentary & narrative filmmaking felt like a succinct summation of everything she had accomplished in her lifetime as a titan of cinema. That take on Faces Places feels a little premature in retrospect now that I’ve seen Varda’s latest—and, sadly, final—feature: Varda by Agnès. As the title suggests, this final documentary is a much more direct, comprehensive retelling of Varda’s career in the auteur’s own words. It covers the major milestones of everything she accomplished on movie screens, in art galleries, and in outdoor instillation pieces as its central declared topic, whereas Faces Places only referenced that portfolio in relation to how it influenced her work with JR. This film is the Agnès Varda crash course, the career overview that guides each viewer to their personal blindspots in her oeuvre and provides further anecdotal background info for Varda scholars already deeply in the know.

True to her playful, intellectually considerate approach to filmmaking, Varda addresses this indulgence in self-academia head-on by allowing the subject to shape the film’s form. Varda by Agnès is presented as an interlocking series of lectures, where the director herself orates from a proper stage to several live audiences. The entirety of the picture is narrated by Varda, with illustrative film clips & still-photograph slideshows fleshing out each touchstone of her sermon. Instead of starting with her very first film (La Pointe Courte) and chronologically trudging along to her most recent project (Faces Places), Varda instead allows the story of her career to gradually take shape as she naturally follows the flow of topics that have informed her work over the years, as if having a casual (and one-sided) conversation with her audience. She’s teaching us everything she knows about filmmaking (or “cinewriting,” as she calls it) by looking back to the major touchstones of her career, but she somehow never takes on an authoritative or professorial tone. Instead, it feels as if she’s leveling with us as equals; it’s a humble & empathetic sharing of everything she’s learned over a half-century of filmmaking, so that we can utilize that knowledge for more & better art once she’s gone.

While its initial premise suggests that it’s merely a career overview of Varda’s work in particular, Varda by Agnès functions just as well as general advice from the auteur on the processes & philosophies of filmmaking at large. She breaks down the art of “cinewriting” into three basic processes: inspiration, creation, and sharing. The contextual info she provides for her own films is consistently informed by those three tenets, and she uses that structure to deliver meaningful advice to the young artists who will outlive her. Larger topics like radical politics, the subjectivity of time, and the ability of a creator’s empathy to transform mundane subjects into transcendent Art arise naturally as the movie pauses on various projects from Varda’s past. Varda by Agnès may not be as kinetic or as aggressively stylistic as her career’s greatest triumphs (a contrast that’s unignorable, given those films’ presence on the screen), but it’s still incredibly playful & thoughtful in its own construction, especially considering the limitations of its structure as an academic lecture. Varda’s body was failing her as this project took shape, and she died before it premiered at the Cannes International Film Festival last year. It’s a wonder the film exists at all, much less that it’s as intellectually sharp & creatively fluid as it is, even if its physical staging is limited.

The world did not deserve Agnès Varda. Yet, she gave us everything she could muster anyway. Even in her dying year, she gifted us a concrete way to say goodbye & to memorialize everything she accomplished while alive. Most aging auteurs of her stature don’t get that chance, and even fewer would go about their very public retirement in such a humble, uncurmudgeonly way.

-Brandon Ledet

Singular (2019)

I first fell in love with jazz vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant at her 2015 Jazz Fest performance, where her unpretentious, playful stage presence felt like a once-in-a-lifetime gift I didn’t deserve. It says a lot about her accessibility that she affected me at all, given that I listen to essentially zero modern jazz. Yet, there was a sinisterly subversive, rawly sexual prankishness to her art that read as being punk-as-fuck to me across that genre divide. Salvant has also been a hit among people who actually are in tune with the current state of jazz, winning multiple consecutive Grammys in the few years since that performance and many other accolades besides. Part of her rise-to-legend path now includes the PR-boosting documentary Singular, which premiered in her hometown of Miami this year before screening at The New Orleans Film Festival to an audibly delighted crowd. Unfortunately, the film itself doesn’t quite live up to Salvant’s subversive, audience-rattling stage presence, but I’m not sure it ever had a fighting chance to do so.

Smartly, Singular anchors its recap of Salvant’s quick rise to relative fame on a Miami concert where the genius of her art is on full, open display. Talking-head interviews & home video footage of her pre-fame years interrupt the concert at regular intervals, but you do get just enough of a taste of what she’s up to onstage to understand why she’s so distinct in her field. The problem is that it’s difficult to not want more, especially if you’re hearing her music for the very first time. I’d usually be thankful for a film with this straightforward of a subject sticking to a slim 68min runtime, but here that compression means that Salvant’s performances are frequently disrupted by the commentariat, with interviewees talking over her art about how great that art supposedly is, as opposed to letting the work speak for itself. It’s probably unfair of me to wish this were a full-on concert film instead of a documentary, but in all honesty the story of Salvant’s life (as presented here) isn’t nearly as interesting as the story her work tells onstage. Few things are.

This is ultimately a very polite, well-behaved documentary for a subversively raunchy, confrontational performer who deserves something with much sharper teeth. Salvant’s backstory of training with an intimidating French professor at her “momager’s” insistence before returning to America to wow jazz snobs who didn’t know what to expect from her is endearing, but not especially eye-opening. As the narrative approaches her modern day interests—confronting the performance of racial caricature in jazz history, drawing psychedelic cartoons of a “lobster woman” in her free time, modeling some world-class couture glasses-frames, etc.—the story starts to get more interesting but then abruptly shuts down as if those were footnotes & addendums instead of the central text. Part of the issue might be that these legend-building docs usually arrive posthumously or late in an artist’s career, while Salvant’s story is still very much unfolding. At this point, anything but a proper concert film is bound to feel a little premature.

Whatever faults Singular might have as an overly reserved document of a wild, punches-throwing artist, it does have plenty of net benefits in pushing Salvant in front of an even wider audience. I imagine if you’ve never heard of her before this doc could play as a revelation that a Nina Simone-level genius is alive & working in plain sight, waiting for your eyes & ears. The contrast between her work & the doc’s reserved nature might even unintentionally emphasize her art’s subversive playfulness, which seeps through the concert footage despite the buttoned-up style of the interviews. The movie also does convey a kind of lighting-in-a-bottle aspect of her current work by contrasting it with her life & career as a whole. In early footage of her amateur concerts & competitions, Salvant is obviously talented, but feels like a relatable, pedestrian nerd from Miami. In her contemporary performances, she’s a ferociously confident, once-in-a-lifetime persona, as if something magical within her had clicked into place that cannot be fully explained. It’s difficult to not yearn for more of that modern, magical footage in a feature-length concert film, but this document of that trajectory from green talent to world-conquering confidence is still worthwhile on its own merits – even if barely so.

-Brandon Ledet

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project (2019)

I remember when the news of Marion Stokes’s death made headlines because of her massive home-recorded VHS collection. At least, I recall the news of that self-produced library being absorbed by the Internet Archive in San Francisco years later, where its unparalleled immensity first became evident. For three consecutive decades, the seemingly anonymous, obsessive woman simultaneously recorded multiple television news networks on 70,000 VHS cassettes. In the hands of a media watchdog organization or an avant-garde digital artist, this project might have been contextualized as a radical act of persevering history. From a non-publicized, self-funded effort from an unknown, private citizen, however, it was treated more as a sign of mental illness. The inherent value of Marion Stokes’s D.I.Y. archive is instantly recognizable to anyone with a passing interest in pop culture preservation – especially given the scope & consistency of her efforts – but the discussion around what she accomplished was initially framed as an unintended byproduct in the life of a hoarder & a crackpot. Recorder, a new documentary that attempts to clarify who Stokes was and why she created such a labor-intensive archive, is an essential corrective to those misinformed assumptions. This movie vindicates Marion Stokes as an absolute fucking genius who know exactly what she was doing, even when those closest to her didn’t have a clue.

I don’t mean to suggest that Stokes’s characterizations as a reclusive eccentric and a hoarder are entirely inaccurate. Her obsessive collection of television news broadcasts extended to other, less uniquely valuable “archives” of furniture she liked, Apple computer products, books, and the tell-tale Achilles heel of many hoarders: newspapers & magazines. It’s just entirely unfair & disingenuous to suggest that Stokes did not understand the full value of her D.I.Y. television news broadcast archive, which was very much a deliberately political & academic project of her own design. At one time in her early life as an ideologically combative idealist, Stokes worked as a legitimate, professional librarian in NYC. Her political associations with Socialist and Communist organizations in the 1950s eventually locked her out of that work, as she was effectively backlisted for her leftist ideals. Her interest in broadcast television as a powerful ideological communication tool began with later appearances on a local roundtable panel discussion show called Input, where she was a regular pundit as a political organizer in the 60s & 70s. Recording & preserving a physical archive of TV news broadcasts became a personal interest to her since even the primordial days of Betamax, but it was the news coverage of the Iranian hostage crisis in the late 70s that really kicked her diligent recording into high gear. As coverage of the event evolved from news to propaganda, she became fascinated by the way TV news was reshaping & repackaging facts in real time – something that would extend to how American crises like police brutality, the War on Terror, and the AIDS epidemic would be covered in the future. This was not some unplanned hoarder’s tic that blindly stumbled into cultural relevance; it was a purposefully political act from the start.

You could easily assemble a hundred distinctly fascinating documentaries out of this one rogue librarian’s archive. Stokes’s tapes are a bottomless treasure trove for an editing room tinkerer, which leads to some truly stunning moments here – particularly in a sequence that demonstrates in real time how all TV news coverage was gradually consumed by the tragedy of 9/11. As this D.I.Y. archive is an extensive cultural record of American society over the past thirty years, the list of trends & topics that could be explored in their own full-length documentaries are only as limited as an editor’s imagination. Recorder does excellent work as a primer on the cultural wealth archived in those VHS tapes (which have since been digitized), as it both explores larger ideas of how media reflects society back to itself and does full justice to the rogue political activist who did dozens & dozens of people’s work by assembling it. The film doesn’t shy away from acknowledging that the project became an escapist & dissociative mechanism for the increasingly reclusive Stokes as the years went on, but it also makes it explicitly clear that she knew the full value of what she was preserving well before anyone else validated her efforts. Was Marion Stokes paranoid that America was being taken over the by the Nazi Right, that the media was systemically racist in how it contextualized police brutality, that all of this raw cultural record would be lost by television networks that claimed they were archiving their own material? Or was she an incredibly perceptive activist who’d be proven right on all those counts, given enough time? Recorder is a great film, but it’s only the first step in giving this visionary her full due.

-Brandon Ledet

Gracefully (2019)

My entire familiarity with gender performance as entertainment has been centered on American (or at least Western) drag tradition until recently, which was even further limited to the arena of Southern pageant drag until just a few years ago. As the influence of avant-garde Club Kids artistry is rapidly spreading on the “mainstream” drag stage, the definition of what drag is and what drag can be is changing. For instance, it was impossible to watch the glammed-up luchadores of the recent documentary Cassandro, the Exotico! and not think of how that tradition was an extension of drag artistry, not just a mutation of Mexican pro wrestling culture. Similarly, you’ll never hear the word “drag” uttered in the documentary Gracefully, but it’s clear that the unnamed Iranian female impersonator the film profiles is clearly performing a non-American variation on the artform. He performs purely as a dancer when exhibiting his art, sidestepping the lip-syncing traditions of drag as we know it. There’s also drastically different cultural history to how his own artform came to be, which means you’ll never hear the word “queer’ or “gay” uttered in the film either; they’re just not part of his background. And yet, the D.I.Y. glam artistry, political combativeness, and illusionary gender performance of his work all qualify him to be considered in a drag context – a medium that’s exponentially expanding its scope every passing year.

This unnamed dancer’s work is not some fresh invention of the modern era of drag. If anything, Gracefully catches up with the dancer in an era where his time is long gone and his traditions are threatening to fade away, forgotten. The conservative moralism that overtook his country after the Iranian Revolution of 1979 made his artform obsolete—as dancing itself was effectively outlawed—making this film just as much a harsh look at art under censorship as it is a portrait of a singular, fascinating man. Once a popular sensation as a man who dances in woman’s clothing (thanks to a gendered privilege that allowed him certain freedoms women couldn’t afford), he mostly continues his art in private, performing for no one. Sub-professional venues like local wedding celebrations & nursing home visits are certainly beneath his former prestige as a nationally recognized dancer with a burgeoning film career, but it’s amazing he’s still performing at all. Hell, it’s amazing that he’s alive. He toils most days as a respectable working-class farmer and the father to six(!) adult sons, but one whose domestic routines seem like harshly quiet, cruelly restrained distractions from what truly makes him happy, what he was born to do. Any time we get to see him perform his art for the camera it’s a gorgeous act of self-expression; the tragedy of the film is how limited those opportunities have become.

Gracefully is smart to never allow the flashiness of its craft to overpower the inherent fasciation of its subject (something that unfortunately can’t be said about this year’s Cassandro, the Exotico!). When it does get noticeably artful in its framing & imagery, it’s only ever in service of its subject’s dancing—often showing him performing in pitch-black voids as if his D.I.Y. glamor was the only thing in the world that matters. Otherwise, the emotional wallops of the film arrive in surprisingly understated ways: watching him raise young calves on the farm, listening to his sons express their varied opinions on the value & morality of his art, the tragedy of his extensive femme wardrobe being locked away in storage containers where no one can admire it, etc. Lest you think we’ve already arrived at a place where drag is no longer a subversively political act (which I don’t think is true in America; it’s just the kind of thing that Very Online, jaded city-folk might say), Gracefully offers an incredibly distinct, fascinating example where it’s being censored out of existence. Its nameless subject is a kind of rebellious activist in that sense, but for the most part he only wants to have the freedom to do what he pleases: dance in women’s clothing. And he’s really good at it! It’s devastating to see that his art has been so limited by censorship that he himself has become a living archive for a dead tradition, but at least this movie consciously strives to preserve his corner of drag tradition to help ensure his legacy is not forgotten. It’s important work.

-Brandon Ledet

Pier Kids (2019)

There’s a reason we’ve seen so many documentaries about homeless queer youth in America over the decades, especially on the festival circuit: it’s a huge fucking problem. Gay, trans, nonbinary, and otherwise queer children are especially vulnerable to being kicked out onto the street by their families, which often resigns them to high-risk lives of petty theft & sex work to get by in an increasingly hostile world. Many documentaries are (rightfully) drawn to signal-boosting these stories as a means to advocating for the kids locked in this never-ending epidemic, which makes for both an amplified political advocacy in total and a crowded field where it is difficult for any one individual film to distinguish itself in isolation. Pier Kids is one of many, many documentaries on a frequently covered (even if vital) topic. Its merits as an individual work can only be judged by two criteria, then: the specific kids it chooses to document and the way it handles presenting their story.

This particular queer homeless youth advocacy doc opens with seething commentary on the assumed POV in the cultural history of queer identity. A title card asserts that in the fifty years since the Stonewall Riots the narrative of modern gay rights has been dominated by cisgender White Gays, when the real work needs to be focused on protecting & uplifting POC homeless youth, especially black trans women. Other recent documentary work I’ve seen in this same line of advocacy has been centered on action & organization in “solving” this epidemic, like the unofficial Paris is Burning sequel Kiki and the gang violence “rehabilitation” effort Check It!. Pier Kids is seemingly more focused on calling attention to the problem than actively advocating for a specific solution, as it profiles individual homeless youths who frequent the piers of NYC in-between excursions in sex work & shoplifting. This matter-of-fact document of systemically ignored & discarded youth has plenty of intrinsic value without having to push for a more clearly defined solution to the problem, and the film is likely better for not reaching beyond its means for that lofty goal.

The title “Pier Kids” is especially telling in this approach, as it emphasizes that these young, homeless sex workers are disenfranchised children who’re struggling to establish a foundation of normality in a systemically cruel world. Like many docs in this milieu, the film dedicates much of its energy to parsing out the structure & functions of gay “families” – wherein veterans of the scene provide makeshift homes & parental guidance to their “gay children.” Cops, drunken Wall Street bros, and physically violent johns create a cruelly unfair, rigged system where financially desperate youths are solicited for sex, then suffer all the legal, emotional, and physical consequences for prostitution. Director Elegance Bratton can’t help themselves in vocally responding “Oh my god” and “I’m so sorry” to the more egregious horrors suffered by their subjects, but just as much room is left for tenderness & tough love shared in these chosen, D.I.Y. family structures. This is not an act of culture-gazing; it’s a slice of life look at a community with volatile ups & downs.

To its credit, Pier Kids openly acknowledges its small part in a larger documentary tradition. Glimpses at ball culture glamor and detailed explanations of differing vogueing “house” structures directly recall Paris is Burning. A central subject named Krystal Labeija Dixon encourages the audience to look up the Crystal Labeija’s infamous read from the landmark documentary The Queen on YouTube as an explanation of why she chose her name. Pier Kids’s cheap digital equipment leaves it with a cold visual palette that can’t compete with those early documentaries’ wonderfully grimy, color-saturated celluloid patina. Similarly, its soundtrack is often overwhelmed by the roar of traffic, the hum of mobile streetlight generators, and the menace of police sirens. However, its personal, intimate documentation of a new, specific crop of homeless queer kids is just as essential as any past works – if not only as confirmation that the epidemic is still ongoing. These children are still out there taking care of themselves & each other with no end or solution to this cycle in sight. I do hope there will be a day when these documentaries are no longer such a regular routine, but only in the sense that I hope for a future where they’re no longer necessary. We’re not there yet.

-Brandon Ledet

Hunting for Hedonia (2019)

I am a luddite by nature, so the ethical and hypothetical questions raised in the documentary Hunting for Hedonia make me absolutely terrified of the future. That’s not exactly what I expected from the film, since so much of its subject is rooted in the past. The central topic of this documentary is research in the field of Deep Brain Stimulation – wherein the physical pleasure centers of the human brain are activated by electric pulses via surgically inserted wires. It’s a technology that was first developed in 1950s New Orleans by Dr. Robert Heath of Tulane University. Seeking to depopulate the grim mental institutions of the era that treated patients like prisoners, Heath and his team experimented with this radical technology to cure the most hopeless cases of clinical depression and put an end to the practice of lobotomy. Their success led to more exploratory applications of the tech that immediately crossed major ethical boundaries and retroactively damaged the reputation of the research among their peers. Now, modern neurosurgeons are rediscovering the benefits of DBS independently of Heath’s forgotten, discredited research and finding entirely new, complexly fucked up ways to abuse the tech – hinting at a terrifying near-future we’re somewhat helpless to avoid.

The horror and the wonder of DBS is that it really works. Patients suffering from extreme, incurable cases of suicidal depression, addiction, OCD, and Parkinson’s have had their lives saved by this experimental frontier of neuromodulation. This combination of psychology & neuroscience that engages the physical location of pleasure in the brain (Hedonia) has produced unignorable results in patents who have been failed by medication & talk therapy in the past. That doesn’t mean DBS is a perfect, foolproof science, though. Side effects in “cured” patients have included unexpected increase in rage & loss of impulse control, suggesting that these neurosurgeons are tapping into capabilities of the brain that we don’t yet fully understand. That’s where the terrifying vision of our near-future abuses of DBS come in, as excited, capitalistic interest in the re-emerging field is getting ahead of the technology’s currently limited applications. There’s money to be made in being able to alter the functions of the human brain – cosmetically, recreationally, militaristically, and so on – that raise dangerous ethical questions not yet fully ironed out by its application in the medical field, where it’s actually warranted. The scary thing is that these boundaries have already been crossed in the past, as Heath & crew contributed to nefarious DBS applications like participation in MK Ultra & gay conversion “therapy” (read: abuse) and yet no one seems to have learned from their unforgivable mistakes.

As a documentary, Hunting for Hedonia is most valuable for its ability to explain the full scope of DBS’s history in concise layman’s terms. It covers the horrific past of its abuse, the promising present of its success in the therapy field, and the terrifying future of its rapid, unavoidable escalation in a modern capitalist paradigm. Considering its detached narration from the expertly icy Tilda Swinton and its innocuous score, I don’t think the film necessarily leans into the eeriness of its subject in a flashy or deliberate way. If anything, it often plays like a well-behaved, informative BBC documentary instead of a work of art. Still, I was thoroughly creeped out by its subject’s ethical implications for our insidiously techy future, to the point where its 1950s lab footage & Rotoscope animations felt like vintage sci-fi horror from the drive-in era. That feeling of unease was only amplified by catching a screening of the film at this year’s New Orleans Film Festival, where local neurosurgeons familiar with Dr. Heath’s research were muttering to each other about what a genius he was before the lights went down. I felt like running around the theater shouting “Don’t you see what he’s done?! Stop before it’s too late! Soylent Green is people!” in protest. Then again, DBS has obviously already helped people in desperate need and my luddite skepticism of its grim implications for the future are so far hypothetical in nature. That screening felt like an ethical Litmus test, and it’s unclear to me which side of the divide failed it.

-Brandon Ledet

The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2006)

I don’t remember ever crying over a celebrity’s death before this week, when Daniel Johnston died of a heart attack at 58 years old. A singular talent as a songwriter and a cartoonist, Johnston deserved so much better than the hand that life & biology dealt him. He lived long enough to see his work respected by other outsider artists who could tune into the pained genius of his uniquely perceptive song lyrics, but he was also crushed under a life-long struggle with schizophrenic & manic-depressive episodes that could only be kept at bay with a debilitating routine of heavy medications. Johnston’s art, career, and eventually his body where cut short by a mental disorder beyond his or anyone’s control, and it fucking sucks. He deserved so much better.

The one minor consolation in his passing is that Johnston recorded hundreds of songs about death & depression while he was alive to help fans process this deeply shitty news. His low-fi recordings & confessional songwriting style established an intimacy with his audience that’s only fueled by his relative in-the-know obscurity. I first heard Daniel Johnston in the pre-file-sharing days when I got my hands on a burned copy of the Kids soundtrack (years before I saw the actual movie), which featured his song “Casper the Friendly Ghost.” It was a perfect intro to his insular world for not only reflecting his fixations on Death & pop culture iconography, but also feeling like a window into an obscure, unobtainable catalog of outsider music – the exact kind of in-the-know exclusivity you crave as a teenager. It took me years to piece together a collection of Daniel Johnston recordings in the early aughts, starting with a purchase of his sole major-label release Fun and eventually moving on to what stray mp3s I could find on file-staring platforms. That changed drastically with the arrival of The Devil and Daniel Johnston in 2006, a documentary about the fame-seeking-turned-reclusive singer that told his whole life’s story thirteen years before his death. Suddenly, Johnston’s catalog was more accessible in local pop culture media stores; I could find cassettes, CDs, and reissue LPs of his work with much greater, much appreciated ease. He also miraculously started appearing in concerts nearby, arriving as one of the first touring acts I remember seeing in New Orleans post-Katrina, and at least twice more in the decade since.

Weirdly, with this sudden wealth of Johnston material in my life after years of waiting & searching, the documentary itself became almost more of a personal favorite than the recordings it was promoting. You’d think that as a 20-year-old hipster dipshit (with all the protective “I got here first!” snobbery that comes at that age of music fandom), I would have had a chip on my shoulder about a documentary boosting Johnston’s public profile (to the point where his song “Story of an Artist” that’s prominently featured in the film was recently deployed in an Apple commercial, unfathomably). Instead, it became an obsession, the first documentary I ever truly fell in love with. We would watch this film over & over again in my college years, back when it was much cheaper & more convenient to just grind the few DVDs you owned into dust than to constantly loop back to the (rapidly disappearing) local rental stores for fresh content. Not only did The Devil and Daniel Johnston fill a need for more information about a niche musician I could previously only access through the occasional scraps that trickled down to Southeast Louisiana, but the story of his struggles with mental health really hit close to home at that time. A close college friend, like Daniel, had recently triggered an inevitable crisis with bipolar disorder in a period of recreationally experimenting with LSD. After he shed his possessions, began raving about God & The Devil, and started putting himself & others in danger in high-risk situations like moving traffic, we eventually (and conflictedly) found ourselves having him committed to a grim mental institution nearby. Unlike Daniel, that friend appears to be doing fine now, but it still meant a lot to see that same story play out on the screen at the time, even with the worse ending.

Revisiting The Devil and Daniel Johnston the night his premature death was announced, it felt great to confirm that, yes, this is an exquisite specimen of the modern documentary and that I didn’t replay it incessantly in college only because I loved and related to the subject. In the thirteen years since its release, the film’s visual & storytelling style has since become a kind of standard norm in documentary filmmaking, but it really felt emotionally & formally exceptional at the time. Talking-head interviews, still photographs, home movies, television clips, and animated illustrations of Johnston’s songs combine to create a collage portrait of an artist whose world had been fractured many times over. Seeing this template repeated for other troubled artists like Amy Winehouse, Betty Davis, and DEATH in the years since has admittedly lessened some of the film’s impact as a structurally playful piece, but there are still details to the film that make it feel unique in its musician’s portrait genre. Firstly, Johnston’s life story of recording songs in his basement while his parents yelled at him from the stairs to give up on his dreams and get a job, only for him to later make those very tapes infamous by elbowing his way onto MTV (in-between joining a traveling carnival & working at McDonald’s) is incredible. Then, the way his mental disorder disrupted what could have been a thriving career as a songwriter by making him obsess over The Devil and a “love of his life” who he hardly knew (before finally wrecking his ability to take care of himself on a daily basis) makes the film just as much of an emotional experience as it is an informative one. Finally, the wealth of documentation of Daniel’s daily life—from audio recordings, super-8 home movies, photographs, journals, etc.—afford the filmmakers a wealth of material to illustrate the story they’re telling. It’s an incredibly rich experience, one of the very best of its kind.

Much like Johnston’s countless songs about death & depression in his music catalog, this documentary is incredibly helpful in processing the heartbreaking news of his passing. Also like with his songs, that process is not necessarily easy or fun. The opening shot is of Daniel talking in a selfie pose with his super-8 camera pointed at a mirror, announcing, “Hello, I am the ghost of Daniel Johnston,” as if from beyond the grave. Much of the movie plays this way, prematurely covering his life & art as if he were already dead. The final credits play over footage of Johnston posing in a Casper the Friendly Ghost costume in what appears to be a public park, obscured & wraithlike. It hits an emotionally raw nerve, but it’s also beautifully & radically honest, perceptive work. It’s pure Daniel Johnston in that way, so that the movie feels just as essential to his body of work as any of his songs or drawings. If you’re interested in becoming familiar with the life & art of this eternally tragic entertainer or if you need a way to properly say goodbye after years of sharing an intimate connection with his deeply personal D.I.Y. recordings, I highly recommend returning to this film. It will likely fuck you up, but you might also find yourself incessantly replaying it for morbid comfort & for curious friends the way I once did. Life was incredibly shitty to Daniel Johnston, but at least this movie was worthy of him.

-Brandon Ledet

Hail Satan? (2019)

“It’s a great day to be a Satanist! It’s a great day to be a human being.”

The longer I reflect on the movie in retrospect, the more I appreciate the question mark in Hail Satan?’s title. This is a film that constantly challenges your assumptions about what it means to be a Satanist in the modern world until you start to question whether you’re a Satanist yourself, and how you can strive to be a better one. If I were still a shithead contrarian mall-goth teen with a chip on my shoulder about having been raised Catholic, I might have preferred that titular punctuation to be an explanation point. Fuck yeah, Hail Satan! And down with homework too! The surprise of this half-documentary, half propaganda piece is how it makes you wonder whether that same youthful contrarianism could be weaponized into a genuinely productive tool for political activism. I went into the film expecting to roll my eyes at close-minded Richard Dawkins types who immaturely latch onto atheism as if it’s a belief system rather than an absence of one. I left politically Fired Up and questioning my own core beliefs. Am I a Satanist? Is it moral to be anything else?

As the documentary explains, “Satanist” used to be a pejorative term that political & religious deviants were labeled with by others, not something that was chosen as a prideful belief system. That changed with Anton LaVey’s publicity carnival The Church of Satan, which openly mocked Christian piousness & ritual in a celebration of the self & selfish pleasures. The main subject of this documentary, The Satanic Temple, reconfigures LaVey’s mission into something more purposeful & coherent. The group still values the worship of the self and the fixation on Earthly existence over preparation for an unlikely afterlife that LaVey “preached,” but they take an active, overtly political role in making that Earthly world a better place to live. The entire foundation of the Temple was designed to directly, purposefully oppose the escalation of the Christian Right’s unconstitutional involvement in American politics. They’re just as drawn to troll-job media stunts as The Church of Satan, but in this case the mockery is targeting the way Christian political groups defy the Constitutional separation of Church & State by officially endorsing candidates, erecting Ten Commandments tablets at state capitals, and promoting prayer in public schools. They’re taking a clear stand against the increasingly prevalent lie that “This is a Christian nation,” by countering, “Actually, that’s factually inaccurate and to disagree would be just as un-Christian as it is un-American.”

Of course, there is a certain level of contrarian trolling afoot in this us vs. them dynamic, and that’s partly what makes the documentary such a fun watch. Members of The Satanic Temple are mostly just wholesome, politically conscious nerds who’ve dressed themselves up in Sprit Halloween Store costumes to play the part of wicked Satanists. That’s what makes it so funny when Catholics & Evangelicals take their roles as harbingers of Evil at face value, visibly terrified of the threat they pose to humanity’s collective soul. They deserve the pushback too, as all the Temple is really doing is appropriating Christian Right political tactics to expose them as hateful hypocrisy & unconstitutional bullying, merely by applying them in another religious context. The Temple only wants to install a statue of Baphomet on state capital grounds in cases where the commandments are already represented – unconstitutionally. Their satirical publicity stunts are mostly aimed to draw attention to how often Christian political pundits overstep their bounds because they represent the “dominant religion” in a secular nation. If anyone else pulled this shit, they’d be immediately shut down with an indignant fury, yet we rarely challenge the intrusion because the Christian opposition seems so insurmountable, especially in the American South. Watching their own infuriating political tactics turned back on them like the barrels of Elmer Fudd’s gun is immensely satisfying.

As a documentary, Hail Satan? has very little interest in historical context or unbiased presentation of current events. It dials the clock back to the Christian doubling-down in American politics of the Cold War 1950s and the Satanic Panic 1980s, but only to clarify that the idea that United States is “a Christian Nation” is a relatively recent lie that defies the intent of the Constitution as it was written. Mostly, this is a work of pure propaganda, promoting a single organization’s effort to fight for free speech & political secularism in the US. Some artistic representations of Satan from pop culture touchstones like Häxan, Legend, and The Devil’s Rain illustrate the political platform presented here, but the strongest case the film makes for its allegiance to The Devil is to point out that Satan Himself was a political activist in Christian lore. He dared to challenge God, which sometimes feels just as daunting as challenging the political bullying of the well-funded, over-propagandized Christian Right. It turns out that teenage mall-metal shitheads who hail Satan to annoy their parents are accidentally stumbling into a legitimate, worthwhile political stance that could only benefit modern Western society if it were taken more seriously. So yeah, it’s the kind of propaganda piece that promotes its subject rather than questioning it, unless you count questions like “How could anyone in good conscience be anything but a Satanist?” and “How could I better serve & emulate Satan in my daily life?”

-Brandon Ledet