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

The Painter and the Thief (2020)

My favorite documentaries in recent years have been the experiments in style that push the medium to newfound extremes, testing the boundaries of what makes something a “documentary” in the first place. The way titles like Rat Film, The Nightmare, Casting JonBenet and, most recently, Dick Johnson is Dead blur the boundaries between fact & fiction, observation & essay, and all other criteria that separate the documentary from traditional narrative filmmaking has been continually exciting to watch, and it feels like the artform is reaching new creative highs with each new experiment. The Painter and the Thief is of a much rarer breed among recent critically lauded docs, then. It calls back to a type of no-frills documentary filmmaking that doesn’t push its style or formalism to any flashy extremes, because it can easily rely on the stranger-than-fiction details of the story it tells. I’m thinking of titles like Crazy Love, Tabloid, and Three Identical Strangers, except in this case the story is much gentler & more intimate. It aims more for empathy & rehabilitation than it does “Get a load of this crazy shit!” sensationalism, which is more of its distinguishing deviation than any of its experiments in form.

The Painter and the Thief chronicles fine art painter Barbora Kysilkova’s bizarre friendship with a man who was arrested stealing two of her most expensive works. Kysilkova’s both genuinely fascinated by the drug addiction & impulsive behavior that drew this total stranger to stealing her paintings and inserts herself into his life in hopes that the lost (likely sold) works can eventually be recovered. Both of the film’s subjects are skeptical of each other’s intentions. The repentant Karl Bertil-Nordland worries that the artist he wronged is going to exploit or mock him in some way, while Kysilkova can’t help but push him for more details about the lost paintings he claims he can’t remember the fates of. Their initial barriers break down when Bertil-Nordland becomes the subject of a new Kysilkova painting, though, totally flabbergasted that someone would take the time & care to render his face on canvas. The film isn’t in any rush to tease out the stranger details of their relationship from there. Instead, it leisurely draws parallels between the unlikely friends’ lives & temperaments until the story of the robbery that brought them together in the first place comes full circle in its own time.

If there’s anything flashy about the way The Painter and the Thief tells this story, it’s in how it alternates between its two subjects’ perspectives. Both The Painter and The Thief take turns explaining their side of the friendship divide in rigidly partitioned segments, offering as much empathy to both subjects as possible by leveling the platform they share here. That’s not a choice that necessarily reinvents the documentary as an artistic medium, though, more than it is a choice that breaks down the (mostly classist) assumptions the audience might make about what separates its two subjects. Bertil-Nordland’s “Snitches are a dying breed” tattoo & “Fat people are hard to kidnap” novelty t-shirt project a kind of defensive, dirtbag energy meant to keep people like Kysilkova at a distance. The way she reaches past that boundary in her work to truly see him is the real phenomenon explored here, as it highlights how much of a rare occurrence that exchange is in his life. This is a movie interested in interrogating the social, class-based boundaries between its subjects more so than it is in interrogating the boundaries of its medium. It can feel like a traditionalist approach to the material at hand, but it’s also a surprisingly moving one.

-Brandon Ledet

A Sassyfrasser for Life

I typically don’t catch any films at the New Orleans Film Festival, mostly because my mind is all over the place around that time of year. This year was different. When I got word that there was a documentary about my favorite local musician being presented at the fest, I was on it. I immediately bought my digital pass and blocked off my calendar for its premiere date. The film that got me to dip my toes into the New Orleans Film Festival world was Nobody May Come, an independent documentary about the one and only Valerie Sassyfras.

Before I discuss the documentary, I want to talk a little about my experiences with the music and performances of Valerie Sassyfras over the past five years. Picture it: it’s the Siberia lounge in New Orleans on a Friday night in May of 2015. Underground puppeteer David Liebe Hart is getting ready to perform, so I stepped outside to bum a cigarette from a hipster (a bad habit I had when I was in my early-mid 20s while socially drinking). Across from me was a Trailblazer with a big magnet on the door that said “Valerie Sassyfras,” and I remember thinking to myself, “Wow, what a fun name.” Suddenly someone comes outside and yells, “Everyone get in now! She’s doing something called the Alligator Dance and it’s amazing!” I immediately go in to join the fun, and I see a small woman in glitzy garb walking around the bar with her arms clapping together like the mouth of an alligator, and there’s a conga line behind her. That was my first Val experience, and I was immediately obsessed and officially became a Sassyfrasser (a term for Val fans). She was the opener for David Liebe Hart and gave one of the best opening performances I’ve ever seen. After the show, I found her website (www.valeriesassyfrass.com – go to it now and I promise you won’t be disappointed) and searched for her upcoming shows. I called one of my best friends to tell him about this amazing woman and invited him to go with me to St. Roch Tavern, and that was the beginning of us trying to see as many Valerie Sassyfras shows as possible.

I’ve seen Val perform in lots of different venues: Live Oak, Morning Call in City Park, Tipitina’s, Trader Joe’s, and Lebanon’s, just to name a few. I have also randomly run into Val performing on Oak Street and at a couple of art markets. You never know when you’ll catch a Val show! My favorite place to watch her perform is St. Roch Tavern. Most of the performances I’ve seen there have small crowds, which sometimes were just made of up of me, my Sassyfrasser friend, and the bartender; but Val performs as though she was playing a sold-out stadium. She’s a one woman show, so the stage included her scrim, which she dances behind provocatively (it’s the best!), her variety of instruments (accordion, keyboard, washboard, mandolin, etc.), and all of her props (leather whip, feather fan, etc.). Those St. Roch shows made for some of my most fond memories. The feeling of just being myself and having a good time without a care in the world would take over my body, and for just those few hours, I was so damn happy. I also really enjoyed her mandolin performances outside of my very favorite restaurant ever, Lebanon’s Cafe. One night, my Sassyfrasser pal and I (we both lived super close to Lebanon’s) went over for dinner and a show. I mentioned to Val that I was a down-the-bayou Cajun, and she played one of my favorite Cajun tunes, “Jolie Blonde,” for me. It was more of an acoustic performance without all of the fun stage props, and it was just as fabulous.

After following her shows for well over a year, I started to realize that there was a great Sassyfrasser community in existence. Val opened for local female rapper Boyfriend at Tipitina’s in August of 2016, and while at the show, there was a group of folks in the crowd who were singing along to a Val classic called “Hide the Pickle”. I joined in and they told me that they loved Val’s music and always go to her Old Point Bar shows in Algiers. There are so many groups and folks that I’ve run into at Val shows over the years who adore her as an artist and a musician.

When I sat down to watch Nobody May Come at this year’s New Orleans Film Fest, I expected the documentary to be just as upbeat and exciting as a Valerie Sassyfras performance, but it didn’t really go in that direction. Directors Ella Hatamian and Stiven Luka focused more the Val’s personal struggles with her family issues and her experiences after being featured on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and America’s Got Talent. The documentary did a great job of allowing everyone to see what Val’s life is like behind all of the glitz and glam, but to my surprise, there really wasn’t much focus on how much the New Orleans locals value Val and her artistry. It could be that the directors are not from New Orleans (although I believe one of them lived here for a bit), and that’s why the doc is missing that element. There is this great moment at the very end of the documentary where Val is performing in front of an audience made up of a few people eating at some event in Kenner’s Rivertown and not really paying attention to her performance, and one of her fans shows up with her kids specifically to see Val. That is what Val fans do. We seek her out, even if she’s in Kenner, and we bring our family and friends with us to expose them to the Valerie Sassyfras experience. I just wish that the documentary featured more of those moments. Although the film is a bit on the grim side, it at least does a great job on focusing on its main character: Val.

There will be folks watching this documentary who only know Val through her viral televised performances, and I just want it to be known that there are many of her fans who truly appreciate her as an artist. Val is not just a viral video or an off-beat audition in a TV talent competition; she’s a local New Orleans legend.

If you’re interested in getting into Valerie Sassyfrass’s music, here is a list of my top 10 favorite songs:

1. “Babysitter” (Sassquake!)

2. “Pivot and Pose” (Sassquake!)

3. “Mean Sassy Queen” (Got Zydeco?)

4. “The Bastard Snake” (Sassquake!)

5. “Hide the Pickle” (Sassquake!)

6. “Somethin’s Brewin’” (Got Zydeco?)

7. “Girl’s Night Out” (Crazy Train)

8. “It Ain’t My Job” (Got Zydeco?)

9. “Mighty Mississippi” (Sassquake!)

10. “Truth is Stranger Than Fiction” (Blast Off! A Cosmic Cabaret)

She also has a fabulous Christmas album called Christmas with Valerie that would make a great addition to any holiday celebration this year!

-Britnee Lombas

Episode #122 of The Swampflix Podcast: WCW World Heavyweight Champion David Arquette

Welcome to Episode #122 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, and Britnee revisit actor David Arquette’s two-week reign as WCW World Heavyweight Champion, a bizarre real-life story bookended by two disparate feature films: Ready to Rumble (2000) & You Cannot Kill David Arquette (2020). Enjoy!

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

– The Podcast Crew

Mucho Mucho Amor (2020)

I can’t be the only American philistine who wasn’t aware of Walter Mercado before he was lovingly parodied by drag queen Alexis Mateo on the most recent season of Drag Race All Stars. That’s why the timing of the Netflix Original documentary Mucho Mucho Amor mere weeks after that episode aired was such a beautiful, unexpected gift. A sexually ambiguous television astrologer with a love for modeling extravagant capes, Mercado fits snugly within the parameters of drag artistry, making Mateo’s signal boost of his legacy a perfect use of Drag Race‘s annual, wildly uneven “Snatch Game” segment. Even without a previous awareness of Mercado’s public persona, Mateo’s impersonation and costuming made Mercado immediately comparable to other enigmatic public figures who’ve skirted the edges of drag pageantry – mainly in pop music (Little Richard, Elton John, Liberace) and in pro wrestling (Gorgeous George, Goldust, Cassandro el Exótico). A breezy pop-doc arriving to provide the details of Mercado’s particular place within that familiar pop culture paradigm so soon after I had first discovered his existence was a pure delight. On a more superficial note, so was getting a closer look at his closet full of fabulous capes.

It almost seems like a willful ignorance on my part to not have heard of Walter Mercado until now (or to have forgotten him from fuzzy childhood TV broadcasts), considering that he was a celebrity of note for four decades: 1969 – 2007. After a brief career as a suave telenovela star, Mercado quickly rose to fame in Puerto Rico (and, not too soon after, internationally) for his gently flamboyant horoscope readings, wherein he would dress like a drag mystic and assure each astrology sign that peace, love, and positive changes were heading their way. In a rare candid moment of Mucho Mucho Amor, Mercado explains that the costuming, wizardly hand motions, and mystical sets from these horoscope & tarot readings were merely “Stupid Stuff” that he would use to help get his message of love & positive thinking in front of as wide of an audience as possible. He’s not wrong. That Stupid Stuff is his schtick’s main attraction, and the driving force that puts audiences under his spell. He’s much more guarded during the rest of the doc, though, making sure to not reveal too much about his age, sexuality, gender identity, or personal vendettas against former colleagues who ransacked his television fame for easy cash-outs. Mercado strives to present a kayfabe version of himself in Mucho Mucho Amor that floats freely between any strict definitions of identity, so that he is more the spirit of pure all-posi love than he is a corporeal human being, and the doc does its best to oblige him as much as possible.

I get the sense that this documentary was originally intended to be a career revival for Mercado. Unfortunately, it proved to be more of a memorial service than anything, since Mercado did not survive long enough to see its completion. It’s very fitting to his all-posi messaging to have such a sunshiny posthumous documentary about his career’s upward trajectory, though, and it thankfully gives the film something else to fixate on besides the “What Happened?” true-crime investigation of the mysterious legal troubles that derailed his career. It also helps the film that Mercado was virtually omni-present on television for decades, reading daily horoscopes to his mesmerized fans, so that there is a glorious wealth of retro footage to mine for visual fodder. The ways Mucho Mucho Amor fills the time between those vintage clips of Mercado doing his thing achieve varying levels of success. The staged reenactments of 1980s households and the out-of-nowhere Lin-Manuel Miranda vanity tour that interrupt the flow of the narrative are a little distracting, but other gambles like the animated tarot card chapter breaks and the glimpses into Mercado’s contemporary home life work beautifully. Most importantly, the film allows Mercado himself to have the final word on his own persona & legacy in a lengthy series of interviews, so that the whole thing plays more like a document of a fascinating art project than a real human being, which works perfectly for the subject at hand.

Since I didn’t know much of anything about the subject going in, Mucho Mucho Amor could have just been 90 minutes of Walter Mercado modeling extravagant capes and I would have been just as pleased with the result. Actually, looking back, I’m not sure that it wasn’t just 90 minutes of Walter Mercado modeling capes, and I’m convinced its portraiture photo shoots deserve to be converted into a coffee table look book. It was wonderful getting to know this enigmatic astrologer mystic in such an intimate, loving way so soon after discovering his existence, and the movie mostly does a great job of showcasing what made him fabulous without getting in his way with its own theatricality.

-Brandon Ledet

Ask Any Buddy (2020)

Austin-based genre aficionado Evan Purchell’s depth of knowledge for obscure, disreputable schlock has long impressed me as an online follower of his work. Purchell’s Letterboxd lists, Austin-area repertory programming, and contributions to the Rupert Pupkin Speaks film blog always seem to uncover some grimy, unsung genre gem that no one has yet to highlight as a forgotten trashterpiece. Watching him fall down one hyper-specific rabbit hole within that larger fascination with low-budget genre relics has been especially rewarding, though, and I selfishly hope that he never climbs out of it.

Starting with an Instagram account (and most recently evolving into a weekly podcast), Purchell’s multi-media project Ask Any Buddy is an archival, celebratory effort to gather as much vintage ephemera he can find from the golden era of hardcore gay pornography. Like with the (mostly hetero) Rialto Report podcast & blog or HBO’s dramatized The Deuce, Ask Any Buddy sets out to highlight the underdog circumstances of independent filmmakers who produced vintage pornography in the days when it had delusions of Going Mainstream. There’s an academic, documentarian quality to this work, which seeks to preserve the real-life stories of an outsider film industry that was effectively outlawed in its time, making the allure of its circumstances irresistible to fans of low-budget, transgressive art. Purchell’s focus on the gay hardcore of the era offers an even more distinct POV within that vintage pornography academia, though. Through the Ask Any Buddy project, he’s effectively arguing against the fallacy that there was no solid queer filmmaking identity preceding the New Queer Cinema boom of the 1990s, as posited in works like The Celluloid Closet. In Purchell’s view, queer filmmaking already had its own established tones & tropes long before folks like Todd Haynes, Gregg Araki, and Bruce LaBruce arrived to the scene to greater critical acclaim; the earlier films just needed to include unsimulated blowjobs to secure financial backing and a guaranteed audience.

The centerpiece of this Ask Any Buddy project is its incarnation as a feature-length film. Currently making the “theatrical” rounds through online film festivals (after COVID-19 fucked up its initially planned distribution through AGFA), the movie is both a transgressive piece of D.I.Y. outsider art and a vital work of archival academia. A post-modern mash-up piece, Ask Any Buddy is composed of pre-existing clips from 126 gay porno films from the genre’s golden era in the 1970s & 80s. Rather than contextualizing these clips with any narration or talking-heads interviews, Purchell has simply edited them together in a linear, remarkably cohesive narrative that highlights the various tropes & collective fixations of vintage gay hardcore as a genre. The film loosely constructs a morning-to-night day in the life of an urban, post-Stonewall gay male archetype with an incredibly bustling sex life. With characters from over a hundred films taking turns amalgamating a single protagonist, we watch “a” gay man awake from a loopy wet dream, brush his teeth in the bathroom mirror, venture out into his city’s various cruising spots (bathhouses, the docks, drag clubs, porno theaters, etc.), celebrate with his local community at a house party, and then return to bed with his long-term partner to repeat the loop again. If vintage porno is supposed to have a documentary quality built into its unpermitted, renegade filmmaking style, here’s proof that you can repurpose that effect to loosely construct a typical day in the life of one of its subjects (one with an incredibly high libido and an incredibly short refractory period).

Approaching this film from a purely academic, documentarian lens is actually selling its merits short. Its deliberate inclusion of vintage Pride march footage, mapping out of glory hole etiquette, and illustration of what public cruising looked like in the 70s & 80s land it squarely in the realm of academic discourse, but that framing doesn’t fully capture how it works as an in-the-moment cinematic experience. By removing the typical signifiers of a documentary or essay film and instead assembling a found-footage tapestry narrative, Ask Any Buddy leans into the dreamlike, surrealist quality of cinema as an artform. In that way, it’s more akin to Kenneth Anger’s incendiary landmark short Fireworks than it is to anything like The Celluloid Closet, even though it is directly commenting on the history of queer identity & queer sex onscreen. Its disorienting match-cuts, its interchangeable characters & locations, and even the intentional surrealism of its source material all make the film more of a sensual, cerebral experience than a coldly academic one. By the time the “protagonist” reaches the celebratory house party at the film’s crescendo, the shared lived experience of the larger narrative comes into sharp detail, making the whole picture feel like a communal vision of political defiance & erotic imagination rather than anything as pedestrian as a mere documentary. Its overall effect is more hypnotic & psychedelic than it is intellectual.

The Ask Any Buddy film could easily have been tediously academic or pointlessly provocative in the wrong hands, but it instead comes across as a playful, genuinely loving catalog of tropes & narrative throughlines clearly assembled by a true fan of this supposedly low-brow, disreputable genre. As a stand-alone specimen of transgressive outsider cinema, it has plenty to offer its drooling spectators, including out-of-nowhere fistings and stunt “celebrity” cameos from the likes of “Gene Simmons” & “Marilyn Monroe”. Obviously, it also functions as commentary on pre-existing transgressive cinema from outsider artists of the past, whose contributions to the queer cinema canon Purchell argues have been undervalued. This film is a strikingly surreal, hallucinatory correction to that oversight, as much as it is an academically crucial one.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #113 of The Swampflix Podcast: Scream, Queen! (2020) & Mark Patton’s Nightmare on Elm Street

Welcome to Episode #113 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, and Britnee revisit the most hotly debated outlier in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise: Freddy’s Revenge (1985), with a particular focus on its homophobic & homoerotic subtext as detailed in the documentaries Scream, Queen! (2020) & Never Sleep Again (2010). Enjoy!

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

– Britnee Lombas, James Cohn, and Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Marjoe (1972)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lagniappe

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

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

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

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

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

-The Swampflix Crew