Circus of Books (2020)

As a tribute to a queer cultural institution that survived decades of political & cultural turmoil only to eventually be done in by the convenience of online shopping, the Netflix documentary Circus of Books has an almost impossible amount of history to cover in a mere 86 minutes. The now-defunct adult bookstore the movie profiles was a cornerstone of gay life in West Hollywood (a neighborhood historically referred to as “Boystown”) for half a century. Opened in a gay nightclub space that was unjustly shut down via 1960s “morality” raids (the same policing era that incited the Stonewall Riots) and persevering through crises like the AIDS epidemic & the Reagan Administration’s crackdown on obscenity in published media, the Circus of Books storefront saw a tremendous range of gay life, gay sex, and gay political action in its time. You can feel a communal reverence for the store in the film’s interviews with former customers & employees (notably including Drag Race celebrity Alaska Thunderfuck) that extends far beyond its function as a porn distribution hub. Circus of Books wasn’t just revered for its facilitation of anonymous hook-ups or its extensive catalog of gay porno (in a time when that was the only medium where you could see men kissing onscreen). If that were the case, the movie would have to cover all gay bookstores in the US instead of singling out one in particular. The store was revered because it survived several waves of cultural & political unrest to serve generations of gay men (and other queer customers) in a prominent queer neighborhood that suffered those same waves of strife.

So how does one documentary cover all that ground without spiraling out into a Ken Burnsian tome? Smartly, the Circus of Books doc doesn’t even attempt that feat. Instead, the film focuses on the unlikely suburban, heterosexual couple who owned & operated the store for the bulk of its historic existence. This film is less of a comprehensive document of gay life in West Hollywood during the bookstore’s operation than it is an intimate, humble family portrait. Even with all the cultural context it could distract itself with in the moment, Circus of Books is most fascinated by how an unassuming, wholesome straight couple stumbled into becoming the largest distributors of hardcore gay pornography in the US (for a time). There’s almost a true-crime style sensationalism to this dynamic, as the couple who owned the store hid the nature of the family business from their neighbors & children – explaining only that “We own a bookstore,” and not “We own a hardcore gay porn empire.” This is hardly the seedy unearthing of dark familial secrets doc you’ll find in movies like Stories We Tell or Capturing the Friedmans, though. Barry & Karen Mason’s energy here is that they could be practically anyone’s grandparents: sweet, doting, and sometimes politically infuriating old-timers who just happen to sell poppers & lube at their day-job. If there’s any sensationalist detail here it’s that these lifelong pornographers are exceedingly wholesome & ordinary – a normalizing presence in an industry that’s long been inaccurately demonized by Conservative pundits as morally corruptive.

A significant aspect of this film’s normalizing tone as a family portrait is that it was directed by the owners’ own daughter, Rachel Mason. Initially, this insider perspective is valuable as a means of access, especially in Mason’s camcorder footage from her childhood and insight about how her parents’ good-cop/bad-cop dynamic at home translated to their management style as employers. There’s also a peculiar parallel to establish in how both generations are filmmakers in their own right, with Rachel in a documentarian role and her parents producing a portion of the content that Circus of Books distributed in-house (they just happened to produce titles like Rimnastics Gold, Riverboat Sea Men, and Meat Me at the Fair). Where the movie really touches on something special, though, is when those initial shocks of her upbringing’s bizarre circumstances fade to the background. When the film’s not chasing down decades of queer culture history or attempting to (mildly) shock the audience with the details of the Mason family business, Circus of Books strikes gold in capturing the mundane, day-to-day bickering & kindnesses shared between its director and her parents. There is something vividly, universally relatable about the film’s various mother-daughter disagreements (which include whether or not an adult bookstore is worthy of a feature-length documentary in the first place); they just happen to take place in front of unusual backdrops, like an enormous wall of assorted dildos at a sex industry convention. It’s in those intimate, domestic exchanges where the film stumbles upon something uniquely worthy of documentation & broadcast.

Despite the peculiarity of its gay porno industry backdrop, Circus of Books is a fairly low-key, small-stakes family portrait. I don’t think it’d be outrageous to claim that it’s one of the most wholesome films about hardcore gay pornography you’ll ever see. Anyone looking for a comprehensive gay culture history of West Hollywood centered on the eponymous bookstore or a shocking exposé on long-buried family secrets will likely be disappointed by this film’s kind, intimate temperament. It is a fascinating, endearing work as a family portrait, however, one that establishes the production & distribution of hardcore pornography as being just as wholesomely, quintessentially American as baseball or apple pie.

-Brandon Ledet

I’m Gonna Make You Love Me (2020)

It feels like a frivolous thing to bemoan in a time when COVID-19 is wrecking people’s health & financial stability, but I really do miss going to the movies. Along with the sensory immersion of the theatrical environment and the physical ritual of it, there’s just something about the communal experience of watching a movie with strangers in the dark that’s irreplaceable with a home-viewing experience. This communal experience is at its strongest at local film festivals, where you watch a wide range of movies with the same strangers in the same spaces over the course of a week; you sometimes even make some friends along the way. When SXSW announced that it was launching a digital version of its film festival on Amazon Prime to make up for its COVID-related cancellation this year, I knew that communal experience was something the festival couldn’t replicate. It could offer a stuck-at-home audience a few low-budget, otherwise undistributed indie films to explore for a brief moment in this never-ending quarantine limbo. It couldn’t replicate the full film festival experience, though, not without risking its attendees’ lives.

However, there was one unexpected aspect of the authentic, in-the-flesh film festival experience that this year’s digital SXSW substitute offered: the conundrum of how to plan your schedule. There were only seven feature films offered for the fest’s weeklong run on Prime (among a myriad of shorts), so it wouldn’t be exceedingly difficult to have watched the entire slate if you were motivated enough. Part of the fun of film fests, though, is digging through their line-ups and deciphering what titles are worth your time and of your interests, based only on thumbnail images and their accompanying blurbs. Even with only a few titles to choose from, I had fun researching the digital SXSW catalog to schedule out what movies I had enough time for and enough interest in, as if I were attending an legitimate film fest irl. Only a couple titles really jumped out at me at first glance, so I ended up taking a chance on other films that were more longshots just to pad out my schedule (thanks to the luxury of the free time I have being stuck at home). All that was missing from the authentic film fest experience, really, were the nerdy crowds and the rushed, overpriced meals.

I mention all of this to say that I’m Gonna Make You Love Me is the exact kind of programming I usually pad out my film fest schedules with. It’s a self-funded, artistically muted documentary on an intriguing fringe-culture subject that you wouldn’t likely see covered in a more robust film with a proper budget. Its subject, Brian Belovitch, has lived an undeniably fascinating life. Through a series of interviews with Belovitch, friends, family, and neighbors, I’m Gonna Make You Love Me pieces together an aging gay man’s troubled history with his own gender identity, including a decade lived as a trans woman in 1970s-80s NYC. It’s a captivating, intimate story told in a bland & scattered style that unfortunately robs it of its initial allure. The film’s aimless, rambling opening offers no context for the story it wants to tell until far too late into the runtime; its lopsided editing style has no critical eye for what interviews or life moments are actually significant to the task at hand; it relies heavily on archival footage & photographs, but has to repeat what few scraps it has to the point of redundancy to fill out its runtime, etc. There’s an amateurish, unfocused quality to the entire picture, which is unfortunate since the story it tells deserves to be heard.

I’m Gonna Make You Love me fares much better as an oral history than it does as a film. While its skills & means may be limited, the movie is still admirable for allowing Belovitch a platform to tell his story for cultural posterity. He has effectively lived multiple lives (and married multiple husbands), most significantly as transgender nightlife celebrity Tish Gervais back when NYC was cheap living. While some transphobic creeps might be tempted to use Belovitch’s eventual choice to “detransition” as fodder for gender-essentialist rhetoric, his story is much too personal & period-specific to be abused that way. He recounts a tough life where he gained easier social acceptance (and more profitable sex work) as a trans woman than he did as an effeminate gay man, especially in the darkest days of the AIDS crisis. His gender transition & detransition story is one defined by tough choices made for daily survival, and ultimately confirms the emotional & physical damage that’s heaped on people who are bullied to live outside their gender identity. It’s a story that’s very much worth hearing, as long as you can get past the clumsy way the film tells it.

As disappointed as I was in I’m Gonna Make You Love Me in terms of craft, I still appreciate its kind tone & willingness to give Belovitch space to tell his own story. As a few of the headlines in the background reveal, it would be easy to turn Belovitch into a sensationalist sideshow with attention-grabbing monikers like “The Real-Life Hedwig.” Instead, the movie approaches him as if conversing with an old friend, which may hinder its editing choices but at least does right by its subject on a moral level. He has already been through enough without being exploited one last time for a juicy true-crime style exposé. The results are a little shaggy & disjointed but ultimately still enlightening to one very specific queer perspective that’s rarely afforded this kind of screen time. In that way, it’s the exact kind of film festival fodder I’m used to padding out my schedules with, so it was perfect programming for the at-home SXSW experience.

-Brandon Ledet

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