The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2006)

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

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

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

Hail Satan? (2019)

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

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

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

Cassandro, the Exótico! (2019)

It wasn’t until the last five years or so that I really started digging into the intricacies of pro wrestling & drag as artforms, and so it was immediately apparent as I studied them in tandem that they’re remarkably similar – to the point of functioning as two sides of the same gender performance coin. The pageantry, melodrama, glamour, caricature, and pantomimed exaggeration of gender traits shared between these two longstanding entertainment traditions is extensive, to the point where if you watch them both for long enough, pro wrestling and drag become indistinguishable. I used to naively believe that comparison to be a somewhat novel observation, but of course I was far from alone in noticing it. Recent drag & pro wrestling hybrids like the local performance art promotion Chokehole, the NYC podcast crew The Nobodies, the third season of Netflix’s GLOW, and the “WTF! Wrestling’s Trashiest Fighters” episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race have all covered this territory far more thoroughly & thoughtfully than I ever could, but even they were far from the first drag-wrestling pioneers. Wrestlers like Goldust & Gorgeous George have been incorporating drag pageantry into their in-ring personae on American television for decades. Also, unsurprisingly, the Mexican luchador tradition has its own version of this crossover in its subset of flamboyant gay performers known as Los Exóticos. And to help solidify the exóticos’ place in the pronounced drag-wrestling overlap, there’s now a feature-length documentary profile of that scene’s biggest star, Cassandro, who’s been wrestling in full glam makeup since the late 1980s.

Unfortunately, Cassandro, the Exótico! isn’t especially interested in exploring this contextual, historical background of how its subject fits into these drag & wrestling traditions. Instead, the documentary profiles Cassandro as he is now in the late 2010s: worn down, mangled, and yet still enthusiastic to entertain anyone who’ll lay eyes on him. We follow “The Liberace of Lucha Libre” through the highs & lows of his late in-ring career: the high-flying flamboyant spectacle of his pro wrestling pageantry and the quiet, painful recovery from those abuses in the privacy of his sparse home in Juarez. The most historical insight you get into Cassandro’s prominent role in the exóticos tradition is in his occasional anecdotes about how he got recruited into the luchador business as a young man and his collection of still photographs from that heyday. The movie is more largely about Cassandro as he exists in the present. We get to watch his private vape pen & makeup routine as he glams up to kiss & destroy his more traditionally macho (and gay-panicked) opponents in the ring. We’re taken on an intimate tour of his gorgeous ring-gear wardrobe, which clashes drastically with his barebones home in the desert. Also, unavoidably, we’re weighed down by Cassandro’s exponential list of scars, surgeries, and gnarled body parts – the toll of the business for any long-term wrestler, whether or not they perform in drag. It would likely help tremendously to know Cassandro’s backstory before wandering into this swan song documentary on his final days as a performer (I know I personally benefited from hearing his lecture on los exóticos culture at Tulane University this past Mardi Gras), but this year-in-the-life portrait of a highly-specific person is still invaluable all the same.

There are some bold, glaring filmmaking choices from director Marie Losier that can distract from the built-in fascination of Cassandro’s over-the-top persona, and your appreciation of the film might depend on how well you can adjust to her methods. This is much more of a Pretentious French Art Film than a fluff documentary piece, with Losier often imposing her own presence onto a story that could likely do without it. She shoots Juarez and South Texas like the fantastic landscapes of an alien planet in a sci-fi film. Cassandro himself often comes across like a mystical, otherworldly creature in that abstraction, particularly in his private religious practices that mix Catholic & Native rituals with little distinction between them. I appreciate that she shot the documentary on actual celluloid, since its 16mm home movies aesthetic helps contextualize him as a kind of living historical figure whose drag-wrestling artistry deserves an eternal reverence. However, her wildly out-of-focus framing and harsh jump-cut editing style often feel like a filmmaker playing with a new toy instead of consciously serving the subject at hand. In another way, though, I can see why a story joining Cassandro this late in his career would be a little discombobulated and melancholy. The film becomes increasingly looser & less focused (visually & tonally) as Cassandro’s body degrades beyond repair in his final days in the ring before (what will hopefully be a permanent) retirement. It isn’t until Losier flashes back to the much sharper, more physically explosive performer Cassandro was just a couple years earlier at the start of the documentary that the full sad story of what we’ve lost as he reached his physical limit becomes clear. Even then, not all her creative indulgences can be justified as directly serving the text. Some of them clearly exist for their own sake, and it’s a distraction.

Thankfully, there’s already a more traditional, straightforward documentary the drag-wrestlers of lucha libre in the 2013 film Los Exóticos, which I look forward to catching up with to provide retroactive context for this picture. Still, as a standalone work, Cassandro, the Exótico! still satisfies as an intimate portrait of one of the most significant players at the intersection of drag & wrestling, a singular performer whose glory days are still distinctly visible in the rearview mirror. This blurry photograph of a documentary won’t be all the world has to remember him by (he’s still touring around as an entertainer & a public speaker, after all), so it’s okay that it mostly functions as a snapshot of his final, painful months in the ring (and a travelogue for Marie Losier).

-Brandon Ledet

From the Suburbs to Smithereens

In Susan Seidelman’s 1982 No Wave classic Smithereens, our current Move of the Month, a milquetoast life of privilege in the suburbs is treated like a looming threat. The film chronicles the dying hours of the NYC punk scene after its CBGB heyday, as the few characters who’re foolishly trying to keep punk culture alive bottom out in dwindling numbers. The city’s promise of cheap living & punk rock infamy is proven to be unsustainable, which for the film’s prickly protagonist might mean a reluctant career in survival-based sex work, but for her privileged peers more likely means a return home to the artless monotony of suburban lives in their parents’ homes – almost invariably in the Midwest. It’s somewhat unsurprising to learn that the film’s director, Susan Seidelman, has more in common with these reluctant suburbanites that she does with the Bad Girl protagonist that she’s gawkingly fascinated with. However, you can’t infer much about Seidelman’s feelings towards suburbia in the film other than a defeatist reluctance to return there, as it’s a story entirely confined to the grimy concrete walls of the big city. Still, the implication that the threat of suburban living could be any worse than the rot & decay of the No Wave scene is pretty damning in itself, especially in now privileged a lot of punks were to have such a secure safety net waiting offscreen.

For a more direct, succinct rumination on the menacing privilege of suburbia from Seidelman, look to her 1992 documentary Confessions of a Suburban Girl. Produced for BBC Scotland as an anthropological examination of suburban American culture, the film finds Seidelman speaking in frank, self-critical terms about her privileged childhood in a cookie-cutter “instant neighborhood” outside of Philadelphia. She paints a picture of white, almost invariably Jewish women living a life of sheltered privilege in the counter-culture era of the 1960s, interviewing a sample group of her childhood friends about their experiences in The Suburbs. At first, their complaints about growing up too loved & too protected outside the more bustling culture of The Big City rings like a shallow topic for a feature-length documentary. Eventually, though, it really digs into the Patriarchal limitations & sinister apathy of that insular world in a genuinely fascinating way. These are women who were raised to go to college specifically so they can attract a successful husband. The thin line between the pressure to be glamorously beautiful but not too sexualized and the stark contrast between the conservative community nearby & the changing world outside are maddening. Of course these pent-up young women idolized the Bad Girls & go-go dancers who were meant to be seen as cautionary tales instead of heroes who bested the system. Of course they saw living a starving-artist’s life in NYC as liberation from a life sentence to homemaking. Of course prickly, uncooperative bullies like Wren from Smithereens fascinated them as a window into a more dramatic life.

Confessions of a Suburban Girl isn’t especially relevant as a companion piece to Smithereens so much as it’s a roadmap to Seidelman’s pet obsessions across her entire career as an auteur. Clips from She-Devil, Desperately Seeking Susan, and Cookie are peppered throughout as if the documentary were produced as an extra feature for a Seidelman box set. The only clip from Smithereens featured among those more widely seen studio pictures is of the movie-within-a-movie gag where Cookie Mueller plays a fictional scream queen in a drive-in creature feature. Still, no matter how much it’s buried among the documentary’s interviews, dramatic reenactments, domestic stock footage, and clips from better-known films, the subtext of suburbia’s milquetoast menace from Smithereens is greatly enhanced by getting familiar with Seidelman’s artistic & demographic origins in Confessions of a Suburban Girl. It’s also cool to see that Seidelman had maintained her run & gun No Wave filmmaking sensibility in the project after years of working in bigger studio pictures, as she has to steal shots of her childhood home after being told by the new residents that she can’t film there. Turning a BBC fluff documentary series into a multi-media art project about the boundaries & philosophy of suburban femininity is also subversive act in itself, and Confessions of a Suburban Girl is totally worthwhile on its own terms even when divorced from the rest of Seidelman’s career, Smithereens included. It’s the kind of forgotten curio you catch on a VHS rip via YouTube (as opposed to inclusion as a proper featurette on the Criterion Blu-Ray release of Smithereens), but that humble status almost makes the film feel even more substantive as an overlooked, underestimated work of political art – like how Seidelman & her peers were underestimated as young women in their sheltered suburban beginnings.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the No Wave summer-bummer drama Smithereens (1982), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Origin Story (2019)

Kulap Vilaysack is my best and sweetest friend. At least, that’s how it feels after getting to know her over hundreds of Who Charted? episodes, thanks to the intimate, conversational nature of podcasting. If there was ever any darkness or protective privacy to the boisterous, big-hearted comedy writer on that show it was whenever she found herself talking about her family, especially her relationship with her mother. Vilaysack’s first feature film as a director grew out of that familial darkness – a documentary about her family tree that she’s been talking about completing for years and years, one that I feel like I have a person investment in as a loyal listener to her podcast. Now that Origin Story has finally landed legitimate distribution on Amazon Prime, I find myself struggling to divorce that emotional investment in Kulap’s story and her personal well-being from a nagging thought that what’s onscreen isn’t entirely well executed as a movie­. I don’t know that the filmmaking itself is especially strong in Origin Story, but the story it tells is still emotionally rattling throughout for me. It’s a little difficult to worry about how the film’s framing could be more interesting, or its editing could be tightened, when your foremost thought is “Why won’t my best and sweetest friend stop crying?”

Weirdly enough, I wouldn’t readily recommend this documentary to comedy nerds who only know Vilaysak through her tangential relationships with institutions like Comedy Bang Bang & Seeso. There are a few famous comedians who drop by as friends, only referenced by first names, but they’re mostly there to offer teary-eyed emotional support for what amounts to a bravely public act of self-therapy. Origin Story is much more likely to satisfy fans of twisty family-drama docs like Three Identical Strangers or Stories We Tell, folks for whom “a good story” means “a good movie.” Kulap Vilaysack’s search for the truth of her own birth’s circumstances is a good story, although a traumatic one. When she was 14-years-old she found herself caught between her parents during an argument and her mother asked “Why are you defending him? He’s not your real dad.” It’s a revelation that sat heavy on her heart for two decades before she decided to investigate who her biological father is (with a documentary crew in tow). The answers are easy to find, but not so easy to swallow, as Kulap travels across Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Laos (her parents’ home country) to try to make sense of the four adults who raised her and the one who didn’t. Themes of physical & emotional abuse, war refugee immigration, and the importance of self-mythology arise from her travels as the story she’s always all been told about her childhood unravels, resulting in a flood of tears from everyone who appears onscreen (and, presumably, everyone watching in the audience).

As interesting as the story is and as emotionally invested as I am in Kulap’s well-being, I can’t say with confidence that this is a great film on its own merits. It’s at least fifteen minutes overlong and its tone (understandably) slips into the maudlin piano flourishes & Hallmark sentimentality of something far below the talent of its creator. There’s also a distinct reality TV quality to its interview format & establishing shots that recall the exact clichés Vilaysak parodied in her comedy show Bajillion Dollar Propertie$. Origin Story follows a serviceable template to deliver a personal, heartfelt story, but it’s a shame to see someone so creative waste an opportunity to experiment with form, even if she is personally close to the content. In terms of craft, the best sequences of Origin Story are the animated flourishes that lean into the comic book aesthetic hinted by the title. Storybook illustrations & handdrawn-style ink animations bring to life childhood memories & stories of her parents’ political crises before her birth in fantastic detail. It took years to complete the documentary and get it before an audience, but it almost feels like Origin Story’s true, natural format would be as a graphic novel that hasn’t yet arrived. I’m happy that Kulap was able to complete the project the way she wanted to, but also curious what it would be like to see a graphic artist completely translate the documentary into a longform comic book format – especially since those animated sequences where it’s strongest.

A lot has changed since Origin Story wrapped production, most of which I’m only aware of because I follow these comedians’ professional lives too closely. Kulap no longer cohosts Who Charted?. Her dog Rocky, who is heavily featured in the film, has sadly passed away. She’s also directed, produced, and organized more projects than ever before (including a television show that has already come and gone in the span of this film being completed). As a standalone work divorced from Kulap’s professional persona, Origin Story is emotionally rattling but a little creatively stilted. As a public act of personal self-therapy, however, it seems to have lifted a weight off her heart that has freed her to do more & better work. Part of me wishes that final product were a little finer tuned, but mostly I’m just happy for my best and sweetest friend that the work is completed and in the past.

-Brandon Ledet

Betty: They Say I’m Different (2018)

Betty Davis doesn’t owe us shit. After putting out three raw, sweaty albums of highly sexual, unapologetically political funk in the 1970s, Davis had far too little to show for her contributions to black feminist art, fashion, and music. In a famous pull-quote, her ex-husband Miles Davis described her as “Madonna before Madonna, Prince before Prince” in an effort to bolster her notoriety, but it’s an empty platitude that at best reads as too little too late. Betty is often contextualized as “Miles Davis’s wife” in her press and reduced to her contributions in changing the direction of his own fashion & art. That has got to sting, considering her acknowledgements that Miles had physically abused her in the brief time they were married. Her contemporary press was also severely critical of her art & appearance – labeling her as a disgrace to her own race & gender for exploring & exhibiting her sexuality in an aggressive manor onstage. Denigrated in the press, abused by her partner, never afforded the commercial adulation she deserved, and essentially locked out of the mainstream music industry by the white men who own it, Betty Davis eventually got fed up with us and chose to disappear. For the past few decades her closest collaborators and most adoring fans have been attempting to reach her and boost her profile, to let her know that her work is valued and to help her enjoy some of that value in back-owed monetary gain. The brisk, crowdfunded documentary Betty: They Say I’m Different (named after her most iconic album) is a major part of that effort to boost her public profile and to draw her out of her shell enough to see that she is adored & idolized. The problem is that she’s not very interested in reconciling with her public, and we have no right to pressure her into it.

This documentary has taken on the unenviable task of boosting the profile of a reclusive artist who’s been actively trying to disappear for the last few decades. It’s a well-intentioned primer in sparking wider public interest in Davis’s too-long buried funk albums, but also struggles to build a story around the very few scraps of information Davis is willing to reveal about herself. That self-conflict can make the film feel a little frustratingly thin as entertainment media, but also admirable in going out of its way to respect Davis’s privacy. You can tell Davis had substantial creative input in how her story is told here, if not only because so little of it is told at all. Most of the hard facts on display are what’s already public knowledge: her move from a childhood in Pittsburgh to an artistic life in NYC, a timeline of the few albums she managed to release while she was in the public spotlight, and press clippings exploring why she was so controversial in the context of the Civil Rights Era. Besides a few surface-level interviews with family, friends, and scholars, Davis relays the rest of the story herself through several careful removes. Her narration is delivered in first-person but written in collaboration with director Phil Cox and recorded post-production by a voice actor. She appears briefly onscreen, but always out of focus in her modest Pittsburgh apartment, back turned to the camera and to the world. The explanation of her disappearance is filtered through several layers of metaphor – allowing the imagery of perched crows, wilting flowers, and trips to Japan to substitute the gaps in her narrative she’s not willing to reveal. We have no right to ask any more of Betty as a “public” figure, but that elusiveness leaves the film stuck between wanting to tell her story her way and needing to pad out its slim 54-minute runtime with something, which becomes its biggest struggle as a standalone work.

As someone who knew too little about Betty Davis before seeing this documentary, if anything at all, I found They Say I’m Different well worthwhile as an advertisement for her few commercial releases as a funk artist. The movie is incredibly useful as a fandom primer in that way – often filling out its runtime with YouTube-style lyrics videos of her most significant songs. It’s a tactic that’s led to actual, real-world good – boosting album sales of vinyl reissues of her work that are directly putting money in the pocket of an artist who deserved that payout decades ago. On the other end, I’m sure that the most dedicated of longtime Betty Davis superfans will be ecstatic for the few isolated glimpses of her current life that she reveals here, as sparse & limited as they are. The other ways the film treads water to respect her privacy are a little less satisfying – animated pop art collages, repetitive snippets of slo-mo concert footage without sync-sound, time elapse photography of wilting flowers that feels like it was borrowed from an unrelated project, etc. Hindered by the privacy of its subject, They Say I’m Different finds itself scrambling to fill in dead air with artsy-fartsy techniques on an extremely limited budget, which often leaves it feeling like an hour-long trailer for a more complete film. For it to have done any better, though, it would have had to violate the wishes of the very subject it aims to promote & support. The way it ties one arm behind its own back as an entertainment is actually an ethical victory for it as an effort of retribution to Betty as an artist and a person. We don’t deserve a better Betty Davis documentary any more than we deserve Betty Davis herself; she doesn’t owe us any more than she’s already given. The best any modern profile of her can hope to achieve is boosting her record sales and then leaving her alone, which this one does as respectably as possible.

-Brandon Ledet

Apollo 11 (2019)

I’ve never had much personal interest in the Space Race as a cinematic subject. Outer space itself? Sure, that’s where alien beasts and blackhole portals to Hell are found, so I’m always down the visit that arena on the big screen. It’s more the real-life Cold War story of Patriotic Americans beating Communists to the Moon to plant our own flag there first that generally bores me. Maybe it’s a question of over-familiarity. Titles like The Right Stuff, First Man, Apollo 13, and Hidden Figures are only the tip of the Space Race media iceberg, usually inspiring me to file away the genre completely in the same Dad Stuff category as Westerns, war movies, and James Bond films, none of which I have much enthusiasm for. I was still somehow lured in by the recent documentary Apollo 11, even though it’s a back-to-basics approach to telling this exact same story yet again. Assembling & restoring previously unseen 70mm footage from the NASA archives that documented the first successful mission to the Moon fifty years ago (apparently NASA has their own myth-making production company like WWE Studios & NFL Films?), Apollo 11’s only gimmick in refreshing the Space Race narrative is that it has no gimmick at all. It’s elegantly straightforward in its presentation of documentary footage from the historic event, assuming the audience is already familiar enough with the context of its importance to not need narration or talking-head interviews to walk us through it. That elegance does help cut down on the potential tedium of telling the same Space Race story yet again (as well as lessening the usual American jingoism that accompanies it), but that’s not what lured me to the theater for this particular Space Race rehash. What really had me on the hook was its promise of an irresistible combination you usually only see in science fiction: outer space imagery + analog synths.

The imagery on display is, itself, incredible. The restoration makes it feel as crisp & as vivid as it would if it were filmed just yesterday instead of a half a century ago and, since NASA was smart enough to document itself, the level of intimacy in access is literally unsurpassable. Of course, that’s a huge boon once the cameras are launched into space, but I was surprised to discover myself equally fascinated by the footage they captured on Earth. Apollo 11 is just as much an act of people-watching & a late-60s fashion look book as it is an outer space travelogue – from the Norman Rockwell families who camped out to watch the titular mission launch to the thousands of NASA workers who helped make that mission possible. The outer space footage is more of a one-of-a-kind affair, though, especially as it was paired with the sweet analog tones of the Moog synthesizer. Composer Matt Morton prides himself on crafting the score entirely with analog equipment that predates the 1969 mission. His ominous Moog tones combine beautifully with the 70mm outer space footage, especially in a proper theatrical setting. And since the movie has an overt fetish for gear of all sorts – analog musical instruments, NASA switchboards, spacecraft components, the cameras themselves – the logistics of capturing the footage you’re watching becomes just as much a part of the story as the logistics of flying to the Moon in the first place, to the point where there’s strong case to nominate Buzz Aldrin for Best Cinematography at next year’s Oscars. Apollo 11 may not have alien space-beasts, portals to alternate Hell dimensions, or episodes of murderous space-madness, but it has everything else you could want from space travel sci-fi: elaborate production design, memorable costuming, eye-searing visuals, technical mumbo jumbo, and an ominous synth soundtrack, all in a real-life document.

My favorite sequence in Apollo 11 is what I like to think of as the sex scene. After spending a night separated, one piece resting on the moon while the other orbits above, the two components of the Apollo 11 spacecraft reunite in a complex re-docking maneuver. The sequence is filmed from both units’ POV, as if the space ships are longingly staring into each other’s eyes as they gradually lock their open mouths together for an airtight kiss. Meanwhile, tender keyboard flourishes score the ritual, recalling cinematic romances like the Counting Crows escalator scene in Cruel Intentions (which recently enjoyed its own theatrical anniversary, just as significant as the moon landing’s). You don’t get that kind of patience or intimacy or ethereal beauty in most Space Race docs, mostly because they let redundant talking-head interviews get in the way of the good stuff. Apollo 11 is comprised entirely of the good stuff. It’s incredible that a film had to go all the way back to the story’s bare-bones origins to find a way to make it compelling again.

-Brandon Ledet

The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family (2012)

I was initially skeptical of the recent, Stephen-Merchant-directed biopic of WWE superstar Paige, Fighting with My Family, even as someone who’s greatly enjoyed following her pro wrestling career. WWE’s involvement in the production led me to expect the Dianetics-level propaganda of revisionist history & TV commercial production sheen the company always applies to their hagiographic retellings of their own lore, which is more or less true to the film’s aesthetic. There’s just something about the its Disney Channel Original energy that clashes wonderfully with Merchant’s sharp comedic wit and the working-class crassness of the wrestlers it profiles, though, that gives it a surprisingly effective, compelling tone. There’s nothing that could have prepared me for the way Merchant worked that R-rated Disney Channel Original tonal clash to the film’s advantage, but I might at least have been less skeptical that Paige’s life story was worthy of the biopic treatment if I had first seen the BBC documentary that inspired it. Produced as a one-hour special for Channel 4, The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family is a low-key, made-for-TV documentary that’s just as saturated with the tones and tropes of the post-MTV True Life reality TV doc as its later, fictionalized version is adherent to the safe commercial feel of WWE’s self-propaganda. In this instance, however, the story of Paige’s peculiar family dynamic and inspiring rise to power story is enough to make for a compelling picture against all aesthetic odds – just like in the biopic. The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family is not quite as great of an achievement as its fictionalized follow-up, but it is the foundational text for that work – both inspiring its title and being included in clips during its end credits sequence for texture. Most importantly, it makes abundantly clear how Paige’s early-career story is fascinating enough to justify two separate, surprisingly successful movies.

The daughter of two Northern English pro wrestlers who once performed on television but now run their own local promotion in VFW hall-scale venues, Paige was groomed since birth to be a successful pro wrestler herself. Named Saraya after her mother’s in-ring character and commercially exploited by her parents as (in their own words) “eye candy” and “a product,” Paige’s traveling carnie lifestyle is fascinating whether or not you have an interest in pro wrestling as an artform. That familial dynamic only gets more bizarre as she emerges as the only breakout star among her inner circle, inspiring frustrated jealousy in her wrestling-nut brother and conflicted sentimental & financial pangs in her proud, but possessive parents. The Wrestlers has the exact opposite problem than the proper Fighting with My Family biopic; WWE’s strict press lockout keeps the cameras away from Paige’s tryout drama & professional training here, whereas the latter film focuses heavily on those backstage details in an image-controlled environment. Instead, the doc gets a more intimate and (by default) more honest depiction of Paige’s domestic life, as well as insight into the personal histories of her family. For the most part, the core story told in this documentary does carry over into its fictionalized follow-up, except the biopic has the advantage of backstage WWE access as lagniappe. However, seeing the 20-something Florence Pugh portray a fictionalized version of Paige does not give you an accurate idea of how much of a naïve baby she was when WWE signed her as a teenager. There’s something about seeing this young child shouldering massive familial responsibility and navigating deep-seated emotional resentments she has no fault in that comes through much stronger in this reality-TV doc than it does in the more convenient fiction, even if The Wrestlers is ultimately relegated to supplementary material for a much better film.

There easily could have been a scenario where Paige’s WWE career never took off and this one-off BBC doc could instead have developed into an episodic reality TV show. The MTV True Life aesthetics & gawking fascination with the wrestler’s peculiar family dynamic makes it feel like that was the original plan, that her WWE signing was a freak occurrence that threw everyone involved for a loop. That kind of midstream surprise (a swerve, if u will) always makes for a more compelling documentary, and Paige’s continued prominence in the WWE (which has not always been smooth sailing, to say the least) has only assured this one a cultural longevity it would not have achieved otherwise. At the end of the film, Paige promises she will change the shape of women’s wrestling in the company into something respectable beyond the T&A eye-candy roles performers had been relegated to for decades. She did eventually play a major part in achieving that goal, an accomplishment that helped justify blowing this story up to a feature-length biopic treatment. The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family isn’t quite as substantial as that biopic, but it does provide additional, essential texture that only strengthens the biopic in retrospect – so essential that it’s featured in clips in that latter text. It’s especially illuminating in getting a grasp on just how young Paige was when she was trained for this business and was signed by the biggest pro wrestling company in the world, which drastically alters how we understand her accomplishments & her family dynamic.

-Brandon Ledet

Buckjumping (2019)

Mardi Gras has an elusive spirit that’s impossible to accurately capture onscreen – whether in documentation or in fictional restaging. That’s largely because it’s a participatory culture – one that can only be reveled in, not observed. Countless local documentaries have attempted to tackle that impossible topic over the years anyway, usually through the lens of specific pockets of New Orleans Mardi Gras culture: the costume-beading traditions of Mardi Gras Indians, the pageant-drag of gay Carnival ball culture, the disruption of festivities caused by Hurricane Katrina, etc. For my money, the only doc that’s truly come close to nailing down the spirit of Mardi Gras is the classic Les Blank pic Always for Pleasure, which spreads its love & attention around an impressive portion of the city by partying along with its subjects. I mention this only to clarify that I mean it as a huge compliment when I say that the recent documentary Buckjumping feels like a 2010s update to Always for Pleasure, and a damn good one at that. Shot with at least six cinematographers over a three-year span, this low-budget doc demonstrates incredible patience in spreading its admiration, observation, and participation in New Orleans culture across the city to reach as many traditions as possible. At times, its parallels to the Les Blank classic feel deliberate, such as how it updates Always for Pleasure’s recipe tips from soul legend Irma Thomas by staging kitchen interviews with 90s bounce rapper Mia X (among interviews with other local hip-hop royalty like Mannie Fresh & DJ Jubilee). More often, their shared sensibility is more apparent in how they relate to the city and how well they capture its elusive spirit.

To be clear: Buckjumping isn’t specifically about Mardi Gras per se. Its announced subject is New Orleans dance traditions, which just naturally tend to revolve around the holiday. The ambition of that subject’s scope gradually becomes apparent as the overwhelming number of New Orleans dance traditions pile up onscreen: second-lines, jazz funerals, high school marching troupes, Mardi Gras Indians, dive bar drag acts, etc. Although it does conclude on the most modern addition to this tableau (the shaking & twerking of New Orleans bounce), it’s not so much a historical timeline of dance traditions from the city’s 300 year past as it is a participatory record of the traditions that are still thriving today. Led by head cinematographer Zac Manuel, the camerawork feels alive & alert in its hands-on engagement with its subject – filming the parade marches of dance troupes, footwork stunts of second-liners, and sweaty body-popping of bounce club hedonists with impressive intimacy & craft. There are extremes of emotions that naturally arise through that intimacy, from the soul-crushing grief of mourning to the ecstatic out-of-body experiences of second-line footwork at its most jubilant. Of course, this up-close, privileged documentation should be of interest to anyone who studies dance as an artform, but I think labeling Buckjumping simply as a dance documentary would be selling its merits short. This is a document of the elusive spirit of the city at its best, without comprising the black, queer, and radically political influences that propel that culture the way so many #NOLA commercializations of the city do. In other words, it’s an Always for Pleasure for the 2010s.

Living on Broad Street in the 7th Ward, one of my favorite Mardi Gras traditions is to hide in my living room from the first second-line after Fat Tuesday, not making it to the porch to cheer on the brass bands & rhapsodic dancers the way we usually do for the rest of the year. I’m always amazed that the local Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs still have the energy to party in that post-Carnival refractory period, the most recent one of which occurred the exact week I saw Buckumping at its second-ever screening. There are plenty of historical anecdotes & explanations of political context in this documentary that detail the evolution of our dance traditions (especially regarding their roots in slavery), but its greatest accomplishment might just be in how well it conveys the passion & compulsion that makes that bottomless dance energy possible. Maybe it takes an enthusiastic outsider to accurately capture that spirit onscreen (like Les Blank was when he filmed Always for Pleasure, Buckumping’s director Lily Keber is a young outsider relatively new to the city). More likely, this film is one of the few to accurately capture the elusive spirit of the city because it instinctively knows to participate rather than to merely observe (working with local cinematographers is likely also a plus). Either way, it’s an impressively successful, if not outright essential document of local Mardi Gras traditions – dance and beyond.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #78 of The Swampflix Podcast: Fyre Docs & American Movie (1999)

Welcome to Episode #78 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our seventy-eighth episode, Brandon & Britnee contrast & compare this year’s dueling Fyre Festival documentaries: Fyre Fraud & Fyre – The Greatest Party That Never Happened.  Also, Brandon makes Britnee watch the cult classic documentary American Movie (1999) for the first time. Enjoy!

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-Brandon Ledet & Britnee Lombas