Movie of the Month: Chicken People (2016)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Hanna made BrandonBoomer, and Britnee watch Chicken People (2016).

Hanna: The United States loves to kill chickens. It’s the most popular meat in a country of meat-lovers, and we produce more than any other country in the world; in 2019, the US slaughtered and sold about 9 billion chickens. Between 50–90% of them were raised on large industrial farms called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), which are famous for imposing physical and genetic misery on their animals for the sake of efficiency. It’s hard to get a clear picture of the standard conditions in the poultry industry, but at worst, broiler chickens (raised only for meat) are packed into dark, cramped pens for the entirety of their lives, crippled by their own weight, and repeatedly exposed to infection. In short, the key stakeholders in the industrial agricultural complex do not care about the lives and fates of their number one meat product.

Chicken People, a documentary directed by Nicole Lucas Haimes and distributed by CMT, follows the small and intense community of competitive poultry shows – a community that cares very much for the lives of their chickens. The documentary focuses on the lives of three competitors in particular—Brian Caraker, Brian Knox, and Shari McCollough—in the months leading up to the Ohio National Poultry Show, which is the largest of approximately 300 poultry shows in the United States. Chicken People makes it clear that competitors take the circuit seriously: they rigorously study The American Standard of Perfection (the chicken equivalent of the American Kennel Club’s standard dog breed guide) and meticulously breed their chickens for just the right waddle hue and feather clarity. Brian Knox is the Gregor Mendel of the group; he’s raised thousands of chickens, and his systematic breeding program tracks each individual lineage so he can pair chickens with complimentary traits. Brian Caraker, a musical theatre performer, treats The Standard like a Bible and sprays his chickens’ feathers with a glossy polishing spray, which “changes a farm chicken into a show chicken.” Shari McCollough spends multiple hours a day grooming her little Silkies into puffy white clouds.

Obviously, the chickens are the stars of Chicken People; these birds are masterpieces. All kinds of chicken breeds and varieties—Silkies, Wyandottes, Brahmas, Sultans, etc.—are represented in the chicken exhibitions, and some of them are shockingly strange and beautiful. I could stare at those vivid, high-contrast chicken shots with the black background for hours. I’m also totally fascinated by this subsection of American pageantry that honors, glamorizes, and obsesses over the cheapest, blandest staple of the industrial agricultural complex. The documentary is interspersed with mini interviews à la When Harry Met Sally, which mostly involve other contestants gushing about their beautiful chickens, and their unassailable love for these dumb birds that we eat every day fills my heart with joy.

The part of this documentary that I struggle with the most is the treatment of the subjects. I thought Haimes focused a little too much on the personal problems of the three main competitors to emphasize that “Chicken People” are a fringe group, especially when they went into detail on Shari’s history of addiction. It didn’t feel exploitative, exactly, maybe a little condescending. I also just wish it had focused a little more on the history of poultry and agricultural shows in the United States, and I wanted 1000% more chicken content. Britnee, how do you think the documentary treated the “Chicken People” as subjects? Do you think she was fair to the competitors? Is there anything you would have changed about her focus?

Britnee: Chicken People does a great job of highlighting the uniqueness and quirkiness of its three human subjects without feeling exploitive. Documentaries that are similar in subject are typically gross for how they make fun of how “weird” the stars of the show are, and I was concerned this one would go that route. I love that it remains focused on the chicken people’s passion and dedication to their feathery friends. It’s so endearing. Haimes also manages to do a fantastic job of balancing the focus on each of them without making one seem more important or entertaining than the other. They each had their own individual journeys, but all somehow felt equal. 

However, I do agree with you, Hanna. I wish there was more chicken content. I love the parts of the film where pages from The American Standard of Perfection took over the screen, explaining what made certain breeds of chicken perfect, and I especially enjoyed learning about how they are dolled up for competitions. I never really saw chickens as being beautiful before. I thought they were cute, but never really truly beautiful. After watching them so closely, I was truly stunned by so many of them. I’m definitely not going to be a chicken person or chicken owner anytime soon, but I have a newfound appreciation for their beauty and grace.

Boomer, I’m not sure what your experience is with chickens, but do you feel different towards chickens after watching Chicken People? Did the documentary spark an interest in the chicken universe?

Boomer: There’s a moment in Chicken People in which Brian Caraker says of his parents, “[They’re] not chicken people. I’m chicken people.” Well, dear readers, I’m not chicken people. But my mother is. 

Growing up, we had chickens for almost as long as I can remember. Every couple of years, once the last generation stopped laying, Mom would put in an order for a new dozen at the co-op for the coming spring, and when April came, the new chicks would come home. For the first few weeks of life, they resided under a heat lamp in a box that had a dedicated spot on top of the dryer in the trailer, and then atop the freezer chest once we built and moved into the house. At that stage of life, their downy chickfeathers were so soft that they seemed more mammalian than avian. The first group were Rhode Island Reds; the following generation was a mix of Plymouth Rocks and Orpingtons. Later still we even had an Ameraucana or two (the most common chicken that lays green-tinted eggs). As soon as they were able, they were moved to the coop; it was my job to let them out of it every day after school so that they could roam and eat the various insects of the field, collect their eggs, feed them their pellets, and clean and refill their water fountains. When recalling my childhood (to call it a “reminisce” would be remiss), it’s impossible to extricate those memories from their accompanying odors and the tactile sensation of the squish of chicken shit between my toes. And that’s not even getting into the eggs. I was 16 when I went off to boarding school, and it was a solid decade before I would again consume an egg with anything other than revulsion. As a result, the people with whom I felt the most sympathy or identification in Chicken People were not any of the competitors; while watching the elder Carakers miserably wash a chicken fountain, I had a full on Proust Remembrance. I tell you the truth: Orpington roosters are such fucking assholes

Well, that’s not entirely true. We lived—and my parents still live—in a place that was, paradoxically, deep country but not so rural that it was too far for city folk (for a given definition of both “city” and “folk”) to drop their old, unloved, or merely mutty hounds on our road. Near the end of Chicken People, recovering alcoholic Shari talks with a fellow competitor about the latter’s loving, gentle turkey that was killed by the neighbor’s dogs. Most of the time, when people came to abandon their animals, it was usually about a half mile away, at the bridge across the nameless finger of Redwood Creek that intersected our road. As such, there was never a lack of new, hungry, lost dogs in search of a meal. There was no love lost between me and those chickens, but it sure did break my mother’s heart to lose one, and no matter how much we fortified that coop and the pen, every few years, there was a massacre, throwing Mom into a depression for weeks, or even months. She grew up on a dairy farm and although our long, skinny 5 acres didn’t allow for even one cow, those chickens meant a lot to her, just like their fellow foul did to the Brians and Shari. 

I guess that’s where I have to part ways with the consensus so far; although both Britnee and Hanna wanted more chicken info, I was much more interested in the people who were drawn to chickens and driven by their love of them. I was particularly interested in Shari’s family, especially since we clearly saw them over a period of time, given that one of her daughters leaves home for college and is seen visiting later in the film, although I guess that’s just my personal biases at play. We learned a lot about the families of both of the Brians, but solely through the eyes of their parents and grandparents, as neither has children or a wife/husband (Brian Knox at least had a lady friend at one point, and they’re still friendly, which is nice), who are surprisingly supportive and kind, perhaps because of their own hobbies, like drag racing and miniature trains. If this were fiction, I’d expect to see more ambivalence or mixed feelings on the part of Shari’s kids, given that becoming a chicken lady helped their mother with her drinking problem, but her sober crutch also meant less room for them in her daily life, one would think. 

Personally, I’m generally distrustful of any media that ascribes human emotions, morality, and ideologies to animals. There’s a lot of anthropomorphization happening here on the part of the participants, who characterize their birds as “preparing to fight for [their] mate[s]” or  taking pride in their appearance, etc. On a recent episode of the Lagniappe podcast, I expressed my annoyance at the filmmaker behind My Octopus Teacher for his similar narrative actions; the interesting thing that’s happening there isn’t that the octopus has become his friend, but that he sees the action of the octopus and perceives it as being of a kind with his own complex emotions. For its part, Chicken People doesn’t have that same kind of anthrocentric understanding of animal intelligence, but I wouldn’t have minded seeing more of it, as that’s where one gets the insight into the people, who are more interesting to me than the chickens. Brandon, what are your thoughts? Did you think there was sufficient time spent with the competitors? Were there any of the competitors who participated in the shorter “talking head” sections that you would have liked to see more of in the body of the film proper?

Brandon: Like Hanna and Britnee, I also found the exquisitely bred & manicured show-chickens to be more fascinating than their imperfect human masters.  The most outright cinematic touches to the film are in the fine-art photography shoots set against a black void, where various chickens are examined uncomfortably close-up in high definition.  If there was any further narration or talking-head interview footage missing for me, it’s in the film’s potentially amazing Werner Herzog commentary track.  Herzog has a great talent for un-anthropomorphizing nature’s most peculiar beasts, and I’d love to hear him expand on his already stellar 2012 monologue about the disturbing nature of chickens into a feature-length philosophical rant.  I was particularly thinking about his horrified, abstracted reaction to chickens in the final sequence at the Ohio National Poultry Show, wherein a massive convention space echoes the continuous screams of hundreds of chickens for hours of unrelenting cacophony.  It’s a bizarrely hideous sound that no one in the room thinks to acknowledge, because they’re just used to being submerged in it.  Herzog’s always great for pointing out the strangeness of those kinds of horrifying experiences that have become normalized & familiar only through repetition.

Otherwise, I’m mostly satisfied with the balance of talking-heads-to-chicken-heads screentime ratio here.  As a Country Music Television production, Chicken People is closer to reality TV than it is to more hoity-toity docs like Gates of Heaven, and it does a decent job of constructing a narrative for each of its three main subjects within that template.  If it had been stretched out into multiple seasons of television, there would’ve been plenty enough room for more insight into the lives of its color-commentary interviewees, but at just 83min I think it was smart to limit its scope to just a few competitors.  My only real complaint with that balance is the way it’s squeamish about elaborating on Brian Caraker’s romantic life, a critique I also saw echoed in Julius Kassendorf’s review of the film for The Solute.  While the other two contestants talk about their heterosexual romantic partners at length, Caraker is only allowed to make vague hints that he is gay without every actually speaking the word out loud or making direct references to his past relationships.  I don’t know if that was Caraker’s personal decision or a mandate from the Conservative-leaning higher-ups at CMT Docs, but it’s a glaring omission all the same.  I wish we could’ve gotten to know Caraker better without having to tiptoe around the concrete details of his personal life, especially in contrast to how his competitors are treated.

Then again, Caraker was also the most compelling of the three contestants to me in almost every way.  He’s the only one of the titular chicken people who could rival the actual chickens for pure entertainment value – especially in those cutaways to his otherworldly stage performances in Branson, MO.  I could have watched an entire movie about him without the other two contestants ever butting in and left just as satisfied.

Lagniappe

Hanna: I’m SO glad that Brandon brought up Herzog’s wonderful monologue on the barbaric stupidity of chickens. My second favorite chicken quote is from Joshue Oppenheimer, who directed The Act of Killing: “Chickens are living manifestations of death, bred only to be domesticated and killed. When we look into their eyes, we see the part of ourselves of which we are most afraid – our ultimate destination. Death.” Such sweet little feathery canvases to project our mortal fears upon!

Britnee: The Modern Game Bantams may be my favorite breed of chicken featured here. They have long supermodel legs and it looks like they’re wearing little bike shorts. They make me so uncomfortable, but I can’t stop looking at them! I want a farm full of these little creeps.

Boomer: Orpington roosters are such assholes. I’d also like to note that Shari is missing a word in one of her interviews; she says (roughly) that “People think of chickens as dirty, smelly creatures, but that’s not true,” followed by a statement that “[she] spends 4 or 5 hours a day grooming her chickens.” There’s a big because missing right there in the middle. Chickens are dirty, at least from a certain perspective, as they do clean themselves in dirt, like a lot of birds. They absolutely do shit positively everywhere as well; look no further than the fact that so many talking head interviewees have extensive diapering systems for their chickens as proof.

Finally, it seems like Brian may have gotten his wish to open a farm, if this Facebook page for Caraker Farms is any indication (according to the info panel, they are “very responsive” to messages). He also has a Twitter account, although it appears to be largely inactive, given that his last tweet was from 2014, in which he expressed interest in a Mitt Romney candidacy in 2016.   

Brandon: As sweetly quaint as this documentary is, I do think Chicken People would also make a great title for a horror film, like the poultry version of Alligator People.  We’ve seen a horror take on humanoid chicken people before in films like Tod Browning’s Freaks and Troma’s Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead, so it’s not that far outside the realm of possibility.  Even in their pampered beauty-contest version here, the little edible dinosaurs are just as creepy as they are oddly beautiful, and I think that imagery could easily be mined for more creature-feature monstrosities.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
July: Brandon presents Starstruck (1982)
August: Boomer presents Sneakers (1992)
September: Britnee presents Hello Again (1987)

-The Swampflix Crew

Madame (2021)

It’s difficult to make a documentary about yourself without coming across as a narcissistic bore.  Every now and then, there’s an Agnès Varda level genius who can turn their personal travel journals into god-tier masterpieces like The Gleaners and I or a celebrity with long-buried familial skeletons in the closet to unearth for cathartic entertainment, as in Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell.  For the most part, though, it’s difficult for an audience to match a filmmaker’s fascination with their own everyday lives & relationships.  The recent documentary/essay Madame somehow clears that hurdle with ease even without a flashy editing style or a grandly traumatic familial mystery to unearth.  It’s a quiet, intimate documentary about a gay filmmaker’s loving but distanced relationship with his own grandmother, nothing more.  And yet it has a lot of genuinely fascinating things to say that reach far beyond the expected navel-gazing of that subject.

Stéphane Riethauser structures Madame as a posthumous conversation with his deceased grandmother, mostly filling her in on all the things he didn’t get to say or convey in the years when they were most estranged.  Those were the years when Riethauser was a closeted homosexual (at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 80s & 90s, no less), afraid to come out to even his most loving family members in fear that they would reject him for being himself.  He starts by promising a frank discussion about gender, love, and sexuality from his own perspective, but the more he attempts to meet his grandmother on equal footing, he realizes that she was an iconoclast in her own time in a near-identical way.  Ostracized by her Catholic family for divorcing young and making her own way as a businesswoman decades before Riethauser was born, his grandmother was no stranger to the alienation of being Different in a world that values conservatism & conformity.  By recounting their respective, rigidly gendered upbringings, Madame sketches out a wide range of microscopic ways sexism & homophobia are reinforced in modern social structures, and how that can obstruct meaningful human connections – including the one between a loving grandmother & grandson with a shared defiant spirit. 

Even beyond its prodding at larger social & philosophical ills, Madame is also just a wonderful looking film.  Riethauser sequences tons of beautiful archival footage from his childhood into a gloomy diary-in-motion, with constant narration pointing out what’s rotting just under the surface of a seemingly happy family life.  That molded photo album aesthetic wouldn’t be enough to fully engage an audience outside his immediate family circle, though.  What really makes the film special is its exploration of homophobia as the “offspring” of sexism.  It directly links the ways he & his grandmother were suppressed by their conservative, religious upbringings, and how rigid gender expectations created entirely unnecessary boundaries between them even after they broke free of those social shackles.  It’s a long stare in the mirror in the way a lot of tedious, navel-gazing self-portraits can be, but it’s one of the few examples that transcends the expected limitations of that choice by making the personal universal.  We all suffer under social expectations of traditional gender performance, and we’re all worse off for it.

-Brandon Ledet

Dick Johnson is Dead (2020)

The central conceit of Kirsten Johnson’s fantasy/documentary hybrid film Dick Johnson is Dead sounds almost too morbid & emotionally traumatizing to stomach for its full 90 minutes. Somehow, though, the execution leaves the film feeling surprisingly lighthearted and, against all odds, cute. The titular Dick Johnson is Kirsten’s father, who is grappling with losing his mind & body to old age & senility. To help prepare for this impending familial loss, the retired psychiatrist agreed to collaborate with his documentarian daughter on a film about his death. Johnson is depicted lying in his coffin, lounging on his favorite chair in Heaven and, most frequently, dying on camera in various mundane accidents that could reasonably kill a man of his fragile age. It’s an exercise that’s clearly meant to function as cinematic therapy for one specific family, but in practice it works as broad, universally relatable gallows humor. We’re all going to die (some of us sooner than we’d like), so we might as well get used to the idea and learn to have a laugh over that inevitable fate.

If there’s anything that’s especially tough to endure as an audience here, it’s in Kirsten Johnson’s lingering loss of her mother, who died nearly a decade ago after suffering a more extreme version of memory loss than her still-living husband. Johnson’s haunted by the irreversible fact that she did not take the time to document & collaborate with her mother while she was still in her prime, a mistake she’s determined not to repeat with her father. By making a film with her father about his own impending death, she’s not only getting comfortable with the reality of that tragedy, but she’s also making sure to spend time with him while she can. Dick Johnson is Dead is gradually less about envisioning its subject dead in a coffin or on an NYC sidewalk and more about documenting his gregarious personality, his most guarded vulnerabilities, and his personal fantasies of an ideal world. Dick Johnson hams up the various performances of his death with broad comedic humor because, at heart, the project is mostly about having fun & spending time with his filmmaker daughter while he can.

Dick Johnson’s escalating senility does limit how far the film’s central conceit can be pushed, both because it would be cruel to make him work long hours on movie sets and because he eventually forgets the fantasy aspect of the project, confusing stage blood for the real thing. Kirsten Johnson isn’t entirely interested in maintaining the structure of that staged-deaths conceit anyway. Much of the film shows her deliberately stripping back the artifice of both the staged-death vignettes and the more traditional documentarian techniques at play. Stunt doubles, boom mic operators, gore makeup technicians, and everyone else involved in the project are allowed to wander into the frame as if this were a home movie of a company picnic rather than a high-concept art project. As a result, the biggest emotional impacts come from intimate moments like Johnson responding “I didn’t know that” to her father’s various anecdotes or from their tough conversations about what freedoms he has to give up as he ages, like the ability to drive. If anything, the staged death scenes are the film’s comic relief, and it’s the quiet moments of idle time in-between where the severity of the situation hits the family (and the audience) hardest.

-Brandon Ledet

Nobody May Come (2020)

When I was a kid living way “down the road” in St. Bernard Parish, New Orleans felt like it was planets away. I was fascinated by the boozy, draggy glam of the city but too young to access it without constrictive parental supervision – an endless source of frustration at the time. One of the ways I would scratch my ever-worsening itch for New Orleans hedonism those years was by frequenting a long-forgotten 1990s website that profiled & documented the most eccentric weirdos of The French Quarter as if they were celebrity icons. The site had individual pages for local Personalities like Ruthie The Duck Lady, Varla Jean Merman, and a clown who supposedly sold weed out of his balloon cart (a fuzzy memory that yields no useful Google results two decades later). I’d return to that site every now and then the way most kids ritualistically review their baseball cards or comic book collections; it was an aspirational window into a much more interesting world I couldn’t wait to occupy as soon as I had some personal freedom (and a car).

Valerie Sassyfras is very much of that tradition of New Orleans-specific eccentrics. Usually, when I catch her playing her spaced-out avant-garde new wave jams around the city, it’s totally by happenstance. I’ll be walking my dog in City Park and stumble onto her abrasively bewildering the tourists & Metairie Moms just trying to enjoy a beignet with their kids at Cafe Du Monde. Her legendary status as a local eccentric is built on those kinds of guerilla gigs in unlikely venues, starting with her regular features at a now-closed Piccadilly Cafeteria. Usually, very few people in the audience are directly paying attention to her, but she always parties hard on her keyboards, mandolin, and accordion as if she’s playing the most important gig of her life. Inevitably, one or two fellow weirdos in the crowd lock onto her warped wavelength and have the time of their lives, while everyone around them tries their best to remain politely oblivious to the outsider-art theatricality just outside their peripheral view. It’s always a wonderful spectacle to stumble into, more like encountering a magical creature than a struggling gig musician.

Sassyfras may never have had a page on whatever bullshit GeoCities website about New Orleans eccentrics I was frequenting as a kid, but she now has a much more substantial mythmaking platform to highlight her persona and her art: a documentary. Nobody May Come is the exact kind of niche-interest no-budget filmmaking you only see at festivals: a local documentary about a New Orleans street musician that only a handful of like-minded weirdos ever seek out in concert on purpose. It premiered at this year’s (mostly) digital New Orleans Film Fest, with much cheerleading & social media promotion from Sassyfras herself. On Valerie’s Facebook page (a wonderful follow that I highly encourage you to pursue), she promoted Nobody May Come as “a funny, fabulous movie all about me!” I’m not sure we saw the same film based on that description, but I’m also not sure anyone experiences the world the way Valerie Sassyfras does; that’s exactly what makes her so fascinating as an outsider artist & a documentary subject. I also don’t think it would improve her life at all if she found this movie about her art and her daily drudgery to be as upsettingly grim as I did.

If you’ve ever stumbled across an impromptu Valerie Sassyfras show in the wild and were curious about what, exactly, is her Whole Deal, Nobody May Come is eager to sketch out those details. It’s an intimate slice-of-life doc that captures Sassyfras at her most glamorous (performing with sequins & backup twerkers to adoring bar-scene audiences) and at her most mundane (stoned and eating Popeyes in her favorite armchair while listening to modern pop-country tunes). She’s an unreliable narrator of her own life’s story, defending herself against past accusations of abuse & neglect within fraught familial relationships as if the audience were interviewing to be her lawyer. Meanwhile, her career is enjoying newfound national attention thanks to her party jam “Girls Night Out” being memed by mainstream bullies like The Ellen DeGeneres Show and America’s Got Talent. Sassyfras’s avant-garde, zydeco-turned-new-wave pop tunes are much better suited for weirdo bar culture than they are for wide public consumption, falling somewhere between the conceptual art pageantry of a Laurie Anderson stage show and the crude prankishness of a Tim & Eric bit. Watching her expectations of impending fame clash with the ironic get-a-load-of-this-weirdo bullying of mainstream American television can be just as dark & upsetting as listening to her grumble about the ways she’s been left behind by her family and the world at large.

Nobody May Come is a jarring mix of fun outsider-art punk aggression and severely upsetting social & mental dysfunction. It would be easy to slap together a montage from the film of Valerie struggling to accomplish simple, mundane tasks: opening elevator doors, playing videos on her phone, negotiating with venue staff, routinely ordering Popeyes over a fuzzy drive-through intercom, etc. It would be just as easy to edit together a full-glam rock star fantasy montage that highlights her aggressively bizarre crowdwork and music videos instead of her personal & professional Issues. Personally, I would have preferred that the film lean harder into that latter option, if not only to gift Sassyfras the “funny, fabulous movie” she was looking for. There’s a lot of dark energy running throughout Nobody May Come that contextualizes her as a Daniel Johnston-type outsider artist who has her Good Days and her Bad. There may be some truth to that, but I personally found the doc to be most useful as an act of local mythmaking, not a warts-and-all exposé.

It would have been nice if Nobody May Come were as purely fun & fabulous as Valerie Sassyfras’s concerts, but I am still very much appreciative of it as-is for seeking to preserve her Local Legend status with a document much more substantial than a meme-of-the-week viral video or a late-90s blog post. She deserves the attention (and more).

-Brandon Ledet

To Decadence With Love, Thanks for Everything (2020)

The very last in-person social event I attended before the COVID lockdowns hit New Orleans this March was a Joni Mitchell tribute show at the AllWays Lounge. Watching drag queens, burlesque performers, and other assorted weirdos pay homage to as unlikely of an icon as Joni Mitchell was a bizarre treat, especially by the time Krewe Divine member CeCe V. DeMenthe was doing Mitchell as Divine in a Female Trouble-inspired get-up late in the show. I very much miss going to local, avant-garde drag shows like that Joni Mitchell tribute, most of which are anchored to the AllWays Lounge and the surrounding bars on St. Claude Ave. It’s a gaping, ever-widening hole in my social calendar that only became more glaring while watching To Decadence With Love, Thanks for Everything at this year’s (mostly) virtual New Orleans Film Festival.

To Decadence With Love is a local documentary that follows two exceptionally hard-working performers on the contemporary New Orleans drag scene: Franky and Laveau Contraire. Chronicling the two queens’ whirlwind of nonstop gigs over Southern Decadence weekend in 2019 (think Pride Weekend, only much sweatier), the film manages to capture a wide-ranging portrait of contemporary New Orleans drag over a shockingly short period of time. It’s amazing that Franky or Laveau had enough time to freshen their make-up or nap between gigs, much less talk to a documentary crew, but their guided tour of the city on a big moneymaker weekend is continually engaged & energetic. I don’t know that it fully captures what I love about watching these two performers in particular (Franky’s attention-commanding crowdwork and Laveau’s tightrope walk between the traditional & the avant-garde, respectfully), but it certainly sketches out a bigger-picture portrait of the scene where their art is near omnipresent.

I’m most grateful for this documentary’s efforts to capture how drastically different the New Orleans drag scene is now vs. the traditional Southern Pageant Drag I remember growing up with here. While Franky and Laveau Contraire are the overworked tour guides at the center, they make sure to pull the audience by the hand through the performance-art oddities of fellow weirdos & New Orleans Drag Workshop alumni like Maryboy, Apostrophe, Tarah Cards, and Gayle King Kong – some of my very favorite local performers, all of whom I miss tossing sweaty dollar bills at in various cabarets around town. Laveau Contraire in particular is a perfect choice of narrator in deciphering what makes the modern scene here so distinct & worthy of archival documentation, as she is intimately familiar with the traditional Pageant scene that contrasts it (which is still around, and still entertaining on its own merits). The movie also just wouldn’t be complete without her no matter what, since she tirelessly works practically every show on the local calendar.

I don’t know that To Decadence With Love will have much of a life outside of The New Orleans Film Festival, despite winning the fest’s Jury prize for Best Louisiana Feature. I imagine that, at the very least, its music clearance logistics would be an absolute nightmare in terms of distribution, considering how much drag relies on pre-existing pop media. There also isn’t much to its formal approach that distinguishes it as a documentary, outside maybe the way it interviews rideshare drivers on the trips between shows with equal weight as if they were also drag queens (emphasizing their shared reliance on spontaneous gigs & tips). Still, it’s a smart, entertaining document of a hyper-specific pocket of contemporary New Orleans culture that deserves this kind of attention before it’s lost to time. I also personally found it bittersweet to see that scene so vibrantly alive just one year ago, considering how drably uneventful my 2020 social life has been without it.

-Brandon Ledet

The Giverny Document: Single Channel (2020)

The first feature I watched at this year’s virtual-edition New Orleans Film Fest was a 40-minute “experimental documentary” (read: essay film) about Black women’s cultural identity, a project that started as an art gallery instillation and an act of small-scale political protest. I gotta say, it felt nice to get back in the swing of things. The Giverny Document (Single Channel) is a little uneven & impenetrable in a way a lot of experimental art-project cinema can be, but its contextual positioning within a film festival environment made those qualities almost warmly familiar instead of cold or alienating. The Giverny Document packs a powerful emotional/political wallop when it feels like going for the jugular, but much of its runtime is a loose, dissociative experience that’s much more about puzzling through What It All Means than it is direct, clear messaging. As COVID has severely limited my access to film festival offerings of its kind this year, I found myself just as warmly nostalgic for this type of deliberately bewildering Art in general as I was affected by what this particular work was striving to say.

The Giverny Document is a conceptual art piece about Black women’s relationships with their own bodies and the meaning of “feeling safe.” These topics are clearly announced in plain dialogue & text so that the audience is at least grounded in terms of subject, even if the tools it explores that subject with are much more abstract. The “Single Channel” subtitle refers to the film’s nature as a synthesized work comprised of many smaller, disparate parts. In an art gallery setting, The Giverny Document is a three-screen instillation piece that simultaneously runs loops of multiple short films comprised of alternating, contrasting images: nature, police brutality, drone strikes, dancing, self-portraiture, etc. This distillation of that project combines all these opposing elements into a single montage, occasionally interrupted by people-on-the-street interviews fit for a local 1990s news broadcast and a stunning Nina Simone performance of the song “Feelings.” It’s a messy, provocative collage that attempts to make sense of the simultaneous, dizzying ways Black women occupy the world: from the personal & internal, to the globally political, to the spiritual & Natural. That’s a lot of ground to cover in a mere 40min stretch, which director Ja’Tovia Gary tackles by keeping its various thematic connections loose & poetic.

I don’t mean to contextualize The Giverny Document as A Film Festival Movie as a means of dismissing its artistic merits or political message. The film intentionally anchors itself to that Experimental Cinema niche by directly, cyclically referencing Stan Brakhage’s famous short Mothlight, which created a crudely beautiful form of animation by running actual insect wings through a film projector. This movie knows exactly what kind of Art World territory it’s trafficking in. It’s not all headscratching obfuscation, though. Often, the 90s-style news reporter will announce to potential interviewees that the movie is “about being a Black lady” to lure them in front of the camera, or police brutality footage will be interrupted by plain block text announcing “WE DON’T DESERVE THIS” as a direct plea for relief. Ja’Tovia Gary’s ambitious, poetic explorations of Black femme identity in both personal & political arenas is very much worth engaging with inside its own confines, which can alternate between disorienting & alarmingly direct the way its imagery alternates between Nature & culture. The experience just also made me consider how much I missed attending in-person film festivals over the past eight months of social distancing, since they’re one of the last places you can still encounter & enjoy this kind of Experimental Cinema provocation (outside the walls of an art gallery, at least).

-Brandon Ledet

Bonus Features: Marjoe (1972)

Our current Movie of the Month, the behind-the-scenes Christian evangelist exposé Marjoe, is one of the more captivating specimens of the “Direct Cinema” movement of the 1970s. It recalls both a politically subversive, Maysles Brothers-style documentary and a subversive take on the concert film, gawking at the stage performances of a lapsed Christian preacher who doesn’t believe his own sermons but needs to keep the show on the road to in order to pay the bills. Since both the movie’s form (1970s direct-cinema documentary filmmaking) and its broader subject (financial exploitation in modern Christian evangelism) have become somewhat familiar to audiences over the decades—however powerful—the most unique factor at play here is Marjoe Gortner himself: a bizarre, charismatic creature who was trained (read: tortured) from a young age to be a kind of sideshow performer in the name of the Lord. As a result, recommending further viewing for Marjoe fans must take into account Gortner’s idiosyncratic characteristics as a screen presence more so than the circumstances of the film itself.

It’s difficult to be mindful of just how politically incendiary Marjoe would have been when it was released a half-century ago. Its peek behind the scenes of Southern-fried religious exploitation has become such familiar territory in the decades since that it now has a sitcom version in HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones. At the time, though, its anti-evangelism subject was considered so taboo that it wasn’t theatrically distributed anywhere in the American South. It may have taken home the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, but if you lived anywhere south of De Moines, Iowa, chances are you never got a chance to see it until it hit home video decades later. Because of the film’s uniquely 1970s politics and the distinct peculiarities of Marjoe Gortner himself, it’s difficult to recommend many films that entirely overlap with its subject or mood. Unfortunately, though, Gortner is not the only sideshow attraction preacher out there with a morbid life story to tell.

Here are a few recommended titles if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to experience more cinema on its eccentric, politically subversive wavelength.

Jesus Camp (2006)

One of the most electrifying sequences in Marjoe is the hotel room debriefing early in the film when Gortner preps the hippie documentary crew on how to act while socializing among Evangelicals, as if they were going into war behind enemy lines. This unspoken culture war between documentarian & subject immediately reminded me of the 2006 doc Jesus Camp, which chilled me to my core when I first saw it in college. Jesus Camp is careful not to tip its hand in revealing its political POV, at least not as overtly as in Marjoe‘s hotel room debriefing. Instead, it allows the Christian Evangelists it documents to define the battle lines as they see it. In their own words, the Evangelists claim they are engaged in a genuine Culture War with secularists, declaring “We want to reclaim America for Christ.” For once, it’s not the countercultural hippie artists who are being honest about the moral combat perpetrated by well-funded Christians with a pathological persecution complex; the fascists just openly, proudly admit what they’re up to.

Much of what makes Marjoe Gortner such a fascinating subject is that he was profoundly fucked up by an abusive childhood that trained him to be a sideshow Child Preacher in order to fatten his parents’ pockets. By the time the documentary catches up with him, however, those abuses are in the distant past, represented only by a few scratchy audio recordings & still photographs. Jesus Camp documents Evangelist indoctrination of young children in real time. Threatened with eternal damnation in torturous Hellfire if they don’t speak in tongues or if they dare enjoy secular pop music (or any other minor indulgence that doesn’t directly honor God), the children of Jesus Camp are deliberately warped by the adults around who run their Christian-themed summer camp (most notably head camp pastor Becky Fischer, the most infuriating villain in the history of cinema). The adults proudly boast that they’re indoctrinating the kids to become “prayer warriors” to fight in an ideological army for George W. Bush & the Republican Party – the exact kind of militarized Christian voter devotion that now keeps Trump in office all these years later, despite him being the least Christian man alive. The children are scared out of their little minds and just follow along as best as they can, lest they burn in Hell forever for minor infractions against God’s Will.

The icing on the cake in this pairing is that one of the central subjects that arises in Jesus Camp is a child preacher who uses his youth as a gimmick to draw attention to his sermons. Seeing how that schtick worked out for Gortner in the long run, I sincerely hope that kid got out okay after the cameras stopped rolling.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2000)

Not all Evangelists are as villainous as Jesus Camp‘s Becky Fischer. If Marjoe Gortner’s any proof, they can even be weirdly lovable (even if still mildly terrifying). Case in point: Tammy Faye Bakker, former televangelist and unlikely queer icon (thanks to her public embrace of gay men during the darkest days of the AIDS crisis in the 80s & 90s). From her trademark spackled eye makeup to her Evangelist puppet shows to her former Christian water park empire, Tammy Faye Bakker is a kind of nightmarishly unreal public figure, but she’s also unexpectedly sweet & adorable once you get past her eccentric surface. Her own documentary is not as prestigious or artfully crafted as Marjoe Gortner’s, but it may function as better PR, as it allows her to charm the audience for as long as she feels like chattering.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a shamelessly trashy documentary that allows Tammy Faye Bakker to tell her rise-to-televangelist-fame story in her own words, while also openly having campy fun with the details. Made by the same production company that has since sunk all its efforts into the RuPaul’s Drag Race empire, World of Wonder, the film has a deliberately cheap, made-for-TV tone. It effectively feels like a spoof of sensationalist true-crime reporting on 90s television, right down to RuPaul living his full Behind the Music fantasy as the narrator. The movie catches Faye after the most incredible chapters of her life have closed (as opposed to Marjoe, which documents Gortner while he’s still active on the Evangelist circuit), but her bubbly, bizarro personality and her history as one of the very first televangelist celebrities more than makes up for its timing. She even offers a universally detestable villain for the audience to hiss at while describing the figures behind her professional downfall: Jerry Fucking Falwell, the devil himself.

The WOW boys have almost too much fun while playing up Tammy’s inescapable camp value. They even use her vintage puppet characters to announce the chapter titles between her rambling anecdotes. Not every documentary has to be as politically fired-up as Marjoe or Jesus Camp to be worthwhile, however, and at least this one’s puppet show goofballery appears to have been the inspiration for Drag Race‘s beloved puppet challenge (Tammy Faye offhandedly uses the phrase “Everybody loves puppets” in a scene where she’s pitching TV shows to a bewildered producer who doesn’t know what to do with her).

Starcrash (1978)

While Tammy Faye is oddly charismatic in a similar way, there’s no substitute for Marjoe Gortner himself. I was delighted to discover after watching his own documentary that Gortner was able to leverage the film’s notoriety into a modest career as a B-movie actor in the 1970s. His hammy, off-kilter charisma is perfect for cheap-o genre filmmaking, which are always benefited by eccentric oddballs who audiences would never see in better-funded, better-regulated productions. Besides, it’s fun to imagine an alternate reality where Gortner’s acting career really took off and you could buy official Marjoe® wigs at every Halloween costume store. We were so close to making that happen!

The jewel of Gortner’s B-movie repertoire seems to be the Roger Corman production Starcrash, a shameless Italian knockoff of Star Wars. Even among other eccentric personalities (and legitimate actors) like David Hasselhoff, Christopher Plummer, and Caroline Munro, Gortner stands out as a captivating oddity. There are space aliens, metallic giantesses, and retro-futuristic bikini babes all over the picture, but it’s Gortner’s Orphan Annie curls and weirdo charisma that always draws the eye whenever he’s onscreen. The movie makes as much use of his weirdo charisma as it can, casting him as a telepathic, superpowered space alien with a laser sword (not to be confused with a lightsaber). Even the booming voice that overdubs his dialogue only accentuates his unconventional screen presence. It reminded me of when Muppets in Space explained Gonzo’s origins as a space alien who crash landed to Earth; it’s the first time his presence on this planet really made sense.

While it can be a little boring in patches, Starcrash is mostly fun, delirious late-night trash. It has no original ideas or clear sense of purpose (there’s a Millennium Falcon on its official poster), but goddamn if it isn’t beautiful. It’s so cheaply, gaudily lit & costumed that it stumbles into some genuine psychedelia that any cheap-o space adventure movie should envy. Gortner’s presence only enhances that entertainment value, which I believe would be true even without knowing the backstory of his Evangelist past. Something about seeing him in space just feels right; I wish he could have travelled there more often.

-Brandon Ledet

Tongues Untied (1989)

The most impressive, inspiring films are always the ones that achieve a transcendent artistic effect with subprofessional resources or distribution. By that metric, Tongues Untied is one of the most impressive films I’ve seen in a long while. Its means are severely limited by its VHS aesthetic & camcorder-level resources, which makes it initially register more as D.I.Y. video art than legitimized Cinema. Still, it pushes through that financial gatekeeping barrier to achieve a fantastic poetic effect that’s frequently surreal, furious, grief-stricken, hilarious, and erotic, sometimes all at once. The film’s distribution was controversial to the point of near-extinction, sparking a highly-publicized national debate about whether or not it should be allowed to be broadcast on the PBS network because of its explicit sexuality (no doubt largely due to that sexuality’s homosexual orientation). Still, it lives on decades later as one of the most vital, fearless documents of American gay life in its era, legendary on the same level as more frequently canonized works like Paris is Burning & The Queen. Tongues Untied is D.I.Y. filmmaking at its most potent and least timid, throwing stylistic & political punches far above its budgetary weight class and landing each one square on America’s crooked jaw.

At its core, this is an essay film about black gay life in the United States during the darkest days of the AIDS crisis. Building off the thesis that “Black men loving Black men is a revolutionary act,” a small sample of interviewees (including director Marlon Riggs himself) intimately share their life experiences as a kind of collective Oral History. They start by explaining how they’re outsiders in every community they inhabit, demonized & othered either through racism or through homophobia in every direction they turn. These confessionals gradually give way to an overt call to action as the film continues. They demand that more queer black men untie their tongues and become vocal about their own sexuality, so that their shared identity can become more normalized and less of a shamefully hidden peculiarity. The direct-to-the-camera messaging, photoshoot backdrops, and VHS patina of these interviews often recall a 90s anti-drug PSA or a local doc from a PBS affiliate, but the raw pain & sensuality of their stories smash through any potential aesthetic roadblocks. This is a doubly marginalized group who have to muster all of their collective strength just to be able to proclaim “We are worth wanting each other,” a revolutionary act after centuries of being told from all sides that they are worthless.

Even if it were just limited to these oral history interviews & editorials, the film would still be an essential document of black homosexual identity in late-80s America. Marlon Riggs pushes his work far beyond that humble act of self-anthropology, though, and instead aims to achieve pure cinematic poetry. Collaborating closely with the poet Essex Hemphill (who appears onscreen just as often as Riggs), he abstracts the interviews & essays at the core of the film by warping them into a layered, rhythmic vocal performance – as if all onscreen subjects were sharing the same artistic voice. The effect can be surreal or literary, making direct allusions to Ralph Ellison & Langston Hughes to tie the film into a black poetic tradition, and using a Gertrude Stein-style punishing repetition of phrases like “Brother to brother, brother to brother” to completely obliterate the audience’s senses. It can also be hilarious in a sketch comedy way, allowing for out-of-nowhere tangents into the sassy art of snapping or the playful sleaze of 1-900 dial-up phone sex. Most importantly, it unlocks the film’s full potential so that it’s not just a vocal diary of black gay men’s lived experiences but rather a soul-deep expression of all the pain, anger, lust, and joy they feel all at once within a society that would prefer they didn’t feel anything, or exist at all.

Tongues Untied uses the vocal rhythms and subliminal associations of poetry to crack its videotaped oral histories wide open, unlocking something much greater and more resonant than its means should allow. It is a transcendent work of art just as much as it is an anthropological time capsule, which makes it uniquely valuable to both cinephiles & political academics. There are plenty of examples of video art that pushed past the boundaries of fringe D.I.Y. experimentation to genuinely achieve cultural significance. However, I doubt there are many that could legitimately claim to be one of the greatest films of all time the way this scrappy, urgent VHS poetry relic could.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Marjoe (1972)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lagniappe

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

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

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

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

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

-The Swampflix Crew

The Celluloid Closet (1995)

It’s not an especially unique observation that historical works are usually more indicative of the time when they were made than they are of the time they intend to represent. That quality of the mid-90s Gay Cinema documentary The Celluloid Closet still took me by surprise, though. The film still stands as an important work a quarter-century later, but the further we get away from its time of production the more peculiarly (and encouragingly) antiquated it becomes. Adapted from a critical text of the same name, The Celluloid Closet is intended to function as a history of onscreen gay & lesbian representation in Hollywood movies. In practice, it’s more of a documentary about how desperately starved queer audiences were for positive onscreen representation in the 1990s in particular.

As gay filmmakers & commentators walk the audience through the sordid history of Hollywood’s first century of homophobia (guided by a Lily Tomlin narration track), I found myself actively disagreeing with a lot of their opinions on what constitutes The Wrong Kind of Representation. I gradually recognized that I was feeling that way because of a somewhat spoiled vantage point of having a lot more variety in Queer Cinema to choose from decades after its sentiment had taken hold. At large, The Celluloid Closet is extremely dismissive of transgressive, morally troubling, or even actively villainous gay characters, the kinds of representation that generally creep up in movies that I personally tend to love (thanks to my bottomless thirst for low-end genre trash). Friedkin’s forever-controversial works Cruising & The Boys in the Band were singled out as especially toxic hallmarks of The Wrong Kind of Representation in the film, a poisoned leftover of Hollywood’s long history of unmasked homophobia. I love both of those movies; I’d even cite them among some of my all-time favorites. That’s an experience colored by a life lived when Normalized gay representation has since been achieved in popular media, even if it is still too rare to fully declare victory. In the 90s, transgressive, destructive creeps were the only gay characters who were allowed onscreen since the invention of the medium, which I totally understand would sour the thrill of their flagrant misbehavior.

Cataloging the censorship of The Hays Code era, the de-sexed caricature of the Sissy archetype, the villainization of “deceitful” trans characters, and so on, The Celluloid Closet mostly now served as a reminder of just how far gay representation has come in the couple decades since it was released. A lot of its searching-for-crumbs sentiment in its quest for positive onscreen representation sadly still resonates today, especially when looking for any prominent gay characters in big-budget media from corporate conglomerates like Disney. However, its push for cleaned-up, all-posi gay representation now feels extremely dated to me. I no longer believe we’re in a place where every gay movie has to be a sanitized Love, Simon-style journey of sunny self-discovery. I want to live in a world where Hollywood can catch up with the transgressive queer freak-outs of foreign indie releases like The Wild Boys, Knife+Heart, and Stranger By the Lake. In the 90s, when all the gay characters you’d ever seen were minor roles played for “comedy or pity or fear” we obviously weren’t there yet. Revisiting this documentary is a nice reminder that things have changed, however incrementally.

Documentary filmmaking itself has also apparently changed in recent years. I was shocked that The Celluloid Closet doesn’t label its films or its talking heads for the audience’s reference. You either recognize Quentin Crisp or you don’t, which would be highly unusual in a modern doc. We can refer to user-generated Letterboxd lists & IMDb cast lists to clear up any confusion or gaps in knowledge, though, so the real hurdle is just in understanding & reckoning with the film’s dated POV. As one of the talking heads explains (I wish I had caught their name, dammit!), “Nobody really sees the same movie.” Our personal biases and life experiences shape the way we internally experience art. The Celluloid Closet’s greatest asset is in documenting the biases & life experiences of gay audiences in the 90s in particular, since the history of onscreen representation in Hollywood is obviously an ever-evolving beast so no one documentary on the subject could ever be a definitive, everlasting work.

-Brandon Ledet