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

Horror Noire (2019)

It’s initially tempting to receive the Shudder-produced documentary Horror Noire as a kind of celebratory victory lap after the financial & awards season successes of Get Out helped greenlight so much new black art in the horror genre. Indeed, the film includes several interviews with black creators whose latest projects were funded in the wake of Get Out’s game-changing pop culture impact, including author Robin R. Means Coleman, whose eponymous source material itself was greenlit into this feature-length documentary the very morning after Jordan Peele won his Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (as reported on an episode of Shock Waves early this year). Horror Noire does allow the recent success story of Get Out to boost morale on its back end, and several black authors & filmmakers do use the opportunity to plug their latest projects, but this documentary is just as much of a rebuke as it is a celebration. It’s first & foremost an academic conversation covering the history of black representation in American horror cinema, from the coded racial caricature of amoral classics like King Kong & The Creature from The Black Lagoon to the celebratory upswing in black filmmaking in the modern day. The history of black representation, black audiences, and black art in American pop culture doesn’t leave a lot of room for Horror Noire to play like the victory lap a lesser film could slip into, and it’s impressive to see a talking-heads doc on this scale & subject to be willing to have those tough conversations. As one interviewee puts it, “We’ve always loved horror, but horror hasn’t always loved us.”

The list of celebrity interviewees from The Black Horror Hall of Fame gathered here is impressive and alone worth the effort of putting this doc together: Jordan Peele, Ernest Dickerson, Ken Foree, Tony Todd, Loretta Divine, Keith Davis, The Craft’s Rachel True, etc. Their talking-heads commentary is smartly staged as audiences watching the screen inside a movie theater rather than as creators toiling in their workspaces, emphasizing how onscreen representation shaped them as people as well as artists. The real joy of this film, however, is how much it allows author Robin R. Means Coleman to guide the discussion in her own words instead of letting the flashier celebrity interviewees fully take over. She obviously has a reverence for horror cinema as an artform, but she’s also fearless in interrogating the ways it has failed black audiences since the very beginning. American history itself is declared to be “black horror.” Birth of Nation is framed as a horror film from black audiences’ POV. Tropes like the easily scared back buffoon providing comedic relief, the “magical negro” helping white characters navigate supernatural realms, and the sole black character being the first to die – and so on – are called out for their social menace even in beloved horror classics like Candyman & The Shining. Get Out’s success is contextualized as a cyclical breakthrough moment that’s already been seen before in landmark texts like The Night of the Living Dead, Blacula, and post-Spike Lee 90s gems like Tales from the Hood. Coleman is given free rein to throw bare-knuckled academic punches here, and she does not disappoint.

Although this isn’t the surface-level celebration of black success stories in horror cinema that it easily could have been, it’s still only a thematic primer that compresses Coleman’s rigorous academic text into a breezy 83min discussion. As such, I didn’t walk away with too many deep-cut recommendations for titles I haven’t seen before (Sugar Hill, Abby, and Def by Temptation being the few standouts), but the implied promise is that there’s plenty more to dig into once I pick up the book that inspired this production. Since this is just a standalone feature and not a ten-part mini-series, however, that compression is perfectly suited for the task at hand: using the success of Get Out to center a crucial academic discussion that well deserves the signal boost. It’s not the exhaustive, final word on the topic the way a lengthy academic text could afford to be, but it’s a worthwhile conversation starter that isn’t afraid to take on the Goliaths of the genre as it interrogates a history just as worthy of scrutiny as celebration. A weightier film would’ve been less digestible in a single sitting, and a lighter one would’ve underserved the political & emotional severity of its subject. In that way, Horror Noire finds an ideal Goldilocks middle ground, while doing the essential public service of amplifying Robin R. Means Coleman’s authorial voice.

-Brandon Ledet

Rukus (2019)

A lifetime ago, I used to be friends with the Memphis filmmaking collectives behind the microbudget docudrama Rukus. They were making backyard movies as long as I’ve known them, from music video fan art to thematically daring documentaries to an ambitious feature-length fairy tale titled What I Love About Concrete (that felt like a breakthrough achievement for the crew). Rukus is a different beast entirely, not least of all in its personal, diary-like confessions of central contributor Brett Hanover as the film’s writer-director, with the rest of the collective (mainly Alanna Stewart & Katherine Dohan of Do You Know Where Your Children Are? Productions) taking on a myriad of supportive filmmaking duties – music, sound, cinematography, assistant-direction, etc. This sense of a long-lasting community collaborating on a single project over many years of spare weekends & rigidly structured “free time” affords Rukus a sense of depth in both subject & emotion, especially in how it tracks Hanover’s own maturity from high school sexual anxiety to a more confident, adult sense of self-understanding over what feels like fifteen years of footage & backstory. It’s over that exact span of time that I have drifted away from this community myself, to the point where I’m so far outside their orbit now I’m hesitant to suggest I have the right to still call them friends – even if “acquaintances” sounds too cold. I also don’t believe it’s extratextual to mention my fading personal connection to the filmmakers here or to recount their backstory as a microbudget filmmaking collective, as Rukus is a film about communities & intimate connections, both online and in the flesh (and fur). Like all great documents of personal importance, it has universal implications about relationships we’ve all had over the internet & irl; we all already know the players in Rukus, whether or not we’ve actually met them.

It’s important to mention the universality of Rukus’s themes of isolation, community, maturity, and self-harm upfront, because its on-paper premise indicates that it’s about something far more niche: furries. The most flippant (and inaccurate) way you could describe Rukus would be to contextualize it as the furries equivalent of the Netflix documentary Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony. That might have even been Hanover’s original intent when he first documented a Memphis furries convention for a high school photography project in the aughts: a fascinated, but detached interrogation of furry culture that borders uncomfortably close to a gawking “Getta load of this freak show!” voyeurism. Smartly, Hanover instead shifts this eagerness to gaze at human oddities inward – confronting his initial impulse to engage with furry culture from the academic distance of an “anthropological observer” as a self-serving lie. Anyone looking for a culture-gawking doc on furry conventions is going to be disappointed by the breadcrumb trail of information Rukus leaves behind as it prods at something much more personally vulnerable & ambitious. I was frequently reminded throughout of Nathan Rabin’s (excellent) book You Don’t know Me but You Don’t Like Me, in which the pop culture critic learns almost too much about his own mental & emotional health while attempting to cheekily document the often-mocked subcultures of Phish & Insane Clown Posse fandoms, only to become a member of both communities himself. Hanover’s personal journey as the loudest creative voice & most central subject of Rukus parallels Rabin’s across two entirely separate communities: his irl Memphis friends who are directly confronted with his OCD & sexual hang-ups and an online contingent of furries whose digital anonymity offers a freer, more accepting playground where he can find himself. Larger themes of kink power dynamics, queer identity, depression, romance, abuse, and self-harm emerge over the long haul of the story’s over-sprawling narrative, but it’s all anchored to that pursuit of finding intimate connections & personal fulfillment while navigating the needs & politics of the communities that are willing to put up with you – furries and beyond.

The thematic ambition & personal vulnerability of Rukus is evenly matched by the film’s own formal adventurousness. It initially presents itself as a documentary on Hanover’s interaction with real-life furries (with a particular focus on his relationship with the titular self-published furry artist Rukus), but as it unravels the question of what is & what isn’t real becomes muddled to the point of not mattering at all. There are moments of pure fantasy represented through hand-drawn sketchbook animation and childhood fursona dreamscapes that recall the immersive artworlds of films like Paperhouse & MirrorMask. Outside those forays into escapist magic, though, the question of what’s “real” is much more deliberately confused. Real-life footage & interviews mix freely with dramatic reenactments and intangible online personae to test the boundaries of what could be considered a “documentary.” It’s a dissociative tactic that evokes the feeling of looking at the world through a video camera – a remove that’s echoed in the film’s multimedia indulgences in laptop-lit stage plays, webcam cinematography, and crudely drawn outsider art. It’s also a fitting approach for conveying the emotional lives & development of its subjects: furries that express their truest selves through the remove of carefully-sculpted costumes & online avatars and the director’s own expression of his sexual & romantic impulses through a detached “academic” interest in niche fetish communities outside his comfort zone. I’ve seen plenty of recent documentaries that blur the line between reality & crafted narrative in this way Rat Film, Swagger, and The World is Mine to name a few. The overall effect of Rukus is something much more personal & vulnerable than what those dramatically obscured titles offer, though. It reaches more for the unembarrassed emotional exhibitionism of Josephine Decker’s (criminally underrated) project Flames: the volatile self-revelation of reading your private diary’s most intimate passages at top volume in a public space.

It’s doubtful that if Rukus were an outside-observer’s anthropological examination of furry culture it would have meant as much to the community it depicts. I doubt Bronies gather around to watch that Netflix documentary as a community, for instance, whereas past public screenings listed on Rukus’s website (where you can now watch the film in its entirety, for free) include multiple furry conventions. It’s tough to suppose whether that’s because Hanover & the Do You Know Where Your Children Are? crew tapped into something deeply true about furries in particular or if the movie moreso taps into something universally true about the roles of community & identity in our larger modern digital hellscape while inviting furries along for the ride. Either way, it’s the exact kind of ambitious, challenging filmmaking you’d hope to see from no-budget outsider artists passionate about their craft but locked outside official means of production. I’m proud to have ever been even on the periphery of a community this empathetic, inclusive, and vulnerably honest, even if time has eroded those connections to the point where we’re total strangers only flimsily tethered to our shared past online.

-Brandon Ledet

Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story (2019)

My first exposure to the iconography & persona of the cult British comedian Frank Sidebottom was in the 2014 black comedy Frank, where he was portrayed by Michael Fassbender in a Fleischer cartoon-style paper mâché mask that he never removed onscreen. It turns out that luchadorian gimmick of never appearing in public unmasked is just about the only detail from the “real” Frank Sidebottom’s life that was at all factual. The appeal for savvier (and, let’s face it, British) audiences in seeing a documentary about Chris Sievey, the musician behind the Frank character, is in finally getting a peak under that mask to learn about the artist who created it after decades of cheeky mystery. The appeal for relative newcomers like myself, lured in by the Fassbender film or the Pop Art iconography of the Frank mask on the poster, is just learning about the Frank Sidebottom art project in the first place. What was Frank’s whole deal? Why do a specific subset of British pop culture nerds care so much about a decades-long bit built on a single sight gag – a sinisterly cutesy paper mâché mask? In either case, whether you’re looking to learn about Frank Sidebottom or about Chris Sievey, Being Frank is a definitive, helpfully informative documentation of both characters from start to end.

In the early goings-on of the film, it appears as if Sievey were a Daniel Johnston-type figure: a troubled young Beatles fanatic who lost his goddamned mind inside his own weirdo art after a few youthful experiments with LSD. Survey’s self-obsessive back catalog of home movies, Outsider Art drawings, and moldy cassette recordings of early music projects certainly recall the raw material of the wonderful documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, but comparing the two artists’ personal lives in a direct 1:1 parallel does them both a disservice. Despite how he was portrayed in Frank– which is now clearly a work of fiction – Sievey was not some mentally ill free spirit who lost his true persona inside the Frank costume. A few myth-building interviewees in the documentary (mostly art dealers & punk scenesters) will try to convince the audience that there was no telling where Sievey ended & Frank began, that their personae were inextricable. That doesn’t seem to be true to the family & friends who knew Sievey well, though, the same way a luchador or an Andy Kaufman type would only drop the bit once in private. Give or take a decades-long bout with alcoholism, there wasn’t anything especially mysterious or enigmatic about Chris Sievey as a human being. He was just an incredibly driven, meticulous artist who wanted to turn his passion for songwriting into a lucrative profession, and Frank was his best chance to make that dream happen.

In that way, Sievey most reminds me of the microbudget backyard filmmaker & songwriter Matt Farley, who regularly churns out a massive flood of multimedia content for a small crowd of dedicated fans. So much about Sievey’s feverish commitment to the Frank Sidebottom project is distinctly Farleyesque: his aggressive self-promotion, his habitual publication of his personal phone number, his detailed record of his personal sports stats (in this case, revolving around a minor league soccer team), his obsessively fussed-over hand-drawn zines, his absurd dedication to prideful small-town localism (in this case, the village of Timperley). That’s not a sign of madness or possessed genius. It’s just a driven artist with a superhuman work ethic. Sievey’s story affords Being Frank drama & pathos in other ways, though. There’s a heartbreaking story to tell here about a fame-focused artist who almost made it big as a Legitimate Musician (most notably with his sarcastically chipper New Wave group The Freshies) only to be overshadowed by a paper mâché novelty act of his own creation. There’s even more heartbreak in interviews with his close family who had to suffer his self-absorbed bullshit whenever he’d put his various projects over their day to day wellbeing – which is always the risk when you love or depend on an artist. I just think framing Sievey as an outsider weirdo instead of a tireless, hardworking showman is doing his artistry a disservice, and I’m saying that as someone who still loves the movie Frank for its own merits as a work of fiction.

Maybe you’d disagree with me and believe Sievey to be a mad, tortured genius who lost himself inside Frank’s paper mâché head. Maybe you wouldn’t think he’s a genius or an impressively productive artist, but rather a half-arsed troll who lucked into a pre-Internet meme that happened to pay his (many, long overdue) bills. Whatever the case, Being Frank does Chris Sievey the service of contextualizing Frank as just one (wildly successful) project in the artist’s decades-spanning portfolio, offering a fairly comprehensive view of who both Frank & Sievey were separate from one another. It’s a thorough document of a bizarro art project and a necessary counterbalance to the fictional mythmaking that’s sprung up around it.

-Brandon Ledet

The Queen (1968)

One of the reasons it was so easy to become an immediate fan of the competition reality show RuPaul’s Drag Race (admittedly as a late-comer) is that instantly felt familiar to me through the NYC ball culture documentary Paris is Burning. The runway categories, library reads, and aggressive voguing gyrations of the show felt like they were directly lifted from Paris is Burning’s most iconic moments – just smartly adapted to a modern reality competition show format. It turns out that was an incomplete picture of where Drag Race was pulling its inspiration from, as I recently discovered while watching the new digital restoration of the late-60s drag pageant documentary The Queen. Predating both Paris is Burning and, incredibly, the Stonewall riots, The Queen is a behind-the-scenes tour of a drag competition in 1960s New York City. It’s such an early glimpse of the scene that it was Rated X by the MPAA largely for its cohabitation of black and white contestants backstage before racial segregation was officially outlawed by The Supreme Court. It’s an invaluable artifact from a pageant drag tradition that hasn’t changed a lick over the last half-century even though the world has drastically changed around it. The trail back from Drag Race to Paris is Burning directly leads even further back here – a clear lineage of the exact kind of D.I.Y. spectacle & glamour in gender performance entertainment you can still see at your local drag bar this very weekend.

Of course, because it’s such an early snapshot of the pageant drag scene, the film is narrated with a kind of Drag 101 overview (not to mention outdated in its discussions of transgender identity politics). Mostly, though, it’s structured like a lost early season of Drag Race. At first, it feels as if there are way too many contestants for any one individual personality to shine through, but the major players and the obvious winner emerge over time in a slow-moving meltdown of hurt feelings, petty jealousies, and pure D.I.Y. glamour. Celebrity guests like Andy Warhol briefly appear to boost ratings. Life or Death wig emergencies heighten the backstage drama. Crystal LaBejia (whose infamous drag house would later feature prominently in Paris is Burning) reads a younger queen to filth for not having paid her dues. There’s even a controversy where the RuPaul-like figurehead of the pageant, Sabrina, is accused of rigging the results to crown her preferred queen in a sham of a competition. You could almost map out a Drag Race season’s worth of ficitional Reddit message board discussions of the competition and pass it off as critique of a recent era of the show. The only thing that’s noticeably out of date on the surface (as opposed to lurking in its era’s politics) is the types of drag represented onstage are much more limited in their variety – encompassed entirely by the Passing, glamorous concerns of the old pageant drag traditions that defined the artform for me growing up in the South. The exponential popularity of Paris is Burning & Drag Race has expanded the definition of what drag is (and the possibilities of what it can be) in recent years, but the competition format here indicates that the structure of its presentation has largely remained the same for a long time now.

The similarities between these three drag culture touchstones wouldn’t be so remarkable if there were more documents of the artform over time, so a lot of The Queen’s value as an artifact is how rare its backstage 1960s access truly is. Still, the film has its own artistic merits outside its place in a drag competition lineage, even if it’s more functional & matter-of-fact than it is avant-garde. Even in its new restoration it has the overly rich color & wildly out-of-focus drunkenness of an old Polaroid preserved in the back of a forgotten photo album, seeing the light of day for the first time in decades. Because the backstage spaces it crams into to document the drag show’s contestants are so cramped, it’s often shot from drastically low angles, incredibly close to its subjects’ faces. The audience often takes on the POV of a lost toddler who stumbled behind the scenes of a Vegas floor show. There’s plenty of beauty & glamor, but also cacophonous chatter & an overwhelming funhouse mirror effect in its closeups of half-dressed performers. You won’t find that kind of guerilla filmmaking excitement in the crisp, digital gaudiness of Drag Race, which has honed this drag competition format down to a machine-like precision. That tangible presence of humanity behind the camera overrides the sense that Sabrina is attempting to over-produce the narrative of her supposedly non-rigged competition à la RuPaul, and The Queen gradually takes on its own look & tone separate from its drag competition descendants to follow as a result. It’s both unique & traditionalist, warmly familiar & shockingly fresh – a vibrant relic from a drag lineage that’s proving to be eternal.

-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

The Time Henry Thomas Buried Atari, Then Dug It Back Out

One of the more interesting aspects of our current Movie of the Month, the violent children’s action-adventure Cloak & Dagger, is that it was in part designed to rescue Atari from financial ruin. After the video game crash of 1983 that nearly put Atari out of business for good, the ailing company hoped a movie tie-in deal might help boost its popularity (and promote video game culture in general) by joining the ranks of popular films like Tron & WarGames. Hitching its wagon to the in-development Cloak & Dagger project, which was eventually named after a real-life Atari 2600 cartridge that never made it to market, was a strange choice for a couple of reasons. On a big-picture level, Cloak & Dagger functions as alarmist propaganda about the dangers of video games & fantasy roleplay, so its dual role as an advertisement for a specific Atari game seems a little self-defeating. On a smaller, more specific level, the film’s pint-sized lead Henry Thomas seemed like an odd choice for a video game poster boy, seeing as how he was already closely associated with the industry’s 1983 downfall. It was kind of a bold move both for Henry Thomas’s agent and for Atari to risk associating the young actor, best known for his role as Elliott in E.T., with video games again so soon after the E.T. video game disaster. The E.T. tie-in video game was such an embarrassing flop for Atari (due mostly to poor craftsmanship in its rush to market) that it’s cited as one of the major contributing factors for the 1983 industry crash – the very thing that made desperate last-ditch efforts like Cloak & Dagger necessary in the first place. The game was such a flop that it inspired an urban legend about its unsold stock being buried in a New Mexico landfill—hundreds of thousands of deadstock cartridges with Henry Thomas’s face on the cover discarded underground. That’s not necessarily the first face I would think to cast in my movie meant to rescue the industry.

The most fascinating thing about the E.T. video game legend is that’s it’s (at least partially) true. The 2014 documentary Atari: Game Over is especially illuminating on the subject, tracking the search for and excavation of the E.T. landfill meant to prove its existence. In a way, it’s a total success. Excavation crews uncover a landfill packed with thousands of unsold Atari games in Alamogordo NM, near where scientists first tested the nuclear bomb. An entirely different kind of bomb, E.T.: “the worst video game of all time,” was included among those buried titles, but it did not comprise as much of the loot as the urban legend may have suggested. Only 10% of the video game cartridges recovered in that New Mexico landfill featured Henry Thomas’s face; buried along with E.T.: The Video Game were much better-respected titles like Yars’ Revenge, Pac-Man, and Centipede. Blaming the massive cartridge burial and, by extension, the entire video game crash of ’83 on the E.T. game just makes for a better story, whether or not the infamous flop deserved the mockery. Much of Atari: Game Over functions like rehabilitative PR for the E.T. game in that way. It explains how the game was rushed to market in just five weeks’ time to capitalize on the Christmas season, so that its very existence is kind of a computer programming miracle for the game’s designer, Howard Scott Warshaw. Although its frustrating gameplay that it lands its avatar, an unrecognizably pixelated E.T., in holes from which he can’t escape is explained to be far from the worst gameplay to grace the Atari console; it only seemed that way it compares to the quality of the movie. Interviews with Spielberg also confirm that the director himself approved the game before it hit the market, so it seems unfair that was effectively driven out of the video game business after E.T.’s failure, despite having designed more beloved games like Yars’ Revenge and the Raiders of the Lost Ark tie-in. Most damningly (but perhaps least surprisingly), industry experts also explain how the video game crash of ’83 was far from E.T.’s fault; the game’s failure was just the convenient scapegoat for much larger financial issues. The whole film serves as a pretty convincing argument for why Henry Thomas shouldn’t be barred from video game adaptations after the E.T. game’s failure, even if the optics are initially questionable.

As useful as I found Atari: Game Over in illustrating exactly what happened with the E.T. video game landfill, I can’t exactly recommend it as a well-made documentary. The only feature film produced for X-Box’s video content wing X-Box Originals, this very slight 66min doc feels like it has a target audience of 14-year-old boys and not that much wider. Director Zak Penn brings a decent pedigree to the project, as a writer for many major Hollywood comic book adaptations & one-time collaboration with Werner Herzog on The Incident at Loch Ness, but he mostly crafts this documentary like the video game equivalent of Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. Since the actual excavation of the Atari landfill can’t comprise an entire feature’s runtime on its own, the film busies itself crosscutting between the dig & an oral history of the early days of Atari that led to the E.T. debacle. There’s a lot of useful insight to be pulled from these interviews, but they just as often feel like a boys’ club glory days nostalgia trip – boosting the programmers’ own nerdy legacy instead of maintaining properly distanced, documentarian honesty. Ready Player One novelist Ernest Cline is a perfect mascot for how this unexamined, nerdy pop-culture worship comes across in its worst moments. He injects himself into the narrative of the landscape excavation it the cringiest of ways, staging a road trip to witness the dig by driving in a replica Back to the Future DeLorean he picks up form Game of Thrones author George RR Martin, accompanied by a life-size E.T. replica in the passenger seat. The self-described “screenwriter, novelist, and gentlemen adventurer” provides some useful context about how E.T.’s gameplay helped inspired the video game “Easter Egg” trope that guided the plot of Ready Player One, but mostly he just serves as the Guy Fieri of the piece—representing both its TV special qualities & its unwillingness to engage with pop culture nerdery as anything but The Greatest Thing Ever.

Regardless of Game Over’s quality as documentary filmmaking, the movie is extremely useful in illustrating both how the unsold E.T. cartridges featuring Henry Thomas’s face aren’t entirely responsible for the 1983 video game crash and how the urban legend surrounding them was so strong that casting him in Cloak & Dagger was risky anyway. As supplementary material, the film is more an act of reputation rehabilitation for the E.T. game & its creator than it is a revelation of anything directly related to Cloak & Dagger. Still, it’s an illustrative history of the cultural climate Cloak & Dagger was released in, a time when the future of video games as a lucrative industry did not seem as set in stone as it does now. It has no trouble finding nerds who were on the ground floor for those troublesome early days to reminisce about the era as if they were Guy Fieri singing the praises of Donkey Sauce.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the hyperviolent children’s action-adventure Cloak & Dagger (1984), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at another alarmist 80s roleplay gaming thriller, Mazes & Monsters.

-Brandon Ledet

Shirkers (2018)

Swampflix is a money-losing labor of love. Everyone who contributes to this blog is a non-professional, untrained cinephile who just happens to have enough passionate opinions about movies to need the creative outlet. If our collective had formed a couple decades earlier, Swampflix almost certainly would have been a zine instead of a blog – an assumed truth I try my best to reflect in the site’s general DIY aesthetic & our participation in zine culture events like NOCAZ & The American Library Association Zine Pavilion. The 2018 documentary Shirkers is as accurate of a summation of that same zine culture aesthetic as any I’ve seen, both in its subject and in its editing methods. Novelist Sandi Tan begins the film recalling her teenage days as a pop culture gatekeeping zinester in early-90s Singapore. She translates the photocopier collages of her early zine collaborations with friends into a vibrant, volatile cinematic expression that affords the doc a distinct, yet familiar visual language. It’s a visual ethos that perfectly matches the subject it serves, as Shirkers is about the ultimate DIY art project time-suck, the most tragic of youthful collaborations lost to dissociation with the means of production. It’s the cinematic equivalent of working on a zine with your friends all summer only for the pages to blow away in a single gust of wind on your way to the photocopier, never to be recovered. It’s a pain in artistic loss that hit home for me in ways I did not expect, as I identified with its teen-girls-in-Singapore subject far more closely than I could have assumed I would, since we’re all DIY zine-makers at heart.

In the summer of 1992, Tan and her fellow brat-punk friends set out to make Singapore’s first entry in the era’s indie cinema boom – an aesthetic typified by then up-and-comers like Tarantino, Soderbergh, and Jarmusch. A DIY art project that translated their zinester tastemaker sensibilities to highly stylized, low-budget cinema, the original form of Shirkers was meant to defy Singapore’s cultural conservatism with some good ole 1990s who-cares slackerism. It was a 16mm “road trip movie in a country you can drive across in 40 minutes,” a film more concerned about documenting counterculture personality & local atmosphere than telling a coherent story. With the help of a shady older man “of unplaceable age & origin,” the young women miraculously completed principle photography on the shoot, having all the raw materials necessary to complete a feature film. Then the creep who “helped” them disappeared with the footage, with no one else who had worked on the film having seen a single frame. Tan eventually recovered the footage form Shirkers nearly 20 years later from the creep’s widow, finding its intensely vibrant colors & richly textured filmstock pristinely preserved by the conman who ruined her teenage dreams. Instead of attempting to reconstruct her original vision for the film (which would prove impossible, given its still-missing soundtrack), she instead uses the opportunity to explore who she was and why she was ripped off at such a pivotal rime in her life. The documentary version of Shirkers finds Tan both reopening old wounds in interviews with her closest zinester-days collaborators and investigating the mysterious identity & motivations of the man who derailed their dream project.

Shirkers figuratively hit close to home with me in its profile of DIY art project tragedy, but it also literally, geographically hit close to home with me in the trajectory of its narrative. It’s shocking how much of this story about a conflict that begins in Singapore finds its way to Mid-City New Orleans, as Tan investigates the mysterious backstory of her arch-enemy, Georges Cardona. She discovers that Cardona had a history of sabotaging microbudget art projects wherever he went, including an obscure 80s New Orleans slasher titled The Last Slumber Party. He was far more concerned with making legend than making art, claiming bizarre self-mythology (like being the source of inspiration for James Spaeder’s character in Sex, Lies, and Videotape) that’s just as unflattering as it is untrue. Outside considering the inappropriate nature of her youthful friendship with the much older Cardona, Tan’s investigation of his deceitful legacy mostly leads to fruitless dead ends. The true revelations she discovers in the doc are much more personal and, thus, more painful. When reflecting on her history as a culture-gatekeeping zinester and her over-ambitious willingness to risk her collaborators’ time & energy on a shady creep’s honor, Tan has a hard-look-in-the-mirror epiphany: she’s an asshole. Regardless of Cardona’s baffling behavior, the way she socially bullies her friends in her attempts to establish an artistic Personal Brand, both as a teen and as an adult, makes her out to be the true villain of this doomed DIY collaboration. The gorgeous footage that survived from Shirkers suggests that this assholery can lead to wonderful artistic results, but her headstrong stubbornness also leads directly to Cardona’s sabotage of the project – leaving her collective essentially empty-handed for their efforts. There’s a fascinating tension in that self-defeating dynamic that drives Shirkers’s thematic core.

You don’t have to be a DIY zinester with moviemaking dreams to appreciate Shirkers as an artistic, historical object; you don’t have to be a Singapore or New Orleans local either. It helps, but you don’t have to. Between the what-the-fuckery of Cardona’s mysterious backstory, the vibrant imagery of the recorded footage, and the preposterous circumstances of its inciting incidents, Shirkers has plenty to offer audiences as almost a true crime-level twisted story. I was just pleasantly surprised to personally connect with the film as a self-portrait of a socially tactless, self-sabotaging DIY artist. Tan got to me through the merits of her brutal self-honesty. More superficially, she also got to me through the aesthetics of her DIY zine culture ethos & her story’s exponentially rapid trajectory to my front doorstep.

-Brandon Ledet