I’m often alienated by hagiographies of late-60s hippie culture, where Boomers & burnouts wax nostalgic about the time that they almost saved the world through the power of Positive Vibes. The early 2000s documentary The Cockettes is the one major exception to that personal distaste. The grimy San Francisco drag scene it profiles feels like it’s only hippie by default, emerging too early to be D.I.Y. punk and too late to be an echo of the Beats. The only other countercultural icon of the era that speaks to (and, honestly, guides) my sensibilities is the Dreamlanders crew, headed by John Waters. It’s no surprise, then that Waters and partner-in-crime Divine feature prominently in the film as Cockettes-adjacent artists at the fringes of the scene. It’s the one snapshot of hippie culture where I’ve ever genuinely felt “These are my people.”
Although their bottomless appetite for LSD and their complete lack of a work ethic often made their stage shows sloppy to the point of incoherence, the Cockettes had a clearly defined point of view as a visual art collective – at least in the medium of drag. They were basically a never-ending carnival where every single attraction was a bearded lady, freaking out even their fellow hippie communes with their 24-7 dedication to glamor & hedonism. Their version of drag makeup was distinctly modern, defined by exaggerated eye lines and mountains of glitter packed into their unshaved beards. Cisgender women were equals among the crossdressing men in the collective, establishing an aggressive genderfuck ethos long before that term was coined. While their makeup was cutting-edge, their wardrobe was purposefully old-fashioned. Most of their stage shows consisted of hard-tripping, half-naked drag queens singing showtunes & acting out Busby Berkeley chorus lines in the discarded rags of 1940s Hollywood starlets who’d left their gowns & furs behind with the changing times. The gimmick only worked because everyone in the audience was on the exact same drugs as the performers, but the documentary allows us to enjoy their visual artistry as a gorgeous lookbook in motion while members who survived the dual epidemics of heroin overdoses & AIDS outbreaks gush about the best of times in reverent “You had to be there” tones. It’s fabulous to behold, even when their half-forgotten anecdotes drift into “Kids these days” bitterness.
Of course, having John Waters on hand as your bearded-lady-carnival barker helps tremendously, as he’s one of our great living storytellers. Hearing him vouch for the Cockettes as “hippie acid freak drag queens” who conjured “complete sexual anarchy” out of the Peace & Love movement is a huge boost to the film’s entertainment value, and he’s interviewed extensively throughout to capitalize on that infectious enthusiasm. It’s a justified inclusion too, as the Cockettes’ San Francisco venue—The Nocturnal Dream Show at The Palace Theatre—was the first cultural institution outside of Baltimore to embrace early Dreamlanders pictures like Multiple Maniacs, and the Cockettes themselves were the first subculture to treat Divine like a legitimate celebrity (along with iconic queer soul singer Sylvester). Any excuse to hear John Waters riff on a subject he’s passionate about is well worth the time investment, but this particular queer-culture doc does way more than most to justify the indulgence.
Revisiting this documentary on DVD after only having seen it on a taped-off-the-TV VHS was like wearing glasses for the first time. The iconography of The Cockettes is visually splendid and, even two decades after its original printing, the Strand Releasing DVD does rightful justice to their visual art. As inextricable as their art & lifestyle were from late-60s hippie culture (so much so that their genderfucked utopia quickly fell apart in the early 1970s), I still see a grimy D.I.Y. punk ethos to their version of counterculture theatrics that’s missing from most of the scene’s proto-Burning Man feauxlosophies. If nothing else, I think it’s exceedingly easy to connect the dots from the Cockettes’ Old Hollywood carnival drag to the iconic costume designs of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which directly influenced the visual markers of punk fashion, if not punk’s sexual politics. Their nostalgia for the long-gone days of functional hippie communism isn’t too different from the punk communes led by bands like Crass either. And then there’s John Waters—the only other hippie-era counterculture institution who’s outright proto-punk in his personal philosophy & art—putting his stamp of approval on the entire experiment. The Cockettes may have self-identified as hippies, but I’m claiming them as an example of ahead-of-their time punks, if not only so I won’t fee l so self-conflicted about waiting to re-watch this movie every goddamn day of my life.
The single-camera mockumentary has become such a common genre over the past couple decades through sitcoms like Arrested Development, The Office, and Modern Family that it’s hard to remember a time when it was more of an outlier than the norm. We’re familiar enough with the mockumentary format now to immediately understand the way they play with our perceptions of authenticity, but there was a time (let’s clock it as pre-Best in Show) where the genre was more subversive. There are a lot of urban legends about audiences taking early mockumentaries at face value, believing Spinal Tap to be a real band, the cannibals of Texas Chainsaw Massacre& Cannibal Holocaust to be real cannibals, the Blair Witch to be a real witch, etc. I never really knew how sincerely to take those stories until I read that The Hellstrom Chronicle won the 1972 Oscar for “Best Documentary Feature” despite being an obvious parody of the documentary format instead of the real deal. I assumed that factoid was a prank Wikipedia edit, but then I confirmed it on the Academy of Motion Pictures website. A mockumentary indeed won the most prestigious industry award for documentary films, which has got to be some implication of how novel the genre used to be before Jim met Pam – novel enough, apparently, to make moviegoers believe in witchcraft & killer insects.
The Hellstrom Chronicle is a drive-in era exploitation horror about the inevitability of insects taking over the planet, recalling 1950s B-pictures like Them!, Tarantula, and The Deadly Mantis. It just happens to be delivered in the style of a David Attenborough nature documentary, hosted by the fictitious Dr. Nils Hellstrom, PhD (credited as a performance by actor Lawrence Pressman in the final scroll). Hellstrom lectures for the entire 90min runtime in deliriously overwritten, Ed Woodian dialogue about how bugs are “gruesome robots” and an “infectious virus” that will soon violently overthrow humanity for planetary dominance if we don’t act soon. These rants are illustrated by hi-fi nature footage of insects eating, mating, and waging war in the wild, scored by arhythmic drums & winding strings to emphasize their gnarly brutality. The opening credits thank well-respected universities and research institutions to feign an air of legitimacy, but by the time Hellstrom is opining about how termite mounds are primitive computers built to calculate our collective doom, it’s so outrageously over-the-top that it cannot be taken seriously. Screenwriter David Seltzer (The Omen, Willy Wonka, Bird on a Wire) is obviously just amusing himself with how far he can push the film’s central conceit without fully tipping into comedic parody, and it’s a pure-trash joy to tag along for the indulgence.
To the Academy’s credit, The Hellstrom Chronicle did eventually prove to be prescient of where documentary filmmaking was heading, at least the version of documentary filmmaking you’ll find on basic cable. It particularly recalls the ominous pseudoscience of Discovery Channel & History Channel programs, where facts are allowed to be fuzzy as long as they freak out the audience enough to keep them hanging on through commercial brakes. Pair that basic-cable sensationalism with William Herzog’s deadpan rants about the cold cruelty of Nature, and you pretty much have The Hellstrom Chronicle‘s basic blueprint. It’s not actually useful or even functional as an educational tool about the resiliency of insects, nor does it really pretend to be. Halfway into the runtime, it gets bored with sticking to pure nature footage and takes self-amusing detours into classic horror movie clips and candid camera pranks. It’s less appropriate for the classroom than it is for late-night “Bad Movie” parties, so you can have a laugh making your roommate paranoid about killer ants between bong rips. Phase IV might as well have won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. They’re working with about the same level of authentic, scientifically presented nature footage, and the one that was featured on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 is likely the one that’s more realistic about the collective killing power of ants as a species. Not for nothing, they’re also both great films.
It’s been a popular meme among online movie-nerds in recent years to declare “All movies are bad” in self-deprecating irony. The latest experimental essay from Theo “RatFilm” Anthony actually makes a sincere case for that exact sentiment, damning its own medium as a tool of police & military violence since the moment of its invention. AllLight, Everywhere broadly details the weaponization of motion picture recordings in our racist surveillance state, but it extends that critique to the very first examples of motion pictures, underlining that “All movies are bad” – at least on a moral, political level. It’s one of those philosophical nightmares that makes you bitter about being born on this miserable hell planet (or at least makes the cinephile in you want to find a new hobby). It’s also a great movie, even if it is anti-movie.
It doesn’t take much effort for All Light, Everywhere to make a modern audience feel sickened & infuriated by police bodycam tech. The breezy, self-protective training that cops receive when equipped with bodycams and the smug self-satisfaction of the tech’s biggest manufacturer Axios advertising their wares is difficult to stomach. Memories of Black citizens murdered by the police state without consequence for the cops who pulled the trigger—thanks to the intentional limitations & biases of surveillance tech—lurk just outside the frame, souring every chipper onscreen boast about its profitability and illusion of accountability. Anthony even threads those memories into his larger thematic preoccupations with his home city of Baltimore by citing the murder of Freddie Gray as a specific example of bodycams protecting cops instead of citizens. It’s all emotionally raw, morally corrupt, and worthy of documentation.
Where All Light, Everywhere excels is in connecting that modern weaponization of the motion picture camera back to its earliest uses & abuses. Early movie cameras were typified by designs like “the photographic rifle” and “the photographic revolver,” leaving behind a language where cameras still “shoot” their subjects. There’s a hypothetical version of this movie to be made where each new development in motion picture tech was used to further the art & distribution of pornography, but instead Anthony focuses on how they were used to afford the illusion of unbiased automation to morally bankrupt police & military systems. Police body cameras are just the next logical evolution in a long history of supposedly “objective” motion picture recordings reinforcing the biases of the inherently violent political institutions behind them.
If you’ve seen RatFilm, you know that Anthony does not lay out this political history of the weaponized movie camera in a linear, easily digestible argument. Instead, scientific explanations of the camera’s “blind spots”, the philosophy of its place in modern culture, its effect on human perception of the world, and the racial politics of Baltimore as a microcosm of the US at large are all loosely mixed in an open-ended visual essay that’s heavier on atmospheric dread than it is on declarative statements. Still, the movie leaves you disgusted with the motion picture as a medium, no matter how open its arguments are left for interpretation or how much Anthony strives to leave on a moment of hope in the epilogue. It turns out all movies really are bad. Bummer.
When I visited a close friend during post-Katrina exile in their home state of Alabama, one of their favorite ways to pass the time was listening to a swap meet radio show that negotiated a buy-sell-trade market of second-hand items among their audience. It was a fascinating listen, not only for the absurdism & obscurity of the items being bartered, but also because of the eccentric personalities of the people who’d call in to haggle over them. That memory flooded back to me watching the documentary/narrative hybrid film Socks on Fire, which disrupts its central drama with reenactments of that exact call-in swap meet show, deployed as Greek-chorus chapter breaks. Even more so than its subjects/characters endlessly chanting “Roll tide!” and dressing in crimson red, that radio show device placed me in its Alabama setting with an uncanny specificity I never thought possible, considering it’s a state I’ve only visited a handful of times in my life.
As its title promises, Socks on Fire opens with flaming socks pinned to a backyard clothesline, with filmmaker-poet Bo McGuire narrating questions of what you’re supposed to do with a loved one’s leftover possessions after they pass away. What to do with his deceased grandmother’s used socks has a clear-enough answer: burn ’em. It’s much trickier for the family to decide what to do with her lifelong home, of which she did not leave a living will to assign possession to any of her surviving children or grandchildren. The most obvious answer is to hand the empty house over to McGuire’s uncle, a near-destitute drag queen who doesn’t have another place to live. McGuire’s fiercely homophobic aunt opposes that plan, despite her supposedly Christian values, and viciously fights to leave her brother homeless. McGuire uses the documentary as an excuse to prod at how the siblings’ relationship got to be so poisoned in the first place, and how that friction distorts his own sense of place as a gay artist in his insular Alabama hometown.
I want to describe Socks on Fire as a Southern-fried revision of this year’s auto-documentary Madame, but that doesn’t quite capture the camp or sardonicism of its humor. It operates more like an earnest version of the over-the-top Southern theatrics of Sordid Lives, played like a tell-all airing of a family’s dirty laundry instead of a sitcom. Bo McGuire illustrates his sordid family history with a mixed-media approach, breaking from traditional documentary storytelling with photo album collages, home video tape distortions, fine art photography of suspended household objects, and poetic monologues that ominously refer to decades of conflicts that have gnarled his family tree. It’s when his uncle & fellow queens start re-creating those conflicts in camped-up drag routines that the movie touches on something really special, though. Turning his homophobic aunt into a drag character was an especially inspired choice, and it’s one that clues you into McGuire’s deliciously fucked up boundaries between humor & heartbreak.
I’m not entirely convinced that Socks on Fire is about the disputes over McGuire’s grandmother’s estate, so much as it’s about his own relationship with his isolated hometown. The swap-meet radio show, the Steel Magnolias-style trips to the hair salon, and the awed references to Reba McEntire as a living god are all tied into his aunt & uncle’s battle over a home that only one of them needs, but they feel more personal to Bo McGuire as the narrator than they feel relevant to that story. By the time he collects all the small-town women who shaped his life & persona for a single photoshoot, it’s clear that he’s mostly returning to that place of origin to uncover something about himself, not necessarily about his family. It’s all hyper-specific, intensely intimate, and playfully experimental in its internal visual language, which is pretty much all I ever ask for out of a movie. It’s a privilege to be invited into McGuire’s boozy Southern psyche like this, an old-fashioned flavor of Alabama hospitality.
The recent Fred Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? was a rousing success with both audiences and professional critics, so it’s natural that a subgenre of vintage television hagiographies would follow. Chicken Soup for the Soul’s movie production wing has now entered the chat with an adaptation of the pop media history book Street Gang, which documents the early development & broadcast of the children’s education show Sesame Street. Like Won’t You Be My Neighbor‘s museum tour through Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street is a Wikipedia-in-motion recap of its show’s historic bullet points, underlined by a heartfelt nostalgia for its radical, politically pointed brand of Kindness in an era of constant political turmoil (the times, they aren’t a changin’ much). As a history lesson, the film does a great job contextualizing Sesame Street‘s intent, execution, and impact through the 1970s and 80s; it efficiently packs a lot of background information into a relatively short runtime without overwhelming the audience. As an emotional nostalgia trip, however, it never quite conjures the same magic as the Mister Rogers doc, which was largely popular because it could wring tears out of an unsuspecting audience like an old dishcloth.
As told here, Sesame Street started as a purely educational public service meant to enrich the lives of Inner-City Kids who were watching television for up to 60 hours a week, mostly alone while their parents worked. Childhood psychology studies were conducted to parse out exactly what children paid attention to and retained from all that screentime, and how to make the most use out of that engagement. It turned out commercial jingles for products like breakfast cereal & beer were the most resonant programming among the adolescent audience, so they designed a show that would “sell the alphabet to preschool children” as if it were a supermarket product. Then, through the process of putting together a show aimed specifically at young urbanites, eccentric puppeteers like Jim Henson & Frank Oz were paired with Civil Rights activists & other Lefties to guide its creative vision, expanding its scope from educational jingles to an all-inclusive utopian vision of a world where “television loved people” instead of being outright hostile to them. It’s a twisty journey from concept to screen with creative, political input from many, varied minds. All that amounts to a fascinating history (which I assume is even more richly conveyed in the source material), but not necessarily an emotional gut punch.
Luckily, Sesame Street already has its own emotional gut punch documentary in the Carroll Spinney biography I Am Big Bird, which charts out the beloved puppeteer’s delicate psychological balance as expressed through both Big Bird & Oscar the Grouch. If you’re looking for a good, wholesome cry, go there. Because Steet Gang is spread out across so many collaborators and decades of backstory, it can’t possibly pack the same emotional wallop as the Fred Rogers or Caroll Spinney docs. Between its praise for Spinney, Henson, Oz, songwriter Joe Raposo, and behind-the-scenes shot callers like Joan Ganz Cooney & Jon Stone, it’s reluctant to single out any one creative as responsible for the show’s magic, which makes for good journalism but shaky foundation for an emotional arc. If there’s any core pathos to the story Street Gang tells, it’s in watching a group of young, fired-up artists & Leftists age into grumpy, burnt-out workaholics as the weekly workload of Sesame Street grinds their enthusiasm into dust. For the most part, though, it’s just a warm bath of vintage television nostalgia that relies on feel-good throwback clips & behind-the-scenes insight to feel worthwhile. And it works. The expectation that these vintage TV docs emotionally destroy you is likely an unfair one; sometimes they’re just Nice.
The unspoken allure for documentaries as a medium is the promise that you’ll see raw, honest footage from real life that could never be captured in narrative filmmaking. No matter how well a doc is fortified by talking-head interviews, firmly contextualized historical research, or a strong editorial POV, its main selling point to most audiences is going to be the carnival-barker promise of never-before-seen wonders you won’t find elsewhere in cinema. I was thinking a lot about that tension between raw archival footage & carefully curated supplementary material during Soleil Moon Frye’s self-portrait documentary Kid90. A reflection on her post-Punky Brewster years as a party-hard teenager with a constantly running camcorder among other Famous 90s Kids, Kid90 is a vintage backstage tour of teenage celebrity you’re likely to never see with such raw, intimate candor again. Its modern talking-head interviews & narration often cheapen the impact of those video diary clips, but the camcorder footage is such a powerful clash of pop culture nostalgia & miserable decadence that it doesn’t matter much. Kid90 delivers on the promise of unveiling raw, honest footage of its subjects that you’d never see in their carefully curated public appearances, but we’re at the mercy of how Frye chooses to contextualize (or withhold) that footage as the director/narrator. We only get a peek into the window, but it’s a privilege to be invited into her world at all.
It makes sense that a former child celebrity would be protective of the private footage she has of herself and her friends (both alive and dead) struggling with the early-onset-adulthood of growing up in the entertainment industry. I don’t know every Teen Beat star of her time by name, so I spent a lot of the movie asking questions like “Is that the guy who played Zach Morris?” as I failed to recognize some of her peers in their adult form. There are some incredibly intimate glimpses of celebrities like David Arquette, Corey Feldman, and Leonardo DiCaprio in her camcorder diary footage, though, and seeing them act like actual teenagers instead of PR-polished entertainers is outright jarring. Frye herself was lost in the 1990s, often cast as a teenage sex symbol after growing out of her sassy cutie-pie phase, to the point where name-calling taunts of “Punky Boobster” drove her to de-sexualize her body with a very public breast reduction surgery. She fully understands the value of her video diaries of that pre-internet era, when celebrities young & old were much less conscious of their candid, off-stage footage leaking out into the world at large. In one brief montage, clips of Famous 90s Kids like Stephen Dorff & Jenny Lewis drinking & getting high are intercut with their PSA participation in the “Just Say No” campaigns of the Reagan Era, which feels like a glimpse of what this film might’ve been at feature length if the footage had fallen out of Frye’s hands. Instead, she’s careful what information to disclose and when, and you always feel as if there’s even more sensational footage on these tapes that we’ll never be allowed to see.
I’m glad that Kid90 is 100% the story Soleil Moon Frye wanted to tell, how she wanted to tell it. So much of her private life was already in the public eye from such a young age that it’s surprising she’d offer even more of herself & her inner circle for wide consumption like this, instead of defensively locking it away. The only letdown is how much of the film is comprised of modern-day footage of her famous friends all-growed-up, when those interviews cannot compete with the potency & enormity of what she captured on her camcorder as a teenager. There are already much braver, more vulnerable versions of this kind of self-reflective filmmaking to be found in titles like Stories We Tell, Shirkers, and You Cannot Kill David Arquette. Frye is more than candid enough about the abuse & heartache she suffered as a kid for us to understand why this project is a cathartic, therapeutic experience for her, and it would be unfair to ask for more than what she already shares. The problem is that when we’re submerged in the vintage VHS nostalgia and cursed found-footage horror of her teenage video diaries, there’s just no denying that we’re watching something truly special & raw that you could not find anywhere else. Being pulled out of that footage for a modern-day check-in is a constant disappointment, but I feel privileged to have seen even a minute of her home video footage in the first place. I need to let go of the nagging thought that there’s even more of it that’s just outside my reach.
For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and Alli discuss Lauren Greenfield’s 2012 documentary The Queen of Versailles, a darkly funny portrait of a dysfunctional family’s attempt to construct the most extravagant single-family home in the United States.
01:50 Things Heard and Seen (2021) 09:00 Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop (2021) 13:13 The Wailing (2016) 14:14 It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2012) 16:20 Annette (2021) 21:19 The Astrologer (1976)
A Glitch in the Matrix is a (purported) documentary about people who believe in some form of what’s known as the simulation hypothesis, which essentially postulates that existence—as we perceive, experience, measure, and know it—is an artificially created simulation. The film was directed by Rodney Ascher, and if that name is familiar to you, it’s likely because he also helmed the 2012 documentary Room 237, (a film that purported itself as) an academic and scholarly deconstruction of Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic The Shining, creating a lens through which the film could be viewed as both Kubrick’s confession and his exegesis. Although you may not have seen Room 237, you’ve still probably born witness to its reverberations in the pop culture discourse; for instance, if you’ve ever seen a tweet or a listicle that references Kubrick’s involvement in creating false footage of the moon landing or read an article about how The Shining is really about the collision of American imperialism with Native Americans, you’ve seen the cultural impact of Room 237.
For the first hour of Glitch, the film assumes an editorial tone that could charitably be described as “negligent.” The simulation hypothesis itself is laid out for the presumably unfamiliar viewer using clips from films that feature characters awakening to an understanding that their reality is somehow falsified or otherwise unreal: The Truman Show, Brazil, They Live!, and, of course, The Matrix. Interspersed with this exposition are excised-from-context clips from various respectable (if problematic) academics and intellectuals like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, using soundbytes that overemphasize their concessions about the possibility that the simulation hypothesis reflects an accurate understanding of our reality (for the record, that’s not what he said). For some reason, there are also a lot of longer, non-excised clips of non-scientist and former trust fund kid turned insouciant, nascent Bond villain Elon Musk, in which he talks about his own ideas about the simulation hypothesis, which we will definitely be circling back to. Additionally, there are long clips taken from noted speculative fiction author Philip K. Dick’s infamous appearance at a conference in Metz, France. For the uninitiated, much (if not all) of Dick’s prose focuses upon protagonists whose lives are somehow unreal, either because the character prioritizes a fictive inner life which is demonstrably oppositional to their lived experience, or because the character exists in a fiction within a fiction before realizing the falseness of their presumed reality. In that rare public appearance, a post-psychotic break Dick elaborated on the idea that his novels were not fiction, but were in fact true, and that his writing of them was his way of exploring his “realization” that he had personally experienced multiple different timelines, and in so doing unintentionally elaborated upon and outlined the psychological delusion that we now call the “Mandela effect.”
Among these irresponsibly arranged sound bytes and film clips, we also get to meet several of the documentary’s subjects, most of whom were interviewed via some kind of video conference software, and who appear on screen as video game-esque avatars. There’s Jesse Orion, a special education teacher who dreams of being an illustrator full time; we get to see some of his work, which includes a skull drawn in a Mike Mignola style as well as pages from his redrawing of an entire volume of Jean “Moebius” Giraud’s work using characters from the Peanuts comic strip. There’s also Leao Mystwood, who appears as a kind of high-tech Anubis; his time spent in a sensory deprivation chamber convinced him that his perception of himself as having or being a physical form is false, and that he is instead composed of code. There’s Alex Levine, whose avatar looks like a cross between the classic “brain in a jar” image that accompanies many discussions of simulation hypothesis and 790 from Lexx. But the interviewee we spend the most time with, and who in fact the film opens on and who deliberately “set[s] the tenor” of the piece as a whole is Paul Gude, who portrays (and perhaps perceives) himself as leonine. Paul opens with a story about attending a lecture while at university, in which his instructor discussed the genealogy of neurological epistemology as understood by theorists who were bound by the horizons of their knowledge; that is to say, when the highest level of technology was the aqueduct, the human understanding of neuroscience was perceived as and delineated through the use of fluids/humors, and then the rise of telegraphy altered that perception and description to instead treat the nervous system as a series of wires and impulses. From there, the rise of sophisticated computing technology lead to the contemporary understanding of the mind as a kind of CPU informs our current understanding of reality and the perception thereof; Gude then posits that since we now have technology capable of replicating reality virtually, we should then not only have the ability to conceive of our perception of reality as virtual, but to an extent, we must concede that it is so.
Gude notes that he was adopted, and that his adoptive father was a clergyman, and talks at length about his childhood proddings at the concepts of what constitutes reality. Some of this is familiar to me, although I wouldn’t go so far as to presume the universality of those experiences. One anecdote revolves around his childhood move to an area with a much smaller population than the city in which he previously resided, and his internal mental justification of this was that this was the result of the need for “them” to use less processing power to render fewer people and objects; the long drive to and from other areas was therefore the result of the need for “them” to change the surroundings and set up the next location. Although he doesn’t come straight out and use this analogy, it could be more simply explained that he conceived of car trips with his father as the equivalent of a loading screen between sections of a video game that show up while the next area is rendered. Another instance of his worldview being altered occurs while he is sitting in church, listening to his fellow congregants sing a hymn in unison, and his subsequent “realization” that what he is perceiving as a musical harmony and the assumption that it is produced by air forced through internal human flesh must be false, that it in fact could not possibly be the case. His story is presented without commentary, creating (through the language of documentary filmmaking) the impression that the documentarian concurs with this analysis and sees no issue with arriving at the conclusion that reality is a simulation because it’s “impossible” that the sounds of people singing are created by the vibration of larynxes. This is what I’m talking about when I say that the editorial tone is questionable; these are not intercut with psychologists elaborating upon common delusions and their physiological origins, but are simply presented as completely rational ideas.
Gude is not the only subject here for whom a history of teleological theology clearly underpins their perception (and associative distrust of the parameters) of reality. Leao Mystwood, whose introductory chyron provides the appellation “Brother,” also notes that he himself is an ordained minister. Textually, the film itself draws a comparison between the simulation hypothesis and many religious teachings, specifically citing Luke 7:21, in which Jesus, upon being asked about the Kingdom of Heaven, notes that the kingdom is “within” the questioners, existing both inside and outside of them. For someone for whom the concept that we reside in a simulation is an a priori assumption about the nature of existence, this statement, taken through that lens, seems to be that of an Avatar (defined traditionally, e.g., a divine being made flesh in our world) describing an external, “truer” world to beings who can only perceive the simulation that is “housed” within that truer world. And, despite the fact that Jesus also described the Kingdom of Heaven as a place of feasting with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, a man who sowed good seed in his field, treasure hidden in a field, a net, and yeast, I think that interpreting the concept of “heaven” as a “truer” outer world within which our world is but a shadow on a wall is completely legitimate—and therein lies the rub of this film as a whole. After all, what is the simulation hypothesis if not a kind of creationism? I put “them” in quotations earlier when discussing Paul Gude’s ideas because he never names these actors and artificers who are exterior to the simulation, and neither does anyone else who was interviewed for this documentary; who are “they?” What could “they” possibly be other than the divine, or some secularized recontextualization of the concept of divine beings?
I find A Glitch in the Matrix troubling. That’s not because its “revelations” shock me to my core or make me re-evaluate the reality of, well, my reality. To be quite frank, the “simulation hypothesis” is essentially what I was raised to believe, as elaborated upon here, simply with a different name and an overlayment of scientific buzzwords and bizarre fetishization of Elon Musk (I haven’t forgotten about that part) over it to make it seem not only plausible but undeniable, when in reality it comes down to one of the oldest human concepts of them all: faith. One of the core tenets of faith is that this mortal, decaying flesh is not all that we are. That there is something external, that there is something higher, that there is a consciousness or consciousnesses which supersede and exist beyond ourselves which exert authority over our existence. Regardless of whether or not I personally think that interpretation of existence is valid, whether that concept comes in the form of a deity in heaven above or a programmer of the simulation, both require the same rejection of empirical reality as it can be measured, tasted, and observed and embrace an unfalsifiable concept of existence. That’s fine! But to present a text that defines existence this way as a documentary, to treat the belief system as fact instead of a chronicle about the people who believe it as fact isn’t documentation at all; it’s proselytization. It’s the same as when the VHS box for Future Tenseproclaims that it’s a “true story” that just “hasn’t happened… yet,” except that, unlike that production, this one doesn’t advertise itself as an evangelical tool. This presents itself as a factual document of record, which is both disingenuous and dangerous.
To give credit where it’s due, the second half of the film delves further into the dark potential of this way of thinking. In the first half, more than one of the interview subjects notes that there are people with whom they have interacted whose personal tendencies toward antisocial behavior and violence were only curbed by the belief that reality is real and therefore there are consequences to violence. This smacks of the logical fallacy that many people express, that we must maintain a society-wide belief in a higher power/metaphysical consequence in order for the populace to inhibit their darker impulses; you see this in the way that many people can’t wrap their heads around the proven validity of redistributing police and carceral punishment funds to preventative social safety nets as a method of preventing (instead of punishing) crime. There are a great many people (including, in my opinion, most of the people who appear in this movie) who need psychological therapy and/or pharmaceutical assistance to reach a baseline of empathetic civility. That the belief that others are less “real” than oneself creates a space for violence in its very core; it’s the foundational basis of white supremacy and other forms of antisocial ideologies that often result in violence in the public and private spheres. The film does denounce this potentiality, at least, and does so through a recorded phone call with Joshua Cooke.
That name, too, may sound familiar; nearly two decades ago, Cooke murdered his parents in the basement of their home with a shotgun. Infamously, his lawyers considered pleading insanity on his behalf, citing that Cooke “harbored a bona fide belief that he was living in [a] virtual reality,” which became known as the “Matrix defense” (Cooke eventually pled guilty). The possibility that the rejection of the fundamentals of reality could lead to violence is also referred to as the “school shooter” mentality within the film, but the film fails to provide a truly robust condemnation of violence within its text, and I think that’s rather telling. The proliferation of a multitude of people who take to the internet to share photoshopped images of cereal boxes and TV Guide typos to use as visual aids to the recapitulation of their experience of the so-called Mandela Effect isn’t just harmless shenaniganry; it’s a demonstration of the larger parts of society’s growing unwillingness to reexamine their precepts and beliefs, even in the face of evidence against it. We are living in an era in which people are more likely to believe that they’re sliding through parallel universes like Quinn Mallory rather than consider that their memory might fail to be 100% accurate, simply because Reddit told them so; we’re seeing the consequences of that now, politically and globally. To paraphrase another giant of speculative fiction, Isaac Asimov, there is a growing contingent of Americans who legitimately believe that their ignorance (and misremembrance) is just as valid as scientific knowledge and evidence, and it’s that which I find truly deplorable about A Glitch in the Matrix’s text—it will only add more fuel to that fire which threatens to consume our world. Blink and you’ll miss it, but one of the interviewees notes that they think large scale disasters, including those like recent California wildfires that are exacerbated by climate change, are the result of programming errors; every day in every way they’re coming up with new reasons to denigrate the need for immediate action to mitigate and prepare for climate change.
Although the second portion of the film attempts to cover the failures of the film’s first hour, its bizarre fetishization of Musk extends beyond the questionable first half into the second. And make no mistake—some of these people come within a hair’s breadth of literally worshipping Musk. Taking into consideration that the simulation hypothesis is just creationism with extra steps, at least one of the interviewees essentially likens Musk to a god. While explicating on the idea that some people are player characters and others are non-player/playable characters (or NPCs), one of the interviewees speculates that Musk might be not only a player character, but someone from outside the simulation who “descended” into our reality as an avatar in order to try and awaken us and to a recognition that the simulation as false. That is to say: this person believes that it’s possible Musk is an extra-simulation messiah. At the risk of editorializing, I’ll say this: if god were one of us, I’d accept that they were a slob like one of us or a stranger on the bus, but they sure as hell wouldn’t be a guest on Joe fucking Rogan’s podcast. I get that for many neurodivergent people, Musk’s accomplishments (such as they are) are encouraging and demonstrate that people with Asperger’s shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, but I won’t make any apologies for failing to be impressed that the heir to an apartheid emerald mine leveraged obscene and objectively amoral wealth into a business empire that’s largely dysfunctional. You’d be hard pressed to find someone more interested in living on the moon than I am, but I’m not gonna work for Mr. Grimes’s scrip and I’m not going to live in one of his lunar debtor’s prisons/company towns; you can fucking forget that.
I mean no disrespect to those who work in the service industry, but when someone says “For two years, all I did was work at Chili’s and then come home and play video games,” and then uses that as the basis for their claim that they then “realized” that reality was also just a video game, that’s a person who needs counseling and therapy to manage their addiction. I’m not mocking this guy: addiction is a disease, it takes many forms, and it warps your reality. What it doesn’t do is make you an expert on that reality. The two works that this most reminded me of were the film What the #$*! Do We Know!? and the book Supergods by Grant Morrison. In the case of the former, Glitch is similar in that it presents pseudoscientific ideas not as a possible interpretation of existence, but as decidedly true (and, although I am aware that this verges on ad hominem, it’s worth noting that it was created by NXIVM cultists). In the case of the latter, I find the use of footage from Philip K. Dick’s mental breakdown to be both heartbreaking and cruel; it reminded me of Morrison’s book, which for the first 2/3rds is a loving, jubilant history of superhero comics and that artform’s various wonders, before the final third descends into a bizarre scripture of Morrison’s personal beliefs. I won’t try to summarize them here, but here’s a sample (from p. 277 of the 2012 Spiegel & Grau paperback edition): “The interior of our skulls contains a portal to infinity [….] Could fertile wet planets like our Earth really be nurseries where omni-anemones fed and grew to become quicksilver angels in a timeless AllNow?” For the sake of my future hypothetical political career I won’t get into specifics, but I’ve personally spent a not-insignificant amount of time communing with the fractals, if you catch my drift; that doesn’t mean that I would ever consider that experience to be revelatory about the nature of reality, and if I did, and I tried to start spreading the Gospel of Boomer, and that Gospel also incorporated depersonalization that is analogous to that which is part of evil ideologies, I’d hope no one would follow me. I also hope no one takes this documentary to heart, and in the meantime I’ll be looking forward to a different documentary about the simulation hypothesis someday, one which is more scientifically, spiritually, and ethically considered.
Most documentaries about the lives & works of artists are majorly self-conflicted in their form & content. The artist being profiled can be the most provocative, combative bombthrower in the history of their medium, and their retrospective documentary will still be the safest Wikipedia-in-motion overview of their life imaginable. I don’t know that the recent doc Wojnarowicz ever matches the righteous fury of its own subject, but you can’t say it doesn’t try. Fully titled (please excuse the incoming slur) Wojnarowicz: Fuck You Faggot Fucker, the film clearly attempts to recreate the in-your-face political activism of its subject’s ACT UP-era queer resistance & art. It’s nowhere near as inventive, shocking, or confrontational as multimedia artist David Wojnarowicz was in his own time, but it’s at least bold & propulsive enough to convey what made his art so vitally incendiary.
It helps that almost all of the documentary’s imagery was created by Wojnarowicz himself, supplemented by audio interviews with the people who personally knew him. Paintings, prints, stencils, photographs, 3D instillations, audio journals, and a soundtrack from his post-punk band 3 Teens Kill 4 overwhelm the screen, often as David himself rants about the grotesque injustices of the world at large and of 1980s NYC in particular. There’s a vibrant, purposeful anger to his visual art and his recorded monologues that especially comes into sharp relief in discussions of the AIDS crisis and the Reagan administration’s genocidal indifference to that epidemic. There’s no shortage of worthwhile targets for Wojnarowicz’s fury, though, and he throws well-observed punches at the irresponsible vapidity of news media, the grotesque elitism of fine art collectors, and the economic disparity that led him to hustling as a runaway teen, among other social ills. When he was alive, most of Wojnarowicz’s contemporaries likely would’ve reductively described his unbridled anger as a mentally ill artist sabotaging his own success. Here, his work is properly contextualized as confrontational, queer activism in direct opposition to economic exploitation & respectability politics.
The purposeful, incendiary provocation of Wojnarowicz’s art reminded me a lot of Marlon Riggs, along with the more obvious No Wave contemporaries in his social circle (most notably Richard Kern). If Wojnarowicz had survived the AIDS epidemic to make this film himself as a self-portrait retrospective, I imagine it might’ve come out as invigorating as Tongues Untied, Riggs’s magnum opus. Director Chris McKim instead does his best to recreate that exact era of queer-activist video art with the clips, scraps, and completed works that Wojnarowicz left behind after dying at the hands of governmental indifference. The result is one of the few hagiographic documentaries on an artist’s life that approximate the shock & awe of their subjects’ actual work: Sick, Crumb, Marwencol, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, etc. At the very least, it leaves you infuriated that Wojnarowicz and his immediate community were purposefully abandoned & encouraged to die by their own government at the height of the AIDS epidemic; he likely would’ve been proud of that effect.
I’ve been watching a lot of reality competition shows over the past year, as that format is about the upper limit of what my brain can handle right now. I particularly enjoy competition shows where contestants collaborate on art projects (especially fashion competitions), as opposed to the much more plentiful variety of shows where they compete for romantic connections. After 15 months of burnt-out pandemic brain, I feel like I’ve completely depleted the backlog of worthwhile, currently-streaming shows that hit that exact dopamine sweet spot. Since March of last year, I’ve watched Project Runway, Next in Fashion, Making the Cut, Legendary, Glow Up, Blown Away, America’s Next Top Model, Great British Bake-Off, Great Pottery Throwdown, Interior Design Masters, Big Flower Fight, Full Bloom, Nailed It, Making It, Haute Dog, Dragula andmore spin-off series of RuPaul’s Drag Race than I care to recount. I couldn’t tell that I was scraping the bottom of the competition show barrel until recently, though, when I found myself watching the Hulu show Exposure. Exposure is essentially a 6-hour commercial for Samsung Galaxy smartphones, presented as a competition show for aspiring “smartphone photographers” – i.e., L.A. area Instagram hipsters. It’s trash, and I watched the entire thing in a single weekend between hammering away at my own home renovation projects and hiding from in-the-flesh social interactions.
As vapid as Exposure is on a conceptual level, it did get me thinking a lot about the art of smartphone photography and Instagram curation. Yes, the show was cynically designed to sell one specific brand of smartphone, but it’s also one of the few instances of popular, legitimized media I’ve seen acknowledge the labor & artistry that goes into smartphone photography. Most of us take pictures with our phones, and most of us are atrocious at it. Despite the democratization of the tech, there’s a highly developed skill level and shared aesthetic among the masters of the artform that most of us will never put in the time to match. Exposure could’ve been a show entirely about the art of the selfie alone and still had plenty of formalistic challenges to cover over the course of a season. If most of the professional photography we engage with on a daily basis is now relegated to the confines of smartphone tech and social media curation, it’s outright odd that Exposure is one of the few instances of that artistry spilling out into other, more legitimized media. It seems inevitable that the look & feel of Instagram photography in particular would start to influence the formalist approach of proper cinema, if not only because most young cinematographers in the industry likely got their start taking photos on a commercial-grade smartphone.
Enter Some Kind of Heaven, a highly stylized documentary that owes a lot of its visual appeal to the visual language of Instagram. A sweet, lightly surreal portrait of the largest “retirement community” in America, Some Kind of Heaven is relatively reserved in its subject & themes. The people & setting are interesting enough to hold your attention, but it’s really the cinematography that makes it sing. The film’s boxed-in, 4:3 aspect ratio should probably recall the studio-lot artificiality of the Old Hollywood era when the similarly squared-off Academy Ratio was basically an industry standard. Instead, its fetishistic obsession with symmetry and its formalist, posed portraiture can’t help but feel driven by the visual language of Instagram. As a documentary, it’s a fairly standard exercise human-interest journalism. As an art object, it feels like an Internet Age update on Lauren Greenfield’s oeuvre, modernizing the art of formalist portraiture with an Instagram-driven sense of framing against a bizarrely artificial backdrop. Of course, those two aspects of the film cannot be detangled from each other. First-time director Lance Oppenheim credits editor Daniel Garber as the film’s “co-author”, and I assume he’d include cinematographer David Bolen in that sentiment as well, considering how much of its eerie, otherworldly appeal is due to its Insta-era visual slang.
There’s an obvious, blatant clash between form & content here. While there’s a youthful modernism to the film’s post-Instagram aesthetic, the subjects being profiled live in a world populated only by the elderly. Some Kind of Heaven is entirely contained to the sprawling “retirement community” of The Villages, FL. The conflicts suffered by its four main interview subjects are largely specific to geriatric life: drug dependency, homelessness, loneliness, declining mental cognizance and physical health, etc. Those conflicts just happen to play out in the surreally artificial world of The Villages, self-described as “Disney World for retirees.” The people are recognizably real, but their playground is an extravagant illusion, which is where the film’s form & content work together in harmony. When we look at a slickly curated Instagram feed, we know we’re seeing an authentic person abstracted & distorted by a shamelessly inauthentic artform. That exact clash is echoed in this film’s fascination with how its subjects’ messy lives contrast against the fabricated surrealism of their intensely Floridian backdrop. Some Kind of Heaven makes for stiff competition with Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar for the most Floridian film of the year, and it didn’t have to build sets to achieve that status. It merely stumbles into a pre-existing alternate reality to gawk at the set dressing already in place.
As far as I can tell, Some Kind of Heaven was filmed on professional-grade digital movie cameras, not smartphones. It’s a little reductive for me to tie its meticulous visual artistry so closely to Instagram formalism, then, but I can’t help making the connection. If bottom-of-the-barrel competition shows like Exposure are going to be the only legitimized media outlets that recognize the artistry of cell phone photography, we’re going to lose sight of what makes this specific era of photography visually distinct from better-respected modes of the past. It’s only a matter of time before the chaotic irreverence and rapid-fire edits of TikTok overtake the Insta generation’s cinematic moment, so it’s worthwhile to consider which films are actually preserving & engaging with the aesthetic while it lasts. Of the few Insta-driven movies I can think of—Ingrid Goes West, Assassination Nation, Woodshock, etc.—this might be the most visually striking of the batch. There’s something wonderfully bizarre about that achievement being tied to such an explicitly geriatric subject, since Instagram celebrity has been so closely tied to youthful beauty since its inception & popularization. And, hey, if anyone out there wants to borrow my idea for a reality competition show about the art of the selfie you can have it for free. I need more mind-numbing bullshit to watch on the weekends anyway.