In the opening scene of the Nan Goldin documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, the legendary fine-art photographer is leading a flash-mob protest at a modern art museum, demonstrating against their acceptance of donation money from The Sackler Family. She lays down on the museum floor, pretending to be a corpse alongside dozens of collaborators, and the camera catches glimpse of a “SILENCE = DEATH” tote bag commemorating ACT UP protests of decades past. Later in the film, similar archival footage from the ACT UP era shows Goldin decrying Reaganite Evangelical indifference to the AIDS epidemic, platforming fellow activist artists like David Wojnarowicz to combat institutional cruelty in an art gallery setting. Both protests are personal to Goldin, who has recently become addicted to the Sacklers’ profit-over-people product Oxycontin and has historically lost countless loved ones to the Reagan administration’s deliberate mishandling of AIDS. Both protests earn their screentime thematically, but only one is compelling to look at, having earned a fascinating vintage texture through the technological passage of time. The modern smartphone footage at an overlit Metropolitan Museum exhibit just can’t compete, since it’s near-indistinguishable from disposable one-glance content on a social media feed.
That textural difference between past & present footage weighs heavily on the film throughout. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is half a career-spanning slideshow from Nan Goldin’s legacy as a fine art photography rock star and half a document of her current mission to deflate The Sackler Family’s tires, at least in the art world. The career-retrospective half can’t help but be more compelling than the current political activism half, since her archives are dense with the most stunning, intimate images of Authentic City Living ever captured. Her personal history in those images and her recent struggles with addiction more than earn her the platform to be heard about whatever she wants to say here, though, especially since the evil pharmaceutical empire she’s most pissed at has trespassed on her home turf. The protest group Goldin helps organize, Prescription Addiction Intervention Now, specifically aims to have the Sackler name and donations removed from fine art museums, attacking the family’s cultural prestige since it is improbable to dismantle their personal wealth. P.A.I.N.’s protests in the film only target museums that feature Goldin’s work in their permanent collection, leveraging her cultural clout in the art world to do as much practical damage to the Sackler name as they can. The only problem is that documentation of these efforts only amounts to Good Politics, not Good Art, which is an unignorable fault in a film that proves it’s possible to achieve both.
Documentarian Laura Poitras was likely excited to make a movie about Nan Goldin precisely because of those modern-day P.A.I.N. protests, since amplifying Goldin’s personal war on the Sacklers fits in so snugly with her past modern-politics documentaries about WikiLeaks, Edward Snowden, and the NSA. I’m grateful she took interest, no matter what her reason, since it’s the closest I’ll ever get to being in the audience for one of Goldin’s classic Ballad of Sexual Dependency slide shows. Setting up a rack of six slide projectors like a guitarist’s Marshall stack, Goldin’s slideshows register as more of a D.I.Y. punk act than a gallery exhibit. Here, she recalls her journey from developing her early drag bar photos at the local pharmacy to earning enough art-world clout that she can convince museums to turn down 7-figure donations from prestige-hungry, life-destroying benefactors. I’m used to seeing Goldin’s photos in isolation, collected as single images among her No-Wave NYC contemporaries’ similarly unpretentious, self-documentary imagery. It’s a treat to be immersed in her work at length here, learning the names & personalities of the recurring “characters” in her photos and getting a better sense of her iconoclastic presence in the larger world of fine art. So, of course, the modern protest footage that presumably drew Poitras to the project often frustrates in its distraction from what drew me to watch it. Goldin’s artwork is hardly a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down, though; it’s just more potent, tastier medicine.
Laura Poitras is not using Nan Goldin’s life story as an excuse to score political hits against Purdue Pharma & The Sackler family. If anything, this documentary feels like a fluid collaboration between the two artists, and Poitras is only there to give Goldin as much space as she wants to rant about how the Sacklers have turned fine art galleries into “temples of greed.” If Goldin wanted to tell the story of her life’s work separately from the story of her recent protests, I’m sure she could’ve found an obliging collaborator to film her self-narrated slideshows. She even could have made that movie on her own, since her control over the rhythm, scoring, and storytelling of her slideshows is in itself a kind of improvised filmmaking, a skill she’s been honing for decades. It’s reasonable to assume that the decision to give her modern crusade against the Sacklers equal weight as her bottomless catalog of breathtaking city-life portraits was partly—if not entirely—Goldin’s own. It’s a politically respectable choice, of course, but it’s also an artistically limiting one.
Some psychedelic, “psychotronic” cinema is great because it tests the boundaries of filmmaking as an ever-evolving artform, especially cinema’s unique ability to simulate the elusive, illogical imagery of dreams. Most of it is just a cheap way to babysit stoners. The new David Bowie “documentary” Moonage Daydream falls firmly in that latter category, earning a prize spot among the stoner-babysitter Classic Rock “classics”: Heavy Metal, The Song Remains the Same, lava lamps, Tommy, blacklight posters, the iTunes visualizer, The Wall, etc. It’s more of a scrapbook in motion than a proper essay film or documentary. Or maybe it’s just the Bowie version of your local planetarium’s Pink Floyd laser show. I do think there’s some cinematic value to that kind of stoner-pacifying psychedelic filmmaking, but the rewards are pretty limited. It paints a beautiful backdrop for your couch-potato bong rips, then gently puts you to sleep so you can’t get into too much trouble while you’re high.
Do not watch Moonage Daydream if you want to learn about the life, loves, and art of glam rock musician David Bowie. Do watch Moonage Daydream if you want to hear Bowie intone Headspace app meditations about life, love, and art over a randomized slideshow medley of concert footage & movie clips. Some of the sci-fi pulp ephemera used to illustrate his lyrical mumblings make sense as mood setting for Bowie’s “alien rockstar” period as his Ziggy Stardust persona. However, as the never-before-seen concert footage is continually interrupted by selections as disparate as Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising and Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space long after Bowie’s moved on to more grounded, coked-out material, it’s clear those clips are only included to keep the otherwise repetitive imagery freshly varied. Bowie’s reputation as a cineaste is cited as an excuse to roll vintage sci-fi footage that looks cool alongside his music; the use of William S. Burroughs’s “cut-ups” technique in his writing is cited as an excuse to randomly quote him at his most abstractly philosophical, with no discernible reasoning behind arrangement or progression. The whole film is about as carefully planned out as the improvised “liquid light shows” projected behind Jefferson Airplane performances in the 1960s. It’s a Bowie-themed novelty kaleidoscope, a psychedelic “action painting” with a glam rock soundtrack.
This is not the approach to Bowie’s life, art, and legacy that I expected from documentarian Brett Morgen. His earlier film Montage of Heck deliberately de-mystified the ethereal rock star persona of Kurt Cobain, stripping away the self-destructive romance of his memory to show how sad & dysfunctional his drug addiction made his life on a practical, real-world level. By contrast, this montage of glam is only interested in David Bowie as an otherworldly prophet with an uncanny ability to tap into the collective unconscious through his far-out music; it’s more interested in his stage personae than his life as a real-world human being. That approach isn’t fundamentally wrong, but it leaves little room for tracking Bowie’s progress as an artist beyond noting his relocations from London to Los Angeles to Berlin to beyond. Since Morgen was given full blessing and access by the Bowie estate, he finds some freshly striking imagery to mine for his psychedelic freak-out montage; I was particularly tickled to see Ziggy Stardust perform at length in a slutty little kimono, conscious of his newfound status as a sex symbol. There’s just only so much Morgen can achieve by focusing on Bowie’s finely curated surface aesthetics, and it’s not quite enough to sustain 135 minutes of continuous abstraction . . . unless it’s used as background enhancement for other, more illicit hobbies.
It’s undeniable that the art of drag has changed drastically in the past decade, at least from what I can see in New Orleans. The traditionalist dive-bar pageant drag that I grew up with in the city has been pushed out to the edges of the frame, found only in the annual Gay Easter parade in the Quarter or at spaghetti & mimosas brunches on the West Bank. These days, most local drag acts are young cabaret weirdos who are much more interested in testing the boundaries of good taste than they are in looking pretty under a pound of pancake-batter makeup. In most cities, drag’s recent shift towards the avant-garde might only be attributable to the popularity of television programs like Ru Paul’s Drag Race and its legion of international spinoffs. Here, it’s more directly influenced by the New Orleans Drag Workshop, an intensive drag bootcamp that spawned most of the city’s most vital, exciting queens for the better half of the 2010s. That’s the local legacy of drag mother Lady Vinsantos, who closed the New Orleans Drag Workshop just before the pandemic in 2019, leaving behind a glamorously mutated art scene that now sets the city apart from the Southern Pageant traditions I remember from Mardis Gras & Decadences past.
The French “dragumentary” Last Dance honors Vinsantos for recontouring the New Orleans drag scene into the vibrant freak show it is today, so it was wonderful to see it presented with ceremonial prestige at this year’s New Orleans Film Festival. As the older, stuffier crowd attending the local premiere of the Louis Armstrong documentary Black & Blues spilled out onto the sidewalk in front of The Prytania, the drunken reprobates waiting for the Vinsantos doc rushed in, ready to cheer on & heckle the projection of their friends’ faces onto the century-old silver screen. The movie asks, “Remember when Neon Burgundy had that gigantic beard?” as if it’s making nostalgic small talk between stage acts at The All-Ways. It treats local drag performers like Franky, Tarah Cards, and Gayle King Kong as if they were the first wave of punk bands to perform onstage at CBGB’s, a much-deserved reverence you’ll only find in film-fest documentaries like this & To Decadence With Love. Director Coline Albert may not be from New Orleans, but she does a great job of highlighting what makes the local drag scene special, and how much of a hand Vinsantos had in shaping that scene into what it is.
Besides, New Orleans is only one part of Vinsantos’s story, as it’s told here. This is a documentary of thirds, split between the closure & legacy of the New Orleans Drag Workshop, Vinsantos’s youthful run as a chaos queen in San Francisco, and the character’s official retirement show in Paris – a lifelong dream realized. The writing & production of the Paris show helps establish a narrative momentum as Vinsantos reminisces about what he’s accomplished with his drag artistry in two distanced American cities, saving the movie from devolving into pure talking-heads tedium. Even as someone who’s attended many shows populated entirely by Workshop “draguates” (as well as Vinsantos’s horror-host screening of the San Francisco cult film All About Evil), I’ve had little direct interaction with his own work, as he’s been gradually, consciously ceding the stage to younger talent. Last Dance operates as a fly-on-the-wall portrait of Vinsantos as a self-doubting, frustrated artist with a chaotic stop-and-start creative process. The Paris retirement show finale and clips from past triumphs also offer a decent sketch of what the Lady Vinsantos stage persona is like in action – a volatile combo of a Strait-Jacket era Joan Crawford and a Grande Dame revision of Freddy Kreuger. The retirement of that persona is very much worth preserving here, even if she eventually rises from the grave to terrorize yet another city.
To Last Dance‘s credit, it doesn’t attempt to cover all of Vinsantos’s various art projects from throughout the decades. His dollmaking, songwriting, and filmmaking efforts are only captured in glimpses, sometimes frustratingly so. The archival fragments of the D.I.Y. drag-horror films he made as a prankish youth in San Francisco were the major highlight for me, since they have a vintage texture that can’t be matched by modern digital cameras. Even just limiting itself to the dual retirement of the Drag Workshop and the Lady Vinsantos persona, though, the movie can still feel a little narratively unfocused, frantically plane-hopping between the three cities tethered to Vinsantos’s heart. If it’s at all meandering or overlong, though, the indulgence is clearly earned. If anything, we should have rolled out the red carpet and handed over a Key to the City to make the ceremony of this retirement documentary even more ostentatious. As is, getting home from the post-screening Q&A after 1a.m. at least felt appropriate to the late-night freak scene Vinsantos helped establish here; the only thing the event was missing was a crowd-hyping MC and a two-drink minimum.
The sci-fi anime Belle dreams of a far-out futureworld where all social & commercial activity online is ported to a Virtual Reality realm in which our external bodies & environments are just as fluid as our internal psyches. According to the documentary We Met in Virtual Reality, that future has already arrived, at least for a small number of tech-savvy übernerds. Billed as “the first feature-length documentary filmed entirely in VR,” it’s basically Belle except for “real” and without all those pesky trips back to the physical world. It’s a pixelated descent into the kind of niche nerd-culture subdungeons that the internet was built for but rarely achieves anymore. Right now, it’s unclear whether the Metaverse will succeed in replacing that psychedelic digi-realm with an infinite digi-Target, but this still feels like a vital, of-the-moment snapshot of what VR life looks like in the early 2020s. It’s the utopian counterpoint to the more sinister vision of Belle, and it’s somehow one with just as much anime imagery.
Users of the virtual reality platform VRChat explain how VR offers infinite possibilities in how they can interact and be perceived in a new, revolutionized social space that’s only limited by their own imaginations. Meanwhile, they’re speaking through digital avatars that can be neatly categorized into a few anime & furry subgenres, mostly made up of pre-existing IP. It turns out that given all the possibilities in all human creation, most people want to be seen as a hot lady with a tail. And who could blame them? Taken at face value, the interviewees would have you believe they’re creating a digital utopia that’s broken free from the cruelties & limitations of the physical world, but what’s onscreen is just a virtual simulation of real-world grind & commerce now populated by catbois, wolfsonas, and anime babes. The VRChat represented here is a glitchy, pixelated echo of pre-existing rituals under real-world capitalism: weddings, funerals, improv classes, lap dances, raves, etc. That tension between what the infinite possibilities of this digi-realm offers vs. what’s actually achieved within it pushes the film beyond initial, superficial reactions like “This looks weird,” and “Who are these people irl?”.
A large part of the utopian rhetoric posited here is a result of COVID, since most of its interviews were recorded in the pre-vaccine days of 2020 & 2021. Many of the subjects who flocked to VRChat in that time describe themselves as having been lonely, anxious, and suicidal before finding community there. Every bellydancing class, ASL instruction, and virtual driving lesson captured “on film” ends with a group photo, with all the hot, tailed, anime avatars crowding into a single frame to make cutesy faces at a virtual camera. It often feels like that group photo is more important than the activity it’s commemorating. These nerds really do love each other, just as much as they love the freedom to style their digital bodies to match their true personae (often with little regard for matching traditional gender presentations to the expected pronouns of the “real” world). I’m not yet convinced that Zuckerberg will lure your average normie into the VR lifestyle in the coming years, but it’s easy to see the appeal for this specific subset of very-online nerds, especially within the context of COVID-era isolation.
Beyond its introduction to a subculture most viewers don’t have access to otherwise, We Met in Virtual Reality is also an interesting advancement in documentary tech. It’s not simply screengrabbed from a livestream of virtual reality interactions. It’s traditionally directed, paying attention to coverage, “camera” placement, and narrative flow in an entirely simulated environment. While VRChat feels like an early step into a new realm of online interaction that hasn’t quite gotten its footing yet, the movie does the same for documentary filmmaking in that new, digital realm. Take a look at it now, while it’s still a rudimentary immersion in surreal images and far-out ideas; and fear the soon-to-come days of Belle when all significant social interactions are filtered through this exact lens. For better or for worse, this is the future of life & art.
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.