Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street (2021)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Kid90 (2021)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Lagniappe Podcast: The Queen of Versailles (2012)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, BoomerBrandon, 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.

00:00 Welcome

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)

26:00 The Queen of Versailles (2012)

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

A Glitch in the Matrix (2021)

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 Tense proclaims 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.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Wojnarowicz (2021)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Some Kind of Heaven (2021)

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 and more 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 ExposureExposure 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.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Chicken People (2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lagniappe

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

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

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

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

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

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

-The Swampflix Crew

Madame (2021)

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

Dick Johnson is Dead (2020)

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

Nobody May Come (2020)

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet