Horror Noire (2019)

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

Rukus (2019)

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

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story (2019)

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

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

The Queen (1968)

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

Origin Story (2019)

Kulap Vilaysack is my best and sweetest friend. At least, that’s how it feels after getting to know her over hundreds of Who Charted? episodes, thanks to the intimate, conversational nature of podcasting. If there was ever any darkness or protective privacy to the boisterous, big-hearted comedy writer on that show it was whenever she found herself talking about her family, especially her relationship with her mother. Vilaysack’s first feature film as a director grew out of that familial darkness – a documentary about her family tree that she’s been talking about completing for years and years, one that I feel like I have a person investment in as a loyal listener to her podcast. Now that Origin Story has finally landed legitimate distribution on Amazon Prime, I find myself struggling to divorce that emotional investment in Kulap’s story and her personal well-being from a nagging thought that what’s onscreen isn’t entirely well executed as a movie­. I don’t know that the filmmaking itself is especially strong in Origin Story, but the story it tells is still emotionally rattling throughout for me. It’s a little difficult to worry about how the film’s framing could be more interesting, or its editing could be tightened, when your foremost thought is “Why won’t my best and sweetest friend stop crying?”

Weirdly enough, I wouldn’t readily recommend this documentary to comedy nerds who only know Vilaysak through her tangential relationships with institutions like Comedy Bang Bang & Seeso. There are a few famous comedians who drop by as friends, only referenced by first names, but they’re mostly there to offer teary-eyed emotional support for what amounts to a bravely public act of self-therapy. Origin Story is much more likely to satisfy fans of twisty family-drama docs like Three Identical Strangers or Stories We Tell, folks for whom “a good story” means “a good movie.” Kulap Vilaysack’s search for the truth of her own birth’s circumstances is a good story, although a traumatic one. When she was 14-years-old she found herself caught between her parents during an argument and her mother asked “Why are you defending him? He’s not your real dad.” It’s a revelation that sat heavy on her heart for two decades before she decided to investigate who her biological father is (with a documentary crew in tow). The answers are easy to find, but not so easy to swallow, as Kulap travels across Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Laos (her parents’ home country) to try to make sense of the four adults who raised her and the one who didn’t. Themes of physical & emotional abuse, war refugee immigration, and the importance of self-mythology arise from her travels as the story she’s always all been told about her childhood unravels, resulting in a flood of tears from everyone who appears onscreen (and, presumably, everyone watching in the audience).

As interesting as the story is and as emotionally invested as I am in Kulap’s well-being, I can’t say with confidence that this is a great film on its own merits. It’s at least fifteen minutes overlong and its tone (understandably) slips into the maudlin piano flourishes & Hallmark sentimentality of something far below the talent of its creator. There’s also a distinct reality TV quality to its interview format & establishing shots that recall the exact clichés Vilaysak parodied in her comedy show Bajillion Dollar Propertie$. Origin Story follows a serviceable template to deliver a personal, heartfelt story, but it’s a shame to see someone so creative waste an opportunity to experiment with form, even if she is personally close to the content. In terms of craft, the best sequences of Origin Story are the animated flourishes that lean into the comic book aesthetic hinted by the title. Storybook illustrations & handdrawn-style ink animations bring to life childhood memories & stories of her parents’ political crises before her birth in fantastic detail. It took years to complete the documentary and get it before an audience, but it almost feels like Origin Story’s true, natural format would be as a graphic novel that hasn’t yet arrived. I’m happy that Kulap was able to complete the project the way she wanted to, but also curious what it would be like to see a graphic artist completely translate the documentary into a longform comic book format – especially since those animated sequences where it’s strongest.

A lot has changed since Origin Story wrapped production, most of which I’m only aware of because I follow these comedians’ professional lives too closely. Kulap no longer cohosts Who Charted?. Her dog Rocky, who is heavily featured in the film, has sadly passed away. She’s also directed, produced, and organized more projects than ever before (including a television show that has already come and gone in the span of this film being completed). As a standalone work divorced from Kulap’s professional persona, Origin Story is emotionally rattling but a little creatively stilted. As a public act of personal self-therapy, however, it seems to have lifted a weight off her heart that has freed her to do more & better work. Part of me wishes that final product were a little finer tuned, but mostly I’m just happy for my best and sweetest friend that the work is completed and in the past.

-Brandon Ledet

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

Shirkers (2018)

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

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

The Gospel of Eureka (2018)

The Gospel of Eureka has a tough needle to thread in its establishment of tone & POV. Two Portland filmmakers descend upon the quaint Christian bohemia of Eureka, Arkansas as outsiders, intending to document the parallels between two local arts scene novelties: a Gospel-themed dive bar drag show & an elaborate Passion Play production that supports the town’s lucrative Christian tourism industry. This outsider POV opens the film to a Waiting for Guffman style of local-theatre mockery, where the absurdism of the Passion Play & the old-fashioned pageant drag’s co-existence are contrasted for yuck-em-up laughter. That ironic, outsider humor does crop up in stray moments of the film, but co-directors Donal Mosher & Michael Palmieri mostly allow the audience to find them on our own in their matter-of-fact tone, making us complicit in the culture-gawking. Instead of pushing for absurdist humor, they lean heavily into the surreal parallels between the drag & Passion Play pageantry. These are two disparate modes of artistic expression that offer plenty of intense visual fodder for the film to pilfer. What The Gospel of Eureka does best is in explaining how they’re also two sides of the same performative coin.

Narrated by one of the drag queens as if it were an animated storybook, The Gospel of Eureka closes the gap between its local drag queen community & the Evangelist Christians who run the Passion Play production by tracking the proposal of & voting on a transgender “bathroom bill” that landed their shared small town in the national spotlight. That impulse for linear storytelling & narrative structure proves to be unnecessary, however, as the parallels between the two supposedly opposing contingents require very little explanation. The documentary finds its most satisfying groove in cutting back & forth between performances of the Gospel drag show & the Passion Play as they separately cycle through their respective routines. Performers on both sides apply their own make-up, lip-sync to pre-recorded soundtracks, and exaggerate their religious narratives to the point of over-the-top caricature – practically in unison thanks to editing room cross-cutting. More so than a shared passion for Biblical scholarship, they share a weakness for over-the-top pageantry; the only difference is that the drag end of the divide is self-aware of that commitment to camp & caricature, whereas the other end believes they’re merely being devout.

Both the Gospel drag show & the oversized Passion Play could justify their own documentary in isolation. The drag bar owners’ history as a same-sex married couple in a small Christian town that has historically attempted to eradicate homosexuality & transgender identity through exorcism & conversion therapy is rich enough on its own to deserve documentation (as is especially apparent in their 1980s AIDS crisis battle stories). The Passion Play, which has blossomed from the homophobic & anti-Semitic Evangelism of public figures like Anita Baker in the 1970s to become a 2010s tourist attraction for tens of thousands of visiting outsiders, is even more worthy of its own documentary. It operates on the massive scale of an amusement park attraction, even though its effect is roughly the same as a dive bar drag act. Just the sight of the town’s massive statue of Jesus Christ, the largest of its kind in the US, is indication enough that Eureka’s outsized modes of religious expression are worthy of a documentarian’s attention. The Gospel of Eureka’s pinpointing of the most extreme possible binary within that expression and the unmistakable parallels between both sides (despite their apparent political opposition) is far more interesting – often to the point of being outright surreal – than the ironic mockery a lesser film might have exploited for easy laughs.

-Brandon Ledet

Nailed It (2018)

Nailed It: Vietnamese and the Nail Industry does everything exactly right within the bounds of microbudget documentary filmmaking. At roughly sixty minutes, it’s too short to drastically overstay its welcome the way many niche-subject docs do. It’s rich in both interview subjects & extratextual material, collecting oral history anecdotes from generations of participants and pulling news & pop culture clips from the darkest corners of YouTube. It has its own distinct sense of style, thanks largely to anthropomorphic hands adorned with acrylic nails strutting their stuff across the screen in Flash-style 2D animation. Most importantly, Nailed It works hard to investigate an overlooked, understudied subject: Why is more than half of the American nail salon industry Vietnamese? Who were the first Vietnamese people to do nails? Is the industry a source of pride for the communities it supports or more of a necessary evil? As fascinating, succinct, and stylish as Nailed It can be, however, the film never really transcends its limited means to become something especially great. It’s the kind of moderately successful documentary that gets by on the interest of its subject, when it has the promise to be so much more.

The answer to how the first Vietnamese people got involved in the nail salon industry arrives early and with certainty, although maybe not from the source that you would expect. The Birds star Tippi Hedren is explained to be the instigator of the Vietnamese nail industry boom. South Vietnamese families who cooperated with American soldiers during the Vietnam War were granted asylum in the US once the North Vietnam government was declared victor. As a humanitarian effort, Hedren traveled to Vietnam with her personal manicurist to prepare local women with a potentially lucrative trade so that they weren’t arriving empty-handed. Because this history stretches just one generation back, most of the participants are still alive for interviews, even reuniting with Hedren & her manicurist to rehash the past. The stories of how workers who could not speak English transformed a crash course in manicurist skills into entire chains of self-owned salons (and even nail polish production factories, effectively become their own suppliers) is still stupefying regardless of the explanation. The ways they survive outside competition by outpricing them or seeking increasingly more lavish novelty nail designs eventually makes it so that Vietnamese salons encompass a majority of the market – something that has since been accepted as a decades-old fact, with little consideration for how we got there.

Where Nailed It might fall a little short as a feat in documentary filmmaking is that its subject isn’t quite as niche as it initially seems. There’s enough thematic material in Tippi Hedren’s initial crop of manicurist trainees alone to support an hour-long documentary, but the film extends far beyond that historical account. Nailed It condemns racist caricatures of Vietnamese nail techs in popular media like sketch comedy & stand-up routines, likening it to Donald Trump’s jingoistic “shithole countries” rhetoric. It seeks to contrast sensationalist news reports about how filthy & health-hazardous (supposedly) unsanitary nail salons can be with intimate documents of their community-supporting reality. At the same time, it advocates for healthier working conditions for manicurists who spend hours on end inhaling harmful chemicals. The histories of notable notorious salons and decades-long emotional bonds formed between specific manicurists & clients are profiled at length. Director Adele Pham also inserts her own relationship with her Vietnamese heritage into the already-sprawling narrative, even interviewing her own family members who aren’t directly connected to the industry. Any one of those individual topics might support an hour-long documentary; the stunning artistry of over-the-top novelty nail designs in particular isn’t afforded enough attention, which is understandable given the political implications of the subjects it has to share screentime with, but also frustrating because the few glimpses we get are so gorgeous.

Nailed It appears from the outset to be a short, concise documentary on a niche topic. By the time it’s over it instead plays like a surface-level overview of a much larger, more sprawling subject that deserves more extensive documentation. It feels more like a promising start than a compete work, with dozens of tangential threads that could be better served in isolation & elaboration.

-Brandon Ledet

This One’s for the Ladies . . . (2018)

It’s difficult to pinpoint what separates a truly great niche-subject documentary from a mediocre one, especially in a film festival environment. At a certain budgetary & distribution level, the festival-circuit indie documentary is only going to have so much variation in its successes & failures (give or take a form-breaking bomb-thrower like Rat Film or The World is Mine). They all usually excite in their initial rush, thanks to the novelty of their subject matter that likely landed them festival screenings in the first place. The Litmus Test for a great niche-subject doc then, as opposed to a merely serviceable one, might be in sustaining that initial rush throughout. Whether in finding deeper political or societal implications in its subject beyond surface-level interest or in exploiting those surface pleasures for all they’re worth, the well-behaved small budget doc has to work tirelessly to sustain its initial, opening-minutes appeal. A straight-forward, small budget documentary about the raunchy black male erotic dancer circuit, This One’s for the Ladies has an even harder (heh) time than most keeping it up (heh heh) once its initial rush settles into a well-worn filmmaking groove. The initial immersion into the explosive hedonism of its subject is a tough act to either follow up or maintain, so the movie instead just coasts on that initial appeal. It mostly gets away with it.

The black erotic male dancer circuit may not see much mainstream media exposure (outside maybe the Atlanta mansion sequence in Magic Mike XXL), but it’s explained to be long-established, self-contained culture in This One’s for the Ladies, one with its own celebrities & legendary figures. Pulling clips of VHS footage from “dance events” dating back to at least the 1990s, the doc sketches out a densely populated world of celebrity dancers & dedicated fans. Oiled up muscle-men with gigantic cocks stuffed into colorful sleeves boast over-the-top monikers like Smoove, Raw Dawg, Mr. Capable, Fever, and Satan. The more well-established regulars in their audience have their own nicknames (women like Mamma Joe, Pound Cake, and Double Trouble), as their own contributions to the dance events are just as crucial as the erotic performers’. These are self-catered D.I.Y. happenings staged in living rooms, cruise ships, and rented event halls. The more infamous dancers might sell merchandise like DVD compilations, autographed headshots, and erotic wall calendars, but their art is also the center of a community where performer & patron have to pull equal weight to keep the scene alive. It’s a weirdly wholesome subculture, considering that its anchor is a group of muscled-up dancers who mime making love to strangers who wave dollar bills at their face & genitals, but its existence outside a brick & mortar strip club establishment affords it a genuine sense of community.

As compelling (and visually interesting) as that subject matter can be, it’s undeniable that This One’s for the Ladies hits a wall somewhere in its brief 80min runtime. The pro wrestling & ball culture-style pageantry of the dance events never gets tiring, and the times the film documents the prurient pleasures therein it’s a hoot. Dancers licking chocolate syrup from a blushing participant’s inner thigh or simulating making them squirt with a concealed water hose rig is some A+ cinematic content, and those indulgences never feel repetitive or dull. Where it struggles to maintain that excitement is in the behind the scenes interviews with participants, which stray from discussing the dance event circuit to touch on issues of racial & economic inequality the film makes no point to explore in a distinct or substantive way. It’s an understandable impulse from a filmmaker’s perspective, but this search for wider cultural context only feels satisfying when it creeps up naturally through the subject. For instance, interviews with a butch lesbian dancer named Blaze about her conflicts with fiercely Christian parents or unaccepting male dancers who don’t want her working “their” circuit both opens the film to wider cultural context and feels specific to the subject at hand (so much so that a doc just about Blaze could easily be justifiable). The same just isn’t true about tangential commentary on underfunded neighborhood schools or childhood Autism; they’re worthwhile topics in isolation, but too disconnected to be explored here in earnest.

My quick fix for This One’s for the Ladies would either be to come in 20min shorter or 20min raunchier. There’s no way the movie could ever have time to fully tackle the wide world of systemic racism outside the dance events, so it might as well just lean into the prurient strengths of its subject instead and let the implications of those cultural circumstances creep up naturally (as they do with Blaze). There may not be enough time to solve racism or poverty in a documentary of this scale, but there’s certainly time for more exposed erect dick (there’s only one!) and erotic pageantry, leaving the cultural subtext implied. Whether or not that’s the correct fix for this fine-not-great doc, it definitely needed something to help sustain the initial rush of its subject’s inherent interest – the documentary equivalent of a cock ring.

-Brandon Ledet