United Skates (2018)

There’s a threshold a lot of niche-subject, microbudget documentaries struggle to cross: maintaining audience interest after the initial appeal of their subject fades. United Skates has a lot to live up to in that respect, as the initial rush of its documentation of black skating rink culture is so fun & visually stunning that it seems nearly impossible to sustain that energy. In the early days of hip-hop it was difficult for acts to book legitimate venues outside of house & block parties, and the open-floor venues of skating rinks were some of the first spaces to fulfill that need (as you can see depicted in narrative biopic films like Straight Outta Compton, White Boy Rick, and CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story). Skating rink hip-hop culture evolved from there to flourish on a national level, with regional scenes in cities like Chicago, L.A., and Miami developing their own unique skating styles & soundtracks. United Skates documents this culture in decline, with many of the most significant venues in the culture closing their doors forever, long after performers like N.W.A., Naughty by Nature, and Salt & Peppa had moved on to other venues (and eventually faded away in their own right). United Skates finds plenty of distinct visual fodder in documenting the fashions & skating styles of each participating region, but where it really develops into something special is documenting the means & methods of those closures.

United Skates is a documentary “about” black skating rink culture that’s actually about how all pockets of black culture are policed & legislated out of existence in small, cumulative increments. This is a subculture that was only forged in the first place because rinks would unofficially segregate their weekly schedule by signaling a “black night,” promoting events like Soul Night, Martin Luther King Jr. Night, and Adult Night. The “Adult Night” designation in particular unified black skating rink culture with a clear signifier that created the very culture white rink owners were attempting to discourage from developing. Two decades later, Adult Night parties are being policed out of existence in both small-scale rules applications and systemic city-level legislation. On a rink-to-rink level, cops are hired to provide “security” (read: intimidation) at Adult Night events that rinks don’t bother to enforce otherwise. Custom skates (along with more universally discriminated clothing markers like “saggy” pants) are outlawed from rinks as a private policy to discourage black patronage. On a city level, skating rinks are zoned out of existence to supposedly make way for condos & corporate retailers, only to rot in vacant lots, unused & blighted. United Skates’s titular subject is incredibly niche in its specificity, but the way it’s documented here has much larger, systemic implications on how black culture is legislated into oblivion.

Watching Adult Night skaters from all over the country show off their particular performance styles and custom skating gear as the cinematographer glides in the rinks beside them is incredibly endearing, but it’s a pleasure that can only carry the film so far. Where United Skates excels is in framing that Adult Night partying as an act of political resistance. Black-owned skating rinks, national Adult Night travelers, and decades-running “rink rats” are demonstrated to be direct political resistors to a system that would like nothing more than for them to just give up & fade away. The flashy hip-hop parties that gave birth to this culture are long gone, but continuing its existence is explained to be far more than empty, stubborn nostalgia. It’s a refusal to give into micro & macro policing of a culture that’s being pushed out only because of the racial demographics of the community behind it. It’s that larger political importance that makes United Skates much more rewarding & substantial than you might initially expect, given the scale of tis budget (perhaps explaining its Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature at this year’s New Orleans Film Festival).

-Brandon Ledet

Serial Killers, Mall Punks, and American Idiots: The Feature Films of John Roecker

I didn’t feel at all great about our collective distaste for John Roecker’s stop-motion animated musical Live Freaky! Die Freaky! Not only is picking on a microbudget, D.I.Y. art project the exact opposite approach we usually strive for on this site, but Live Freaky! Die Freaky! was somehow the first animated feature we’ve ever tackled as a Movie of the Month, so it was a huge letdown that we couldn’t say much in praise of one of my favorite artistic mediums on that platform. Rocker’s film felt like a morally offensive letdown by design, however, so I can’t feel too bad that we took the aging punk scenester edgelord’s bait. The South Park-era satirical brand of “Nothing’s offensive if everyone’s offended” shock humor has not aged especially well in the decade since Live Freaky! Die Freaky!’s release and Roecker’s own version of mall punk aesthetic has grown just as stale in tandem. The tastelessness of staging a Charles Manson-themed musical in a medium traditionally aimed at children isn’t what offends me about Roecker’s directorial debut; after all, my favorite filmmaker of all time, John Waters, was making comedies inspired by Manson’s real-life crime spree weeks after the Sharon Tate murders that I find hilarious & worthy of discussion. What’s offensive is that Roecker seems to believe his dweeb edgelord audacity is in itself a subversive act, when the work has no particular political ideology or purpose beyond the juvenile desire to offend. John Waters was politically angry; John Roecker was an apolitical clown who just wanted an excuse to show off as a Politically Incorrect subversive with friends & collaborators among the L.A. punk scene elite. Rocker’s crudeness in craft and disregard for moral decency aren’t what’s offensive about Live Freaky! Die Freaky!; what offends is the intellectual laziness of his aimless “satire” & his sycophantic need to attach his name to mall punk collaborators in high-profile bands like Green Day, Rancid, and AFI.

Roecker’s ideological laziness & punk-royalty sycophantry can only be further evidenced by his follow-up feature, the documentary Heart like a Hand Grenade. Presumably filmed around the same time that Live Freaky! Die Freaky! was in production in the early 00s, Roecker’s follow-up is a document of the band Green Day’s recording studio sessions while making their hit 2004 album American Idiot. What’s remarkable about that timeline is that Heart like a Hand Grenade wasn’t completed & distributed until 2015, more than a decade after American Idiot’s release. That delayed release does not feel at all intentional either, as the film plays like a promotional ad for an upcoming creative project, describing at length what the album is going to be and what Green Day fans should expect from the band’s mid-career shift into politically-charged art, when it should feel like a look back at a past accomplishment. American Idiot ultimately did not need Roecker’s promotional help, as it rode the aughts’ anti-George W. Bush political rhetoric to the greatest financial success of Green Day’s then already decade-long career. Roecker would have to strive pretty hard to justify releasing a feature-length promotional ad for that record a decade after its success was already solidified, then, and Heart like a Hand Grenade fails to accomplish that on any count. Padded with full-length music videos, live performances, and studio downtime shittalking, the decade-late documentary struggles to justify its own existence beyond shrewdly cashing in on mall punks’ continued interest in the album and allowing Roecker to show off his friendship & collaboration with the band. Roecker mythologizes a phone call lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong made to him about documenting the album’s production and films himself mugging in a recording studio mirror, inserting himself into a supposedly iconic moment in mall punk history. Heart like a Hand Grenade was too late to do Green Day any promotional favors; if anything, it muddles the band’s reputation of being political instigators at the time by associating them with Roecker’s apolitical non-ideology.

2004 was a lucrative year for anti-Bush protest art. Agitated by the War on Terror, unexpected successes like Fahrenheit 9/11, The Daily Show, and Team America turned cultural unrest with the US’s empirical response to the World Trade Center attacks into major profits. Even pop-country darlings The Dixie Chicks got in on the anti-Bush sentiment, despite operating far outside traditional counterculture circles. Green Day’s American Idiot album was one of the many benefiters of that political unrest, leading to the band’s greatest period of popularity to date & even a Broadway stage musical inspired by the album. Heart like a Hand Grenade completely undermines the perception that the album was a deliberate act of anti-Bush political protest, so it’s probably best (for the band’s profit margins) that Roecker’s film arrived long after the album’s success was solidified. Multiple times during studio sessions, band members boast to Roecker’s camera “Politically on this record, we don’t really have an agenda, not against a particular politician […] The song ‘American Idiot’ isn’t really saying, you know, this politician is wrong, this is wrong. It’s saying I want to think for myself.” The band tries to have it both ways, crafting a concept album about “a lower middle class American adolescent anti-hero” named “Jesus of Suburbia”, but also keeping its “anti-establishment” politics so vague & aimless that it means nothing beyond juvenile posturing. Roecker attempted the same spineless bullshit with Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, claiming in interviews that the film had some vague sentiment about blindly-followed political leaders that likens Bush to Charles Manson, but including no actual anti-Bush satire in the work itself. Live Freaky! Die Freaky! didn’t manage to ride that vague anti-Bush protest sentiment to the heights of American Idiot’s commercial success (thankfully), but both conceptual musical pieces share a common mall punk non-ideology. They exploit a privileged position of performative subversion that looks like politically pointed satire, but actually has nothing to say once you look past the punk-costumed surface. Green Day was just slightly better at promoting their ideologically empty non-provocation to great commercial success, with no substantial help from Roecker’s camera.

I will concede that empty political non-ideology & self-promotion as a noteworthy L.A. mall punk scenester are not the only signifiers of what makes a John Roecker film. Live Freaky! Die Freaky! & Heart like a Hand Grenade share enough overlap in art direction & mall punk aesthetic to suggest that Roecker is somewhat of a visual auteur. The crude hand-drawing collage of Heart like a Hand Grenade’s intro & its mid-film sci-fi skit where Green Day is interviewed 1,000 years in the future both recall the general aesthetic of Live Freaky! Die Freaky!. Heart like a Hand Grenade also opens with a title card command to “Play this movie fucking loud!,” recalling Live Freaky! Die Freaky!’s similar title card warning that it is “Not for the easily offended.” The Green Day documentary even includes a tangential anecdote about a studio fire reenacted by dolls, recalling Live Freaky! Die Freaky!’s stop-motion medium. This shared mall punk aesthetic looks like a preteen’s middle school notebook, just short of hand-drawn “Anarchy” & Dead Kennedys symbols being scribbled in the margins. The middle school mall punk is the perfect target demographic both for Roecker & for his Green Day cohorts, as deliberately vague political rebelliousness & desire to shock The Masses are the source of punk’s attractiveness to that age range. D.I.Y. ethos & more focused anarcho ideology are something punks grow into as they learn to look past the safety pins & hot pink mohawks that signify the culture to those outside it looking in. Roecker’s version of punk, as evidenced by his two feature films, never dug any further past those surface signifiers to achieve any of the substantial ideology or political action punk offers outsider artists & alienated youth. Maybe his mall punk ideology has deepened & gathered nuance in the 15 years since his two features were initially in production, but Heart like a Hand Grenade’s 2015 release date suggests there hasn’t been much change at all, if any. It’s a release that not only reflects the worst assumptions about Roecker you can infer from Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, but it also damns mall punk staples like Green Day through association with his brand.

For more on September’s Movie of the Month, the stop-motion animated Charles Manson musical Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Catwalk (1995)

Like in my recent-years’ attempts to dip my toe into the insular worlds of fringe-art communities like drag, pro wrestling, and alternative comics, I feel totally out of my league when discussing fashion, despite my interest in it as an artform. It took decades of maturity & shedding of teenage snobbery for me to personally recognize fashion as the vital, vibrant artform that it is, something essential to so many things that were already important to me: drag, wrestling, punk, cinema. As such, my vocabulary & mental catalog of the giants of the industry are embarrassingly thin, something I could stand to correct with some crash course documentary-binging on the subject. With recent pics like The Times of Bill, The Gospel According to Andre, and McQueen falling just outside my distribution reach, but weighing on me heavily as works I should seek out, I find myself looking to past docs to fill in the gaps in the meantime, which is how I found Catwalk. Produced in the supermodel-dominated 1990s when dozens of catwalking fashionistas were big enough stars to be household names even for someone as uninterested in their artform as I was at the time, Catwalk seemed like an easy enough entry point into the world of high fashion as any. That was naive of me; the film is more a head-first dive into the deep end than anything.

Following an overworked Christy Turlington as she walks 1992 Fashion Week runways in Paris, Milan, and NYC, Catwalk is posed as a day-in-the-life, behind-the-scenes portrait of a fashion model in the year’s busiest season, but actually functions as a “Supermodels! They’re just like us!” act of brand management. The lifestyle porn of watching Turlington try on the world’s most beautiful clothes in rooms full of the world’s most beautiful people in the world’s most romantic cities is a potent fantasy. Outside a few shady quips, everyone profiled is on their very best behavior; even their version of clubbing is extremely mannered & image-controlled. That’s not too much of a problem, however, when you consider the quality of elbows Turlington is rubbing behind the scenes at these shows: models like Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, and Carla Bruni; designers like John Galliano, Jean-Paul Gaulitier, and Isaac Mizrahi. Even the film’s tonally fluctuating music affords it an air of legitimacy, as it was provided by punk fashion pioneer Malcom McLaren. The only problem is that if you’re a fashion-scene dummy like myself you have no idea who these people are (at least by sight; their names might ring a bell) and the movie has zero interest in cluing you in, providing no captioned names until the end credits. This is a behind-the-scenes glimpse for people already in the know, one where announcing context would be blatant & gauche.

I have a feeling that if I return to this film after I’m more familiar with the fashion world superstars it casually profiles, I’ll get a lot more out of it. Even now, my ears most perked up in moments where people I was already familiar with happened into the frame because of the setting (Campbell, Cindy Crawford, RuPaul, Sandra Bernhard, Sharon Stone). As impenetrable as the film may have been to me as a fashion-industry crash-course, however, it did partially clue me into the general social atmosphere of a scene I’ve only before witnessed in parodies like Zoolander & (less cruelly) Prêt-à-Porter. Although this is a hangout documentary clearly intended for people already in the know, that casual familiarity with the scene does have a way of acclimating outsiders in a lowkey, context-light demeanor. I have a feeling I’ll appreciate this laissez faire fashion scene introduction more the further I get away from it. At the very least, it didn’t at all scare me away from pursuing the subject further.

-Brandon Ledet

Generation Wealth (2018)

It’s impossible to fully capture the spirit of contemporary life while we’re living it; that’s something that requires temporal & academic distance to convincingly achieve. Photographer/documentarian Lauren Greenfield is aware of this limitation, finding more academic value in her early work the further she gets away from it, but she’s also unsatisfied with setting that ambition aside. In Generation Wealth, Greenfield attempts to recontextualize nearly three decades of her photography & anthropological study of modern Western culture into a concise diagnosis on the ills of the Hellish world we currently occupy. She seeks to damn the greed & absurdity of excessive wealth, to examine her dual responsibilities as an artist & a mother, to establish a new field of study in pop culture anthropology, and to offer a moralistic solution to all of modern society’s ills – all in 106 minutes of D.I.Y. documentary filmmaking. Naturally, some of these ambitions are more successfully satisfied than others. Generation Wealth is always more enjoyable when it’s exposing the absurdities of immense wealth with anthropological distancing than it is when it indulges in moralistic finger-wagging about family values & the commodification of sex. Even when it’s stumbling through the details, however, the movie as a whole is immensely impressive for daring to examine contemporary culture in its entirety while it’s still happening. It makes a compelling case for why it’s important to do this work now instead of waiting until these times are in the rearview; it feels as if the world is ending around us and hindsight might not be something we will be afforded once it’s over.

Greenfield got her start as a big-name artist documenting youth culture in early 90s Los Angeles. Because of the tech & entertainment industry circles that comprise most of L.A., the kids who run those stomping grounds are obsessed with status symbols that portray immense wealth to their peers; they’re essentially playing rich. As her professional photo-journalist assignments have since dragged her all over the world in the last two decades, she’s noticed this behavior spreading to other cultures, even in the face of global economic collapse. As the gap between classes widens to extremes, modern culture has become obsessed with appearing wealthy as a kind of social performance, with no substantive foundation to make that illusion credible. Doom & gloom economists are called on to compare the most lavish expressions of false-wealth – child beauty pageants, rap video excess, reality TV celebrity, plastic surgery for dogs – to the early signifiers of the fall of Rome. The audience is warned, “Societies accrue their greatest wealth at the instance the face death” while surreal images of the world’s nouveau elite clash with factoids about modern culture’s financial unsustainability. It’s in this diagnosis of a society that’s sick with wealth-obsession that Greenfield is most convincing, especially since she has been gathering concrete, photographic evidence of those ills her entire professional career. Where Generation Wealth becomes less credible (and occasionally even infuriating) is when Greenfield prescribes back-to-basics, old-fashioned (and often sex-negative) “simple living” as the antidote without also acknowledging the way that façade of down-to-Earth “authenticity” is also something purchased & sold by the financially “comfortable.”

Much like with the act of studying a cultural moment in motion without the benefit of temporal distance, Greenfield is too close to the subject to see how back-to-basics, rustic authenticity is just another Late-Stage Capitalism product, another empty absurdity among many. Generation Wealth would likely be a stronger project overall if it skipped offering a solution to the false-wealth problem entirely, only sticking to the initial doom & gloom diagnosis. That’s because, by design, this is an incomplete project, as this modern cultural moment has not yet reached its natural conclusion. Greenfield’s work as a photographer & a documentarian is still in progress. Generation Wealth is ultimately a mid-career artist’s statement, offering an art gallery slide show of Greenfield’s surrealist images of a culture in crisis (which alone makes the film worth seeing on the big screen). Attempting to tidily wrap up that narrative before it’s seen itself through in the real world is admirably ambitious, but a flawed effort from the outset. We won’t understand the full scope of Greenfield’s documentation of a culture in decline until the whole thing collapses, meaning this film’s inevitable sequel or revision is likely to surpass it in artistic merits. That is, presuming filmmaking is still even a viable practice when that time comes. As Generation Wealth indicates, the future is terrifyingly uncertain.

-Brandon Ledet

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)

There aren’t many things to be grateful for about 2018 as a cultural moment, but I will admit that my heart has been swelling when I think about how much wide audiences are embracing Won’t You By My Neighbor?. Weeks into its surprisingly strong run in New Orleans, I saw the film in a packed theater, the audience brimming with the most palpable enthusiasm I’ve witnessed for a film since Get Out. That’s remarkable for a small-scale documentary about a public broadcast television entertainer who’s been off the air for nearly two decades. Fred Rogers has always been that way, though. He had a hypnotic presence that could instantly lull audiences into a state of open, receptive awe, no matter what menial tasks he was performing for their entertainment. As a kid, some of my favorite segments of his long-running television show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, were moments when he would pull everyday objects out of a nondescript box and demonstrate the various things you can do with them. Against all logic, watching Fred Rogers play with a spool of string or a tiny toy car to pique his young viewers’ curiosity was somehow the most captivating thing in the world. It somewhat makes sense, then, that audiences would flock in droves to see a movie about the unusually talented man, whether to relive that captivation or to seek a better understanding of how he pulled it off. It also makes sense that Rogers’s sermons on love, kindness, empathy, and acceptance would beam out like a beacon of hope to modern audiences, as these grim times are in desperate need of a reminder of human goodness, especially reflected in a masculine figure. Still, it’s remarkable that a tiny documentary about such a seemingly non-commercial subject could generate the attention & box office numbers Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is earning; but Fred Rogers has always been a remarkable figure in that way, regardless of time or context.

As a public persona, Fred Rogers was an easy man to love, but a difficult one to fully understand. Rumors about his sexuality and urban legends about his supposed background as a violent military man always swirled around his public image, because no one knew exactly how to process the kind, empathetic, vulnerable version of masculinity he presented onscreen in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? isn’t especially interested in digging beyond Rogers’s surface eccentricities, except to claim that the version of himself that he presented on his show is very true to who he was in real life. Instead of exploring Fred Rogers’s psyche, the film is more a document of a decades-spanning art project, the educational children’s show that earned Rogers fame & adoration. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was a philosophically-minded program wherein Rogers intended to conspicuously mold children into feeling loved & accepted and becoming better people. With a seething hatred for the sugary chaos of typical children’s programming (including a visual potshot at the undeniably praiseworthy Pee-wee’s Playhouse in the doc), Rogers sought to slow down the pace of young viewers’ entertainment so that he could connect with his audience on an personal level and let them know they are accepted & valued. Instead of exploiting children’s television as consumer recruitment the way too may programs do, he used the simple means of D.I.Y puppet shows & Daniel Johnston style-piano ballads to stimulate children’s imagination & incite them to emotionally process difficult internal crises like low self-esteem, anger, and political anxiety over events as wide ranging as Bobby Kennedy’s assassination & 9/11 (events kids likely witnessed vicariously, but never had explained to them in a direct, useful way). The most of Fred Rogers’s inner life we see in the film is how in how he expresses his own anxieties & self-doubt through an increasingly raggedy sock puppet avatar named Daniel Striped Tiger. The documentary is mostly concerned with a television show he wrote, produced, and performed with an auteurist vision for thousands of episodes over mutliple decades. As with before the film, the Fred Rogers we’re allowed to know is the Fred Rogers who comes through in his work.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is not at all shy about clashing the values of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood with the amoral shithole of our modern, Rogersless world. Visual parallels are drawn between presidents Nixon & Trump to illustrate how little has changed since the 1960s. Puppet shows from the series about a paranoid dictator building a wall to prevent change in his kingdom are presented only for them to hang in the air with appropriate heft. Even more directly, the film asks in blatant terms whether Fred Rogers’s attempt to positively influence America was a success or a failure. It’s easy to see that audiences were mesmerized by his mere presence; children’s eyes widen with discovery & awe as he speaks to them with incredible patience & empathy. It’d also be difficult to spend any two minutes revisiting that awe without welling with tears, as Rogers’s presence still holds that power, even with the remove of this death and the intellectual distance of a documentary lens. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? could easily coast on the immediate power of Rogers’s naturally generated awe, something it flirts with in its rich orchestral score and its storybook illustrations of Daniel Striped Tiger navigating the world as Rogers’s avatar. Since this in no way a fearless dive into the secrets & psyche of Fred Rogers as a private person, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? effortlessly excels as a document of a low-budget children’s show hosted by an ordained minister – part art project and part philosophical quest to reshape children’s minds & (by extension) the future of the country. It’s daring, then, for the film to ask whether that project was a success or a failure in the long run, whether this well-intentioned experiment in mild-mannered, radical children’s programming actually changed the culture it miraculously managed to burrow itself into. It’s daring because, looking around at the modern world (even including the tiny indie theater my audience trashed at our screening without picking up after themselves), Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood would appear to be a noble failure. Maybe this documentary’s reminder of the attempt will reinvigorate its cause. There are certainly enough eyes on the screen for it to be worth a try. Either way, just because an experiment fails doesn’t mean the attempt wasn’t worth admiration, a sentiment Fred Rogers (and Daniel Striped Tiger) would likely echo if they were still around to do so.

-Brandon Ledet

Blank City (2010) and Lizzie Borden’s Place in No Wave Cinema

One of the most difficult things to grasp about Lizzie Borden’s no-budget bomb-thrower Born in Flames, our current Movie of the Month, is what cultural context could have possibly birthed it. The movie is in a temporal haze in its relation to the past, present, and future of political activism & D.I.Y. punk culture. Its dystopian sci-fi setting of an American revolution gone wrong is a warning of a plausible political future even if the good side “wins.” Its D.I.Y. punk aesthetic & political organization tactics feel as relevant to the present state of counterculture as any film I’ve ever seen, even though it was first released 35 years ago. Its vision of a grimy, nearly lawless NYC overrun by artists & radicals before Giuliani Disnified the city also could have been captured in a long gone past, solidifying the film as any kind of historical document. The past, present, and future of punk culture somehow being contained in a single picture is a lot of what’s impressive about Born in Flames’s accomplishments as a dirt-cheap game-changer. It also makes the film exceedingly difficult to contextualize, especially as its director, Lizzie Borden, has been left behind & deliberately forgotten in the decades since its release by a film industry that did not know what to do with her.

For a crash-course history lesson on Lizzie Borden & Born in Flames’s historical place in cinema, I recommend seeking out the “No Wave” documentary Blank City. While the documentary Kill Your Idols covers much of the No Wave scene’s musical projects, Blank City is an excellent, convenient primer on the scene’s cinematic output. The two mediums are impossible to fully separate, as the late 70s/early 80s reprobates who populated NYC’s No Wave movement attempted their best to be well-rounded artists in all fields available to them: painting, writing, filming, making music, etc. (no skill required, or even encouraged, for any one in particular). That means there’s a lot of overlap in the two docs’ subjects, but Blank City is especially useful as a crash course in the filmmaking end of No Wave’s accomplishments, as opposed to Kill Your Idols’s hagiography of acts like Sonic Youth, Suicide, and Teenage Jesus & The Jerks. Blank City is essentially a Letterboxd list in motion, assembling early clips from No Wave scene filmmakers like Amos Poe, Jim Jarmusch, Lydia Lunch, Bette Gordon, Richard Kern and, just-for-fun, Multiple Maniacs-era John Waters. Buried somewhere in that sky-high pile of D.I.Y. filmmakers is Lizzie Borden herself, who is interviewed briefly about Born in Flames in particular. Since Borden’s only a small part of an ever-expanding ensemble, the documentary doesn’t fully satisfy as an autopsy on Born in Flames’s time & legacy, but it does help place Borden’s work in a clear historical context by profiling the art & artists that surrounded it.

As much as Blank City aims to document No Wave as an art movement, it’s also just a document of NYC when it was cheap living. The haggard leftovers of the first wave of CBGB-era punks had free rein of a crumbling city where rent, food, and (if you didn’t do too much) drugs were affordable in a way New York will likely never see again. The first film considered to be of the No Wave cinema era was born directly of this grimy, drugged-out punk scene Amos Poe, picking up a second hand Super 8 camera, slapped together a dirt-cheap documentation of local bands like Blondie, Television, and The Patti Smith Group he appropriately titled The Blank Generation (inspiring Blank City’s name by extension, naturally). Suddenly, artists who could never afford the production values of a “legitimate” movie, but wanted to dip their toes in every available medium, saw an opportunity to turn grainy Super 8 home movies into cinema. Inspired by the handheld immediacy of the French New Wave and rejecting the plotless art house experimentation of the Andy Warhol crew that preceded them, No Wave artists filtered straight-forward, narrative filmmaking through the no-budget, aggressively D.I.Y. means available to them. Like the stubbornly unpolished sounds of the No Wave music scene that followed first-wave punk, the movies coming out of the scene were deliberately amateur & unpolished. Against all odds, they often told coherent stories, but in a way that made the audience feely like anyone could do it (which was entirely the point).

Lizzie Borden arrives later than most in both No Wave & Blank City’s runtime. Like Susan Seidelman’s Smithereens (which is scheduled to get a nice Criterion spit shine this summer), Borden’s Born in Flames is framed in the doc as part of a secondary push within the No Wave movement to include more femme creative voices. That context as a feminist corrective makes total sense on Borden’s case, as Born in Flames is itself an explicitly feminist text. In Blank City, Borden briefly explains her agenda behind the film to be bringing women together across all class, race, and sexual divides together in unity, something that needed to happen within the No Wave scene just as much as in the political world at large. She isn’t afforded much screentime otherwise, except to bring up something we wrestled with in our own Born in Flames discussion: the film’s ending. Borden both recounts how exploding (part of) the World Trade Center was accomplished with miniatures & rudimentary fireworks on a slim $200 budget and admits her own mixed feelings on that conclusion in a post-9/11 climate. Born in Flames is largely passed over in Blank City except for its significance as a feminist corrective and the shock value of that World Trade Center footage, but hopefully that was enough to make it stand out for people who had not yet seen it, lest it get buried under the mountain of other titles mentioned in the doc. It’s a significant work within or without its No Wave cinema context, which makes it seem worthy of much more attention.

Much of Blank City is a mind-blowing reminder of how many no-budget films there are out there worthy of the restoration treatment recently afforded Born in Flames & Smithereens. The documentary (smartly) fixates on the stars who made it out of the scene like Debbie Harry, Steve Buscemi, Vincent Gallo, Ann Magnuson, and Jim Jarmusch, as selling points for its subject’s significance. All I could focus on really, though, was the unlikelihood that I’d ever see the majority of the films on display in any proper format. It’s a shame too, because the material product appears to be surprisingly rich for an arts scene that sneered at gatekeeping requirements like training & talent. Even in its brief screentime, though, Born in Flames does appear to be a cut above most of the films detailed in Blank City’s loving portrait of a dead arts scene. It was helpful to see that its D.I.Y. aesthetics had a very specific context within a historical moment in punk culture & D.I.Y. cinema, but also reaffirming to know that it’s still a very special specimen within that context. There’s nothing quite like Born in Flames, even within the scene that birthed it.

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, the D.I.Y. feminist screed Born in Flames, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Errol Morris vs Small Town Eccentrics

I struggled a lot with questions of tone & intent in Errol Morris’s landmark documentary Gates of Heaven, our current Movie of the Month. In the film, Morris documents a small-town dispute over ownership of a pet cemetery with both an emotional & editorial remove, leaving a lot of room for interpretation in how he relates to his interviewees. Given the way the quaint subject is presented in Morris’s editing room choices, it’s often tempting to read an ironic humor in his fascination with his subjects (recalling more blatantly comedic works like Christopher Guest’s Best in Show in the process). The economic hardships detailed early in the film generate genuine empathy and the rich bastards who profit off it later in the narrative likely deserve to be mocked, but there’s still something uncomfortable about a young NYC intellectual invading small town communities to have a chuckle at the local yokels. Gates of Heaven never fully tips in the direction of outright meanness & big city elitism, but I can still detect those impulses lurking in its morally compromised DNA. You don’t need to look far into Morris’s other works from that late-70s era to justify that unease, either. The filmmaker abandoned a few much more blatantly exploitative false-start projects before he completed his critically lauded debut, the scraps of one even becoming its de facto sequel.

Errol Morris would eventually enjoy a successful, prolific career as a documentarian, but his early professional years were more or less defined by false starts. Werner Herzog literally ate his own shoe because he was incredulous that the Gates of Heaven project would ever be completed. It was a fairly safe bet that it wouldn’t, as it was Morris’s third attempt at making a film to date, with nothing substantial to show for it. His first abandoned project was a documentary on notorious serial killer Ed Gein. Morris took an edgy, provocative approach to the subject, interviewing Gein himself and making plans to dig up the killer’s mother’s gave to prove suspicions that her body had already been exhumed. When Herzog showed up ready to dig up the grave, Morris chickened out and the project was never completed. The same goes for Morris’s second attempt at documentary filmmaking, a project that was initially going to be titled Nub City. Foretelling Gates of Heaven’s humorous gawking at local yokels, Nub City was meant to be an investigative piece about the curiously high number of citizens of Vernon, FL who had amputated their own limbs to collect insurance money. It’s unclear if Nub City would have lived up to its exploitative title as a total “Getta load of this freak show!” endeavor or if it would have balanced that impulse with the same empathetic & economic concerns that complicated Gates of Heaven’s potential irony. What is clear is that the impoverished insurance scammers Morris hoped to document were not fond of the scrutiny. The filmmaker was beaten up by the Marine son of one of his potential subjects, received death threats, and smartly abandoned the project.

Unlike the Ed Gein project, an untitled narrative crime thriller screenplay, and a documentary about an unscrupulous court case expert witness nicknamed Dr. Death, Morris did not abandon the Nub City project entirely. He instead pivoted by using interview footage from other, non-insurance scamming locals to scrape together an eventual sequel to Gates of Heaven titled Vernon, Florida. As an art project, Vernon, Florida is more formally daring than the already context-light pet cemetery document of Gates of Heaven. It’s a film comprised entirely of leftover scraps, something you can feel in every second of tis meandering, non-sequitur interviews with local eccentrics. On the Florida pan handle (not too far east from here, despite my viewing of the film requiring subtitles) Vernon is portrayed to be a quaint town crowded with Southern Eccentrics. Without the David vs. Goliath capitalist narrative of Gates of Heaven or any kind of narrative direction at all, these subjects’ eccentricities themselves seemed to be the crux of what’s on display. Occasionally an old man will do something adorable like show off his pet tortoise, but the residents of Vernon are mostly shown as babbling kooks who can bore any open ear for eternity with go-nowhere stories about anything: turkey-hunting, buying a van, God, suicide, the word “therefore,” why we should bring back tar & feathering, etc. Without plot or music providing this empty pontification with any momentum, Vernon, Florida is stubbornly directionless. At its best it feels like the avant-garde indulgences of Werner Herzog or Harmony Korine; at its worst it feels like the art world ancestor to The Jerry Springer Show. Either way, it confirms my suspicions that in his youth Morris approached his small-town subjects with an unhealthy dose of ironic detachment.

Morris matured greatly by the time he completed his next documentary in 1988, the pioneering true crime pic Thin Blue Line. Meanwhile, interview clips from Vernon, Florida have been consistently used to mock poor Southerners (again, sometimes with merit), most recently as commercial bumps on the Adult Swim comedy show The Heart, She Holler. It’s a film that’s nowhere near as essential as Gates of Heaven, defiantly so, but it is one that helps illustrate that landmark work’s more unseemly impulses. At least the morbid fascination with this tone echoed in comparable, narrative works like Trash Humpers & Even Dwarfs Started Small didn’t risk exploitation of real-life, economically devastated people for the sake of artistic effect, a mistake many young provocateur documentarians make, including the greats.

For more on June’s Movie of the Month, the landmark pet cemetery documentary Gates of Heaven, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this look at its resulting promotional-stunt Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, and last week’s comparison to the Christopher Guest comedy Best in Show.

-Brandon Ledet

Best in Show (2000)’s Comedic Perversion of Gates of Heaven (1978)

One of the most difficult things to pinpoint about Errol Morris’s landmark documentary Gates of Heaven is the question of its tone. In the 1970s, a feature-length documentary about something as quaint as a pet cemetery was met as an absurd concept (so much so that Werner Herzog ate his own shoe over it), so it would be tempting to read a humorous irony into the interviews Morris conducts for the film. There’s no narration, editorializing, or extratextual context provided for the film’s oral histories of an inter-family dispute over ownership of a pet cemetery. The most of his own personality Morris imposes on the story is in his choices in framing & editing, which have a proto-Wes Anderson flavor in their sense of symmetry & color. When an eccentric pet owner sings to their dog or recounts a long, rambling non-sequitur story about their tragically uninteresting children, it’s presented in such a matter-of-fact delivery that it’s difficult to tell if & when Morris is finding them as humorous as his audience does. This documentation of small-town disputes & niche pet-culture eccentrics later turned out to be a huge, blatant influence on the comedic sensibilities of director Christopher Guest. One of Guest’s improv-heavy mockumentaries, the 2000 comedy Best in Show, even mirrored Gates of Heaven’s documentation of eccentric pet owners & the commercial industries that surround their devotion to their animals. And since Guest’s tone is blatantly comedic, the way his own filmmaking style accentuates the quaint humor of his characters is as an excellent demonstration of just how tonally vague Morris’s own style remains.

It’s hard to believe Best in Show was released almost two whole decades ago. Its cast of Guest-regular performers (Bob Balaban, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Parker Posey, Michael McKean, Jennifer Coolidge, Ed Begley Jr, etc.) look so oddly young in retrospect, after watching them age in other projects in the years since. In addition to being a time capsule, Best in Show remains an incredibly endearing comedy, something that’s difficult to achieve in a film that openly (even if gently) mocks the kind of pet-obsessed eccentrics who are more sincerely profiled in works like Gates of Heaven. Errol Morris’s influence on Best in Show is most apparent in the film’s earliest stretch, when these characters are first introduced. Before they converge for a climactic dog show competition, each contestant is individually interviewed in their home environments, which often resemble the 1970s decor of Gates of Heaven’s pet-owner homes (right down to the amateur dog portrait art in the background). Most of the individual contestants are coupled off romantically, except for Christopher Guest’s own bloodhound owner, which is a distinct departure from Errol Morris’s style, which tends to focus on one orator at a time. The bloodhound owner would fit right in with the Morris doc, though, almost recalling the quiet sweetness & tragedy of the lonesome Floyd McClure, the pet cemetery entrepreneur who kicked Gates of Heaven’s entire story into motion. The similarities between the two works becomes less apparent as the contestants coverage for the actual dog show competition, because Best in Show then resembles a traditional sports movie narrative instead of a quaint documentary. In the early, introductory stretch, however, you can detect Morris’s fingerprints all over the picture, something that’s only betrayed by the movement of Christopher Guest’s camera.

Part of Morris’ distancing tone is in how his film captures long uninterrupted oral histories of a pet cemetery dispute in a static camera, only coloring interviewees’ input through the background imagery he chose to frame them with. To establish a more distinctly comedic tone, Guest more often “interviews” two characters at the same time, allowing more improvisational play & establishing a quicker pace. There are more interviewees, more live pets, more location changes, more camera movement, more everything. Instead of framing his characters with Wes Andersonian symmetry & calm, he allows the camera to drift back & forth between speakers to accentuate a ridiculous statement or an incredulous reaction. If there is a blatant sense of humor to Gates of Heaven, it’s to be found in the film’s matter of fact documentation of mundanity. Best in Show runs with that thread, making its characters out to be incredibly boring, in that it’s genuinely incredible how boring they are. As much as anyone can assume what Morris was up to in his work, I don’t think Gates of Heaven is mocking his subjects the way a mockumentary must, by design. Similarly, Christopher Guest’s own characters are played with a kind of sweetness (give or take a high-strung yuppie couple with an unseemly J. Crew catalog addiction), even if their extreme mundanity is supposed to be read as humorous. Guest just makes their screentime quicker, broader, and more dynamic in motion than Morris does, because Guest must establish a comedic rhythm instead of allowing one to arise naturally (if at all).

Again, I’m not sure exactly how much humor or ironic detachment Errol Morris intended his audience to read into Gates of Heaven. All Best of Show can illustrate is how that movie may have looked if it were clearly tipped in that direction, fully committed to establishing a comedic tone in capturing the eccentricity of hopelessly devoted pet owners. The two films do feel oddly complementary, though, even if only because they both find an endearing sweetness in most of their subjects, no matter how distanced they remain from them. Best in Show resembles Gates of Heaven (especially in its earliest, introductory stretch) not necessarily because of its similar subject matter, but because it finds genuine fascination in the eccentric mundanity of the pet industry it depicts.

For more on June’s Movie of the Month, the landmark pet cemetery documentary Gates of Heaven, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its resulting promotional-stunt Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe.

-Brandon Ledet

Grace Jones: Bloodlight & Bami (2018)

Both the concert movie and the musician’s hagiography are difficult to pull off with any cinematic finesse. With few exceptions like Peter Strickland’s concert footage of Bjork’s Biophilia project and the bizarre tale spun by The Devil & Daniel Johnson, the musician’s documentary is usually flatly crafted, relying on the audience’s interest in the subject to meet the filmmakers halfway. The recent Grace Jones documentary Bloodlight & Bami curiously splits its time between both troubled mediums, the concert movie and the musican’s hagiography, and opens itself up to both’s follies in the process. Its concert footage is no-frills, matter-of-fact documentation of recent Grace Jones performances in Dublin, exerting only a minimal amount of artistic energy into an occasional crane shot in-between its more static edits. Its interview footage, which comprises most of the runtime, is the exact kind of meandering, low-fi/low-effort hangout energy that can sink a musician’s profile in for-fans-only tedium. Somehow, though, the movie transcends these limitations in medium and offers something that feels like a rare, unearned blessing: Grace Jones. Jones saves Bloodlight & Bami from any potential tedium by simply being a living, breathing phenomenon. The movie requires massive patience, but her mere presence makes it frequently fascinating, if not essential viewing. We are extremely lucky to have access to Grace Jones at all, in any form, something Jones herself seems to know more than anyone else in the world.

A Jamaican-born pop singer who made huge waves in the 1970s & 80s through the androgynous sexuality of her high fashion imagery just as much as through the strange tones of her post-reggae music, Jones is a long-established legend. Early in Bloodlight & Bami, Jones is swarmed by intensely dedicated fans after a performance—strangers who greedily drink in her every word & physical motion as if she were a deity. That’s not the Grace Jones this movie is about. You can glimpse her attention-commanding power in the interspersed concert sequences, where she models various exquisite headpieces & black lingerie while singing to an appreciative crowd of hundreds, like a demonic Eartha Kitt. Most of the film, however, is an effort to humanize the pop culture icon, hanging out with her between gigs, often at home with family. The high production value of the concert footage is clashed with the serene calm of Jones’s return trips to Jamaica, framed in a cheap digital haze. The conversations captured in this off-stage downtime range from small talk with strangers & petty disputes with session musicians to deeply painful reminiscing of childhood abuse & long-dead romances. There’s no historical hagiography of Grace Jones’s top-of-the-pop-world heyday, only a document of her current art as a stage performer & her current relationships with an inner circle who knew her as a person, not an avant-garde deity. The movie is in no rush to impress you with the enormity of Jones’s achievements or legacy, relying instead on her natural charisma to hold your attention as the digicam footage gets distracted by images as inconsequential as a car mirror ornament or a flashing streetlight. It’s a gamble that takes for granted that audiences’ minds won’t wander off in its long moments of quiet, one that mostly pays off.

As entertaining as her music can be, Grace Jones is most distinctly impressive as a visual artist & a performer. It seems counterintuitive, then, to strip her of all her visual gloss in a documentary that often looks like it was filmed on a flip-phone. Jones is, to this day, still a phenomenal performer, even shown hula hooping in high heels while singing a vocal-intensive stage number, never missing a beat. Director Sophie Fiennes also has an early credit as an art department contributor for The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, one of the most exquisitely staged films I can name, so it’s presumable her eye for visual craft is at least somewhat comparable to Jones’s. The aggressively low-fi, meandering aesthetic that guides most of Bloodlight & Bami must be understood as a deliberate artistic choice. Jones is stripped of the gorgeous lighting & costuming she wears like armor onstage (the headpieces are so extravagant that there’s a “hats by” credit included in the opening title cards) to demonstrate how naturally fascinating & culturally essential she remains without them. Even when she’s not making bawdy sex jokes about the mussels she’s eating for dinner or explaining to an ex-lover why all men should be penetrated (at least once), she naturally commands attention. There’s a fierce, no-bullshit way she carries herself that makes her come across like an undeniable force of Nature, even when she’s just waiting around in a recording studio for stubbornly lackadaisical musicians to arrive or lightly bickering with her mother. Even including the more immediately arresting concert footage, the most fascinating sequence of Bloodlight & Bami is a lengthy montage where Grace Jones applies her makeup in the hours leading up to a performance, oblivious to the world outside her mirror. She compels the eye.

Late in the film, Jones boasts that even without costumes or amplification or even lights, she would still be able to entertain her crowds alone, in the dark, with nothing enhancing the spectacle of her being. Bloodlight & Bami is proof of the veracity of that claim. If you want a document of Grace Jones the otherworldly icon, the 1982 concert film Grace Jones: A One Man Show is likely much more useful than the stripped down, low-fi hangout rhythms of Bloodlight & Bami. This movie is more proof that she does not need production spectacle to make her fascinating & idiosyncratic. Those qualities come to Grace Jones naturally and we should be grateful to be blessed with her existence in any form we can get it. Even when presented in the most plain, genre-burdened version of the musician’s documentary imaginable, one where she’s shown in as pedestrian of a light as possible, Grace Jones still feels like a divine gift we do not deserve.

-Brandon Ledet

Werner Herzog, Gates of Heaven (1978), and the Artistic Value of the Side Show Publicity Stunt

Werner Herzog’s entire public persona is a kind of performance art, the documentation of which has become increasingly crucial to his filmmaking projects in recent decades. A Werner Herzog “documentary,” no matter its subject, is just as much about the filmmaker’s own philosophical worldview as it is about the world outside his mind. This suits the audience just fine, since Herzog is what would classically be described as A Character, someone who’s naturally entertaining and whose mere presence is always a kind of performance. A succinct, early taste of this performance art can be found in the Les Blank short-doc Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, which takes Herzog’s natural presence as a one-person side show as literally as possible. Staged as a promotion for Errol Morris’s debut feature Gates of Heaven (our current Movie of the Month), Blank & Herzog collaborate to document a blatant publicity stunt in which, as the title suggests, Herzog eats his own shoe in front of a live audience to draw attention to his friend’s work. With clips from Gates of Heaven interspersing with Blank’s Always for Pleasuremode of documenting the labor of food preparation (if you can consider a leather shoe to be food), and Herzog’s signature pontification on the nature of art & humanity, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe is an essential, one-of-a-kind collaboration between three of the most prestigious voices in documentary filmmaking. That’s an absurd thing to be able to say about what’s essentially a 20min infomercial for another, more substantial work.

Herzog opens this film complaining that television & talk shows are “killing” culture. He ends it confessing that filmmakers are also cheap illusionists & clowns, that his own chosen profession is embarrassing. Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe is self-aware of its participation in the death of culture. Just as its title is a cheap provocation, the event it documents is advertised in circus-style side show posters promising the shoe-eating stunt to a potential live audience. Herzog eating his own shoe is a stupid, pointless act designed to grab public attention for better art he believed deserved it. Supposedly, Herzog first jokingly bet that Errol Morris would never have the courage to complete a feature length documentary on a subject as inconsequential as a pet cemetery business. The story goes that he said if Gates of Heaven were ever completed & screened for an audience, he would eat his own shoe. Morris does not appear onscreen to confirm the terms of the bet in Les Blank’s short, nor is it confirmed whether the shoe Herzog eats is actually the one he was wearing when he made the bet, as he claims. The entire act is performance art born of flippant humor & male bravado, staged without apology as a publicity stunt to draw attention to Gates of Heaven, which had then yet to secure theatrical distribution. Les Blank shows an interest in the preparation of the shoe as it transforms into “food,” carefully documenting the hot sauce, duck fat, garlic, and vegetable stew used to soften & flavor it. Mostly, though, he allows Herzog to ramble on like a carnival barker throughout the stunt, pontificating as much nonsense as you’d likely encounter in a television broadcast or a talk show, yet framing it as art.

The idea that Gates of Heaven’s topic was too inconsequential for a documentary feels so foreign in a 2010s context. Some of my favorite documentaries in recent memory have been on topics as miniscule as erotic tickling, trash harvesting, and a single dead dog (as opposed to cemetery full of them). It’s also arguable that critic Roger Ebert later did much better by promoting Gates of Heaven in his own way, raising its profile by often citing it as one of the greatest films ever made. Herzog’s side show publicity stunt’s own value as a work of art is in making an even smaller film than the one he promoted with it. If Gates of Heaven’s topic was too absurdly thin to justify a documentary (something I doubt Herzog ever said or believed) then Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe is an even more extreme distillation of that same kind of art. This is an advertisement & an awkwardly staged performance art piece that somehow makes for compelling filmmaking thanks to Herzog’s natural charisma & gift for shit-talking. Like Gates of Heaven, it’s proof that you can make a worthy documentary on just about anything, even a frivolous bet that may or may not actually have even been real. In 2018, it likely would only have been presented to the world as a DVD extra. In 1980, it was art.

For more on June’s Movie of the Month, the landmark pet cemetery documentary Gates of Heaven, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet