Filth & Divinity at the Ace Hotel

The Ace Hotel in downtown New Orleans is a very strange space. It’s a clean, trendy, expensive hotel I couldn’t possibly afford if I ever needed to spend a night in the CBD, but it’s still a facility I find myself utilizing fairly often. The fresh oysters in its seafood restaurant are refreshing & addictive; they have a decent coffee shop & bar; and, most importantly, it’s an abnormally comfortable place to mooch free Wi-Fi downtown – a service I abuse often. The most surreal experiences I have at the Ace, however, are when the building functions as an art space. Whether it’s a New Orleans Film Society screening, a brass band set, or a mixed media art instillation, it’s always strange to see the bougiest hipster-prone space in town play host to something that’s actually, genuinely cool. I had the most extreme art vs. venue dissonance I’ve ever experienced at the Ace just a couple weeks ago when the venue played host to a local drag show. Not only was it the kind of drag revue we’re used to seeing at dive bars & dimly lit cabarets in much cheaper corners of the city; it was also a show dedicated to the honor of a drag queen whose persona was the spiritual antithesis to the Ace Hotel’s upscale cleanliness: Divine.

As part of Harlequeen’s Honor Thy Mother series, the Ace Hotel played host to a local Divine Tribute Show drag revue in early May. Seven performers paid tribute to various milestones in Divine’s career throughout the show – lip-syncing to her disco hits, restaging scenes from her appearances in John Waters films, and – in one of the more inspired gags of the evening – reading beat poetry in her voice. It was a lovely evening in a pristine venue that was meant to honor a performer defined by Filth & Chaos. There was a dissociative effect between the vile acts being pantomimed onstage & the general chic, professional atmosphere of the venue. The show was cheap; the performers were consistent to the depravity they’d stage anywhere else in the city. Still, it was bizarre to step into a “late night” drag revue that was well-lit, punctual, relatively sober, and frequently disrupted by a straight-girl bridal party (okay, maybe that last part was fairly typical). The venue’s clean-cut hipsterdom was in sharp contrast to the various visions of Divine that graced the staged and smeared it in filth, which only made the experience more surreal. It was like the difference between seeing Divine rip through the trashier sets of early films like Multiple Maniacs & Pink Flamingos and the later films like Polyester & Hairspray where she irons clothes & pretends to be a suburban mom: it was almost even more perverse through the contrast.

Regardless of the ambiance, the performers did an excellent job paying tribute to Divine without stepping on each other’s heels in overlap or repetition. Tarah Cards & (Krewe Divine member) CeCe V DeMenthe did traditional lip-sync routines to Divine’s disco hits, but in entirely different tones; Cards filtered her interpretations of the original numbers through the Mink Stole temper tantrums of Female Trouble, while DeMenthe nailed the music video originals with impeccable accuracy in her attention to detail. DeDe Onassis & mistress of ceremonies Franky gently mocked the high-brow venue where the show was stage with the classic glamor of stage musicals & Torch Light singers, respectively. It was Mary Boy & Puddin’ Tain who really leaned into the absurdity of staging a Divine-themed drag show in the early-evening sobriety of the Ace Hotel, though. Puddin’ Tain’s first number was well behaved enough in a Lust in the Dust-themed foot fetish routine. It was her second number in a beatnik mutation of the classic Babs Johnson flamenco dress, now topped with a black sequin beret, that truly had the room in tears. Listening to her perform a beatnik poem about a meatball sub (in honor of Dawn Davenport) to a chorus of appreciative finger-snaps really felt like witnessing something special. For their part, Mary Boy went full carnival geek with two gross-out routines: First, a very literal homage to Eat Your Makeup. Then, a gag where they liquefied cash money in a blender and drank the contents in front of our horrified eyes. I’ve never been more hyper-aware of what I was watching and where I was watching it then I was in that moment.

You can see a picture of the full cast below (courtesy of Michael Meads) for reference, as well as a poster that includes a portrait I took of CeCe V DeMenthe in her first year “marching” with Krewe Divine. I don’t think either of those documents fully capture the absurdity of that evening though. For the full effect, I’d encourage you drop by the Ace hotel in the next time it sounds like they’re hosting something especially raunchy & uncouth in one of their various art venues (the next Honor Thy Mother event may even be a good start). Whether it’s a risqué art film, a series of nude photographs, or a drag show dedicated to the undisputed Queen of Filth, there’s something about that building’s buttoned-up, bright-eyed atmosphere that accentuates the depravity of art that does not belong there. It’s good to know they’re worthwhile for more than free Wi-Fi & a decent cup of cold brew, even if most of us could ever afford to stay the night.

-Brandon Ledet

Krewe Divine 2019

In 2017, a few members of the Swampflix crew decided to finally grow up and get serious about Mardi Gras. We collectively shed our annual personal crises about what themes to include in our Fat Tuesday costuming by pooling our resources to pray at the altar of a single cinematic deity: Divine. Arguably the greatest drag queen of all time, Divine was the frequent collaborator & long-time muse of one of our favorite filmmakers, John Waters. Her influence on the pop culture landscape extends far beyond the Pope of Trash’s Dreamlanders era, however, emanating to as far-reaching places as the San Franciscan performers The Cockettes, the punkification of disco, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Our intent was to honor the Queen of Filth in all her fabulously fucked-up glory by maintaining a new Mardi Gras tradition in Krewe Divine, a costuming krewe meant to masquerade in the French Quarter on every Fat Tuesday into perpetuity.

Our initial krewe was a small group of Swampflix contributors: site co-founders Brandon Ledet & Britnee Lombas, regular contributor CC Chapman, and repeat podcast guest Virginia Ruth. Last year we were joined by local drag performer Ce Ce V DeMenthe, who frequently pays tribute to Divine in her performances. There’s no telling how Krewe Divine will expand or evolve from here as we do our best to honor the Queen of Filth in the future, but for now, enjoy some pictures from our 2019 excursion, our third year in operation as Swampflix’s official Mardi Gras krewe:

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Eat shit!
Krewe Divine

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

Episode #65 of The Swampflix Podcast: Art House Herstory with CeCe V DeMenthe & Cosi (1996)

Welcome to Episode #65 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our sixty-fifth episode, Brandon & Britnee are joined by local drag performer CeCe V DeMenthe to discuss the ways the New Orleans art house & repertory cinema scene has changed since the 1970s. Britnee also makes Brandon watch the Australian opera dramedy Cosi (1996) for the first time. Enjoy!

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

– Britnee Lombas & Brandon Ledet

Dawn Davenport as the Ultimate Divine Showcase

It’s almost inarguable that the most iconic performance from Divine, the greatest drag queen of all time, was her role as Babs Johnson in Pink Flamingos. John Waters may have later scored a wider cultural impact with Hairspray (his last collaboration with Divine before her death), but if you ask anyone to describe Divine as a persona, it’s the yellow hair, red flamenco dress, and curbside dog shit of Pink Flamingos that most readily defines her in the public conscience. As gloriously filthy as Pink Flamingos is within the John Waters pantheon, though, it’s not the most fully illustrative showcase for Divine’s talents as an onscreen presence. Babs is a kind of static constant throughout Pink Flamingos—hilarious, but unchanging in her filthy, filthy ways. It’s that film’s follow-up, Female Trouble, that really allows the full spectrum of Divine’s version of defiant American femininity to shine. In Female Trouble, Divine charts the moral corrosion of a high school teen turned mass murderer over a decade’s worth of increasingly despicable criminal acts. Pink Flamingos might be Divine’s most recognizable achievement in establishing a tone & defining her look, but Dawn Davenport is her greatest creation as a cinematic performer.

After signing the film’s theme song herself (a preview of her disco career to come), Divine begins Female Trouble as one of the 1960s hair-hoppers Waters lovingly profiled in Hairspray. Dawn Davenport is a bratty teenage delinquent. She smokes in school bathrooms, sneaks eating meatball sandwiches during class lectures, and responds to concerns about schoolwork with sentiments like, “Fuck homework. Who cares if we fail?” This attitude sets her up for failure at a traditional American lifestyle, something that becomes no longer sustainable after her parents refuse to buy the one Christmas present she demands because, “Nice girls don’t wear cha-cha heels.” After destroying the Norman Rockwell Christmas tableau of her parents’ home like Godzilla tearing through Tokyo, Dawn Davenport hits the open road as a teenage runaway. She attempts a mundane life that does not suit her: raising children, waiting tables, gossiping at the beauty salon. The most alive Dawn appears as a young adult woman is when she’s sweatily stripping as a go-go dancer and abusing her hyperactive daughter, both verbally and physically. The first half of Female Trouble is a grimy portrait of American femininity, one frustrated with the prison of boredom & tedium that plagues well-behaved women, especially single mothers. The increasingly violent crimes she commits throughout the film are selfish, hateful, and morally grotesque, but they’re also a political rejection of traditionalist gender roles she’s expected to conform to at all ages in her perversely American life.

The poster for Female Trouble “warns” of (read: promises) “scenes of extraordinary perversity,” the kinds of onscreen stunts both Divine & Waters were largely known for, if not only because of the shit-eating stunt that concludes Pink Flamingos. When Dawn Davenport introduces herself to strangers in the film, she explains “I’m a thief & a shitkicker and I’d like to be famous.” She achieves this fame the way only a thief & a shitkicker would: by impressing the public with the daringness of her crimes. As an adult criminal, Dawn finds wealthy, erudite patrons (David Lochary & Mary Vivian Pearce) who fund her criminal activities for the artistry that they truly are, fanatically believing that “crime enhances one’s beauty.” It’s an ingenious setup that provides Divine a stage to perform various criminal stunts, including smashing her overgrown child (a deranged Mink Stole) with a dining room chair, warring with her leather fetishist neighbor (Edith Massey) to the point of imprisoning her in a birdcage & axing off her hand, and breaking prison rules by entering a long-term lesbian relationship while locked up. In-story, this absurdist crime spree climaxes when a scarred-up Dawn with a protopunk haircut locks a literally captive audience into a crowded nightclub for her Cavalcade of Filth routine and fires a gun directly at them, indiscriminately. If crime enhances beauty, this is Dawn Davenport at her most gorgeous, something she announces upfront in the line “I’m so fucking beautiful I can’t even stand it myself.” The bizarre truth is that the biggest stunt in the film occurs long before the Cavalcade of Filth, though, when Dawn Davenport is still a teenage delinquent. Hitchhiking away from her destroyed parents’ home on Christmas morning, Dawn is picked up by a monstrous drunk played by Glenn Milstead (out of his Divine drag). Upstaging the earlier stunt where Divine is raped by a giant lobster in Multiple Maniacs, Divine effectively rapes herself in this scene. The details are horrendous: a roadside mattress, shit-stained tighty whities, felching. It’s a truly hideous display, a stunt that could only be topped by watching Divine perform mundane domestic work in later titles like Polyester & Hairspray. It’s this hitchhiking sequence where Divine truly outdoes herself (by literally doing herself, appropriately).

Desperate Living is my personal favorite John Waters film, but it’s one that Divine backed out of before production. I’m sure she could have only improved the film with her immaculately trashy presence, but I doubt even that performance would have bested the all-encompassing showcase Dawn Davenport afforded her. Divine’s performances as Babs Johnson, Edna Turblad, and Francine Fishpaw are all flawless, iconic filth, but they only afford her one comedic angle per picture. Dawn Davenport, on the other hand, allows Divine to transform from teenage reprobate/petty criminal to full-blown Charles Manson maniac in 90 wild minutes, taunting her audience from the perch of an electric chair with the speech, “I’d like to thank all those wonderful people who were kind enough to read about me in the newspaper and watch me on the television news shows. Without all of you, my career would have never gotten this far. It is you that I murdered for and it is you that I die for.” Female Trouble affords Divine a stage to perform her most gloriously fucked up stunts on celluloid, then directly comments on our fascination with those wicked deeds and with crime as entertainment in general. More importantly, though, it allows her to perform the full spectrum of American femininity as, to borrow the title of a Lifetime movie, Wife-Mother-Murderer in the post-hippie grime of the mid-1970s. Dawn Davenport is multiple generations & evolutions of the misbehaving woman, a perfect template for Divine to perform a full floor show of varying proto-punk looks & sneering femme attitudes. She may have starred in a few better movies, but few performances ever served her better as a top bill entertainer & the center of attention. Besides, where else are you going to watch Divine fuck herself? It’s impossible to overvalue the novelty of that experience.

-Brandon Ledet

Alaska is a Drag (2018)

I have a personal pet theory that drag and pro wrestling are the two most vital modern artforms specifically because they’re opposite sides of the same gender performance coin. I’ve yet to see that exact dichotomy explored on the big screen, but I feel like we’re inching closer to it every year. A 2012 episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race featured a pro wrestling challenge (resulting in a Kenya Michaels and Latrice Royale tag team I’d kill to see weekly on WWE) but cinema is still behind the curve. 2016’s excellent The Fits established a similar masc/femme gender dichotomy between boxing & rhythmic dance, however, and the playfully titled Alaska is a Drag has now pushed that dynamic even closer to my ideal project by profiling a character caught between the worlds of boxing & drag. This microbudget indie isn’t exactly about gender performance (neither was The Fits, really), but it does allow that subject to weigh heavily on its mind as it floats effortlessly between the rigid boundaries of strictly gendered worlds. Alaska is a Drag is a delirious tale of small town brawn & glamor transcending a harshly cold environment to establish its own gender-defiant space in the world, all within the vessel of a single magnetic, instantly lovable lead performance.

Leo (newcomer Martin L. Washington, Jr.) is a factory worker at an Alaskan fish cannery who struggles to feel at home in a small industrial town without a strong, visible queer community. With more complaints about how he can’t wait to get out of this town than a mid-90s Less Than Jake album, he hangs his dreams for a better future on becoming an “international drag superstar” by way of moving to Hollywood. It’s not too difficult to see why he might want to get away. His go-nowhere job at the fish cannery is swarming with macho bullies who persecute him for being openly queer. His best friend/twin sister is dying of cancer. His dad is a compulsive gambler that keeps their household anchored to the poverty line. The only boy around with the confidence to flirt with him is a straight-identifying puzzle who gets just as dangerously black-out drunk as everyone else in town. The only refuges from these grim, isolating surroundings are a gay dive bar (operated by Margaret Cho) and an equally sparsely attended boxing gym (operated by Jason Scott Lee), spaces where he gets to express the fierceness & glamor the world stifles in him otherwise. Plot-wise, it’s a typical coming of age story that inevitably barrels toward the big boxing match & drag show climaxes you’d likely expect, but as a character study it’s exceedingly easy to fall in love with Leo, no matter what aspect of himself he’s presenting.

Director Shaz Bennett reports to have conceived the screenplay for Alaska is a Drag while working in a fish cannery herself, daydreaming about the lives of her fellow factory workers. The movie reflects that loopy daydream logic in its unashamedly cheap CGI rainbows & washes of Aurora effects that gleefully clash with Leo’s working-class surroundings, recalling the similar flights of fancy in last year’s Patti Cake$. There is both a misery & a dark humor to the repetition of monotonous routine in factory work as presented in the film, something that’s only interrupted by the disco balls & glitter of Leo’s drag superstar daydreams. As the daily rhythms of repetitive factory work begin to resemble song, Dancer in the Dark-style musical reveries mentally transport Leo to his drag-themed happy place. He doesn’t start to fully explore his own unique identity until he incorporates drag & boxing into a simultaneous, boundary-free expression of his full personality, importing golden boxing gloves into his drag-themed reveries & bringing makeup into the boxing ring at his sister’s behest. If drag & boxing are coded as opposing forces of gender expression in the film, Leo’s triumph in self-actualization is in learning to combine them to establish a well-balanced persona (which is, again, fairly similar to the central character arc in the far less gleefully silly The Fits).

Washington’s performance as Leo is the main draw here, especially in sequences where he interacts with Maya Washington, playing his sister Tristen. It’s baffling that the two actors are not related in real life, considering their lived-in chemistry & convincing familiarity. There’s nothing the movie could possibly muster to match the endlessly endearing energy of the twins voguing, mean-mugging, and playing dress-up out of small-town Alaskan boredom, not even Margo Cho performing in a drag king get-up or an ancient drag queen hissing bitchy quips through their tracheotomy hole. Alaska is a Drag struggles to create substantial drama outside the siblings’ desire to skip town, but it does excel in clashing the glamor of their international drag superstar daydreams with the harsh reality of dead fish & grim factory work. It flirts with the trappings of coming-of-age queer misery dramas, but mostly indulges in the fantasies of escaping that backdrop through the gender-exaggerated mediums of boxing & drag. Alaska is a Drag is not exactly the drag & pro wrestling gender performance daydream I’ve personally entertained while going about my own daily monotony, but it was close enough to at least partially satisfy that craving without making too much of a big deal out of it. It instead weaves its own gendered dichotomy into a character study of a put-upon young dreamer who desperately needs the mental escape both drag & boxing offer. Washington does an incredible job of making that character a thorough joy to watch, as Bennett deftly backs him up with a colorful fantasy world backdrop that emerges from between the cracks of a grim, industrial setting.

-Brandon Ledet

Isle of Lesbos (1997)

Growing up, I had a very limiting an idea of what drag is, thanks to the way the scene has seemingly been in New Orleans my entire life. I can’t claim to be a New Orleans drag historian or anything, but the city’s drag aesthetic has always struck me as a deliberately tacky, old-fashioned affair that skipped over the weirdo high fashion & ball culture innovation of cities like New York & San Francisco to maintain what’s now referred to as a “pageant queen” tradition. (The documentary The Sons of Tennessee Williams is a great snapshot of the aesthetic I’m describing here.) That Southern drag pageant tradition can be a blast on its own merits; if nothing else, The Gay Easter Parade where local drag queens dress like Metairie Moms in Springtime is one of the more absurd highlights of my calendar year. I do have to admit, though, that it’s been a welcome eye-opener to have fresh influences like the local arrival of the Vinsantos-run New Orleans Drag Workshop & the national popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race expand my understanding of what drag is as an artform in recent years. Part of that is looking beyond the pageant & comedy queen acts I’ve long been familiar with to more high-fashion and avant-garde interpretations of the artform. More importantly, I’ve come to better understand what the artform of femme drag itself is: a heightened subversion of gender performance that even cisgender women can participate in (though, the genuinely-accepted term for that, “faux queen,” does have a kind of dismissive tone to it). It’s like when you first realize that punk is an ethos & not a sound; you start seeing it everywhere: bounce music is punk, Agnès Varda is punk, drag is punk, and so on. If I had first watched the microbudget musical Isle of Lesbos a few years ago I likely would have still gotten kick out of it, but I wouldn’t have seen it for what it is: women doing femme drag at top volume and not caring who doesn’t get it. It’s also, not coincidentally, punk as fuck.

Isle of Lesbos is a politically angry, deliberately offensive, post-John Waters, queer as fuck movie musical with deep roots in drag & cabaret traditions. Its (extremely limited) press materials posit the film as “Rocky Horror Picture Show meets Oklahoma,” perhaps as a warning to the audience that there will be musical theatre-style song & dance, but I found the film to be more of a grimy, Desperate Living meets The Wizard of Oz proposition. Like the matriarchal shanty town Mortville in Desperate Living, the titular lesbian utopia in this makeshift production design spectacle is a mean, lurid immersion in femme grime & glamour. The intensely apparent artificiality of the hand-built sets is much closer to the low -budget staging of the sci-fi drag gem Vegas in Space than the magical illusion of Oz, but its titular utopia’s dichotomous opposition to the fictional small town of Bumfuck, Arkansas could not be more clearly modeled after the Technicolor classic (likely as a sly “friends of Dorothy” hat-tip). Like most drag, the movie is more than a little offensive, especially in its gleeful use of racist iconography & homophobic slurs; its tagline even boasts that it has “A little something to offend just about everyone!” The targets of its racial & sexual satire are always the oppressors, not the oppressed, though. Race & sexuality are performed in the film, just like how gender is performed in drag at large. They’re also clashed against the intolerant Evil of straight, white, Christian Southerners who’ve made the existence of a separate, locked-away realm for homosexual women vitally necessary. For all its inherent fun as a vulgar, queer musical, Isle of Lesbos is also a deeply sad fantasy where persecuted people live on after being raped, murdered, executed, or driven to suicide by a society that condemns their sexual orientation. It’s also no coincidence that the evil town of Bumfuck was geographically located in Arkansas, home of the frequently-referenced Clintons, who were then on the wrong side of queer history thanks to political policies like Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

A young Arkansan bride finds herself at the altar with a man she has zero sexual or romantic chemistry with. Scared, she runs away home to lock herself in her bedroom— her parents & fiancée beating at the door, demanding to be let it. Rather than face their scorn, she puts a revolver in her mouth and commits suicide. This act transports her through the mirror to the mythical Isle of Lesbos (as opposed to the geographical one), where she’s made to feel comfortable with admitting to herself (and her family, via interdimensional letters home) that she is, in fact, a lala-lala-lesbian. Her new, queer community of fellow straight-world exiles welcome her with chants of “A land without lesbians is no land for us,” and allow her the first opportunity in her life to seek true love. Folks back home in the “one-horse, God-fearing town” of Bumfuck, Arkansas don’t take this transgression lightly and spend the remainder of the film trying to bring her back through the mirror and declaring all-out war on the Sapphic realm that “stole” her. The contrast between the vibrant passion of queer sex in the Lesbos realm and the repressed sexual violence & racial persecution back in Bumfuck, Arkansas is a damning political screed seething with bottomless, justifiable anger. It’s also communicated through the earnest joy of musical theatre, typified in lines like “Arkansas just ain’t the place to sit on a pretty face” and “I don’t need a man to call my own; The Isle of Lesbos is my home.” That’s not to say that the Isle of Lesbos doesn’t have its own internal shortcomings to deal with; its horrific mistreatment of a single male, effeminate-homosexual slave kept around as an all-purpose janitor is deliberately reminiscent of the fascist oppression that drove the protagonist out of Bumfuck, Arkansas in the first place. Still, that problematic indulgence in oppression is small fries in comparison to the more empowered, Christian communities who made the existence of a segregated lesbian utopia necessary in the first place.

Director Jeff B. Harmon has a fascinating resume, if only because Isle of Lesbos is such an anomaly among his extensive documentary work on war atrocities. There’s an anti-war message shoehorned into Isle of Lesbos’s third act, but you’d have to squint hard to see how this brash, crass musical fits into his filmography otherwise. It’s a political film, sure, but its politics are expressed through a Michael Jackson impersonator being terrorized by the KKK, straight married home life being interpreted as a joyless nightmare, femme arm pit air & mud wrestling being interpreted as natural & wholesome, etc. Isle of Lesbos is political in the way all drag is political; it mocks the social institutions that restrict expressions of gender & sexuality by flagrantly disregarding their rules as loud & as glitterful as possible. If I had seen the film before I better understood drag I might have read it as a musical theatre version of Desperate Living (one of my all-time favorite films, so no shame there), but as it stands I see both works as unconventional participation in a larger drag tradition. There’s currently no greater threat to the social institution of a gender binary than the democratization of modern drag, which explains gender as performance & a boundary worth challenging. This gleefully vulgar, D.I.Y. punk, ramshackle, queer as fuck movie musical is a great snapshot of what that threat looked like two decades ago. As the tagline promises, it does have “a little something to offend just about everyone,” but it’s also an open invitation to laugh in the face of oppressors and then leave them behind in Bumfuck, Nowhere as you seek out more welcoming communities of your own. That’s the kind of call-to-arms that will always steal my trash-gobbling heart.

-Brandon Ledet

Lust in the Dust (1985)

Now that Criterion has given Multiple Maniacs a restorative spit shine for a recent BluRay release, there aren’t many unsung movies left featuring a performance from Divine, the greatest drag queen who ever lived. Starring roles from Divine are especially scarce, particularly ones outside the John Waters oeuvre. That’s what makes Lust in the Dust so tempting as a potential off-road gem. Divine stars in a comedy directed by the ever-charming Paul Bartel (Eating Raul, Death Race 2000, Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills) and no one ever talks about it? How could that be? The answer, obviously, is that the movie is a bit of a stinker and would likely have been forgotten by time completely if it weren’t for Divine’s name on the poster. Worse yet, it feels like a dilution & cheapening of the John Waters brand, which already suffers from being treated like ironic kitsch instead of what it truly is: a collection of the greatest films ever made. Waters was asked to direct Lust in the Dust, but declined because he did not pen the script. Frequent Waters collaborator Edith Massey was cast as a sleazy bartender (not a stretch for her) but died before filming began. Divine stars opposite Tab Hunter, her onscreen rival/lover in Waters’s Polyester. The film also arrived in the seven-year gap between Polyester & Hairspray, which makes me wonder if Divine’s departure from the Dreamlanders crew to pursue projects like Lust in the Dust & her disco career means there were other John Waters projects in the works that were derailed in the meantime. Lust in the Dust isn’t without its occasional charms, but it feels like a huge roadblock that likely prevented better art from seeing the light of day.

Speaking of daylight, Lust in the Dust is a textbook demonstration of the horrors of day drag. Shot in the sun-drenched California desert, the film is a bawdy comedy masquerading as a cheapie Western. Divine is tasked to flop sweat her way through dust-coated comedy routines as stale as the cowboy backdrop that flavors them. A thin story about buried treasure, bandits, and bar fights drags its corpse across the desert sand as playful music continually elbows the audience as a reminder that “This is fun! So funny!” A few of the gags do work, but they’re the rare exception to the rule. I was particularly tickled by Divine’s tendency to crush the head of any man that goes down on her. Her costar Lannie Kazan (of My Big Fat Greek Wedding fame) also gets in a few great one-liners like, “Freeze, hombre, or I’ll be wearing your asshole like a garter,” that remind you that Bartel is usually a super sharp, crass wit. Most of the bits fall dead flat, though. Divine drunkenly falling off a donkey, the small town they raise hell in being called Chile Verde, Divine bashfully pretending she doesn’t want to be gang raped: Lust in the Dust’s major failure is that it isn’t nearly funny enough to justify its own indulgences as an irreverent comedy. Waters was smart to decline the opportunity to direct the picture himself and I’d never want to see my favorite filmmaker tackle something as tired & pedestrian as a Western, but you could bet that if he did the result would be far more energetic & genuinely humorous. Here, the zaniness feels forced and Divine feels weighed down by being tied to an unfunny script instead of being let loose to cause havoc as the no-holds-barred filth monster she truly was.

Lust in the Dust is only a must-see for Divine completists & the morbidly curious. It’s difficult to imagine Western-friendly audiences getting anything more out of it than I did, coming from the perspective of a Waters devotee. Unless you desperately need to see Divine & Tab Hunter share the screen one last time and your copy of Polyester is damaged or missing, I’d advise you to stay as far away as you can manage. It’s best to keep the better memories of Divine alive in our minds than to dilute them with this labored, unfunny dreck. The same goes with the typically wonderful Paul Bartel, really, but it hurts much less to see a dilution of his divinity.

And just so this isn’t a total waste of time, let’s all smile in wonder at the only good thing that came out of this picture: this picture.

-Brandon Ledet

Holiday Heart (2000)

The best way to sell the immediate appeal of the film Holiday Heart is likely to announce up front what it is in basic terms: an R-rated, made-for-TV Christmas movie starring Ving Rhames as a street tough drag queen. By now you’ve already decided if you’d ever be interested in watching such a thing, which gives me the freedom to admit that the film is unfortunately not as riotously fun as it could be, considering the potential of its premise. For all of the visual excitement of such a large, muscular man as Rhames playing far against type as a booming-voiced drag queen, Holdiay Heart goes out of its way to normalize & de-sex his character. Off-stage, Holiday Heart is a gay man, but his lover dies before the film begins and only exists in photographs, so the film’s intended Christian audience never has to actually see him expressing queer desire. He’s also introduced as a musician dedicated to worship at his local church before we ever see him perform under his drag persona, reassuring the audience up front that he is a deeply Christrian man and his sexual orientation does not define his relationship with God. Rhames makes for a fascinating appearance as a lumbering brute delicately holding telephones with his fingertips so as not to break a nail, but as a character his titular drag queen protagonist has no inner life outside faith in God and an emotionally vulnerable readiness to cry at the drop of a hat. He has all of the character nuance of Barney the Dinosaur and functions in the film mostly as a Magical Gay Man who can fix straight Christians’ problems through his (literally & figuratively) giant heart. The movie is still enjoyable as a novelty melodrama & Rhames’s few drag performances are aces, but that (lack of) characterization is such a bummer.

Holiday Heart is not just any lumbering, muscular drag queen; she’s the most popular one in town. Making a name for herself by lip-syncing to Supremes hits in a pageant queen tradition, Holiday is nightclub royalty, but still feels rawly empty after the loss of a long-term life partner. This family-sized hole in his heart is filled when he stumbles into a father figure role for the daughter of a near-destitute drug addict. The setup is awkward & messy, but Holiday essentially takes in a mother-daughter duo from the streets to protect them from the domestic abuse & homelessness that threatens their lives. The film is a strict melodrama from there (even name-checking Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life several times throughout to clue you into its tone), with many repetitive fallouts between Holiday & the mother he chooses to shelter as she slips in & out of relapses and flings homophobic slurs in his face to hurt his feelings (which is surprisingly easy). The fate of the little girl they’re both reluctantly tasked to raise hangs in the balance as they struggle between selfishness & self-preservation and The Christian Thing to Do. Obviously, this setup does not lead to a nonstop laugh riot, but the melodrama can often be over-the-top enough to elicit a chuckle or two. The earliest drug relapse is a depraved lighting of a microscopic roach found at the bottom of the mother’s purse. A flashback shows Holiday being shunned at his romantic partner’s funeral while weeping & singing “Baby Love” in full widow drag. A mild hip-hop beat plays over three cliché dramatic orchestral music that scores its more self-serious moments. And then, of course, the whole thing swerves at the last second to justify its pun title by staging its emotional climax on Christmas, a holiday that otherwise plays no part in the plot.

Overall, Holiday Heart is a lot more Christian and a lot less Christmas than it would have to be to satisfy as an over-the-top camp spectacle. The film’s super serious focus on Faith cuts down a lot of its sillier eccentricities and makes the majority of the experience feel more like a bummer than a party. Still, it has the dorky energy of a kids’ movie that just happens to feature a ton of F-bombs & homophobic slurs. It also can’t be over-stated how much the novelty of seeing Ving Rhames in traditional pageant queen drag can carry its less exciting melodrama slumps. The thing about drag, too, is that it’s performative & uncomfortable; most queens can’t wait to de-glamor after a performance, but Holiday lounges around in her stage garb as if it were a comfy bathrobe. He’s not at all coded as transgender, so that bizarre choice just registers as lagniappe opportunities to soak up the Ving-Rhames-as-a-drag-queen novelty, since the lip-sync performances themselves are too few & far between. Much of Holiday Heart registers as goofy & embarrassing, especially in its indulgences in gospel music & erotic slam poetry, but Rhames’s performance as the titular drag queen is genuinely mesmerizing. It’s just a shame they stripped his character of sexual desire & potential for society-disrupting chaos to better mold the film into a Christian-family melodrama about fatherhood. It’s a fun-enough movie as is, but it could have been an all-time with a little more personality.

-Brandon Ledet