Gracefully (2019)

My entire familiarity with gender performance as entertainment has been centered on American (or at least Western) drag tradition until recently, which was even further limited to the arena of Southern pageant drag until just a few years ago. As the influence of avant-garde Club Kids artistry is rapidly spreading on the “mainstream” drag stage, the definition of what drag is and what drag can be is changing. For instance, it was impossible to watch the glammed-up luchadores of the recent documentary Cassandro, the Exotico! and not think of how that tradition was an extension of drag artistry, not just a mutation of Mexican pro wrestling culture. Similarly, you’ll never hear the word “drag” uttered in the documentary Gracefully, but it’s clear that the unnamed Iranian female impersonator the film profiles is clearly performing a non-American variation on the artform. He performs purely as a dancer when exhibiting his art, sidestepping the lip-syncing traditions of drag as we know it. There’s also drastically different cultural history to how his own artform came to be, which means you’ll never hear the word “queer’ or “gay” uttered in the film either; they’re just not part of his background. And yet, the D.I.Y. glam artistry, political combativeness, and illusionary gender performance of his work all qualify him to be considered in a drag context – a medium that’s exponentially expanding its scope every passing year.

This unnamed dancer’s work is not some fresh invention of the modern era of drag. If anything, Gracefully catches up with the dancer in an era where his time is long gone and his traditions are threatening to fade away, forgotten. The conservative moralism that overtook his country after the Iranian Revolution of 1979 made his artform obsolete—as dancing itself was effectively outlawed—making this film just as much a harsh look at art under censorship as it is a portrait of a singular, fascinating man. Once a popular sensation as a man who dances in woman’s clothing (thanks to a gendered privilege that allowed him certain freedoms women couldn’t afford), he mostly continues his art in private, performing for no one. Sub-professional venues like local wedding celebrations & nursing home visits are certainly beneath his former prestige as a nationally recognized dancer with a burgeoning film career, but it’s amazing he’s still performing at all. Hell, it’s amazing that he’s alive. He toils most days as a respectable working-class farmer and the father to six(!) adult sons, but one whose domestic routines seem like harshly quiet, cruelly restrained distractions from what truly makes him happy, what he was born to do. Any time we get to see him perform his art for the camera it’s a gorgeous act of self-expression; the tragedy of the film is how limited those opportunities have become.

Gracefully is smart to never allow the flashiness of its craft to overpower the inherent fasciation of its subject (something that unfortunately can’t be said about this year’s Cassandro, the Exotico!). When it does get noticeably artful in its framing & imagery, it’s only ever in service of its subject’s dancing—often showing him performing in pitch-black voids as if his D.I.Y. glamor was the only thing in the world that matters. Otherwise, the emotional wallops of the film arrive in surprisingly understated ways: watching him raise young calves on the farm, listening to his sons express their varied opinions on the value & morality of his art, the tragedy of his extensive femme wardrobe being locked away in storage containers where no one can admire it, etc. Lest you think we’ve already arrived at a place where drag is no longer a subversively political act (which I don’t think is true in America; it’s just the kind of thing that Very Online, jaded city-folk might say), Gracefully offers an incredibly distinct, fascinating example where it’s being censored out of existence. Its nameless subject is a kind of rebellious activist in that sense, but for the most part he only wants to have the freedom to do what he pleases: dance in women’s clothing. And he’s really good at it! It’s devastating to see that his art has been so limited by censorship that he himself has become a living archive for a dead tradition, but at least this movie consciously strives to preserve his corner of drag tradition to help ensure his legacy is not forgotten. It’s important work.

-Brandon Ledet

The Queen (1968)

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

Cassandro, the Exótico! (2019)

It wasn’t until the last five years or so that I really started digging into the intricacies of pro wrestling & drag as artforms, and so it was immediately apparent as I studied them in tandem that they’re remarkably similar – to the point of functioning as two sides of the same gender performance coin. The pageantry, melodrama, glamour, caricature, and pantomimed exaggeration of gender traits shared between these two longstanding entertainment traditions is extensive, to the point where if you watch them both for long enough, pro wrestling and drag become indistinguishable. I used to naively believe that comparison to be a somewhat novel observation, but of course I was far from alone in noticing it. Recent drag & pro wrestling hybrids like the local performance art promotion Chokehole, the NYC podcast crew The Nobodies, the third season of Netflix’s GLOW, and the “WTF! Wrestling’s Trashiest Fighters” episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race have all covered this territory far more thoroughly & thoughtfully than I ever could, but even they were far from the first drag-wrestling pioneers. Wrestlers like Goldust & Gorgeous George have been incorporating drag pageantry into their in-ring personae on American television for decades. Also, unsurprisingly, the Mexican luchador tradition has its own version of this crossover in its subset of flamboyant gay performers known as Los Exóticos. And to help solidify the exóticos’ place in the pronounced drag-wrestling overlap, there’s now a feature-length documentary profile of that scene’s biggest star, Cassandro, who’s been wrestling in full glam makeup since the late 1980s.

Unfortunately, Cassandro, the Exótico! isn’t especially interested in exploring this contextual, historical background of how its subject fits into these drag & wrestling traditions. Instead, the documentary profiles Cassandro as he is now in the late 2010s: worn down, mangled, and yet still enthusiastic to entertain anyone who’ll lay eyes on him. We follow “The Liberace of Lucha Libre” through the highs & lows of his late in-ring career: the high-flying flamboyant spectacle of his pro wrestling pageantry and the quiet, painful recovery from those abuses in the privacy of his sparse home in Juarez. The most historical insight you get into Cassandro’s prominent role in the exóticos tradition is in his occasional anecdotes about how he got recruited into the luchador business as a young man and his collection of still photographs from that heyday. The movie is more largely about Cassandro as he exists in the present. We get to watch his private vape pen & makeup routine as he glams up to kiss & destroy his more traditionally macho (and gay-panicked) opponents in the ring. We’re taken on an intimate tour of his gorgeous ring-gear wardrobe, which clashes drastically with his barebones home in the desert. Also, unavoidably, we’re weighed down by Cassandro’s exponential list of scars, surgeries, and gnarled body parts – the toll of the business for any long-term wrestler, whether or not they perform in drag. It would likely help tremendously to know Cassandro’s backstory before wandering into this swan song documentary on his final days as a performer (I know I personally benefited from hearing his lecture on los exóticos culture at Tulane University this past Mardi Gras), but this year-in-the-life portrait of a highly-specific person is still invaluable all the same.

There are some bold, glaring filmmaking choices from director Marie Losier that can distract from the built-in fascination of Cassandro’s over-the-top persona, and your appreciation of the film might depend on how well you can adjust to her methods. This is much more of a Pretentious French Art Film than a fluff documentary piece, with Losier often imposing her own presence onto a story that could likely do without it. She shoots Juarez and South Texas like the fantastic landscapes of an alien planet in a sci-fi film. Cassandro himself often comes across like a mystical, otherworldly creature in that abstraction, particularly in his private religious practices that mix Catholic & Native rituals with little distinction between them. I appreciate that she shot the documentary on actual celluloid, since its 16mm home movies aesthetic helps contextualize him as a kind of living historical figure whose drag-wrestling artistry deserves an eternal reverence. However, her wildly out-of-focus framing and harsh jump-cut editing style often feel like a filmmaker playing with a new toy instead of consciously serving the subject at hand. In another way, though, I can see why a story joining Cassandro this late in his career would be a little discombobulated and melancholy. The film becomes increasingly looser & less focused (visually & tonally) as Cassandro’s body degrades beyond repair in his final days in the ring before (what will hopefully be a permanent) retirement. It isn’t until Losier flashes back to the much sharper, more physically explosive performer Cassandro was just a couple years earlier at the start of the documentary that the full sad story of what we’ve lost as he reached his physical limit becomes clear. Even then, not all her creative indulgences can be justified as directly serving the text. Some of them clearly exist for their own sake, and it’s a distraction.

Thankfully, there’s already a more traditional, straightforward documentary the drag-wrestlers of lucha libre in the 2013 film Los Exóticos, which I look forward to catching up with to provide retroactive context for this picture. Still, as a standalone work, Cassandro, the Exótico! still satisfies as an intimate portrait of one of the most significant players at the intersection of drag & wrestling, a singular performer whose glory days are still distinctly visible in the rearview mirror. This blurry photograph of a documentary won’t be all the world has to remember him by (he’s still touring around as an entertainer & a public speaker, after all), so it’s okay that it mostly functions as a snapshot of his final, painful months in the ring (and a travelogue for Marie Losier).

-Brandon Ledet

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 staged 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 never 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