The Cockettes (2002)

I’m often alienated by hagiographies of late-60s hippie culture, where Boomers & burnouts wax nostalgic about the time that they almost saved the world through the power of Positive Vibes.  The early 2000s documentary The Cockettes is the one major exception to that personal distaste.  The grimy San Francisco drag scene it profiles feels like it’s only hippie by default, emerging too early to be D.I.Y. punk and too late to be an echo of the Beats.  The only other countercultural icon of the era that speaks to (and, honestly, guides) my sensibilities is the Dreamlanders crew, headed by John Waters.  It’s no surprise, then that Waters and partner-in-crime Divine feature prominently in the film as Cockettes-adjacent artists at the fringes of the scene.  It’s the one snapshot of hippie culture where I’ve ever genuinely felt “These are my people.”

Although their bottomless appetite for LSD and their complete lack of a work ethic often made their stage shows sloppy to the point of incoherence, the Cockettes had a clearly defined point of view as a visual art collective – at least in the medium of drag.  They were basically a never-ending carnival where every single attraction was a bearded lady, freaking out even their fellow hippie communes with their 24-7 dedication to glamor & hedonism.  Their version of drag makeup was distinctly modern, defined by exaggerated eye lines and mountains of glitter packed into their unshaved beards.  Cisgender women were equals among the crossdressing men in the collective, establishing an aggressive genderfuck ethos long before that term was coined.  While their makeup was cutting-edge, their wardrobe was purposefully old-fashioned.  Most of their stage shows consisted of hard-tripping, half-naked drag queens singing showtunes & acting out Busby Berkeley chorus lines in the discarded rags of 1940s Hollywood starlets who’d left their gowns & furs behind with the changing times.  The gimmick only worked because everyone in the audience was on the exact same drugs as the performers, but the documentary allows us to enjoy their visual artistry as a gorgeous lookbook in motion while members who survived the dual epidemics of heroin overdoses & AIDS outbreaks gush about the best of times in reverent “You had to be there” tones.  It’s fabulous to behold, even when their half-forgotten anecdotes drift into “Kids these days” bitterness.

Of course, having John Waters on hand as your bearded-lady-carnival barker helps tremendously, as he’s one of our great living storytellers.  Hearing him vouch for the Cockettes as “hippie acid freak drag queens” who conjured “complete sexual anarchy” out of the Peace & Love movement is a huge boost to the film’s entertainment value, and he’s interviewed extensively throughout to capitalize on that infectious enthusiasm.  It’s a justified inclusion too, as the Cockettes’ San Francisco venue—The Nocturnal Dream Show at The Palace Theatre—was the first cultural institution outside of Baltimore to embrace early Dreamlanders pictures like Multiple Maniacs, and the Cockettes themselves were the first subculture to treat Divine like a legitimate celebrity (along with iconic queer soul singer Sylvester).  Any excuse to hear John Waters riff on a subject he’s passionate about is well worth the time investment, but this particular queer-culture doc does way more than most to justify the indulgence.

Revisiting this documentary on DVD after only having seen it on a taped-off-the-TV VHS was like wearing glasses for the first time.  The iconography of The Cockettes is visually splendid and, even two decades after its original printing, the Strand Releasing DVD does rightful justice to their visual art.  As inextricable as their art & lifestyle were from late-60s hippie culture (so much so that their genderfucked utopia quickly fell apart in the early 1970s), I still see a grimy D.I.Y. punk ethos to their version of counterculture theatrics that’s missing from most of the scene’s proto-Burning Man feauxlosophies.  If nothing else, I think it’s exceedingly easy to connect the dots from the Cockettes’ Old Hollywood carnival drag to the iconic costume designs of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which directly influenced the visual markers of punk fashion, if not punk’s sexual politics.  Their nostalgia for the long-gone days of functional hippie communism isn’t too different from the punk communes led by bands like Crass either.  And then there’s John Waters—the only other hippie-era counterculture institution who’s outright proto-punk in his personal philosophy & art—putting his stamp of approval on the entire experiment.  The Cockettes may have self-identified as hippies, but I’m claiming them as an example of ahead-of-their time punks, if not only so I won’t fee l so self-conflicted about waiting to re-watch this movie every goddamn day of my life.

-Brandon Ledet

Death Drop Gorgeous (2021)

The no-budget slasher Death Drop Gorgeous has the best drag-themed horror title since All About Evil.  That’s good!  It also has one of the worst laugh-to-punchline ratios in the genre since 2003’s Killer Drag Queens on Dope.  Ooh, that’s bad.  It packs a few truly gnarly kills that make you squirm in your knickers.  That’s good.  But those kills are spread thinly across an outright criminal 104min runtime.  That’s bad.  It’s one of the few horror movies I’ve seen in recent memory that features erect onscreen peen.  That’s good!  That mutilated cock was made of silicone, not flesh . . . That’s bad.  Can I go now?

Death Drop Gorgeous is a dirt-cheap regional horror set on the Providence, Rhode Island drag scene.  Its entire cast & crew appear to be staffed by drag performers & gay men, recalling the queer communal immersion of no-budget drag classics like Isle of Lesbos & Vegas in Space.  We join the Providence drag circuit at a point of generational warfare, when classic cabaret queens like the seasoned & embittered Gloria Hole are left clawing for the scraps of spotlight leftover by disrespectful newcomer novelty acts like Janet Fitness, a total brat with no respect for their queer elders.  That tension is escalated by a gloved killer who’s been slaughtering patrons & performers who frequent the local drag spots, draining them of their blood for a mysterious purpose.  Cops get involved, our protagonist ends up being a looky-loo bartender who’s barely involved in the main action, and the whole thing just ends up feeling overloaded with too many non-sequitur time-fillers that dilute its core entertainment value (including a wasted cameo from 1980s scream queen Linnea Quigley).

This film works best if you imagine you’re watching an early-00s SOV slasher and not its modern digi equivalent.  Its drone shots & Grindr jokes constantly drag you by the wig into a post-Knife+Heart world, where a glut of straight-to-streaming horror titles and queer #content feel more like a matter of course than a welcome novelty.  Twenty years ago, in a less crowded field, this might’ve stood out as something truly special, necessary even.  Its flat digi camerawork does a good job of time-traveling back to that headspace too, especially in the tasteless grime of its crueler kills: screwdriver stabbings, mirror shards smashed into faces, dicks fed to meat grinders, etc.  And it even conjures some singular images I can confidently say I’ve never seen elsewhere, like a goth drag queen playing the theremin or a slimy latex hand beckoning victims closer through a glory hole.  For the most part, though, Death Drop Gorgeous struggles to carve out its own unique space despite the specificity of its local cast & setting.

Still, I’m overall fond of this film’s let’s-put-on-a-show community theatre charm.  It might be the kind of regional slasher that earns its value as a cult curio over the years, especially for Providence locals as their drag scene inevitably changes with the times.  I’m sure there’s someone out there who’s already giddy to own any movie starring Gloria Hole on DVD, regardless of its overall quality.  Even as an outsider from 1,400 miles away, I appreciated that novelty myself.

-Brandon Ledet

Socks on Fire (2021)

When I visited a close friend during post-Katrina exile in their home state of Alabama, one of their favorite ways to pass the time was listening to a swap meet radio show that negotiated a buy-sell-trade market of second-hand items among their audience.  It was a fascinating listen, not only for the absurdism & obscurity of the items being bartered, but also because of the eccentric personalities of the people who’d call in to haggle over them.  That memory flooded back to me watching the documentary/narrative hybrid film Socks on Fire, which disrupts its central drama with reenactments of that exact call-in swap meet show, deployed as Greek-chorus chapter breaks.  Even more so than its subjects/characters endlessly chanting “Roll tide!” and dressing in crimson red, that radio show device placed me in its Alabama setting with an uncanny specificity I never thought possible, considering it’s a state I’ve only visited a handful of times in my life.

As its title promises, Socks on Fire opens with flaming socks pinned to a backyard clothesline, with filmmaker-poet Bo McGuire narrating questions of what you’re supposed to do with a loved one’s leftover possessions after they pass away.  What to do with his deceased grandmother’s used socks has a clear-enough answer: burn ’em.  It’s much trickier for the family to decide what to do with her lifelong home, of which she did not leave a living will to assign possession to any of her surviving children or grandchildren.  The most obvious answer is to hand the empty house over to McGuire’s uncle, a near-destitute drag queen who doesn’t have another place to live.  McGuire’s fiercely homophobic aunt opposes that plan, despite her supposedly Christian values, and viciously fights to leave her brother homeless.  McGuire uses the documentary as an excuse to prod at how the siblings’ relationship got to be so poisoned in the first place, and how that friction distorts his own sense of place as a gay artist in his insular Alabama hometown.

I want to describe Socks on Fire as a Southern-fried revision of this year’s auto-documentary Madame, but that doesn’t quite capture the camp or sardonicism of its humor.  It operates more like an earnest version of the over-the-top Southern theatrics of Sordid Lives, played like a tell-all airing of a family’s dirty laundry instead of a sitcom.  Bo McGuire illustrates his sordid family history with a mixed-media approach, breaking from traditional documentary storytelling with photo album collages, home video tape distortions, fine art photography of suspended household objects, and poetic monologues that ominously refer to decades of conflicts that have gnarled his family tree.  It’s when his uncle & fellow queens start re-creating those conflicts in camped-up drag routines that the movie touches on something really special, though.  Turning his homophobic aunt into a drag character was an especially inspired choice, and it’s one that clues you into McGuire’s deliciously fucked up boundaries between humor & heartbreak.

I’m not entirely convinced that Socks on Fire is about the disputes over McGuire’s grandmother’s estate, so much as it’s about his own relationship with his isolated hometown.  The swap-meet radio show, the Steel Magnolias-style trips to the hair salon, and the awed references to Reba McEntire as a living god are all tied into his aunt & uncle’s battle over a home that only one of them needs, but they feel more personal to Bo McGuire as the narrator than they feel relevant to that story.  By the time he collects all the small-town women who shaped his life & persona for a single photoshoot, it’s clear that he’s mostly returning to that place of origin to uncover something about himself, not necessarily about his family.  It’s all hyper-specific, intensely intimate, and playfully experimental in its internal visual language, which is pretty much all I ever ask for out of a movie.  It’s a privilege to be invited into McGuire’s boozy Southern psyche like this, an old-fashioned flavor of Alabama hospitality.

-Brandon Ledet

Bonus Features: Trouble in Mind (1985)

Our current Movie of the Month, Alan Rudolph’s Trouble in Mind, is a stylish but lowkey neo-noir set in a fictional version of Seattle called Rain City, featuring an incredibly cool soundtrack from Marianne Faithful. Its oddball clash of 1940s noir nostalgia & intensely 1980s fashion trends is a one-of-a-kind novelty in many ways, not least of all in the unconventional casting of its mafioso villain.

For degenerates like us, the main draw of Trouble in Mind is going to be the novelty of seeing Divine, the greatest drag queen of all time, play a male villain outside the context of one-off gags in John Waters comedies.  To that end, here are a few recommended titles if you loved Divine’s performance in our Movie of the Month and want to see more footage of him performing a male persona.

Out of the Dark (1988)

The closest role Divine played to his mobster villain in Trouble in Mind was an extended “special appearance” cameo as a police detective in 1988’s Out of the Dark.  His final acting credit before his death, Out of the Dark is a kind of unofficial class reunion for the major players from the Divine-starring comedy-Western Lust in the Dust: Tab Hunter, Paul Bartel, and Lainie Kazan (among other cult movie superstars like Bud Cort & Karen Black).  While the film itself is shameless 80s sleaze about a serial killer in a clown mask who targets phone sex operators in downtown Los Angeles, Divine plays his role as an old-fashioned police detective with the broad, vaudevillian humor of an SNL sketch, complete with a laughably fake mustache.

Out of the Dark is basically a disposable Skinemax slasher, but it’s got charm to spare if you’re already under the spell of its eclectic cast of B-movie all-stars.  If you’re looking for a thoughtful examination of the everyday labor exploitations of sex work as an industry, you’re better off looking to Lizzie Borden’s Working Girls.  The “fantasy phone line” girls at Suite Nothings offer much schlockier delights, and Divine’s minor presence is only there to sweeten the deal.

I Am Divine (2013)

Besides Trouble in Mind & Out of the Dark, there aren’t many places to see Divine performing a male persona for the camera.  He was poised to become a much bigger star out of drag in a recurring role on the hit sitcom Married with Children but died the night before his first scheduled day on-set, tragically cutting short his ascent as a household name.  That’s the exact kind of factoid you can pick up from the recent documentary I Am Divine, though, an intimate look at the drag superstar’s life & career.  It’s nothing flashy in terms of its filmmaking aesthetics, but I Am Divine is still very much a worthwhile primer for Divine & John Waters devotees who don’t know much about the dastardly duo’s off-screen antics (re: anyone who hasn’t already read Waters’s memoirs like Shock Value & Crackpot).  It’s also a great opportunity to see Divine out of drag, just being a normal-ass person, which is fascinating in its own way.

I Am Divine also offers insight into his post-Dreamlanders career, including the era when he filmed Trouble in Mind.  I even picked up this factoid about our Movie of the Month long before we watched it: the gigantic diamond earring Divine rocks in the film was not provided by wardrobe but by the actor himself.  He was super proud of saving up for that hunk of jewelry (after a fabulously delinquent life funded mostly by shoplifting) and paraded it around in public as much as possible in later years as a status symbol. It totally fits the mafioso character he’s playing, to the point where you might not even notice it, but I still love that Divine got to immortalize that obnoxious gem he was so proud of onscreen (and I never would have caught that detail without the documentary).

Hairspray (1988)

Of course, the very best source for Divine Content is always going to be his collaborations with John Waters.  The only reason seeing Divine out of drag outside of a John Waters film is a novelty at all is because their collaborations inarguably defined his career (unless you were around to watch Divine perform live with The Cockettes or as a disco act, you lucky fuck).  Divine did appear out of drag in a couple Waters films, even if only briefly.  The foremost example of this might be the stunt in 1974’s Female Trouble in which Divine effectively rapes himself on a dirty mattress while playing two separate characters (teenage runaway Dawn Davenport and local pervert Earl Peterson).  It’s a horrific gag, but it’s one played so broadly & grotesquely that you cannot take serious offense to the provocation – the John Waters specialty.

I firmly believe his best work out of drag is in the film Hairspray, though, another Waters picture where Divine plays dual roles.  His housewife caricature Edna Turnblad rightly gets the most attention in the film (if not only for the uncanny horror of John Travolta’s reprisal of the role), but he also makes for a great male villain in the proudly racist TV station manager Arvin Hodgepile.  The seething, grotesque bigotry that oozes out of Divine in that role is incredibly upsetting, and the character feels way more specific & nuanced than the broad caricatures he played in Trouble in Mind & Out of the Dark. It feels as if he were channeling some monstrous authority figure from his own youth that he despised, and you can feel that dark energy flowing through the disgusting pig.  Of all of Divine’s performances in man-drag, the one in Hairspray is the one that lands as the most memorable & authentic to me.  It’s the one that best hints that he might have pulled off a successful career beyond his John Waters collaborations had he not died so suddenly in his early 40s.

-Brandon Ledet

Go Go Crazy (2011)

In my Is It Just Me? review, I talked about TLA, Breaking Glass, and their domination of the 2005ish-2016ish era of gay cinema. TLA Releasing, at least, managed to put out the occasional queer prestige piece (like Mysterious Skin and, to a lesser extent, Latter Days, both of which came out in 2004 and helped pave the way for TLA to reach a larger audience), but Breaking Glass can’t make the same claim. If you go to the IMDb list of their films, no matter how you organize it—user ratings, popularity, number of votes, box officeyou’ll be hard pressed to find a single release on the first page that you recognize, with the possible exceptions of Breaking Through and Cropsey (which isn’t even gay), and even then, I doubt it. As such, it should come as no surprise if you’ve never heard of Go Go Crazy, a mockumentary about five Pittsburgh go-go dancers who are competing for the top slot and a $1000 prize.

We’ve got Vinnie T (Nick Kenkel), who dreams of one day becoming a professional karaoke star and who has styled himself after the participants of Jersey Shore, which, as all of us in 2021 know, is a reference that has withstood the test of time. We’ve also got ex-Amish pretty boy Chase (Paul Cereghino), a fatphobic, unabashedly racist dillweed with a Travolta-in-Grease pomp; there’s Connor (Ryan Windish), a Speedo-stuffing straight bartender at the Trocadero, the bar where the competition is being held; Kiernon (Michael Cusumano), an Eastern European ballet dancer who dreams of creating a dance production out of a traumatic bear attack that he suffered; and finally there’s Broadway hopeful Ken (Eric Spear), who plays the Pollyanna of the group and has no other personality traits. Judging the competition are Weinsteinian bar owner Hank (Rick Crom), Celine Dion impersonator “embodier” Tina Perkins (Christina Bianco), and the previous year’s winner Blake Goldenrod (actual gay porn star Jake Steel); the event is hosted by green-wigged drag queen Hedda Lettuce (billed as herself), and rounding out the cast is stagehand Simon (Derek St. Pierre), who is “dating” (read: being taken advantage of by) Chase.

A go-go mockumentary isn’t a bad idea, especially given the time of the movie’s release. By 2011, The Office was in its sixth season and both Parks and Recreation and Modern Family were in their second or third; the format was reaching heights of popularity that were previously undreamt of. What the film is most clearly attempting (and failing) to imitate, however, is 2000’s Best in Show, or perhaps a lighter, softer version of 1999’s Drop Dead Gorgeous, as indicated by the outlandishness of the character types present in the former and the local competition setting of the latter. Both films were cult touchstones for young queer cinephiles, and their legacy (if not their quality) is on full display here. The problem is that there are no characters who are engaging. Sure, Kirstie Alley’s overzealous stage mom character in Gorgeous isn’t “likable” in the traditional sense, and there are a lot of bitchy queens popping off all over Show, but they’re fun. The characters in Go Go Crazy are neither. The LGBTQIA+ community has long been one that embraces wit and witticisms as a core part of the social space, but it’s also well-known that there are those for whom simply being mean is treated as a replacement for having a personality, especially among those who equate camp bitchiness with comedy but don’t really understand the artistry behind a well-crafted and delivered bon mot, as opposed to face value racism and unclever pettiness.

It’s a kind of mean streak without cleverness that is a throughline in Go Go Crazy. We’re clearly supposed to love to hate Chase, but in reality, we just hate him. That’s not to say that there isn’t the occasional joke that not only lands but works, but they are few and far between. The comedy of an American who doesn’t understand the difference between the state of Georgia and the nation of the same name (or who has never heard of the latter), from which Kiernon hails, is always good for a wry smile if nothing else. Too often, though, the film’s attempts to squeeze comedy out of the kind of pranks that were cliché in the 1980s, like putting itching powder in a competitor’s jock strap* or greasing up the pole before a rival’s dance to prevent them from finishing their routine, fall flat on their face. This is a relic of a film, a pseudo-raunchy sex comedy that’s actually fairly tame outside of its references to Hank’s sexual-predation-as-business-practice, which is itself treated glibly by the narrative in a way that is wouldn’t be now (and shouldn’t have been then). Go Go Crazy gets by solely on the physiques of its cast, which was already a weak draw in 2011 and is even less so now, when pornography has become widespread and available to just about everyone on a device that they keep in their pockets. Worse still, the version on Tubi has some really notable technical issues, including multiple instances of audio errors where it’s clear that the actor had micing problems, and where ADR should have been used if they weren’t going to do another take. I’m not sure if this is a Tubi problem or if it’s present in other releases (like the DVD), but it’s very noticeable and lends the production an amateurish feeling, which is shocking given that late director Fred M. Caruso’s previous film, The Big Gay Musical, had better, more professional production value.

Even as a piece of queer cinema history, it’s not that valuable. Like a TLA release, the eye-candy cast of this one is, unsurprisingly, made up of cast members that lack a headshot on IMDb. Even if you feel like taking a trip back through time, this is one to avoid.

*Bizarrely, this was also a plot point in Is It Just Me?, as a petty revenge ploy by Blaine against Cameron when he thought Cameron had hooked up with Xander, just in case you forgot that Blaine is a terrible person.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Movie of the Month: Salome’s Last Dance (1988)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made Brandon, Boomer, and Hanna watch Salome’s Last Dance (1988).

Britnee: Last year, while I was on a month-long Ken Russell binge, I watched Salome’s Last Dance for the very first time. I had avoided it for a while because I assumed it was going to be a run-of-the-mill period piece. I do enjoy period films, but I have to be in a particular mood to watch them. It turns out Salome is more than just a period film. It’s a trashy masterpiece! How could I expect anything less from Ken Russell?

Salome starts with a framing narrative where the staff at a London brothel put on a performance of Oscar Wilde’s banned play, Salome, for none other than Oscar Wilde himself. The play is so magnificent that it’s easy to forget that you’re watching a play within a movie. The vibrant set and gaudy costumes are visually pleasing components to this very sexy Salome production, and I just loved all of it. Ken Russell even plays the part of the play’s photographer! There all sorts of delicious little treats strewn throughout the show, such as topless dominatrix guards with silver nipples and a zombified John the Baptist.

The actress who plays Salome in the play, Imogene Millais-Scott, is phenomenal. She has a very cat-like presence that really makes for an interesting take on the character, and her passionate and intense line deliveries outshine everyone else in the film. Millais-Scott was almost blind from an illness before she started filming, so the fact that she showed up and showed out in Salome regardless is insane.

What I enjoyed the most about Salome is that we never really leave the theatre. There aren’t many moments where we go into different areas of the brothel to follow up on what Wilde and everyone else is doing while the play is going on. The play is just so damn good that I never wanted to leave, so that layout worked out for me. Brandon, was that something you enjoyed as well? Would you have preferred more scenes that were not part of the actual Salome play?

Brandon: While I appreciated Russell’s playfulness in burying the play under several layers of metatextual remove, I don’t know that diving any deeper into the off-stage narrative would’ve added anything to this film’s entertainment value. It makes sense for Russell to include Wilde’s off-stage antics in the brothel for a couple reasons: to help highlight their shared qualities as button-pushing provocateurs and to give shape to the brothel’s otherwise slight production of Salome. The onstage performance is presented almost as a series of living tableaus, where the actors’ costuming & positioning against the hand-painted backdrops is far more outrageous & attention-grabbing than any of the spoken dialogue. There’s almost a John Waters Community Theatre quality to the play, wherein total freaks endlessly rhapsodize about how gorgeous they are – only interrupting those breathlessly horny rants for an occasional fart joke or dance break. As fun and as wonderfully artificial as that production can be, it’s also a huge relief to occasionally drift away from it to check in on Wilde’s escapades as a half-attentive audience. He gropes the staff, ruthlessly critiques their acting skills, and fires off a few of his infamously dry witticisms as a form of self-amusement (including a particularly great one about how brothels “combine business with pleasure”), seemingly bored by the onstage tableaus. I was not bored by this stage production of Salome, but it was still funny hearing that potential complaint in real time from the author of its source material. He doesn’t need to do anything more than that to justify being there.

Overall, I found this movie to be a wonderful clash of high art pretension and broadly comedic, hyper-horny trash: Ken Russell’s specialty. It often feels more like Russell doing Derek Jarman or a Cockettes stage show than Russell doing Oscar Wilde, so it was smart for the director to include an in-the-flesh avatar for Wilde onscreen, injecting the writer’s more idiosyncratic quirks into an adaptation of his play that doesn’t especially highlight them (the way a straightforward adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest might have). I totally get Russell’s decision to stage Salome with that metatextual remove, as it allows for an overlap between Wilde’s rapdifire dry humor and the director’s sopping wet everything else. What I’m much less clear on is whether there’s any significance to the movie being set on Guy Fawkes Night in particular. Boomer, is there any textual or historical significance you can glean from this private, brothel-set staging of Salome occurring on that uniquely British holiday? Or did that register as just as significant of a detail as the fart jokes and the hand-painted moon?

Boomer: Is there any figure in English history more widely misunderstood in the pop cultural consciousness than Guy Fawkes? His exaggerated likeness went from centuries-old scapegoat mask to symbol of anti-tyranny in Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, then to wider infamy with that graphic novel’s 2005 film adaptation, and then as the mask of online hacktivism group Anonymous. In all of his popular culture incarnations, Fawkes is a man of progress fighting for liberty against an oppressive state, but in reality Fawkes himself wasn’t … that.

Most of our readers probably already know this but just to be safe (and as Cliffs Notes as I can make it): infamously, Henry VIII blamed his wife/wives for giving him nothing but daughters (and thus no mail heir to the throne, as the law sort of dictated and tradition clearly required) and, since the Catholic Church wouldn’t let him divorce any of them, he created his own, new church (The Church of England, aka the Anglican faith) with blackjack and hookers with the option to let him trade in his wife for a new model without having to do all that beheading (which he still did sometimes anyway). He was immediately succeeded by his (Anglican) nine year old son Edward VI, and upon Eddie 6’s death at 16, the crown passed to Edward’s (Catholic) sister Mary. Better known as Bloody Mary, she attempted to return property that had been acquired by the state back to Catholic control but was largely prevented from doing so by Parliament, but that didn’t stop her from burning 280 (Protestant) people at the stake for religious dissent. When she died, there was yet another hullabaloo that eventually led to her (Protestant but, like, mostly pragmatic about it) sister, Elizabeth becoming the Queen of England. Elizabeth never had any children of her own and went to her deathbed saying “nah” to requests that she name an heir, there was another succession debate that resulted in her nephew James (also a Protestant but hyperfixated on the heresy of witchcraft rather than the heresy of Catholicism), Mary’s son, being coronated as the new king.

The Gunpowder Plot was an attempt by Catholics to assassinate James I solely because he was a Protestant (and a fairly tolerant one at that, having seen how the people turned on his mother for her religious persecution). Guy Fawkes was just a guy from York who had been fighting in Spain during a time when Spain and England were allied (mostly because they were both Catholic states) and was so unhappy that everything was so Protestant now that he went so far as to petition the Spanish throne to turn their attention toward retaking England, for Catholicism. His job in the plot was to guard the gunpowder, but he was caught, and the whole thing fell apart; this lead to the declaration of November 5 as Guy Fawkes Night, which became the primary commemoration of England as a nation-state (a corollary would be the U.S.’s Independence Day) as well as a focus for anti-Catholic sentiments. Eventually, things got so heated that Guy Fawkes Night may as well have been The Purge for Catholics, but reform eventually nerfed that element of the proceedings until GFN was essentially little more than a name for a celebration that was mostly divorced from its roots (a corollary would be the U.S.’s Labor Day, which was originally created as a celebration of the Labor movement and is now mostly a holiday for the enemies of Labor to get 50% off jeans while Laborers … labor), becoming just a holiday.

Historically, Wilde’s actual arrest occurred in late May 1895, at nearly the opposite side of the calendar cycle as early-November’s Guy Fawkes Night; Russell, as a Briton himself, would know this and wouldn’t have made such a significant change without reason. Or would he? Robert Catesby, the mastermind behind the Gunpowder Plot, was beheaded like John the Baptist, but his decapitation was postmortem (in order for his head to be exhibited outside of Parliament as a warning, as you do). He did die (of being shot) clutching a portrait of the Virgin Mary, who was John the Baptist’s aunt. But really, that’s grasping at very tenuous threads. There’s little that correlates Fawkes or the Gunpowder Plot to Wilde or Salome. Salome as a figure of myth/history is technically royal and the Gunpowder Plot revolves around an attempt at a religious coup via regicide, but the two events are fairly different otherwise. One could sift to find some relationship between Salome’s existence as Herod’s stepdaughter from a previous marriage and the succession crisis (that at least partially revolved around kingship transferring from Edward VI to Mary, his stepsister from his father’s previous marriage) that eventually led to James I’s reign, but that’s really pushing it. Biblically, Salome isn’t even given a name and is mentioned only as Herodias’s daughter, and we only have a name for her because of Titus Flavius Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews (completed ca. 93 or 93 C.E.). There are some who argue that Salome the Disciple (one of the tenders of Jesus at the crucifixion and witness to his empty tomb, depending upon the gospel in question) and Salome the daughter of Herodias could be the same person, and that admittedly makes for a fun redemption arc Bible headcanon if that’s your bag, but most scholars hold that the latter Salome was the sister of Mary.

Beyond that, one is hard pressed to find a connection between GFN/The Gunpowder Plot and Salome/Wilde other than this: despite how they have been interpreted by right wing regressives in the present, the teachings of Jesus were iconoclastic and progressive, and the decapitation John the Baptist as both his harbinger and hype man could be interpreted as the state’s execution of a rabble-rousing progressive dissident; if one sees Fawkes as an analog of Herod II, pushing for a return to a more regressive, conservative form of governance, it almost works. But not quite. Maybe all he wanted was for future viewers to watch the film annually on GFN? Move over, “Is Die Hard a Christmas movie?”, it’s time for the real debate: “Is The Last Dance of Salome a Guy Fawkes Night movie?”

One of the things that I found puzzling while watching the film was the presence of ciswomen actors as women in the play and its framing device. Every plot summary of Last Dance online notes that the film takes place in “an all-male brothel,” but that doesn’t seem to be the case for many of the ostensibly cisgender topless women serving in the ensemble or Imogen Millais-Scott as Salome/Rose. It’s possible that I’m very wrong about this (the copy of this film that I saw was the one that’s grainy, free on YouTube, and subtitled in Spanish), but I’m guessing that there was a body double used in the final, full monty frame of Salome’s dance itself, which makes me curious about the casting, given that I can find no evidence that Millais-Scott is trans. Does this casting of a ciswoman as a man-portraying-a-woman read strangely to you, Hanna? Given that Millais-Scott’s powerhouse performance is the biggest draw in the film (at least for me), I’m not sure I would have preferred this be done a different way, but I’m of two minds. After all, men portrayed all roles, including women, for a huge chunk of British theatrical history. What do you think?

Hanna: In general, I was a little torn by this too. Why not feature an all-male performance for Oscar Wilde, especially given the history of British theatre? I would have loved a glitzy, dragged-up rendition of Salome. On the other hand, since the premise of the film is that Salome is so publicly subversive that Oscar Wilde can only view its performance behind the walls of a brothel and women were banned from performing onstage in England until the 1660s, the use of female actresses would technically be the more subversive choice for that time (although that point was probably moot by the late 1800s).

Regarding Millais-Scott’s casting specifically, I actually didn’t think that she was cast as a man portraying a woman; I thought that Rose was a cisgender female chambermaid for the brothel playing Salome, not a male worker, and that the appearance of the body double – dubbed “Phoney Salome” in the credits –was meant to be a prank on Herod within the play (i.e., Herod got horny for an anonymous male slave and Salome never really danced for him) and a scintillating little show for Wilde. I would guess that the bare-breasted guards were also workers in the brothel. That being said, I truly have no idea what actually happened – that’s just my best guess.

If I’m wrong about the casting and Rose/Salome is meant to be a male actor playing a woman in the film, it might have bothered me if the role had been taken by any other cis-woman. As it is, I wouldn’t trade Millais-Scott’s mesmerizing performance for anything, and if it were up to me, I would probably shirk gendered roles and British theatre history to feature her. Her Keatsian monologue with John the Baptist was equal parts hypnotic and bratty, and has significantly contributed to my arsenal of obsessive, lusty similes. That scene alone was worth the $3.99 rental.

Lagniappe

Britnee: I love the costume design in this movie, especially the costumes for Herodias and Salome. It’s all a mix of BDSM, pageant drag, and Victorian fashion. The costume designer, Micheal Arrals, is only credited for this one film, and I can’t find much about him online. I want to know more about this mysterious genius!

Hanna: My first exposure to the story of Salome was stumbling upon the grotesque and gorgeous illustrations that Aubrey Beardsley produced for Wilde’s original run of his play (especially “The Dancer’s Reward”). Those illustrations and Salome’s Last Dance compel me for the same reasons: they are intricately and ornately detailed, a little bloody, and horny as all get-out. Those illustrations were highly regarded by Wilde, and in my opinion, Russell did a fantastic job of bringing that mood to his adaptation.

Boomer: Thank you for indulging me in my recapitulation of various English succession crises. For a film that features an entirely male cast performing a play in which they inhabit men and women’s roles, I recommend Lilies. If you’re interested, the single-Salome interpretation noted above (that she was both Herodias’s daughter and later a disciple), was an idea probably influenced the narrative of the 1953 film Salome with Rita Hayworth in the title role.

Brandon: This conversation concludes five full years of Movie of the Month discussions, a tradition we’ve continued since our very first month blogging as a crew. Somehow, this is the first time we’ve ever doubled up on any one particular director over all those years, having previously covered Ken Russell’s Crimes of Passion (still one of my all-time favorite films) back in May of 2015. I’m proud of the wide breadth of movies we’ve discussed so far with this project. I’m also proud that when we inevitably cycled back it was for Ken Russell in particular. It couldn’t have happened to a bigger pervert.

Next month: The Top Films of 2020

-The Swampflix Crew

To Decadence With Love, Thanks for Everything (2020)

The very last in-person social event I attended before the COVID lockdowns hit New Orleans this March was a Joni Mitchell tribute show at the AllWays Lounge. Watching drag queens, burlesque performers, and other assorted weirdos pay homage to as unlikely of an icon as Joni Mitchell was a bizarre treat, especially by the time Krewe Divine member CeCe V. DeMenthe was doing Mitchell as Divine in a Female Trouble-inspired get-up late in the show. I very much miss going to local, avant-garde drag shows like that Joni Mitchell tribute, most of which are anchored to the AllWays Lounge and the surrounding bars on St. Claude Ave. It’s a gaping, ever-widening hole in my social calendar that only became more glaring while watching To Decadence With Love, Thanks for Everything at this year’s (mostly) virtual New Orleans Film Festival.

To Decadence With Love is a local documentary that follows two exceptionally hard-working performers on the contemporary New Orleans drag scene: Franky and Laveau Contraire. Chronicling the two queens’ whirlwind of nonstop gigs over Southern Decadence weekend in 2019 (think Pride Weekend, only much sweatier), the film manages to capture a wide-ranging portrait of contemporary New Orleans drag over a shockingly short period of time. It’s amazing that Franky or Laveau had enough time to freshen their make-up or nap between gigs, much less talk to a documentary crew, but their guided tour of the city on a big moneymaker weekend is continually engaged & energetic. I don’t know that it fully captures what I love about watching these two performers in particular (Franky’s attention-commanding crowdwork and Laveau’s tightrope walk between the traditional & the avant-garde, respectfully), but it certainly sketches out a bigger-picture portrait of the scene where their art is near omnipresent.

I’m most grateful for this documentary’s efforts to capture how drastically different the New Orleans drag scene is now vs. the traditional Southern Pageant Drag I remember growing up with here. While Franky and Laveau Contraire are the overworked tour guides at the center, they make sure to pull the audience by the hand through the performance-art oddities of fellow weirdos & New Orleans Drag Workshop alumni like Maryboy, Apostrophe, Tarah Cards, and Gayle King Kong – some of my very favorite local performers, all of whom I miss tossing sweaty dollar bills at in various cabarets around town. Laveau Contraire in particular is a perfect choice of narrator in deciphering what makes the modern scene here so distinct & worthy of archival documentation, as she is intimately familiar with the traditional Pageant scene that contrasts it (which is still around, and still entertaining on its own merits). The movie also just wouldn’t be complete without her no matter what, since she tirelessly works practically every show on the local calendar.

I don’t know that To Decadence With Love will have much of a life outside of The New Orleans Film Festival, despite winning the fest’s Jury prize for Best Louisiana Feature. I imagine that, at the very least, its music clearance logistics would be an absolute nightmare in terms of distribution, considering how much drag relies on pre-existing pop media. There also isn’t much to its formal approach that distinguishes it as a documentary, outside maybe the way it interviews rideshare drivers on the trips between shows with equal weight as if they were also drag queens (emphasizing their shared reliance on spontaneous gigs & tips). Still, it’s a smart, entertaining document of a hyper-specific pocket of contemporary New Orleans culture that deserves this kind of attention before it’s lost to time. I also personally found it bittersweet to see that scene so vibrantly alive just one year ago, considering how drably uneventful my 2020 social life has been without it.

-Brandon Ledet

Robin Williams’s Undervalued Restraint in The Birdcage (1996)

Usually, when we praise comedians for their acting, it’s when they Get Serious in a dramatic role. When Melissa McCarthy goes dark for a Can You Ever Forgive Me? or Bill Murray dulls down his irreverence for a Lost in Translation, it almost feels like a cynical Oscars play – because those are the roles that get prestige-circle accolades. Robin Williams’s career is an excellent sample of this pattern, since the hyperactive goofballery of his comedy and the reserved vulnerability of his dramatic performances are at such drastically opposed extremes. Williams’s dramatic turns in grounded, sober films like Dead Poets Society & Good Will Hunting are paradoxically showy in their restraint, considering how starkly different they are from the frantic, coke-rattled mania of his comedic sidekick roles and his on-stage stand-up routines. His awards attention for those more somber, restrained performances practically register as a child getting a lollipop for good behavior.

If we’re going out of our way to highlight Williams’s finest roles as the ones where he’s most restrained, there is at least one frantic screwball comedy that belongs in the conversation: 1996’s The Birdcage. A collaboration between comedy legends Nichols & May (as director & screenwriter, respectively), an early credit for overachieving cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and a remake of a popular French farce, The Birdcage has enough built-in prestige to appear Respectable in a way that other Robin Williams comedies like Mrs. Doubtfire & Death to Smoochy do not. More to the point, it’s a performance that explicitly asks Williams to tone it down and keep his flamboyance under wraps for the sake of the plot – a self-inflicted restraint that you can practically see is eating him alive as the rest of the world around him gets exponentially zanier. The Birdcage might just be the one movie where Robin Williams is the best-behaved adult in the room, and much of its humor derives from the fact that he so badly wants not to be.

The Birdcage is a traditional screwball comedy about a tense, disastrous dinner party in which a gay couple (Robin Williams & Nathan Lane) hide their true personalities from the straight Conservative parents (Gene Hackman & Dianne Wiest) of their child’s fiancée (Calista Flockhart). Ironically, Williams is cast as The Straight Man in this comedic set-up, a proud but accommodating nightclub owner who’s willing to tone down his eccentricities to appease his monstrous asshole of a son. His main job is to sweat & fret as the deception unravels from every direction. Meanwhile, other comedic performers are set loose to go as over-the-top as they please: Lane as a drag queen doing Barbara Bush schtick; Hackman as a cartoon exaggeration of Republican Party cruelty (one that’s only become closer to the truth in the past couple decades); Hank Azaria as a hot-to-trot houseboy; etc. It’s a rare instance where Williams sets aside his usual “Look at me! Look at me!” manic comedy to merely react to the buffoonery that surrounds him, and that silent frustration elevates every other performance handily.

There is one isolated moment in The Birdcage where Robin Williams is set loose to do his usual hyperactive child routine. In a scene where he’s choreographing a stage number for his drag club, he excitedly shouts the directions “You do Fosse, Fosse, Fosse! You do Martha Graham, Martha Graham, Martha Graham! […] Madonna, Madonna, Madonna!” while acting out each impersonation in pantomime. It’s a brief moment where his manic stand-up persona (later repurposed for the eccentric sidekicks he voiced in kids’ movies like Aladdin & Happy Feet) is allowed to invade the screen. For the rest of the runtime, he’s asked to keep that flamboyance in check, and the act of bottling it up is visibly crushing him in a consistently hilarious way. If Robin Williams’s acting chops are mostly going to be remembered & lauded in roles where he exercises a toned-down restraint that contrasts his over-the-top comedies, I think it’s worth singling out The Birdcage as a performance where we can see that self-discipline being practiced in real time. If nothing else, it’s a lot more fun to watch than snoozers like Good Will Hunting or What Dreams May Come.

-Brandon Ledet

Mucho Mucho Amor (2020)

I can’t be the only American philistine who wasn’t aware of Walter Mercado before he was lovingly parodied by drag queen Alexis Mateo on the most recent season of Drag Race All Stars. That’s why the timing of the Netflix Original documentary Mucho Mucho Amor mere weeks after that episode aired was such a beautiful, unexpected gift. A sexually ambiguous television astrologer with a love for modeling extravagant capes, Mercado fits snugly within the parameters of drag artistry, making Mateo’s signal boost of his legacy a perfect use of Drag Race‘s annual, wildly uneven “Snatch Game” segment. Even without a previous awareness of Mercado’s public persona, Mateo’s impersonation and costuming made Mercado immediately comparable to other enigmatic public figures who’ve skirted the edges of drag pageantry – mainly in pop music (Little Richard, Elton John, Liberace) and in pro wrestling (Gorgeous George, Goldust, Cassandro el Exótico). A breezy pop-doc arriving to provide the details of Mercado’s particular place within that familiar pop culture paradigm so soon after I had first discovered his existence was a pure delight. On a more superficial note, so was getting a closer look at his closet full of fabulous capes.

It almost seems like a willful ignorance on my part to not have heard of Walter Mercado until now (or to have forgotten him from fuzzy childhood TV broadcasts), considering that he was a celebrity of note for four decades: 1969 – 2007. After a brief career as a suave telenovela star, Mercado quickly rose to fame in Puerto Rico (and, not too soon after, internationally) for his gently flamboyant horoscope readings, wherein he would dress like a drag mystic and assure each astrology sign that peace, love, and positive changes were heading their way. In a rare candid moment of Mucho Mucho Amor, Mercado explains that the costuming, wizardly hand motions, and mystical sets from these horoscope & tarot readings were merely “Stupid Stuff” that he would use to help get his message of love & positive thinking in front of as wide of an audience as possible. He’s not wrong. That Stupid Stuff is his schtick’s main attraction, and the driving force that puts audiences under his spell. He’s much more guarded during the rest of the doc, though, making sure to not reveal too much about his age, sexuality, gender identity, or personal vendettas against former colleagues who ransacked his television fame for easy cash-outs. Mercado strives to present a kayfabe version of himself in Mucho Mucho Amor that floats freely between any strict definitions of identity, so that he is more the spirit of pure all-posi love than he is a corporeal human being, and the doc does its best to oblige him as much as possible.

I get the sense that this documentary was originally intended to be a career revival for Mercado. Unfortunately, it proved to be more of a memorial service than anything, since Mercado did not survive long enough to see its completion. It’s very fitting to his all-posi messaging to have such a sunshiny posthumous documentary about his career’s upward trajectory, though, and it thankfully gives the film something else to fixate on besides the “What Happened?” true-crime investigation of the mysterious legal troubles that derailed his career. It also helps the film that Mercado was virtually omni-present on television for decades, reading daily horoscopes to his mesmerized fans, so that there is a glorious wealth of retro footage to mine for visual fodder. The ways Mucho Mucho Amor fills the time between those vintage clips of Mercado doing his thing achieve varying levels of success. The staged reenactments of 1980s households and the out-of-nowhere Lin-Manuel Miranda vanity tour that interrupt the flow of the narrative are a little distracting, but other gambles like the animated tarot card chapter breaks and the glimpses into Mercado’s contemporary home life work beautifully. Most importantly, the film allows Mercado himself to have the final word on his own persona & legacy in a lengthy series of interviews, so that the whole thing plays more like a document of a fascinating art project than a real human being, which works perfectly for the subject at hand.

Since I didn’t know much of anything about the subject going in, Mucho Mucho Amor could have just been 90 minutes of Walter Mercado modeling extravagant capes and I would have been just as pleased with the result. Actually, looking back, I’m not sure that it wasn’t just 90 minutes of Walter Mercado modeling capes, and I’m convinced its portraiture photo shoots deserve to be converted into a coffee table look book. It was wonderful getting to know this enigmatic astrologer mystic in such an intimate, loving way so soon after discovering his existence, and the movie mostly does a great job of showcasing what made him fabulous without getting in his way with its own theatricality.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #105 of The Swampflix Podcast: Mondo Trasho (1969) & Bootleg Drag

Welcome to Episode #105 of The Swampflix Podcast!  For this episode, Britnee & Brandon meet over Skype to discuss three dirt-cheap, no-budget films starring drag queens, starting with John Waters’s debut feature Mondo Trasho (1969).   Enjoy!

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

– Brandon Ledet & Britnee Lombas