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

Krewe Divine 2020

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. We were later 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 2020 excursion, our fourth year in operation as Swampflix’s official Mardi Gras krewe:

Eat shit!
❤ Krewe Divine ❤

Drag Queen Confidence vs. Drag Queen Protagonists

Drag has been having something of A Moment in recent years. Thanks largely to the visibility of RuPaul’s Drag Race on television, the sheer amount & variety of drag entertainment has practically exploded this decade. Just watching the pageant drag traditions of New Orleans alone mutate into fresher, weirder art in recent years has been bewildering in scale. In general, I don’t know if it’s so much that drag has fundamentally changed as an artform (at least not since the NYC Club Kids days of the 80s & 90s) so much as that society has changed around it. An increased social awareness of the nature & fabrication of gender has been a major cultural shift in the 2010s and it’s no surprise to me that an artform built on gender performance & gender subversion has increased in popularity along with it. I don’t know that this cultural change has been properly represented in our cinema yet, though, at least not through the eyes of drag queen protagonists. If anything, most of my all-time-favorite drag movies arrived in the 1990s: Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Too Wong Foo, Vegas in Space, etc. Drag movies in the decades since have seemingly focused less on the drag queens themselves, but rather on how their performance & exaggeration of gender inspires confidence in cis, hetero protagonists who use them as sources of personal inspo.

The foremost example of the Drag Queen Confidence movie I can think of was something I first discovered as a Broadway musical performance during a television broadcast of The Macy’s Day Parade (the one time of year I listen to showtunes). The 2005 Drag Confidence melodrama Kinky Boots has somehow gradually transformed from a middling Sundance Festival novelty to a beloved stage musical over the last decade, making it one of the more significant drag cinema success stories of recent years. In the film, Chiwetel Ejiofor plays a London drag queen whose need for large, sturdy high-fashion heels saves a struggling shoe factory that’s threatening to go bankrupt. Facing the inevitable truth that traditional cobbler labor is a dying art, Joel Edgerton serves as our protagonist in this drag-adjacent story – a man who must save his (shoe fetishist) father’s struggling factory by pivoting to designing “kinky boots” for beefy drag queens. Ejiofor’s drag queen side character, Lola (presumably named after the Kinks song, right?), isn’t portrayed as trans, but never appears out of makeup—even offstage—because women’s clothes give him confidence. His fearlessness in entering the small-town North England factory while dressed to the nines even inspires confidence in the straight-cis-white-male protagonist to be his own man and forge his own path outside everyone’s expectations of him. Kinky Boots is a fun movie, especially in Ejiofor’s plethora of cabaret performances of drag standards like Marlene Dietrich & Eartha Kitt. There’s also some extremely satisfying montage footage of shoes being assembled on an old-fashioned assembly line that could be repurposed as one of those viral video supercuts of perfectly functioning machinery. When you boil its story down to its basic parts, though, it’s a movie that somehow combines “white savior” (in Edgerton rescuing Lola from back alley harassment & dangerously flimsy footwear) & “magical negro” (in Lola saving Edgerton’s factory & personal life for no gain of his own) tropes into one efficiently iffy package.

The 2018 Netflix film Dumplin’ is even more egregious in sidelining its drag queen inspo characters as afterthoughts without inner lives of their own. In the film, Patti Cake$‘s Danielle MacDonald stars as the nonplussed, plus-sized daughter of a small-town beauty queen played by Jennifer Aniston – Miss Teen 1991. Sick of quietly suffering fatphobic microaggressions in her mom’s beauty pageant social orbit and fueled by the defiant spirit of her favorite pop diva—Dolly Parton—she enters the local pageant as a vaguely defined political protest, one that dredges up a lot of personal insecurities with her own body & personality. Where does she find the confidence to follow through on this attention-grabbing political protest? At the local drag bar, of course, where a gaggle of nameless queens devoid of inner lives (including Drag Race‘s own veteran “glamor toad” Ginger Minj) teach her how to strut in heels and perform traditional femininity with pride. Dumplin’ is a cute, harmless movie that reimagines Drop Dead Gorgeous as a wholesome melodrama about the value of friendship & self-worth. If nothing else, it’s near impossible to not fall for the charms of its feel-good Dollyisms like “It’s hard being a diamond in a rhinestone world.” However, its drag queen characters are essentially props & cheerleaders that only pop in to teach our down-on-her-luck protagonist how to be a self-assured, glamorous woman. They have no wants, needs, or crises of their own. The exist only to serve her story and seemingly disappear into vapor as soon as their offscreen.

Curiously, my favorite Drag Queen Confidence movie of recent decades is the one with the most viciously negative reviews. The 2004 slapstick farce Connie & Carla effectively ruined the career of My Big Fat Greek Wedding creator Nia Vardalos, who cashed in on her surprise megahit to make a deeply silly buddy comedy opposite Toni Colette (who wouldn’t?). A cross between Sister Act & Victor Victoria, the movie follows two tragically mediocre cabaret performers with an airport lounge act who hide from the mafia by posing as dive bar drag queens, until their act becomes so popular that their cover is blown. Connie & Carla has the broad humor of a decade-stale mid90s studio comedy and its “Cis women drag queens?!?!” premise has become eyerollingly outdated in the last decade (I’ve been to several shows with all-lady queens in the past year alone). Still, I found it to be a total hoot. Toni Collette is especially fun to watch (duh) in the movie’s frequent, elaborate cabaret routines – doing increasingly blue material with the “male” privilege drag affords her and lighting up the screen with a drag version of Jesus (as a woman dressed as a man dressed as a woman dressed as a man, a total gender meltdown). The movie often trips over its own feet politically—both in its eagerness to forgive homophobia and in its plastic surgery-shaming version of body positivity—but as far as Drag Queen Confidence movies go, it’s the most resoundingly successful film of this batch. It does right by its drag queen characters. Not only do the queens who help Connie & Carla learn to be confident women have their own lives & conflicts offscreen & on, but Connie & Carla themselves become actual, legitimate drag queens by the film’s end – not just beneficiaries of the artform’s confidence boost.

As much as I was tickled by Connie & Carla as a broad slapstick farce, even that enjoyment was small consolation for the general lack of quality drag cinema at large in recent years. If there are still great drag queen movies being made post 1990s (or at least post Hedwig in 2001), it’s all work that’s being done in the documentary sphere: The Sons of Tennessee Williams, The Gospel of Eureka, Drag Becomes Him, Gracefully, etc. The occasional, miniscule movies like Hurricane Bianca, Alaska is a Drag, and Holiday Heart that actually have drag queen protagonists aren’t cutting it; their limited resources don’t give them a fighting chance. If a drag-themed movie is being put together with a proper, professional budget, it’s far more likely that the queens will only pop in as quirky side characters – a dash of whimsical flavor and a selfless confidence boost to the hetero protagonists. They’re a road stop on Lady Gaga’s path to being born a star or Channing Tatum’s path to rediscovering his stripper mojo. They’re rarely, if ever, the stars themselves in professional-grade narrative cinema anymore, which is a total shame. Drag has become much more popular & varied since the 1990s, but the scope of actual drag queen movies paradoxically appears to be shrinking.

-Brandon Ledet

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