The Giverny Document: Single Channel (2020)

The first feature I watched at this year’s virtual-edition New Orleans Film Fest was a 40-minute “experimental documentary” (read: essay film) about Black women’s cultural identity, a project that started as an art gallery instillation and an act of small-scale political protest. I gotta say, it felt nice to get back in the swing of things. The Giverny Document (Single Channel) is a little uneven & impenetrable in a way a lot of experimental art-project cinema can be, but its contextual positioning within a film festival environment made those qualities almost warmly familiar instead of cold or alienating. The Giverny Document packs a powerful emotional/political wallop when it feels like going for the jugular, but much of its runtime is a loose, dissociative experience that’s much more about puzzling through What It All Means than it is direct, clear messaging. As COVID has severely limited my access to film festival offerings of its kind this year, I found myself just as warmly nostalgic for this type of deliberately bewildering Art in general as I was affected by what this particular work was striving to say.

The Giverny Document is a conceptual art piece about Black women’s relationships with their own bodies and the meaning of “feeling safe.” These topics are clearly announced in plain dialogue & text so that the audience is at least grounded in terms of subject, even if the tools it explores that subject with are much more abstract. The “Single Channel” subtitle refers to the film’s nature as a synthesized work comprised of many smaller, disparate parts. In an art gallery setting, The Giverny Document is a three-screen instillation piece that simultaneously runs loops of multiple short films comprised of alternating, contrasting images: nature, police brutality, drone strikes, dancing, self-portraiture, etc. This distillation of that project combines all these opposing elements into a single montage, occasionally interrupted by people-on-the-street interviews fit for a local 1990s news broadcast and a stunning Nina Simone performance of the song “Feelings.” It’s a messy, provocative collage that attempts to make sense of the simultaneous, dizzying ways Black women occupy the world: from the personal & internal, to the globally political, to the spiritual & Natural. That’s a lot of ground to cover in a mere 40min stretch, which director Ja’Tovia Gary tackles by keeping its various thematic connections loose & poetic.

I don’t mean to contextualize The Giverny Document as A Film Festival Movie as a means of dismissing its artistic merits or political message. The film intentionally anchors itself to that Experimental Cinema niche by directly, cyclically referencing Stan Brakhage’s famous short Mothlight, which created a crudely beautiful form of animation by running actual insect wings through a film projector. This movie knows exactly what kind of Art World territory it’s trafficking in. It’s not all headscratching obfuscation, though. Often, the 90s-style news reporter will announce to potential interviewees that the movie is “about being a Black lady” to lure them in front of the camera, or police brutality footage will be interrupted by plain block text announcing “WE DON’T DESERVE THIS” as a direct plea for relief. Ja’Tovia Gary’s ambitious, poetic explorations of Black femme identity in both personal & political arenas is very much worth engaging with inside its own confines, which can alternate between disorienting & alarmingly direct the way its imagery alternates between Nature & culture. The experience just also made me consider how much I missed attending in-person film festivals over the past eight months of social distancing, since they’re one of the last places you can still encounter & enjoy this kind of Experimental Cinema provocation (outside the walls of an art gallery, at least).

-Brandon Ledet

Ask Any Buddy (2020)

Austin-based genre aficionado Evan Purchell’s depth of knowledge for obscure, disreputable schlock has long impressed me as an online follower of his work. Purchell’s Letterboxd lists, Austin-area repertory programming, and contributions to the Rupert Pupkin Speaks film blog always seem to uncover some grimy, unsung genre gem that no one has yet to highlight as a forgotten trashterpiece. Watching him fall down one hyper-specific rabbit hole within that larger fascination with low-budget genre relics has been especially rewarding, though, and I selfishly hope that he never climbs out of it.

Starting with an Instagram account (and most recently evolving into a weekly podcast), Purchell’s multi-media project Ask Any Buddy is an archival, celebratory effort to gather as much vintage ephemera he can find from the golden era of hardcore gay pornography. Like with the (mostly hetero) Rialto Report podcast & blog or HBO’s dramatized The Deuce, Ask Any Buddy sets out to highlight the underdog circumstances of independent filmmakers who produced vintage pornography in the days when it had delusions of Going Mainstream. There’s an academic, documentarian quality to this work, which seeks to preserve the real-life stories of an outsider film industry that was effectively outlawed in its time, making the allure of its circumstances irresistible to fans of low-budget, transgressive art. Purchell’s focus on the gay hardcore of the era offers an even more distinct POV within that vintage pornography academia, though. Through the Ask Any Buddy project, he’s effectively arguing against the fallacy that there was no solid queer filmmaking identity preceding the New Queer Cinema boom of the 1990s, as posited in works like The Celluloid Closet. In Purchell’s view, queer filmmaking already had its own established tones & tropes long before folks like Todd Haynes, Gregg Araki, and Bruce LaBruce arrived to the scene to greater critical acclaim; the earlier films just needed to include unsimulated blowjobs to secure financial backing and a guaranteed audience.

The centerpiece of this Ask Any Buddy project is its incarnation as a feature-length film. Currently making the “theatrical” rounds through online film festivals (after COVID-19 fucked up its initially planned distribution through AGFA), the movie is both a transgressive piece of D.I.Y. outsider art and a vital work of archival academia. A post-modern mash-up piece, Ask Any Buddy is composed of pre-existing clips from 126 gay porno films from the genre’s golden era in the 1970s & 80s. Rather than contextualizing these clips with any narration or talking-heads interviews, Purchell has simply edited them together in a linear, remarkably cohesive narrative that highlights the various tropes & collective fixations of vintage gay hardcore as a genre. The film loosely constructs a morning-to-night day in the life of an urban, post-Stonewall gay male archetype with an incredibly bustling sex life. With characters from over a hundred films taking turns amalgamating a single protagonist, we watch “a” gay man awake from a loopy wet dream, brush his teeth in the bathroom mirror, venture out into his city’s various cruising spots (bathhouses, the docks, drag clubs, porno theaters, etc.), celebrate with his local community at a house party, and then return to bed with his long-term partner to repeat the loop again. If vintage porno is supposed to have a documentary quality built into its unpermitted, renegade filmmaking style, here’s proof that you can repurpose that effect to loosely construct a typical day in the life of one of its subjects (one with an incredibly high libido and an incredibly short refractory period).

Approaching this film from a purely academic, documentarian lens is actually selling its merits short. Its deliberate inclusion of vintage Pride march footage, mapping out of glory hole etiquette, and illustration of what public cruising looked like in the 70s & 80s land it squarely in the realm of academic discourse, but that framing doesn’t fully capture how it works as an in-the-moment cinematic experience. By removing the typical signifiers of a documentary or essay film and instead assembling a found-footage tapestry narrative, Ask Any Buddy leans into the dreamlike, surrealist quality of cinema as an artform. In that way, it’s more akin to Kenneth Anger’s incendiary landmark short Fireworks than it is to anything like The Celluloid Closet, even though it is directly commenting on the history of queer identity & queer sex onscreen. Its disorienting match-cuts, its interchangeable characters & locations, and even the intentional surrealism of its source material all make the film more of a sensual, cerebral experience than a coldly academic one. By the time the “protagonist” reaches the celebratory house party at the film’s crescendo, the shared lived experience of the larger narrative comes into sharp detail, making the whole picture feel like a communal vision of political defiance & erotic imagination rather than anything as pedestrian as a mere documentary. Its overall effect is more hypnotic & psychedelic than it is intellectual.

The Ask Any Buddy film could easily have been tediously academic or pointlessly provocative in the wrong hands, but it instead comes across as a playful, genuinely loving catalog of tropes & narrative throughlines clearly assembled by a true fan of this supposedly low-brow, disreputable genre. As a stand-alone specimen of transgressive outsider cinema, it has plenty to offer its drooling spectators, including out-of-nowhere fistings and stunt “celebrity” cameos from the likes of “Gene Simmons” & “Marilyn Monroe”. Obviously, it also functions as commentary on pre-existing transgressive cinema from outsider artists of the past, whose contributions to the queer cinema canon Purchell argues have been undervalued. This film is a strikingly surreal, hallucinatory correction to that oversight, as much as it is an academically crucial one.

-Brandon Ledet

Tongues Untied (1989)

The most impressive, inspiring films are always the ones that achieve a transcendent artistic effect with subprofessional resources or distribution. By that metric, Tongues Untied is one of the most impressive films I’ve seen in a long while. Its means are severely limited by its VHS aesthetic & camcorder-level resources, which makes it initially register more as D.I.Y. video art than legitimized Cinema. Still, it pushes through that financial gatekeeping barrier to achieve a fantastic poetic effect that’s frequently surreal, furious, grief-stricken, hilarious, and erotic, sometimes all at once. The film’s distribution was controversial to the point of near-extinction, sparking a highly-publicized national debate about whether or not it should be allowed to be broadcast on the PBS network because of its explicit sexuality (no doubt largely due to that sexuality’s homosexual orientation). Still, it lives on decades later as one of the most vital, fearless documents of American gay life in its era, legendary on the same level as more frequently canonized works like Paris is Burning & The Queen. Tongues Untied is D.I.Y. filmmaking at its most potent and least timid, throwing stylistic & political punches far above its budgetary weight class and landing each one square on America’s crooked jaw.

At its core, this is an essay film about black gay life in the United States during the darkest days of the AIDS crisis. Building off the thesis that “Black men loving Black men is a revolutionary act,” a small sample of interviewees (including director Marlon Riggs himself) intimately share their life experiences as a kind of collective Oral History. They start by explaining how they’re outsiders in every community they inhabit, demonized & othered either through racism or through homophobia in every direction they turn. These confessionals gradually give way to an overt call to action as the film continues. They demand that more queer black men untie their tongues and become vocal about their own sexuality, so that their shared identity can become more normalized and less of a shamefully hidden peculiarity. The direct-to-the-camera messaging, photoshoot backdrops, and VHS patina of these interviews often recall a 90s anti-drug PSA or a local doc from a PBS affiliate, but the raw pain & sensuality of their stories smash through any potential aesthetic roadblocks. This is a doubly marginalized group who have to muster all of their collective strength just to be able to proclaim “We are worth wanting each other,” a revolutionary act after centuries of being told from all sides that they are worthless.

Even if it were just limited to these oral history interviews & editorials, the film would still be an essential document of black homosexual identity in late-80s America. Marlon Riggs pushes his work far beyond that humble act of self-anthropology, though, and instead aims to achieve pure cinematic poetry. Collaborating closely with the poet Essex Hemphill (who appears onscreen just as often as Riggs), he abstracts the interviews & essays at the core of the film by warping them into a layered, rhythmic vocal performance – as if all onscreen subjects were sharing the same artistic voice. The effect can be surreal or literary, making direct allusions to Ralph Ellison & Langston Hughes to tie the film into a black poetic tradition, and using a Gertrude Stein-style punishing repetition of phrases like “Brother to brother, brother to brother” to completely obliterate the audience’s senses. It can also be hilarious in a sketch comedy way, allowing for out-of-nowhere tangents into the sassy art of snapping or the playful sleaze of 1-900 dial-up phone sex. Most importantly, it unlocks the film’s full potential so that it’s not just a vocal diary of black gay men’s lived experiences but rather a soul-deep expression of all the pain, anger, lust, and joy they feel all at once within a society that would prefer they didn’t feel anything, or exist at all.

Tongues Untied uses the vocal rhythms and subliminal associations of poetry to crack its videotaped oral histories wide open, unlocking something much greater and more resonant than its means should allow. It is a transcendent work of art just as much as it is an anthropological time capsule, which makes it uniquely valuable to both cinephiles & political academics. There are plenty of examples of video art that pushed past the boundaries of fringe D.I.Y. experimentation to genuinely achieve cultural significance. However, I doubt there are many that could legitimately claim to be one of the greatest films of all time the way this scrappy, urgent VHS poetry relic could.

-Brandon Ledet

Fyre Fraud (2019)

Right out of the gate, Fyre Fraud has a few marks against it. Technically premiering a few days before Fyre on Netflix, there are some issues that aren’t fair to hold against it (for instance, that it’s trapped on the currently inferior platform, although one doesn’t have to read tea leaves to know that Netflix’s shrinking catalog and decreasing quality control could render this statement out of date any day now) and some that definitely are (Fyre never stoops so low that it uses stock footage to fill time in voiceover, or worse, playing out an entire scene from an episode of Family Guy as a kind of shorthand to demonstrate that, hey, sometimes lawyers are real jerks). But there are marks in its favor as well, most notably that it features an interview with Fyre founder and con man Billy McFarland, alongside its indictment not only of McFarland but larger “influencer” culture (again, gag) and makes larger statements against the kind of unethical behavior (I’d say “antics” but don’t want to minimize the impact) in which McFarland et al engaged, and how that can track to larger political movements.

To say that Fyre Fraud is constructed around its interview with McFarland isn’t quite accurate. Whereas Fyre had a narrative throughline that was largely chronological and structured its thesis around demonstrating that McFarland and company were not only woefully unprepared but inextricably crooked, Fyre Fraud is a bit more unfocused; it explicitly takes aim not only at the festival’s creators but its attendees (to a greater extent than Netflix’s film) and the larger sociocultural movements that have, as a side effect, opened up new areas of anxiety and taught us all new ways to compare our normal lives against the cultivated and curated fantasy lives of the nouvea célébrité and find ourselves lacking. As a text, it reads more like a collegiate essay in comparison to Fyre‘s performatively journalistic approach, a reach for relevance that exceeds the grasp of its vocabulary, a fact that is underlined by its aforementioned stock footage use; as a result, it would be easy to dismiss Fyre Fraud in comparison, but this would be a mistake, as it functions as a perfect companion piece to Fyre.

There’s duplication of content between both docs, as you would expect. In its early minutes, Fyre features blurry footage from a local news broadcast about McFarland’s previous failure Magnises, and from which the “black card for millennials” verbiage is drawn. The resolution of this footage was so low that I assumed it was from a webcast, but Fyre Fraud has this same footage in crystal clarity. The video of Fyre Festival attendees walking out onto the dark gravel beach to find hundreds of geodesic tents, video which perfectly encapsulates the moment when panic started to grow as they begin sprinting to claim a tent to call their own, also appears in both. But what Fyre Fraud infamously has that Fyre didn’t is an interview with McFarland himself. As NPR (and others) point out, this is ethically dubious given that McFarland demanded payment for his appearance, and Hulu apparently obliged, although no accurate figure has yet been provided. However, as Hulu noted in their own documentary, it is equally morally questionable that Jerry Media, who were involved with the marketing stunts for Fyre Festival and are potentially culpable for their participation in the scam of it all (admitting on camera in Fyre that, at the request of McFarland and Fyre CMO Grant Margolin, they deleted comments on social media posts that demanded response to issues of lack of facilities, payment issues, and other concerns), were producers on Netflix’s documentary. There are even mirrors and echoes between the two that aren’t exact but which reflect the way that all of these individual actions add up to a larger whole: Fyre saw Justin Liao extolling the virtues of destroying adjacent property to forestall having neighbors (despite his insincere, mealymouthed apologies across social media, which you can seek out if you so desire), but he manages to be outdone by “influencer” Alyssa Lynch, who may be one of the worst human beings on the planet in addition to being one of the few people who got the kind of living accommodations that they were promised. We see her self-shot phone video of her describing economy class as if she were asked to sit in steerage on a doomed ocean liner (also in Fyre) followed by her disingenuously saying that she felt “really bad” for those who ended up in tents–followed by an immediate cut to her gleefully dancing around her villa. Meanwhile, fellow festival goers were wandering around incomplete stages and unopened transport trucks.

Like Fyre, there’s much mirth to be had at the expense of all those involved (other than the unpaid laborers, both at home and abroad). Many of the attendees recall being plied with copious amounts of liquor, and we also see this on screen. One interviewee remembers stacks of unused lumber alongside pallets of alcohol, which made me chuckle. Obviously, there was a mass of spirits; alcohol usually doesn’t require any assembly, and if it does, the most complicated step is muddling. Another interviewee, when discussing McFarland’s ticketing scam that he attempted to run while released on bail, made the comment that “When you’re out on bail, that’s the time when you should be doing the least amount of crime,” which is hilarious in and of itself, but may have been an insight that McFarland needed, although it came too late. Oren Aks, a former Jerry Media employee who opened up about his experience on the inside of the media circus and criticized the company’s decision to deflect criticism, pointedly notes that the tent area at the festival was situated directly next to a 20-30 foot drop into a shallow pool of water: “They didn’t even think, ‘We need a fence’,” he says. Once you stop giggling at the ineptitude, you realize how lucky McFarland et al are to be facing jail time only fraud and not wrongful death or criminal negligence charges. And though no story shared by any participant in this documentary can top the revelation of what McFarland asked Andy King to do (as revealed in Fyre; if you’ve managed to miss the memes, I won’t be the one to spoil it for you), one of the participants here notes that there was a bulleted list of solutions (as we know, “[they’re] not a problems-focused group, [they’re] a solutions-oriented group”) that included “robbing customs,” which is about as absurd a thing as you can imagine, next to one of the blandly attractive male influencers recounting the events of the festival and ending his statement with “#rescuemission” and a frat boy chortle.

While watching Fyre with a group of friends, there was a discussion of McFarland and who he might really be, as we only see him in archival footage. A few of them noted that his actions, vacant stares, and frequent adherence to repetitive language made him seem like someone who might be on the autism spectrum; in discussion, I didn’t find this evidence particularly convincing or compelling I saw “Billy” as having an innate understanding of the intersection between the need for personal validation through online visibility and the psychosocial need for a space that reinforces ingroup/outgroup mentality along the lines of wealth and prestige. His apparent vacuousness was merely the cocktail that resulted from mixing his own internal urges for validation with his cunning ability to take advantage of this hunger in others. With Fyre Fraud, my roommate and I were again in conflict over our interpretations of McFarland (it should be noted that neither of us is really trained for this kind of diagnosis; my MA is in rhetoric and composition and he is a PhD candidate in pure mathematics, so in the interest of full disclosure I should note that our armchair psychoanalysis is utterly unscientific and bound by our independent horizons of knowledge and experience). We each saw confirmation of our hypotheses regarding McFarland’s behavior on display in McFarland’s silences and inability to properly respond to straightforward questions about his business practices. My roommate saw evidence of spectrum behavior: poor eye contact and a lack of facial expression, speaking with an abnormal rhythm, repetition of words and phrases verbatim without indication of understanding, failure to express emotion and apparent unawareness of others’ feelings, and even difficulty recognizing nonverbal cues. On the other hand, I saw a practiced deflection and proof of the codified narcissistic sociopathy of privilege: McFarland was controlling, disingenuous, dishonest, possessed of an exaggeratedly positive self-image and a sense of entitlement, manipulative, pathological lying (when confronted in a discrepancy, he just clams up like a child caught in a lie and lets the silence hang in the air as if waiting for the interviewer to forget they had asked anything), lack of remorse or shame (Michael Swaigen, the cinematographer who shot the initial promotional video, tells a story about Billy, “removed from it all by many layers of glass,” asking him to help him shoot a documentary that would reframe him as a recovering victim), and a need for stimulation (as evidenced not only in his methodology but also the anecdote from a Fyre planner about McFarland storming out of a business meeting in which the impossibility of their task was being discussed so that he could hop onto an ATV and speeding up and down the beach before returning and resuming).

One of the first things that we learn about McFarland comes in the form of a letter from his mother, read by a text-to-speech program, in which she extols young Billy’s entrepreneurship and early academic success. This is such a small moment, but it speaks volumes: when writing about her indicted criminal son, Mrs. McFarland talks about what a “special boy” he was, which is not unusual in and of itself as this is something that all parents do, but the fact that her apparent go-to piece of evidence to demonstrate his exceptionalism is how quickly he could complete his multiplication tables speaks to a certain kind of parental pathology that tells us a lot about the environment that created (and creates) Billy McFarlands. It really only gets worse from there, as young Billy’s first “business” was utterly different from what most of us had to for pocket cash: no manual labor like mowing lawns or raking leaves, no early demonstrations of responsibility like babysitting or fundraising; instead, he inserted himself as a middleman in some kind of crayon racket as when he was seven or eight. The devil really is in the details here: his first customer/victim was a girl he had a crush on, and all he did was help her with a broken crayon. So not only did he not respond the way that most children are socialized to in the U.S. (i.e., sharing), his first instinct when confronted with the opportunity to help someone in whom he had an emotional investment was to take advantage of her. Is that nature? Is that nurture? Either way, it’s fucked up and reveals a lot about the man who would grow up to perpetrate one of the most unsubtle but effective con jobs of the decade marketing what one participant called a “perfect generic fantasia” that, as another notes, “went into breach [of contract] on day one.”

One of the oddest things that crops up over and over again were the number of people who describe McFarland as charismatic, magnetic, handsome, attractive, or some combination of the above. He’s certainly not unattractive but it boggles the mind that so many people would buy into his brand of deception, both of others and, ultimately, of himself. Perhaps Fyre Fraud‘s most damning screed is not merely against Billy, but against the society that creates and encourages people like him. It’s not just what one talking head called a “tsunami of schadenfreude” that we can mock and laugh at, until you hear the influencers attempt to justify their shallow existence by talking about the importance of spreading their ideals. When asked what these ideals are, the best one can come up with is “Um … positivity. And, um … Yeah.” It’s impossible to take them seriously, and yet people do. Kendall Jenner apparently received a quarter of a million dollars just for posting the orange square that was used for Fyre’s promotional material to her Instagram. If that doesn’t make you want to burn down everything that humanity has built and salt the earth, I don’t know what will. I recently saw a post online (that I wish I could find again) which perfectly encapsulates my personal viewpoint on this: “everything I ever learned about the Kardashians I did so against my will.” It’s not 100% accurate (no one ever forced me to watch The Soup, I did that of my own free will and would do it again, every week until I die, if E! gave me the opportunity), and perhaps I’ve turned into a curmudgeonly old man against my will and without realizing it. I was certainly a part of the first generation of kids on whom this media saturation was foisted; I can still hear the Disney announcer’s voice saying “and featuring Brink‘s Erik von Detten!” in my dreams. I’ve also fallen into a spiral in dark times when looking at someone else’s social media and comparing my life to this cherry-picked, filtered snapshot of the existence of someone else, but I always managed to drag myself back with the realization that my independent thought was more important and that it was self-defeating to envy the lives of people that, at the end of the day, I wouldn’t want to be. But not everyone has those same mental defenses, especially when an online presence and the accompanying glut of monetized “self”-expression has been a part of their lives from birth. It’s a house of cards that deserves mockery, but also needs to be demolished. Otherwise we might end up with a Billy McFarland in the White House one day. Oh, wait. Shit.

Ultimately, Fyre Fraud‘s most chilling lesson comes not from anything explicit in the text, but in how it so thoroughly depicts the inherent dangers of contemporary capitalism, in which money is moved from here to there and back again as investors throw funding at one project and then another, fully formed companies appearing from the ether like Athena emerging from the head of Zeus and absorbing mountains of cashless capital from venture capitalists and employing dozens or hundreds or thousands of people under the promise of future compensation that often never materializes. Despite spending much of its runtime mocking a subset of “millennials,” Fyre Fraud fails to acknowledge that trends away from employment in fields of manual labor and toward what we loosely call “knowledge work,” and that this is a generational movement as much as it is a cultural shift. Even our language is having a difficult time keeping up: when searching for the correct terminology for the opposite of manual labor, lists of antonyms were largely words with negative connotations–laziness, indolence, sedentariness. (I won’t get into the way that language influences thought since this really isn’t the place to dig deep into the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, but it bears mentioning that this linguistic antipathy toward work that yields less tangible results is probably not a separate phenomenon from intergenerational employment-oriented hostility.) That the Bahamanian laborers went unpaid despite the extensive labor they contributed to Fyre Festival, coupled with the way that Fyre Fraud makes explicit the fact that McFarland was constantly seeking money from his next venture to pay off his previous one in an endless 21st Century Ponzi ouroboros, reflects the terrifying reality that all our currency is fiat and we live our lives perched on a veeeeery thin membrane of shared belief in hypothetical capital that barely covers a deep, dark abyss. And that abyss just gets deeper and darker all the way down, sped along by the exultation of celebrity culture and rampant, unchecked greed; that the two so often function as two extensions of the same ideology, coupled with the current American political climate’s demonstration of how effective those two evils can be when they walk hand in hand, sent a shiver of existential dread down my spine, and it should scare you, too.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond