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

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

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– Britnee Lombas & Brandon Ledet

Werner Herzog, Gates of Heaven (1978), and the Artistic Value of the Side Show Publicity Stunt

Werner Herzog’s entire public persona is a kind of performance art, the documentation of which has become increasingly crucial to his filmmaking projects in recent decades. A Werner Herzog “documentary,” no matter its subject, is just as much about the filmmaker’s own philosophical worldview as it is about the world outside his mind. This suits the audience just fine, since Herzog is what would classically be described as A Character, someone who’s naturally entertaining and whose mere presence is always a kind of performance. A succinct, early taste of this performance art can be found in the Les Blank short-doc Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, which takes Herzog’s natural presence as a one-person side show as literally as possible. Staged as a promotion for Errol Morris’s debut feature Gates of Heaven (our current Movie of the Month), Blank & Herzog collaborate to document a blatant publicity stunt in which, as the title suggests, Herzog eats his own shoe in front of a live audience to draw attention to his friend’s work. With clips from Gates of Heaven interspersing with Blank’s Always for Pleasuremode of documenting the labor of food preparation (if you can consider a leather shoe to be food), and Herzog’s signature pontification on the nature of art & humanity, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe is an essential, one-of-a-kind collaboration between three of the most prestigious voices in documentary filmmaking. That’s an absurd thing to be able to say about what’s essentially a 20min infomercial for another, more substantial work.

Herzog opens this film complaining that television & talk shows are “killing” culture. He ends it confessing that filmmakers are also cheap illusionists & clowns, that his own chosen profession is embarrassing. Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe is self-aware of its participation in the death of culture. Just as its title is a cheap provocation, the event it documents is advertised in circus-style side show posters promising the shoe-eating stunt to a potential live audience. Herzog eating his own shoe is a stupid, pointless act designed to grab public attention for better art he believed deserved it. Supposedly, Herzog first jokingly bet that Errol Morris would never have the courage to complete a feature length documentary on a subject as inconsequential as a pet cemetery business. The story goes that he said if Gates of Heaven were ever completed & screened for an audience, he would eat his own shoe. Morris does not appear onscreen to confirm the terms of the bet in Les Blank’s short, nor is it confirmed whether the shoe Herzog eats is actually the one he was wearing when he made the bet, as he claims. The entire act is performance art born of flippant humor & male bravado, staged without apology as a publicity stunt to draw attention to Gates of Heaven, which had then yet to secure theatrical distribution. Les Blank shows an interest in the preparation of the shoe as it transforms into “food,” carefully documenting the hot sauce, duck fat, garlic, and vegetable stew used to soften & flavor it. Mostly, though, he allows Herzog to ramble on like a carnival barker throughout the stunt, pontificating as much nonsense as you’d likely encounter in a television broadcast or a talk show, yet framing it as art.

The idea that Gates of Heaven’s topic was too inconsequential for a documentary feels so foreign in a 2010s context. Some of my favorite documentaries in recent memory have been on topics as miniscule as erotic tickling, trash harvesting, and a single dead dog (as opposed to cemetery full of them). It’s also arguable that critic Roger Ebert later did much better by promoting Gates of Heaven in his own way, raising its profile by often citing it as one of the greatest films ever made. Herzog’s side show publicity stunt’s own value as a work of art is in making an even smaller film than the one he promoted with it. If Gates of Heaven’s topic was too absurdly thin to justify a documentary (something I doubt Herzog ever said or believed) then Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe is an even more extreme distillation of that same kind of art. This is an advertisement & an awkwardly staged performance art piece that somehow makes for compelling filmmaking thanks to Herzog’s natural charisma & gift for shit-talking. Like Gates of Heaven, it’s proof that you can make a worthy documentary on just about anything, even a frivolous bet that may or may not actually have even been real. In 2018, it likely would only have been presented to the world as a DVD extra. In 1980, it was art.

For more on June’s Movie of the Month, the landmark pet cemetery documentary Gates of Heaven, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Always for Pleasure (1978)

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Mardi Gras in New Orleans is a near-impossible phenomenon to capture in art. There’s a magical, revelrous spirit to it that defies a strict, all-encompassing definition. As one interviewee explains in the documentary Always for Pleasure, Mardi Gras is not a spectator sport. It’s something you have to engage with & participate in to truly grasp, which might be a significant reason why capturing its spirit on film or in words is like trying to catch lightning in a bottle.

Filmed in 1977, the Criterion-approved Les Blank documentary Always for Pleasure truly is the best introduction to New Orleans culture that I could possibly imagine. Where else are you going to find soul legend Irma Thomas sharing her red beans & rice recipe and Allen Toussaint explaining the significance of jazz funerals & second lines? There’s also glimpses of crawfish boils, Mardi Gras Indians, Jazz Fest, above-ground cemeteries, St. Patty’s Day celebrations in the Irish Channel, brass bands, street cars, Dixie beer, Congo Square, and what essentially amounts to music videos for Wild Tchopitoulas & Professor Longhair. At just less than an hour in length, the film is an easily digestible crash course in local charm & hedonism. An interviewee in Always for Pleasure describes New Orleans as “The City that Care Forgot” & “The last city in American where you can feel free to live,” and the supporting images that surround those claims make it feel like he might be onto something.

What’s most remarkable about Always for Pleasure, though, is how close it comes to the near-impossible task of capturing the totality Mardi Gras in a single work. There’s a little bit of historical context provided about how the holiday developed as “a lustful time before a time without” both within & without religious connotation. For the most part, though, the film is smart not to over-explain. It mostly just documents. With the shoulder-mounted shakiness of a local news camera investigating a crime scene, Blank’s movie takes you into the nooks & crannies of the Carnival season. If Mardi Gras is not a spectator sport, the reason Always for Pleasure succeeds is because it feels authentically participatory. It grabs you by the hand & leads you through the parades & celebrations in a playful, drunken “sea cruise” of excess & time-honored tradition.

There pretty much is no substitution for the all-encompassing sampling of New Orleans culture in Always for Pleasure. The only significant aspect of local flavor I can think of that’s missing from the film would maybe be some culinary delights: gumbo, king cakes, beignets, etc. . . . and, of course, the rampant political corruption. And because the city is so hellbent on preserving & passing down its traditions from one generation to the next, the documentary still feels eerily fresh today. Honestly, not much has changed in the past three or four decades except for the fashions. This is the New Orleans I know & love. This is the meandering magic of Mardi Gras preserved for posterity in a work of art. That’s no small feat, I assure you, so this ends up being the film I return to on an annual basis to get into the spirit of the season.

-Brandon Ledet