Lagniappe Podcast: Equation to an Unknown (1980)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer and Brandon discuss the vintage, oddly melancholic French porno Equation to an Unknown (1980), which is cited as partial inspiration for the recent giallo throwback Knife+Heart (2019).

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherYouTubeTuneIn, or by following the links below.

– Brandon Ledet & Mark “Boomer” Redmond

 

Rapture in Blue (2020)

It would be easy to dismiss Rapture in Blue outright for the blunt cheapness of its production values. Directed by an 18-year-old film nerd who just discovered David Lynch, it looks & feels like countless other D.I.Y. shorts that help pad out film fest schedules (and film festival rejection piles). However, to ignore the film’s merits based on its amateur quality alone calls into question who, exactly, is permitted to make movies in the first place. If Ryder Houston was the teenage progeny of an established millionaire filmmaker—like, say, Sofia Coppola, Oz Perkins, Brandon Cronenberg, or Jennifer Lynch—he might have the means to create something of “professional quality.” Instead, Rapture in Blue was partially funded through ad revenue from Houston’s own YouTube Channel and filmed on borrowed equipment. It’s incredibly cool that a teenager in Texas was able to complete a professionally distributed movie (recently picked up by the provocative queer media label Altered Innocence) outside the usual Industry channels of funding & production. To dismiss it outright based on its production values alone would only reinforce the financial gatekeeping that ensures this outsider-filmmaking miracle doesn’t happen more often.

In a way, Rapture in Blue‘s budgetary restrictions almost make its Lynch-on-the-cheap indulgences more bizarrely surreal – the very same quality that made last year’s Knives and Skin such a memorable oddity. This is a medium-length supernatural horror about the anxieties & pressures of being closeted. A straight-passing teenager becomes increasingly frayed as his girlfriend pressures him into having sex for the first time. Meanwhile, he finds himself hopelessly drawn to the bedside of a mysterious stranger who’s moved into his childhood home. Like in the unlikely queer cult classic Freddy’s Revenge, every near-sexual encounter he has with his girlfriend is punctuated by the emergence of a grotesque demon, a physical manifestation of his anxieties about being closeted. Likewise, his genuine attraction to the teenage enigma who occupies his childhood bedroom inevitably comes to its own violent crescendo, one of his own cowardly making. There’s a nightmarish menace to the story that’s constantly on the verge of breaking away from reality to fully commit to a supernatural phantasmagoria. Whether because of budgetary restrictions or first-film timidity, that full-bonkers payoff never really arrives, but the film’s off-kilter mood lingers despite that disappointment.

The most obvious signifiers that this was directed by a teenager is the film’s nostalgia for cultural touchstones Ryder was not even alive for: classic Lynch, 80s goth soundtrack cues, early 2000s flip phones, Polaroid cameras, a strategically placed Watcher in the Woods poster, etc. The overall effect is a 90s film festival mood presented in 2010s digi, which works in its favor in terms of its old-school genre payoffs and maybe works against it in its commitment to a traditional straight vs. gay binary in its exploration of closeted sexuality. The movie can feel a little rough around the edges and frustratingly inert, but there’s also something really exciting about its D.I.Y. arthouse horror tone. If this were a professionally crewed Hollywood production starring Andrew Garfield & Caleb Landry Jones as its sexually conflicted leads, people would be creaming their jeans over The New Face of Horror. Since that’s not the case, let’s at least hope that it does its job as a calling card for Ryder’s developing talents, leading to better funded and more fully bonkers queer horror oddities in the near future.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #115 of The Swampflix Podcast: Olivia (1951) & Lesbian Boarding School Melodramas

Welcome to Episode #115 of The Swampflix Podcast!  For this episode, Britnee & Brandon discuss three classic lesbian melodramas set at boarding schools: Olivia (1951), Mädchen in Uniform (1931), and The Children’s Hour (1961).   Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– Britnee Lombas & 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

The Celluloid Closet (1995)

It’s not an especially unique observation that historical works are usually more indicative of the time when they were made than they are of the time they intend to represent. That quality of the mid-90s Gay Cinema documentary The Celluloid Closet still took me by surprise, though. The film still stands as an important work a quarter-century later, but the further we get away from its time of production the more peculiarly (and encouragingly) antiquated it becomes. Adapted from a critical text of the same name, The Celluloid Closet is intended to function as a history of onscreen gay & lesbian representation in Hollywood movies. In practice, it’s more of a documentary about how desperately starved queer audiences were for positive onscreen representation in the 1990s in particular.

As gay filmmakers & commentators walk the audience through the sordid history of Hollywood’s first century of homophobia (guided by a Lily Tomlin narration track), I found myself actively disagreeing with a lot of their opinions on what constitutes The Wrong Kind of Representation. I gradually recognized that I was feeling that way because of a somewhat spoiled vantage point of having a lot more variety in Queer Cinema to choose from decades after its sentiment had taken hold. At large, The Celluloid Closet is extremely dismissive of transgressive, morally troubling, or even actively villainous gay characters, the kinds of representation that generally creep up in movies that I personally tend to love (thanks to my bottomless thirst for low-end genre trash). Friedkin’s forever-controversial works Cruising & The Boys in the Band were singled out as especially toxic hallmarks of The Wrong Kind of Representation in the film, a poisoned leftover of Hollywood’s long history of unmasked homophobia. I love both of those movies; I’d even cite them among some of my all-time favorites. That’s an experience colored by a life lived when Normalized gay representation has since been achieved in popular media, even if it is still too rare to fully declare victory. In the 90s, transgressive, destructive creeps were the only gay characters who were allowed onscreen since the invention of the medium, which I totally understand would sour the thrill of their flagrant misbehavior.

Cataloging the censorship of The Hays Code era, the de-sexed caricature of the Sissy archetype, the villainization of “deceitful” trans characters, and so on, The Celluloid Closet mostly now served as a reminder of just how far gay representation has come in the couple decades since it was released. A lot of its searching-for-crumbs sentiment in its quest for positive onscreen representation sadly still resonates today, especially when looking for any prominent gay characters in big-budget media from corporate conglomerates like Disney. However, its push for cleaned-up, all-posi gay representation now feels extremely dated to me. I no longer believe we’re in a place where every gay movie has to be a sanitized Love, Simon-style journey of sunny self-discovery. I want to live in a world where Hollywood can catch up with the transgressive queer freak-outs of foreign indie releases like The Wild Boys, Knife+Heart, and Stranger By the Lake. In the 90s, when all the gay characters you’d ever seen were minor roles played for “comedy or pity or fear” we obviously weren’t there yet. Revisiting this documentary is a nice reminder that things have changed, however incrementally.

Documentary filmmaking itself has also apparently changed in recent years. I was shocked that The Celluloid Closet doesn’t label its films or its talking heads for the audience’s reference. You either recognize Quentin Crisp or you don’t, which would be highly unusual in a modern doc. We can refer to user-generated Letterboxd lists & IMDb cast lists to clear up any confusion or gaps in knowledge, though, so the real hurdle is just in understanding & reckoning with the film’s dated POV. As one of the talking heads explains (I wish I had caught their name, dammit!), “Nobody really sees the same movie.” Our personal biases and life experiences shape the way we internally experience art. The Celluloid Closet’s greatest asset is in documenting the biases & life experiences of gay audiences in the 90s in particular, since the history of onscreen representation in Hollywood is obviously an ever-evolving beast so no one documentary on the subject could ever be a definitive, everlasting work.

-Brandon Ledet

Pride (2014)

Sometimes political action looks like putting a brick through a window or spitting in the face of abusive cops who could (gladly) do much worse to you in return. We’re currently living through such urgent times, where the public execution of George Floyd has incited mass #BlackLivesMatter protests around the globe, which have been needlessly escalated by police. This is coincidentally happening at the start of Pride month, when political protest annually takes the form of parades & parties, a celebration of communities whose mere existence is in opposition to oppressors who’d rather see them dead. Both of these grandly conspicuous forms of political action are valid – vital, even. That’s a point that’s worth remembering in a time when major media outlets & self-appointed pundits at home will actively attempt to discredit them for demonstrating in “the wrong way.”

The 2014 film Pride opens with depictions of similarly conspicuous political action: a mass of ruthless bobbies beating down a crowd of working-class joe-schmoes for daring to stand up for themselves during the 1980s U.K. miners’ strike, followed by a dramatic recreation of a 1980s London Pride march. To its credit, though, the film doesn’t fully glamorize political organization & protest as romantic, action-packed heroism for the majority of its runtime. It instead paints an honest picture of what the bulk of political action looks like on a daily, boots-on-the-ground basis: it’s tedious, thankless, and mostly uneventful. Pride is realistic about how unglamorous the daily mechanisms of year-round protest are. It focuses more on the distribution of pamphlets, the repetitive collection of small donations, and the under-the-breath verbal mockery from passersby that make up the majority of political organization, rather than extraordinary moments like now, where more drastic actions are necessary. And it manages to make these well-intentioned but mundane routines feel just as radical & punk-as-fuck as smashing in a cop car window. It proudly blares Pete Seger’s union organizing anthem “Solidarity Forever” in the background as a rousing call to arms for a life decorated with chump-change collection buckets & hand-out leaflets that are immediately tossed to the ground.

Where Pride is incredibly honest about how mundane most political organization is, it’s shamelessly artificial & schmaltzy about the messy lives & passions of the human beings behind those collective actions. This is a feel-good historical drama about gay & lesbian activists in 1980s London who stuck out their necks to show solidarity with striking coal miners in Wales, modeled after the real-life organizational efforts of the Gays and Lesbians Support the Miners alliance. It’s basically an improved revision of Kinky Boots that genuinely strives for authentic, meaningful political observations about the overlapping struggles of queer urban youths and the working-class townies who are socialized to bully them instead of recognizing them as comrades. The only hiccup is that it’s ultimately just as safe (and weirdly sexless) as feel-good queer stories like Kinky Boots that erase the personal quirks & humanistic faults of its gay characters to smooth them out into inspiring, inhuman archetypes. There is no sex, nor sweat, nor unhinged fury in this film – just politics. And it remarkably gets just by fine on those politics alone because it actually has something to say about class solidarity & grassroots political organization, especially in the face of stubborn institutions who’d rather die than acknowledge your comradery.

Part of what makes this vision of community organization in sexless, tedious action somehow riveting is the collective charms of its cast, which is brimming with recognizable Brits. Dominic West is the closest the film comes to allowing a character to fully run wild, as an elder statesman of his queer political circle who’s prone to partying himself into a mad state of debauchery. Bill Nighy is his polar opposite, playing a bookishly reserved small-towner who’s so shaken up by the political yoots who invade his union hall that he comes just short of stammering “Wh-wh-what’s all this gaiety then?” Andrew “Hot Priest” Scott carries the cross as the film’s Gay Misery cipher—suffering small-town PTSD in the return to his childhood stomping grounds in Wales—but he gives such an excellent performance in the role that it somehow lands with genuine emotional impact. A baby-faced George MacKay is deployed as the bland, fictional, fresh-out-of-the-closet protagonist who makes gay culture feel safe & unalienating to outsiders who might be turned off by someone less “accessible”, but he somehow manages to mostly stay out of the way. We check in to watch him gay-up his record collection with Human League LPs and experience his first (and the film’s only) same-gender makeout at a Bronski Beat concert, but he’s mostly relegated to the background. The film’s class solidarity politics are always allowed to stand front & center as the main attraction, and the cast is only there to be charming enough to make standing on the sidewalk with a small-donations bucket seem like a cool & worthwhile way to spend your youth, for the betterment of your comrades.

A lot of Pride‘s historical setting dissociates its political messaging from our current moment. George Floyd-inspired protests aside, gay pride marches meant something completely different at the height of 1980s AIDS-epidemic homophobia than they do now, and Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative tyranny has since become more of a political symbol than an active threat. The mundane day-to-day mechanics of community organization have largely remained the same over the decades, however, so the film chose a fairly sturdy basket to store all its eggs in. It’s difficult to make the daily routines of political organization seem sexy & cool, because the truth of it is so draining & unglamorous (until it’s time to throw a brick). Pride doesn’t bother with the sexy part, but it’s got plenty of energizing, inspiring cool to spare, which is at the very least a more useful achievement than what you’ll find in most feel-good gay dramas of its ilk.

-Brandon Ledet

Circus of Books (2020)

As a tribute to a queer cultural institution that survived decades of political & cultural turmoil only to eventually be done in by the convenience of online shopping, the Netflix documentary Circus of Books has an almost impossible amount of history to cover in a mere 86 minutes. The now-defunct adult bookstore the movie profiles was a cornerstone of gay life in West Hollywood (a neighborhood historically referred to as “Boystown”) for half a century. Opened in a gay nightclub space that was unjustly shut down via 1960s “morality” raids (the same policing era that incited the Stonewall Riots) and persevering through crises like the AIDS epidemic & the Reagan Administration’s crackdown on obscenity in published media, the Circus of Books storefront saw a tremendous range of gay life, gay sex, and gay political action in its time. You can feel a communal reverence for the store in the film’s interviews with former customers & employees (notably including Drag Race celebrity Alaska Thunderfuck) that extends far beyond its function as a porn distribution hub. Circus of Books wasn’t just revered for its facilitation of anonymous hook-ups or its extensive catalog of gay porno (in a time when that was the only medium where you could see men kissing onscreen). If that were the case, the movie would have to cover all gay bookstores in the US instead of singling out one in particular. The store was revered because it survived several waves of cultural & political unrest to serve generations of gay men (and other queer customers) in a prominent queer neighborhood that suffered those same waves of strife.

So how does one documentary cover all that ground without spiraling out into a Ken Burnsian tome? Smartly, the Circus of Books doc doesn’t even attempt that feat. Instead, the film focuses on the unlikely suburban, heterosexual couple who owned & operated the store for the bulk of its historic existence. This film is less of a comprehensive document of gay life in West Hollywood during the bookstore’s operation than it is an intimate, humble family portrait. Even with all the cultural context it could distract itself with in the moment, Circus of Books is most fascinated by how an unassuming, wholesome straight couple stumbled into becoming the largest distributors of hardcore gay pornography in the US (for a time). There’s almost a true-crime style sensationalism to this dynamic, as the couple who owned the store hid the nature of the family business from their neighbors & children – explaining only that “We own a bookstore,” and not “We own a hardcore gay porn empire.” This is hardly the seedy unearthing of dark familial secrets doc you’ll find in movies like Stories We Tell or Capturing the Friedmans, though. Barry & Karen Mason’s energy here is that they could be practically anyone’s grandparents: sweet, doting, and sometimes politically infuriating old-timers who just happen to sell poppers & lube at their day-job. If there’s any sensationalist detail here it’s that these lifelong pornographers are exceedingly wholesome & ordinary – a normalizing presence in an industry that’s long been inaccurately demonized by Conservative pundits as morally corruptive.

A significant aspect of this film’s normalizing tone as a family portrait is that it was directed by the owners’ own daughter, Rachel Mason. Initially, this insider perspective is valuable as a means of access, especially in Mason’s camcorder footage from her childhood and insight about how her parents’ good-cop/bad-cop dynamic at home translated to their management style as employers. There’s also a peculiar parallel to establish in how both generations are filmmakers in their own right, with Rachel in a documentarian role and her parents producing a portion of the content that Circus of Books distributed in-house (they just happened to produce titles like Rimnastics Gold, Riverboat Sea Men, and Meat Me at the Fair). Where the movie really touches on something special, though, is when those initial shocks of her upbringing’s bizarre circumstances fade to the background. When the film’s not chasing down decades of queer culture history or attempting to (mildly) shock the audience with the details of the Mason family business, Circus of Books strikes gold in capturing the mundane, day-to-day bickering & kindnesses shared between its director and her parents. There is something vividly, universally relatable about the film’s various mother-daughter disagreements (which include whether or not an adult bookstore is worthy of a feature-length documentary in the first place); they just happen to take place in front of unusual backdrops, like an enormous wall of assorted dildos at a sex industry convention. It’s in those intimate, domestic exchanges where the film stumbles upon something uniquely worthy of documentation & broadcast.

Despite the peculiarity of its gay porno industry backdrop, Circus of Books is a fairly low-key, small-stakes family portrait. I don’t think it’d be outrageous to claim that it’s one of the most wholesome films about hardcore gay pornography you’ll ever see. Anyone looking for a comprehensive gay culture history of West Hollywood centered on the eponymous bookstore or a shocking exposé on long-buried family secrets will likely be disappointed by this film’s kind, intimate temperament. It is a fascinating, endearing work as a family portrait, however, one that establishes the production & distribution of hardcore pornography as being just as wholesomely, quintessentially American as baseball or apple pie.

-Brandon Ledet

I’m Gonna Make You Love Me (2020)

It feels like a frivolous thing to bemoan in a time when COVID-19 is wrecking people’s health & financial stability, but I really do miss going to the movies. Along with the sensory immersion of the theatrical environment and the physical ritual of it, there’s just something about the communal experience of watching a movie with strangers in the dark that’s irreplaceable with a home-viewing experience. This communal experience is at its strongest at local film festivals, where you watch a wide range of movies with the same strangers in the same spaces over the course of a week; you sometimes even make some friends along the way. When SXSW announced that it was launching a digital version of its film festival on Amazon Prime to make up for its COVID-related cancellation this year, I knew that communal experience was something the festival couldn’t replicate. It could offer a stuck-at-home audience a few low-budget, otherwise undistributed indie films to explore for a brief moment in this never-ending quarantine limbo. It couldn’t replicate the full film festival experience, though, not without risking its attendees’ lives.

However, there was one unexpected aspect of the authentic, in-the-flesh film festival experience that this year’s digital SXSW substitute offered: the conundrum of how to plan your schedule. There were only seven feature films offered for the fest’s weeklong run on Prime (among a myriad of shorts), so it wouldn’t be exceedingly difficult to have watched the entire slate if you were motivated enough. Part of the fun of film fests, though, is digging through their line-ups and deciphering what titles are worth your time and of your interests, based only on thumbnail images and their accompanying blurbs. Even with only a few titles to choose from, I had fun researching the digital SXSW catalog to schedule out what movies I had enough time for and enough interest in, as if I were attending an legitimate film fest irl. Only a couple titles really jumped out at me at first glance, so I ended up taking a chance on other films that were more longshots just to pad out my schedule (thanks to the luxury of the free time I have being stuck at home). All that was missing from the authentic film fest experience, really, were the nerdy crowds and the rushed, overpriced meals.

I mention all of this to say that I’m Gonna Make You Love Me is the exact kind of programming I usually pad out my film fest schedules with. It’s a self-funded, artistically muted documentary on an intriguing fringe-culture subject that you wouldn’t likely see covered in a more robust film with a proper budget. Its subject, Brian Belovitch, has lived an undeniably fascinating life. Through a series of interviews with Belovitch, friends, family, and neighbors, I’m Gonna Make You Love Me pieces together an aging gay man’s troubled history with his own gender identity, including a decade lived as a trans woman in 1970s-80s NYC. It’s a captivating, intimate story told in a bland & scattered style that unfortunately robs it of its initial allure. The film’s aimless, rambling opening offers no context for the story it wants to tell until far too late into the runtime; its lopsided editing style has no critical eye for what interviews or life moments are actually significant to the task at hand; it relies heavily on archival footage & photographs, but has to repeat what few scraps it has to the point of redundancy to fill out its runtime, etc. There’s an amateurish, unfocused quality to the entire picture, which is unfortunate since the story it tells deserves to be heard.

I’m Gonna Make You Love me fares much better as an oral history than it does as a film. While its skills & means may be limited, the movie is still admirable for allowing Belovitch a platform to tell his story for cultural posterity. He has effectively lived multiple lives (and married multiple husbands), most significantly as transgender nightlife celebrity Tish Gervais back when NYC was cheap living. While some transphobic creeps might be tempted to use Belovitch’s eventual choice to “detransition” as fodder for gender-essentialist rhetoric, his story is much too personal & period-specific to be abused that way. He recounts a tough life where he gained easier social acceptance (and more profitable sex work) as a trans woman than he did as an effeminate gay man, especially in the darkest days of the AIDS crisis. His gender transition & detransition story is one defined by tough choices made for daily survival, and ultimately confirms the emotional & physical damage that’s heaped on people who are bullied to live outside their gender identity. It’s a story that’s very much worth hearing, as long as you can get past the clumsy way the film tells it.

As disappointed as I was in I’m Gonna Make You Love Me in terms of craft, I still appreciate its kind tone & willingness to give Belovitch space to tell his own story. As a few of the headlines in the background reveal, it would be easy to turn Belovitch into a sensationalist sideshow with attention-grabbing monikers like “The Real-Life Hedwig.” Instead, the movie approaches him as if conversing with an old friend, which may hinder its editing choices but at least does right by its subject on a moral level. He has already been through enough without being exploited one last time for a juicy true-crime style exposé. The results are a little shaggy & disjointed but ultimately still enlightening to one very specific queer perspective that’s rarely afforded this kind of screen time. In that way, it’s the exact kind of film festival fodder I’m used to padding out my schedules with, so it was perfect programming for the at-home SXSW experience.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #106 of The Swampflix Podcast: Kenneth Anger’s Magick Lantern Cycle

Welcome to Episode #106 of The Swampflix Podcast!  For this episode, CC & Brandon tackle Kenneth Anger’s decades-spanning short film series “The Magick Lantern Cycle– from Fireworks (1947) to Lucifer Rising (1972).   Expect occultist rituals, leather bondage regalia, LSD freak-outs, and good old-fashioned homoeroticism. Enjoy!

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-CC Chapman & Brandon Ledet