Buckjumping (2019)

Mardi Gras has an elusive spirit that’s impossible to accurately capture onscreen – whether in documentation or in fictional restaging. That’s largely because it’s a participatory culture – one that can only be reveled in, not observed. Countless local documentaries have attempted to tackle that impossible topic over the years anyway, usually through the lens of specific pockets of New Orleans Mardi Gras culture: the costume-beading traditions of Mardi Gras Indians, the pageant-drag of gay Carnival ball culture, the disruption of festivities caused by Hurricane Katrina, etc. For my money, the only doc that’s truly come close to nailing down the spirit of Mardi Gras is the classic Les Blank pic Always for Pleasure, which spreads its love & attention around an impressive portion of the city by partying along with its subjects. I mention this only to clarify that I mean it as a huge compliment when I say that the recent documentary Buckjumping feels like a 2010s update to Always for Pleasure, and a damn good one at that. Shot with at least six cinematographers over a three-year span, this low-budget doc demonstrates incredible patience in spreading its admiration, observation, and participation in New Orleans culture across the city to reach as many traditions as possible. At times, its parallels to the Les Blank classic feel deliberate, such as how it updates Always for Pleasure’s recipe tips from soul legend Irma Thomas by staging kitchen interviews with 90s bounce rapper Mia X (among interviews with other local hip-hop royalty like Mannie Fresh & DJ Jubilee). More often, their shared sensibility is more apparent in how they relate to the city and how well they capture its elusive spirit.

To be clear: Buckjumping isn’t specifically about Mardi Gras per se. Its announced subject is New Orleans dance traditions, which just naturally tend to revolve around the holiday. The ambition of that subject’s scope gradually becomes apparent as the overwhelming number of New Orleans dance traditions pile up onscreen: second-lines, jazz funerals, high school marching troupes, Mardi Gras Indians, dive bar drag acts, etc. Although it does conclude on the most modern addition to this tableau (the shaking & twerking of New Orleans bounce), it’s not so much a historical timeline of dance traditions from the city’s 300 year past as it is a participatory record of the traditions that are still thriving today. Led by head cinematographer Zac Manuel, the camerawork feels alive & alert in its hands-on engagement with its subject – filming the parade marches of dance troupes, footwork stunts of second-liners, and sweaty body-popping of bounce club hedonists with impressive intimacy & craft. There are extremes of emotions that naturally arise through that intimacy, from the soul-crushing grief of mourning to the ecstatic out-of-body experiences of second-line footwork at its most jubilant. Of course, this up-close, privileged documentation should be of interest to anyone who studies dance as an artform, but I think labeling Buckjumping simply as a dance documentary would be selling its merits short. This is a document of the elusive spirit of the city at its best, without comprising the black, queer, and radically political influences that propel that culture the way so many #NOLA commercializations of the city do. In other words, it’s an Always for Pleasure for the 2010s.

Living on Broad Street in the 7th Ward, one of my favorite Mardi Gras traditions is to hide in my living room from the first second-line after Fat Tuesday, not making it to the porch to cheer on the brass bands & rhapsodic dancers the way we usually do for the rest of the year. I’m always amazed that the local Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs still have the energy to party in that post-Carnival refractory period, the most recent one of which occurred the exact week I saw Buckumping at its second-ever screening. There are plenty of historical anecdotes & explanations of political context in this documentary that detail the evolution of our dance traditions (especially regarding their roots in slavery), but its greatest accomplishment might just be in how well it conveys the passion & compulsion that makes that bottomless dance energy possible. Maybe it takes an enthusiastic outsider to accurately capture that spirit onscreen (like Les Blank was when he filmed Always for Pleasure, Buckumping’s director Lily Keber is a young outsider relatively new to the city). More likely, this film is one of the few to accurately capture the elusive spirit of the city because it instinctively knows to participate rather than to merely observe (working with local cinematographers is likely also a plus). Either way, it’s an impressively successful, if not outright essential document of local Mardi Gras traditions – dance and beyond.

-Brandon Ledet

Krewe Divine 2019

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. Last year we were 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 2019 excursion, our third year in operation as Swampflix’s official Mardi Gras krewe:

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Eat shit!
Krewe Divine

Swamp Women (1956)

I’ve come to think of Mystery Science Theater 3000 as my childhood “bad” movie training wheels. It’s a crutch I no longer need to enjoy my Z-grade schlock, thanks to years of training under the tutelage of the show. As much as I appreciate that schlocky schooling, it often bums me out that the show has become an unavoidable authority on many of the public domain B-pictures they’ve covered, to the point where if you google the picture most immediate results will be jokes the sarcastic robots made about it. The early Roger Corman directorial effort Swamp Women (also known as Cruel Swamp and, on MST3k, Swamp Diamonds) is one such picture, which is unfortunate because I find the movie interesting enough on its own terms to not need the distraction of MST3k’s commentary diluting it. It’s a difficult position to defend, though, since Swamp Women hits so many of my personal obsessions as a trash-gobbling movie nerd. A cheapo Roger Corman crime picture about cop-hating “bad girls” misbehaving in Louisiana swamps, Swamp Women hits about as close to home as possible to my specific cinematic interests without including drag, witchcraft, pro wrestling, or outer space. The film is far from a knockout, but it is very much my thing. It’s easy to see how someone who’s not a New Orleans-based trash hound could need a little extra help from MST3k to make its basic premise enticing, but those days are long behind me.

An undercover police woman conspires with a prison warden to infiltrate a locked-up girl gang. The plan is to trick the girls into exposing their stash of stolen diamonds. She helps the hardened criminals stage a jail break (with only performative resistance from the warden) and, in return, they allow her to tag along in recovering the diamonds from their deep swamp hiding pace. Along the way they capture an innocent couple touring the Louisiana wilderness, reducing the cast to five women and one tied-up man – an indication of the level of sleaze that persists throughout. Swamp Women is incredibly faithful to its “bad girls” crime template, entirely obedient to the tropes & rhythms of a genre that would be later perfected in Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!. What it lacks in narrative innovation, though, it more than makes up for in how perfectly cool its central girl gang comes across onscreen. When they first break out of jail they have two immediate concerns: regret that they didn’t get a chance to shoot back at the cops and how soon they’ll be able to find “something decent to wear and some lipstick.” They look incredible even as they pick fights & trudge through the gator-infested swamp, sporting perfectly coiffed hair, razor sharp Joan Crawford eyebrows, and gigantic knives holstered in tight blue jeans. There’s nothing the film can manage to stage plot-wise that can match the pleasure of hanging out with these badass women, something that’s practically admitted aloud in an absurdly long sequence where they get drunk to brunch jazz and convert their tight jeans to cutoff hot pants with their comically large knives. Corman only barely pretends that out interests & sympathies aren’t supposed to lie with these degenerate women, but with the undercover cop who’s there to take them down. Why bother?

Because Swamp Women is so genre-faithful, its most distinguishing characteristic is its choice of locale, something even heavily referenced in its (unenthused) contemporary reviews. This was only Corman’s fifth directorial effort (in his second year of filmmaking, because he’s a beast), so he was still at a stage in his career when he was personally traveling the country selling his films directly to distributors. Around this time, New Orleans had just opened its first drive-in movie theaters, the owners of which were also interested in getting into film production. Corman gladly took their money, filming Swamp Women on location in Louisiana (and thanking New Orleans mayor deLesseps Morrison in the credits for the city’s cooperation). Because it was a Corman production, the actors were required to perform their own stunts in the actual Louisiana swamp, putting themselves in danger of the same gators & snakes the movie itself uses as thrilling threats to its misbehaving girl gag. I’m sure it was a miserable shoot, but the gator footage & moss-decorated trees really do make for a more interesting backdrop than a sound stage or urban environment ever could have (even if the live gators and their intended victims never do share a single frame). In my favorite example of the film padding its own runtime, Corman also opens this 70min feature with roughly ten minutes of touristy, people-watching Mardi Gras footage. Playing documentarian, Corman captures the 1950s Krewe of Rex rolling down Canal Street (in color!), followed by masked revelers—all looking exactly the same as they would in the 2010s (except with maybe fewer outright racist costumes, which are featured front & center here). Even if the movie’s bad-girls-gone-worse plot holds little interest for you, the footage of 1950s Louisiana might be enough to make the film worthwhile.

With or without the MST3k commentary, I cannot issue an open recommendation for Swamp Women, an exceedingly minor trifle of a picture. I can only report that I was personally charmed by its depictions of cop-hating “bad girls” on a swampy crime spree and fascinated by its inadvertently documentarian record of a 1950s Louisiana. Maybe this is the exact kind of minor pleasure that deserves to be remembered only through the MST3k lens, but I personally found enough to enjoy in the film on its own to not need the sarcastic robots to hold my hand through it. Other schlock-hungry reprobates with any personal affinity with Corman and/or New Orleans have a chance of feeling the same.

-Brandon Ledet

Krewe Divine 2018

Last year, 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, podcast co-host CC Chapman, and repeat podcast guest Virginia Ruth. This year we were 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 2018 excursion, our second year in operation as Swampflix’s official Mardi Gras krewe:

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❤ Krewe Divine ❤

Searching for Divine Inspiration at Walt Disney World

Mere hours after debuting our Divine-inspired, Swampflix-sponsored Mardi Gras krewe this past Fat Tuesday, CC & I found ourselves riding in the back seat of an SUV, exhausted, and headed toward Disney World. An immersive, three day adventure to the Happiest Place on Earth is always going to be a disorienting vacation no matter what mental state you’re in. Yet, there was something especially absurd about diving head first into such a wholesome fantasy space after running rampant through the French Quarter all morning, dressed as famous drag queen and frequent John Waters collaborator Divine in the alcohol-enhanced sunshine. 

At first, I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to accomplish while at Disney World besides checking off a few boxes as a film buff. That part was easy. A visit to a Walt Disney memorabilia museum titled One Man’s Dream, a similar Star Wars exhibit, a charmingly outdated 3-D Muppets screening, and a regularly-running “short film festival” of interactive Disney & Pixar selections all satisfied my apparent addiction to sitting in the dark, watching moving images. What was a much more difficult itch to scratch was maintaining our focus on our previously most recent task of keeping Divine’s legacy alive. You’d think that finding anything related to Divine or John Waters at large would be an impossible feat in such an aggressively clean environment, but Divine’s presence can be found in all things. And in Disney World, it can be found in Ursula.

The sea witch Ursula, of course, is the main villain in Disney’s modern animated classic The Little Mermaid. Although the construction of her persona can be attributed to many different influences, including both Elaine Stritch & Joan Collins, Ursula’s physical form was directly modeled after Divine (the top, non-octopus half was, anyway). The Little Mermaid‘s animators scrapped an initial idea to adorn Ursula with a hairstyle similar to the one Divine rocks in Pink Flamingos for being “too over the top,” but they did notably maintain her signature eye makeup & unmistakable body type for Ursula’s final form. The characters’ resemblance isn’t exactly uncanny, but it is blatant.

Ursula’s gigantic presence in The Little Mermaid, both physical & narrative, is a difficult effect to replicate in a kids’ amusement park, not least of all because the park would likely want to avoid scaring the shit out of children. It makes sense, then, that human actors would only be asked to portray Ariel from the film for the park’s rigidly scheduled photo ops & daily Festival of Fantasy parade. That doesn’t mean Ursula (and, by extension, Divine) has been locked out of the park entirely, though. She’s lurking around with her slithering eel accomplices (mostly in the form of large animatronic puppets) if you know where to look for her. Hopefully our search for Divine inspiration within Disney World parks will help expedite others’ in the future, in case anyone finds themselves visiting Orlando while as thirsty for Divine content as we were.

We started with the most obvious place you’d think to find Ursula lurking in the Walt Disney World parks: Magic Kingdom. There is exactly one The Little Mermaid-themed ride in Disney World’s oldest & most iconic park: Under the Sea – Journey of the Little Mermaid. Outside the ride you can wait in line to meet & take pictures with a professional Ariel cosplayer in her “grotto.” In line for the actual ride, Scuttle, the hoarder seagull, tries his best to simplify & recount the film’s plot in a digestible morsel to temper your boredom & distract you from heat exhaustion. Once inside, you’re strapped into a slow-moving clamshell vehicle that glides peacefully by two animatronic Ariels. One sings, “Part of Your World” and the other dances along to the ride’s centerpiece: a colorful, puppet-filled rendition of “Under the Sea” that’s doused with the widest variety of day-glo paint you’re ever likely to see in a single room.

None of that underwater glitz & glamor is our concern here, though. We’re looking for Divine. Ursula arrives in the ride just after the second Ariel in the “Under the Sea” number, isolated all by herself in a dark cove. She is a beautiful, oversized mechanical puppet I can only picture in my memory as cackling maniacally, even though in reality she sings a song. The purple sea witch is a breath of fresh, menacing air in a literal sea of smiling faces. Soak it in, because it will not last for long. After a glorious moment of hearing Ursula belt out the chorus of her show-stopping number “Poor Unfortunate Souls” in front of her giant crystal ball, she fades from the rest of the ride (or at least her inhuman, Divine-inspired form does), never to be heard from again. It was an all-too-brief Ursula encounter, but it fortunately wouldn’t be our last.

The next stop for Ursula content was a little less obvious and just happened to be something we stumbled into. As a park, Disney’s Hollywood Studios (formerly Disney-MGM Studios) is a little less cartoon-heavy than Magic Kingdom. This will be especially true once its current in-progress overhaul bulks up its Star Wars & MCU-themed attractions (for obviou$ rea$on$). The park is intensely focused on live theater, though, with attractions like The Tower of Terror & whatever the monstrously obnoxious Aerosmith rollercoaster is called existing as total outliers in an environment typically dedicated to more traditionally dramatic modes of entertainment. We were already having enough fun in the park being traumatized by the uncanny valley nightmare of the Robert Osbourne-hosted The Great Movie Ride (R.I.P.) and the distinctly Norman Bates theatricality of our server at the 50’s Prime Time Café, but there’s no good time that can’t be improved by a little Divine. Thankfully, the Divine lurking in Hollywood Studios was a large one. Freakishly large, even.

Located in the park’s Animated Courtyard area, the routinely performed indoor show Voyage of the Little Mermaid is very similar in content to the Journey of the Little Mermaid ride at Magic Kingdom (as if you couldn’t tell by their titles). Fish sing “Under the Sea;” Ariel sings “Part of Your World;” Ursula sings “Poor Unfortunate Souls” and then promptly disappears before the happily ever afters. It’s the same tidy retelling of the animated film with one major exception: the puppets. Whereas the Journey of the Little Mermaid ride is all 100% animatronic puppetry, the Voyage of the Little Mermaid is more of a mixed media affair. The fish puppets are all hand-operated by performers working in the stage’s shadows, Ariel & her boy toy Eric are portrayed by live human actors (as is the more degrading role of Eric’s dog), and the whole show is substantially beefed up by projections from the original animated film, laser light displays, and a waterfall curtain that smells authentically like seawater (whether or not the effect is intentional). It’s a totally pleasant, refreshingly cool way to spend 17 minutes of your life in the park, but what’s most impressive is the way the mini-play brings Ursula to life.

While Ariel & her fishy friends are given a new form of representation in Voyage of the Little Mermaid to distinguish them from Journey of the Little Mermaid, Ursula remains animatronic puppet. She’s so much more impressive in the show than she is in the ride, though, as her size is blown up to 12 feet high & 10 feet wide. I already fell in love with the mechanical puppet from the Little Mermaid ride (which is the more strikingly beautiful one in terms of basic visual craft), but it’s just absolutely dwarfed by the intimidatingly gigantic puppet from the show. It’s the kind of scale & magnificence that almost makes you want to fall to your knees in worship. In other words, it’s absolutely Divine.

That giant puppet would be the last Divine presence we located at Disney World, but, honestly, her magnificent size would’ve been difficult to top by any other display. Maybe there was an Ursula lurking somewhere in one of the three parks we didn’t have a chance to visit (Animal Kingdom, Typhoon Lagoon, Blizzard Beach), but that seems highly unlikely. The only other places to search for our Divine inspiration, then, would be the park’s other other main attraction besides rides & shows: merchandise.

Disney villains from decades-old cartoons aren’t going to move nearly as much merch as the likes of an Elsa or an Olaf or an, um, Other Thing from Frozen. That doesn’t mean there’s no Ursula merch to be found in the parks, though. You just sometimes have to accept her as a package deal with other characters. For instance, outside the Finding Nemo ride at Epcot (which dumps you into a surprisingly decent aquarium), there’s an underwater-themed gift shop that sells a collection of Little Mermaid “squeeze toy” figurines. Ursula’s included, but you have to buy the whole collection to get her. Similarly, I found (and, of course, purchased) a purple baseball cap that features several of Disney’s more infamous female villains like Maleficent, the Evil Queen from Snow White, and, duh, Ursula. According to a brief search of the term “The Little Mermaid” on Disney World’s creepily helpful Disney Go app, there were some really nice Ursula “couture de force” figurines, art prints, and blouses for sale, but we never laid eyes on them (and they would’ve been far outside our price range anyway).

If you really want to take home Ursula’s visage isolated on some affordable merchandise, your only viable option is to find her on an enamel pin. We happened to purchase some Ursula pins at a kiosk located outside Space Mountain, but Disney has a surprisingly strong, park-wide enamel pin culture. You could probably find the damn things in any shop you poke your head into, as a lot of the stores seem to carry overlapping merch. (The same also goes with the squeeze toy figurines we found outside the Finding Nemo ride.) There’s also a lot of annual turnover on the merch that’s sold within the parks, so not only is it possible that we missed out on some sweet Ursula gear when we happened to be there, but you can also likely find excessed deadstock of old Ursula merch at the various Disney outlet malls sprinkled throughout Orlando.

We really have no clue where Krewe Divine’s headed in the future in terms of scale or membership. It’s only a matter of time until one of us dresses as Ursula on Fat Tuesday, though, so it really was a treat to cap off our first year as a microscopic Mardi Gras krewe by treating Walt Disney World like an unofficial Divine scavenger hunt. As the release of The Little Mermaid is already nearly three decades behind us, it’s likely that Ursula’s Divine presence within the amusement park is on borrowed time. As is, she’s seemingly only represented in the form of two (beautiful) animatronic puppets and a few enamel pins already. Even that’s enough representation worth celebrating, though. I was overjoyed to see her there in any form. In a way it’s a kind of a miracle that there was ever any John Waters-adjacent content to be found at Disney World at all. It’s even more of a miracle that it happened to be Divine.

-Brandon Ledet

Krewe Divine’s Maiden Voyage

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There comes a time in your adult life when maturity & experience leads you to making tough decisions and strengthened dedication to the things that matter most. That’s why a few of us here at Swampflix have decided that it’s time to get serious about Mardi Gras. Every Carnival season there’s always some kind of personal crisis about what to wear or what themes to play off of while costuming in the Quarter, but that’s something that never seems to be a problem for krewes that stick with a consistent theme in their annual masquerading. Those revelers always seem to have their shit together. Since Swampflix was launched two years ago, we’ve tried our best to find the ways cinema is represented in Mardi Gras festivities, whether by covering the Star Wars celebrations of Chewbacchus or by costuming as the titular plague from the Vincent Price classic The Masque of the Red Death. It never quite feels like enough, though. As it’s time to get serious about how we can contribute to cinema’s presence in Mardi Gras festivities, we’ve decided to find our own sense of dedication & consistency in forming a new costuming krewe that celebrates one of our all-time favorite onscreen performers: Divine.

Arguably the greatest drag queen of all time, Divine was the frequent collaborator & long-time muse if 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. We hope to honor the Queen of Filth in all her fabulously fucked up glory by forming a new Mardi Gras tradition in Krewe Divine, a costuming krewe meant to meet in the French Quarter on every Fat Tuesday from here to eternity. Our initial krewe is a small group all made of Swampflix contributors: site co-founders Brandon Ledet & Britnee Lombas, podcast co-host CC Chapman, and former podcast guest Virginia Ruth. 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 2017 maiden voyage as Swampflix’s official Mardi Gras krewe:

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-The Swampflix Crew

In the Candyman Sequels Atmosphere Isn’t Evoked, It’s Appropriated

spiritbee

Director Bernard Rose started his career off strong with a couple of deeply creepy works that evoke most of their strange horror thrills from a mood & a tone rather than explicit bursts of violence. Rose’s debut film Paperhouse, which we recently covered as a Movie of the Month feature, was especially striking in this regard, chilling me to the bone with its sparse dreamworld sets & Hans Zimmer score, despite its story more or less framing the film as a kids’ fantasy piece. I was so struck by Paperhouse that I immediately sought out Rose’s most recognizable work, Candyman (1992), to see how effective that same chilling  atmosphere could be when applied to a legitimate horror film. Candyman did not disappoint in that regard, deploying a lot of Paperhouse‘s same spooky sounds (now provided by Phillip Glass) & dreamworld settings to a bloody supernatural slasher about a murdered slave’s ghost with a hook for a hand who exists in a mirror dimension and is comprised entirely of bees. It was fascinating, one of the stranger horror films I’ve seen all year. It was so fascinating, in fact, that I was compelled to watch both of the film’s less-than-stellar sequels over the course of that same weekend, despite their dire adherence to the law of diminishing returns. Without Rose’s guiding hand the Candyman sequels tended to rely more on shocking violence and false alarm jump scares than genuine mood to evoke their genre thrills, which I suppose is to be expected. A trend they followed that did surprise me, though, was the way they continued to attempt the specificity of Rose’s atmospheric horror not through imagination in the screenplay process, but through borrowing from cultures that already had a mood-evoking atmosphere ready to go.

In the case of the first sequel, I found the atmosphere appropriation to be hilarious, because it happened to be set amidst a culture I live with daily. Candyman 2: Farewell to the Flesh (1995) is set entirely in New Orleans, the French Quarter specifically, and it bends over backwards to remind you of that setting every chance it gets. References to gumbo, chicory, voodoo, and hurricanes color every line of dialogue that can make room for them. A Dr. John-esque radio DJ archetype narrates the film with local turns of phrase absolutely no one will identify with like, “The banks of the mighty Mississippi are ready to spill their seed” in reference to potential flooding, and (I swear this is true) taunts the titular killer with the line, “This goes out to the man with the hook. Man, chill. Relax. Have some gumbo or something.” The film also can’t resist staging its slashings during Mardi Gras, of course, providing a colorful backdrop of weirdos in costumes to heighten the atmosphere of its bee-filled mirror realm killer’s less than seemly past time. As I tried to explain in my review of Les Blank’s wonderful documentary Always for Pleasure, the spirit of Mardi Gras is an elusive beast, one that’s frustratingly difficult to accurately capture on film. Much to my surprise, Farewell to the Flesh didn’t do all that bad of a job capturing Carnival, at least not as bad as I’ve seen it done in the past. Yes, the whole thing feels very sound-stagey and the festivities are set mostly at night instead of the daylight, which are common mistakes, but the film at the very least captures some of the puke-splattered grotesqueness & disoriented debauchery of the world’s best holiday in fleeting moments, so I’m willing to give it a pass there. What really makes me laugh about its New Orleans themed cultural markers is in the non-Mardi Gras details. For instance, the protagonist & Candyman’s blonde victim du jour at one point visits a snowball stand (which are typically housed in dirt cheap roadside shacks for those unfamiliar) that’s located blocks away from the St. Louis Cathedral in one of the most expensive-looking buildings in the Quarter. And, of course, behind a fake wall in this snowball stand, its apparent billionaire proprietor stocks a bunch of voodoo paraphernalia and information on the Candyman (who is revealed to be a local) that conveniently expands his backstory between the increasingly violent kills. It’s this kind of reliance on and misunderstanding of local color that provides atmosphere in Bernard Rose’s absence in these damned things that make the Candyman sequels such a misguided hoot.

The problem gets much worse in Candyman 3: Day of the Dead (1999). As you can likely guess from the direct-to-DVD sequel’s not-so-coy title, the film is set during a Día de Muertos celebration in Los Angeles. Farewell to the Flesh made a conscious effort to tie the Candyman’s lore into New Orleans’s slave trade history to justify its appropriation of Mardi Gras atmosphere. Day of the Dead just makes shit up as it goes along. The young girl from the last scene of the second film ages decades in a four year span and funds her adult artist’s life by collecting the paintings Candyman made while a living slave (paintings that look suspiciously like large department store prints of family portraits) and leasing them to galleries. Moving the story from New Orleans to the L.A. arts scene does little for the story except to provide excuses for setting the murders against a Latino community’s Día de Muertos celebration. The film’s depiction of that celebration looks an awful lot like the sound stage Mardi Gras of Farewell to the Flesh, except with sugar skulls and piñatas substituted for that work’s parade floats & plastic beads. The only attempt to tie it into the Candyman’s established lore is when the holiday is explained to be valuable because it “reminds us that death is sweet,” which is meant to recall the ghost killer’s cryptic catchphrase “Sweets to the sweet.” Otherwise, Day of the Dead‘s titular setting is just a shameless pilfering of atmosphere that it couldn’t create on its own, so it outsourced it from a culture where its story didn’t naturally belong. The local color of Candyman 3 is more or less a background afterthought, setting the stage for the film’s true bread & butter: ludicrous jump scares & gratuitous gore. The film was good for some occasional laughs: the goth gang that kidnaps the pouty supermodel artist protagonist is guilty of some of the worst acting I’ve ever seen in a film; when slamming back tequila, a Hispanic man shouts, “Oooh chihuahua!”; there’s a sequence where a nameless art groupie slathers her tits with honey as foreplay and is immediately swarmed by the Candyman’s killer bee army. It’s a far cry from the atmospheric horror Rose established in the first film, though, and it’s weird to think they’re at all connected.

Not much stays consistent in the Candyman franchise except Candyman himself. Actor Tony Todd portrays the titular killer in each film (it must be bittersweet to headline your own franchise and then be required to let bees crawl in your mouth every damn movie) and although his backstory expands, he largely remains consistent. By the third film, the spooky sounds of Phillip Glass and stylistic supervision of writer Clive Barker were long gone from the series, given way to soft, bargain bin hip-hop & nu-metal slasher cheapness. The Candyman continues to gaslight his prime victims by framing them for  horrific murders and I guess you could thematically tie them together by saying each entry follows an academic type who’s punished for skeptically investigating cultural superstitions in urban POC communities. Otherwise, the setting-hopping plays like novelty backdrops for the film’s increasing indulgence in shameless gore and an easy distraction from its decreasing interest in atmosphere. Personally, I found the Mardi Gras set shenanigans of Candyman 2: Farewell to the Flesh to be a campy delight, especially as the film tried to cram as many New Orleans-specific references as it could in dialogue where it most definitely did not belong. You’d have to ask someone who regularly celebrates Día de Muertos in L.A. if Candyman 3′s mishandling of that cultural setting is just as hilariously off (I’d be willing to bet it is), but what’s vividly clear is that both sequels traded the genuine terror of its initial atmosphere, provided by Paperhouse’s Bernard Rose, for the novelty of cultural atmosphere shoehorned into places where its story didn’t really belong. According to the Candyman sequels, when atmosphere can’t be sincerely evoked, it’s best (or at least easiest) to just borrow it from elsewhere.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #8 of The Swampflix Podcast: Documentarian Tim Wolff & A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2015)

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Welcome to Episode #8 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our eighth episode, Brandon interviews local filmmaker Tim Wolff about his gay Mardi Gras culture documentary The Sons of Tennessee Williams (2011). Also, James makes Brandon watch Roy Andersson’s Swedish black comedy A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2015) for the first time. Enjoy!

Production note: The dreamy guitar musical “bumps” between segments were also provided by James.

-James Cohn & Brandon Ledet

The Sons of Tennessee Williams (2011)

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fourstar

In my review of the exquisite ball culture documentary Paris is Burning I mentioned that New Orleans’s queer bounce scene deserves its own myth-making documentary, especially in light of those two subcultures’ remarkable similarities. It turns out that New Orleans already has its de facto version of Paris is Burning in The Sons of Tennessee Williams (not that a “sissy bounce” doc wouldn’t’ still be an essential historical document). Chronicling 50 years of gay Mardi Gras culture in New Orleans, The Sons of Tennessee Williams is a priceless archive of an LGBTQ subculture that amazes merely by existing. To think that the footage, photography, and history detailed here was ever recorded in the first place is incredible, given the danger it would’ve put its pre-Stonewall subjects into, not to mention the successive physical damage decades of hurricanes would later pose. It’s a thorough, definitive work that makes almost any attempt to follow up on or retell its story redundant.  If you’re at all interested in gay Mardi Gras tradition in New Orleans, The Sons of Tennessee Williams is the only logical place to begin.

The film splits its time between documenting the current state of the last two remaining gay Mardi Gras krewes, The Krewe of Petronius & The Krewe of Aremeinius, and constructing an oral history of those two social clubs’ storied past. The more reflective, anthropological segments of the film fascinate in a more unique way than the up-to-date check-in. Elderly gay men describe in detail the peril of growing up queer in the American South before the civil rights movements of the 1960s. In a time where homosexual public association was explicitly illegal, Mardi Gras stood stay as the one day a year when gay men could legally gather in a public space. In the face of ridicule, violence, and police harassment (under the vice cops’ crackdown on “crimes against Nature”), gay men began began their social structures by gathering in certain French Quarter bars as safe havens.

Eventually, this subculture craved legitimacy and a break from the secretive, dangerous nature of cruising undercover and sought official, legal status of a traditional Mardi Gras krewe. This urge was likely born of the simple desire to gather in celebration and to join the pageantry of traditional Mardi Gras balls, but it also saw a marginalized group bonding together to form a strong political voice. And since the formation of The Krewe of Petronius occurred before The Stonewall Riots, the film convincingly posits gay Mardi Gras krewes as “the earliest civil rights for gays” on record. It’s a story that isn’t told as often or as loudly as it should be and this film offers the rare treat of hearing directly from the mouths of the men who lived it and survived to tell the tale.

As rough as some of its subjects’ backstory can be, The Sons of Tennessee Williams is largely a celebration. These men survived societal persecution, the AIDS crisis, and Hurricane Katrina with their numbers dwindled, but their traditions unscathed. Although the modern check-in portion of the documentary is somewhat less compelling than its central history lesson, it’s still an uplifting reassurance that gay Mardi Gras culture is still alive & intact. It’s even had enough time to grow into a venerable institution, joining the old-fashioned pageantry of other krewes’ ball traditions and inspiring straight people & politicians to beg for an invite to exclusive social events that were once considered a disgrace by “polite society”.

I do think that The Sons of Tennessee Williams is an essential historical document that should be seen by as wide of an audience as possible, but I’ll also admit that being a local made it strike a particular chord with me (as it must have also been with documentarian Tim Wolff). I live down the street from The Krewe of Aremeinius’s headquarters. I’ve personally taken Polaroids of some of the costumes on display in the film on Mardi Gras Day in The French Quarter [included below]. Seeing 1940s footage of homemade costumes on Canal Street fills me with a certain hometown pride that might not translate as powerfully to outside audiences, etc. The Sons of Tennessee Williams is as much of a celebration of New Orleans culture along the lines of the classic Les Blanc doc Always for Pleasure as it is a gay culture landmark akin to Paris is Burning. It’s a thoroughly New Orleans story that deserves to be told around the world instead of the way it’s been locked away & forgotten. I urge anyone interested in gay Mardi Gras tradition to seek it out immediately.

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-Brandon Ledet

Always for Pleasure (1978)

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fourhalfstar

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