Rocketman (2019)

I should have known better than to venture out to the theater for the Elton John biopic Rocketman. I was at least smart enough to skip last year’s big-deal musical biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, even before I knew it had a notorious rapist attached as its official credited director. The uncredited director who was tasked to save that drowning production (when Bryan Singer was rightly booted from it), Dexter Fletcher, promised a little more cohesion & stage-musical fantasy in this follow-up, but everything else about Rocketman looked just as cheesy & false as Rhapsody. If I’m being totally honest, the only real reason I was curious about Rocketman was the news reports after its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, which slated it as the fist-ever major studio Hollywood production to feature onscreen gay sex. I had to see (and support) that decades-late “achievement” for myself, but it put a lot of unfair pressure on the film to, em, perform in that one specific way, setting me up for disappointment before frame one. Very few people are wholly successful in their first full-on gay sex encounter, so I’m not sure why I expected Hollywood to be any different.

Rocketman was only willing to give me wholesome showtunes gay when the material at hand clearly called for drunken, sweaty dive bar gay. The framing device of this post-Walk Hard biopic is an AA meeting where Elton John looks back on his life in sappy, musical flashbacks while gradually stripping off a gorgeous bejeweled-devil stage costume to reveal the vulnerable man underneath. His narration continually reassures the audience that his life was ravaged by sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll, but everything we see onscreen is musical theatre kids playing dress-up in squeaky clean sound stage environments. Taron Egerton does a decent-enough job embodying Elton John both onstage & off, except that his vocal performance is more Broadway musical than coke-addled rock ‘n roll. As I should have expected, the onscreen gay sex early reports promised is similarly neutered. The most intimate, extensive scene of two men bonin’ is accompanied by the least sensual Gospel soundtrack imaginable and quickly averts its eyes just when the room is steaming up. Later, an expressive, Old Hollywood musical staging of a pansexual orgy is intercut with childhood memories & returns to the AA frame story, zapping the moment of any potential titillation. Elton John reports in the picture that he “fucked everything that moved,” “abused every drug there is,” and “enjoyed every minute of it,” but it all amounts to the effect of a “Footage Not Found” title card, a classic case of telling-not-showing.

That’s not to say there’s no fun to be found here. Bryce Dallas Howard is an unexpected hoot in a career-high role as John’s cruel alcoholic-housewife mother, essentially a half-speed Mommie Dearest drag routine sponsored by Quaaludes. There are also a few Baz Luhrmann-esque poetic breaks from reality among the musical numbers, the highlight being a moment of communal levitation at John’s first American concert. Even those moments are hindered by Fletcher making the safest choices possible, though. For instance, when John announces “For my next trick, I’m going to kill myself,” and overdoses at the bottom of a swimming pool, he’s greeted there by a childhood version of himself singing “Rocketman” – not the obvious, more daring choice of “I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself.” Other sordid, sweaty rock ‘n roll numbers like “Dirty Little Girl” & “Sweet Painted Lady” are missing in favor of safe Greatest Hits tracks, which are further softened with musical theatre, Bollywood dance homage, and – I swear to God this is true – second-wave ska. Elton John’s life story is honestly not all that interesting. He’s a blue-collar kid who worked hard to develop his talent, did a few too many drugs when he first got famous, and is now happily married with kids and a swelling bank account. When you remove the sweaty, hedonistic danger of the sex, drugs and rock n’ roll from that template there isn’t much left worth an audience’s time. I didn’t show up to celebrate a millionaire’s (albeit admirable) success in sobriety; I showed up for gay sex & fabulous costumes – of which only the latter satisfies.

-Brandon Ledet

Pig Film (2018)

Although I have no problem conceding that the legendary auteur was immensely, distinctly talented as a visual artist, I personally struggle to enjoy Andrei Tarkovsky works like Solaris or Stalker as genre film entertainment. Josh Gibson’s microbudget sci-fi indie Pig Film (which saw its U.S. premiere at the 2018 New Orleans Film Festival) has cracked that code for me, re-configuring the basic elements of a Tarkovsky genre film into something I wholeheartedly enjoy. An hour-long, black & white sci-fi musical (!) that reinvigorates the Tarkovsky aesthetic by infusing it with the grimy textures of indie genre-film classics like Eraserhead & Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Pig Film indulges in the exact amount of art film pretension I can stomach before I start rolling my eyes. A lean, self-contained industrial nightmare that only disrupts its pensive oceans of silence for moments of ethereal, operatic beauty, Pig Film is Tarkovsky perfected – or, if you’re already a Tarkovsky convert – Tarkovsky streamlined, like a punk rock Stalker.

A mysterious, unnamed woman tends to an industrial pig farm as its only worker and, seemingly, the only person left alive. She sees to the entire life cycle of a farmed pig (from insemination to slaughter & rendering) all by her lonesome, a one-woman factory staff. Her only company is a stockpile of outdated industrial infomercials from the 1950s: real-life propaganda artifacts recorded on celluloid, projector slides, and vinyl records. Her only “spoken” dialogue is privately-sung operatic repetition of word-for-word snippets of text from those industrial artifacts, accompanied by an eerie synth soundtrack. She sings about the importance of pumping pigs full of antibiotics while vacantly executing the daily drudgery of preparing the animals for a likely non-existent post-Apocalyptic market, as if she’s learning the fundamental tenants of language & reality from these industrial ads. Her basic humanity comes into question as the film slips into an unmistakable sci-fi horror tone– until eventually settling for a quiet, alienating drama in a perfect closed-loop.

It’s difficult to report with any certainty whether Pig Film is saying anything concrete about the meat industry or the labor class or pollution or societal collapse or any number of issues that inevitably rise given its setting. These topics mostly inform the proceedings the way anxieties & memories of daily occurrences inform the narratives of our nightmares. The degradation of the picture quality (as it was shot entirely on expired, second-hand film stock) combines with the grimy art-instillation surreality of its pig farm setting to establish an overriding sense of isolation & rot that feels more emotional & subliminal than overtly political. Human or not, our sole on-screen character is the last shred of humanity left stalking the mess of a planet we’ll soon leave behind, emptily mimicking the records of our behavior she finds in our rubble and converting that industrial garbage into beautiful song. It’s a gorgeous, grimy nightmare – a sinister poem.

I’ve already praised November & Annihilation this year for mutating the Tarkovsky aesthetic I find so frustrating as entertainment media into something I can wholeheartedly embrace. Pig Film might not ever match the distribution reach of those two (already underseen) films, but I’d just as readily recommend it with the same enthusiasm. For a director I struggle to appreciate on his own terms, Tarkovsky’s influence is becoming something I look forward to seeing updated & reinterpreted in other works. Beyond that influence, I’d recommend Pig Film to just about anyone who’d be in the market for a dreamlike, largely silent, post-Apocalyptic sci-fi opera set on a pig farm and filmed through a nauseating black & white; but that’s a much more difficult elevator pitch than “Tarkovsky, but concise,” or “Stalker, but punk.”

-Brandon Ledet

Isle of Lesbos (1997)

Growing up, I had a very limiting an idea of what drag is, thanks to the way the scene has seemingly been in New Orleans my entire life. I can’t claim to be a New Orleans drag historian or anything, but the city’s drag aesthetic has always struck me as a deliberately tacky, old-fashioned affair that skipped over the weirdo high fashion & ball culture innovation of cities like New York & San Francisco to maintain what’s now referred to as a “pageant queen” tradition. (The documentary The Sons of Tennessee Williams is a great snapshot of the aesthetic I’m describing here.) That Southern drag pageant tradition can be a blast on its own merits; if nothing else, The Gay Easter Parade where local drag queens dress like Metairie Moms in Springtime is one of the more absurd highlights of my calendar year. I do have to admit, though, that it’s been a welcome eye-opener to have fresh influences like the local arrival of the Vinsantos-run New Orleans Drag Workshop & the national popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race expand my understanding of what drag is as an artform in recent years. Part of that is looking beyond the pageant & comedy queen acts I’ve long been familiar with to more high-fashion and avant-garde interpretations of the artform. More importantly, I’ve come to better understand what the artform of femme drag itself is: a heightened subversion of gender performance that even cisgender women can participate in (though, the genuinely-accepted term for that, “faux queen,” does have a kind of dismissive tone to it). It’s like when you first realize that punk is an ethos & not a sound; you start seeing it everywhere: bounce music is punk, Agnès Varda is punk, drag is punk, and so on. If I had first watched the microbudget musical Isle of Lesbos a few years ago I likely would have still gotten kick out of it, but I wouldn’t have seen it for what it is: women doing femme drag at top volume and not caring who doesn’t get it. It’s also, not coincidentally, punk as fuck.

Isle of Lesbos is a politically angry, deliberately offensive, post-John Waters, queer as fuck movie musical with deep roots in drag & cabaret traditions. Its (extremely limited) press materials posit the film as “Rocky Horror Picture Show meets Oklahoma,” perhaps as a warning to the audience that there will be musical theatre-style song & dance, but I found the film to be more of a grimy, Desperate Living meets The Wizard of Oz proposition. Like the matriarchal shanty town Mortville in Desperate Living, the titular lesbian utopia in this makeshift production design spectacle is a mean, lurid immersion in femme grime & glamour. The intensely apparent artificiality of the hand-built sets is much closer to the low -budget staging of the sci-fi drag gem Vegas in Space than the magical illusion of Oz, but its titular utopia’s dichotomous opposition to the fictional small town of Bumfuck, Arkansas could not be more clearly modeled after the Technicolor classic (likely as a sly “friends of Dorothy” hat-tip). Like most drag, the movie is more than a little offensive, especially in its gleeful use of racist iconography & homophobic slurs; its tagline even boasts that it has “A little something to offend just about everyone!” The targets of its racial & sexual satire are always the oppressors, not the oppressed, though. Race & sexuality are performed in the film, just like how gender is performed in drag at large. They’re also clashed against the intolerant Evil of straight, white, Christian Southerners who’ve made the existence of a separate, locked-away realm for homosexual women vitally necessary. For all its inherent fun as a vulgar, queer musical, Isle of Lesbos is also a deeply sad fantasy where persecuted people live on after being raped, murdered, executed, or driven to suicide by a society that condemns their sexual orientation. It’s also no coincidence that the evil town of Bumfuck was geographically located in Arkansas, home of the frequently-referenced Clintons, who were then on the wrong side of queer history thanks to political policies like Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

A young Arkansan bride finds herself at the altar with a man she has zero sexual or romantic chemistry with. Scared, she runs away home to lock herself in her bedroom— her parents & fiancée beating at the door, demanding to be let it. Rather than face their scorn, she puts a revolver in her mouth and commits suicide. This act transports her through the mirror to the mythical Isle of Lesbos (as opposed to the geographical one), where she’s made to feel comfortable with admitting to herself (and her family, via interdimensional letters home) that she is, in fact, a lala-lala-lesbian. Her new, queer community of fellow straight-world exiles welcome her with chants of “A land without lesbians is no land for us,” and allow her the first opportunity in her life to seek true love. Folks back home in the “one-horse, God-fearing town” of Bumfuck, Arkansas don’t take this transgression lightly and spend the remainder of the film trying to bring her back through the mirror and declaring all-out war on the Sapphic realm that “stole” her. The contrast between the vibrant passion of queer sex in the Lesbos realm and the repressed sexual violence & racial persecution back in Bumfuck, Arkansas is a damning political screed seething with bottomless, justifiable anger. It’s also communicated through the earnest joy of musical theatre, typified in lines like “Arkansas just ain’t the place to sit on a pretty face” and “I don’t need a man to call my own; The Isle of Lesbos is my home.” That’s not to say that the Isle of Lesbos doesn’t have its own internal shortcomings to deal with; its horrific mistreatment of a single male, effeminate-homosexual slave kept around as an all-purpose janitor is deliberately reminiscent of the fascist oppression that drove the protagonist out of Bumfuck, Arkansas in the first place. Still, that problematic indulgence in oppression is small fries in comparison to the more empowered, Christian communities who made the existence of a segregated lesbian utopia necessary in the first place.

Director Jeff B. Harmon has a fascinating resume, if only because Isle of Lesbos is such an anomaly among his extensive documentary work on war atrocities. There’s an anti-war message shoehorned into Isle of Lesbos’s third act, but you’d have to squint hard to see how this brash, crass musical fits into his filmography otherwise. It’s a political film, sure, but its politics are expressed through a Michael Jackson impersonator being terrorized by the KKK, straight married home life being interpreted as a joyless nightmare, femme arm pit air & mud wrestling being interpreted as natural & wholesome, etc. Isle of Lesbos is political in the way all drag is political; it mocks the social institutions that restrict expressions of gender & sexuality by flagrantly disregarding their rules as loud & as glitterful as possible. If I had seen the film before I better understood drag I might have read it as a musical theatre version of Desperate Living (one of my all-time favorite films, so no shame there), but as it stands I see both works as unconventional participation in a larger drag tradition. There’s currently no greater threat to the social institution of a gender binary than the democratization of modern drag, which explains gender as performance & a boundary worth challenging. This gleefully vulgar, D.I.Y. punk, ramshackle, queer as fuck movie musical is a great snapshot of what that threat looked like two decades ago. As the tagline promises, it does have “a little something to offend just about everyone,” but it’s also an open invitation to laugh in the face of oppressors and then leave them behind in Bumfuck, Nowhere as you seek out more welcoming communities of your own. That’s the kind of call-to-arms that will always steal my trash-gobbling heart.

-Brandon Ledet