A Sassyfrasser for Life

I typically don’t catch any films at the New Orleans Film Festival, mostly because my mind is all over the place around that time of year. This year was different. When I got word that there was a documentary about my favorite local musician being presented at the fest, I was on it. I immediately bought my digital pass and blocked off my calendar for its premiere date. The film that got me to dip my toes into the New Orleans Film Festival world was Nobody May Come, an independent documentary about the one and only Valerie Sassyfras.

Before I discuss the documentary, I want to talk a little about my experiences with the music and performances of Valerie Sassyfras over the past five years. Picture it: it’s the Siberia lounge in New Orleans on a Friday night in May of 2015. Underground puppeteer David Liebe Hart is getting ready to perform, so I stepped outside to bum a cigarette from a hipster (a bad habit I had when I was in my early-mid 20s while socially drinking). Across from me was a Trailblazer with a big magnet on the door that said “Valerie Sassyfras,” and I remember thinking to myself, “Wow, what a fun name.” Suddenly someone comes outside and yells, “Everyone get in now! She’s doing something called the Alligator Dance and it’s amazing!” I immediately go in to join the fun, and I see a small woman in glitzy garb walking around the bar with her arms clapping together like the mouth of an alligator, and there’s a conga line behind her. That was my first Val experience, and I was immediately obsessed and officially became a Sassyfrasser (a term for Val fans). She was the opener for David Liebe Hart and gave one of the best opening performances I’ve ever seen. After the show, I found her website (www.valeriesassyfrass.com – go to it now and I promise you won’t be disappointed) and searched for her upcoming shows. I called one of my best friends to tell him about this amazing woman and invited him to go with me to St. Roch Tavern, and that was the beginning of us trying to see as many Valerie Sassyfras shows as possible.

I’ve seen Val perform in lots of different venues: Live Oak, Morning Call in City Park, Tipitina’s, Trader Joe’s, and Lebanon’s, just to name a few. I have also randomly run into Val performing on Oak Street and at a couple of art markets. You never know when you’ll catch a Val show! My favorite place to watch her perform is St. Roch Tavern. Most of the performances I’ve seen there have small crowds, which sometimes were just made of up of me, my Sassyfrasser friend, and the bartender; but Val performs as though she was playing a sold-out stadium. She’s a one woman show, so the stage included her scrim, which she dances behind provocatively (it’s the best!), her variety of instruments (accordion, keyboard, washboard, mandolin, etc.), and all of her props (leather whip, feather fan, etc.). Those St. Roch shows made for some of my most fond memories. The feeling of just being myself and having a good time without a care in the world would take over my body, and for just those few hours, I was so damn happy. I also really enjoyed her mandolin performances outside of my very favorite restaurant ever, Lebanon’s Cafe. One night, my Sassyfrasser pal and I (we both lived super close to Lebanon’s) went over for dinner and a show. I mentioned to Val that I was a down-the-bayou Cajun, and she played one of my favorite Cajun tunes, “Jolie Blonde,” for me. It was more of an acoustic performance without all of the fun stage props, and it was just as fabulous.

After following her shows for well over a year, I started to realize that there was a great Sassyfrasser community in existence. Val opened for local female rapper Boyfriend at Tipitina’s in August of 2016, and while at the show, there was a group of folks in the crowd who were singing along to a Val classic called “Hide the Pickle”. I joined in and they told me that they loved Val’s music and always go to her Old Point Bar shows in Algiers. There are so many groups and folks that I’ve run into at Val shows over the years who adore her as an artist and a musician.

When I sat down to watch Nobody May Come at this year’s New Orleans Film Fest, I expected the documentary to be just as upbeat and exciting as a Valerie Sassyfras performance, but it didn’t really go in that direction. Directors Ella Hatamian and Stiven Luka focused more the Val’s personal struggles with her family issues and her experiences after being featured on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and America’s Got Talent. The documentary did a great job of allowing everyone to see what Val’s life is like behind all of the glitz and glam, but to my surprise, there really wasn’t much focus on how much the New Orleans locals value Val and her artistry. It could be that the directors are not from New Orleans (although I believe one of them lived here for a bit), and that’s why the doc is missing that element. There is this great moment at the very end of the documentary where Val is performing in front of an audience made up of a few people eating at some event in Kenner’s Rivertown and not really paying attention to her performance, and one of her fans shows up with her kids specifically to see Val. That is what Val fans do. We seek her out, even if she’s in Kenner, and we bring our family and friends with us to expose them to the Valerie Sassyfras experience. I just wish that the documentary featured more of those moments. Although the film is a bit on the grim side, it at least does a great job on focusing on its main character: Val.

There will be folks watching this documentary who only know Val through her viral televised performances, and I just want it to be known that there are many of her fans who truly appreciate her as an artist. Val is not just a viral video or an off-beat audition in a TV talent competition; she’s a local New Orleans legend.

If you’re interested in getting into Valerie Sassyfrass’s music, here is a list of my top 10 favorite songs:

1. “Babysitter” (Sassquake!)

2. “Pivot and Pose” (Sassquake!)

3. “Mean Sassy Queen” (Got Zydeco?)

4. “The Bastard Snake” (Sassquake!)

5. “Hide the Pickle” (Sassquake!)

6. “Somethin’s Brewin’” (Got Zydeco?)

7. “Girl’s Night Out” (Crazy Train)

8. “It Ain’t My Job” (Got Zydeco?)

9. “Mighty Mississippi” (Sassquake!)

10. “Truth is Stranger Than Fiction” (Blast Off! A Cosmic Cabaret)

She also has a fabulous Christmas album called Christmas with Valerie that would make a great addition to any holiday celebration this year!

-Britnee Lombas

Lagniappe Podcast: #NOFF2020

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Brandon, Britnee, and CC review the few films they caught at the 31st annual New Orleans Film Festival, including films on killer mermaids, local drag artists, and New Orleans legend Valerie Sassyfras. Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– The Podcast Crew

#NOFF2020 Ranked and Reviewed

When reviewing the few feature films I caught at this year’s (mostly virtual) New Orleans Film Festival, I found myself constantly writing about how the context of the COVID-19 pandemic shaped my experience with them. It’s been a long nine months since I last attended a film festival in person (French Film Fest, which was snugly slotted in between Mardi Gras and the city’s initial coronavirus lockdown orders), so it was impossible to not compare & contrast this year’s NOFF with similar events in the past.

To the festival’s credit, the programmers addressed this unavoidable preoccupation head-on, platforming a wealth of short films that directly commented on COVID-era New Orleans culture. They also adjusted the scope & structure of the festival to offer as safe of an experience as possible, including an online streaming option for most of their selections as well as a few outdoor, socially distanced screenings for in-person events.

COVID undeniably reshaped my usual New Orleans Film Festival experience this year, at the very least in how it limited the range & volume of movies I could make time for during the fest’s short window. It didn’t halt the ritual entirely; it just hung over it as an unignorable dark cloud.

Here’s a list of the four features I’ve reviewed from this year’s New Orleans Film Festival. CC & I will record a more fleshed-out recap of our COVID-era festival experience on an upcoming episode of the podcast, in case you’re interested in hearing about our favorite shorts from the line-up or our thoughts on the ways the fest had to adapt to the constrictions of a pandemic. This list is a more bare-bones kind of recap: a best-to-least-best ranking of the features we managed to catch at this year’s NOFF.

Each title includes a link to a corresponding review. Enjoy!

To Decadence with Love, Thanks for Everything

A local documentary that captures how drastically different the New Orleans drag scene is now vs. the traditional Southern Pageant Drag scene I remember growing up with. It was great to see a community I love (including a couple friends who perform) documented for posterity, but also bittersweet because the very last in-the-flesh social event I attended was a drag show in March and I miss it very much.

Nobody May Come

A local documentary about avant garde zydeco-turned-new-wave musician Valerie Sassyfras, who’s a very specific kind of New Orleans eccentric. It’s a jarring mix of fun outsider-art punk aggression and severely upsetting social & mental dysfunction; the exact kind of niche-interest no-budget filmmaking you only see at festivals.

The Giverny Document (Single Channel)

A conceptual art piece about Black women’s relationships with their own bodies and the meaning of “feeling safe.” It’s a little impenetrable the way a lot of experimental essay films can be, but it also packs a powerful wallop when it feels like going for the jugular. There’s also some incredible Nina Simone footage interspersed throughout.

Undine

Christian Petzold’s latest is Good, but not entirely My Thing. I can’t imagine being the kind of person who watches The Lure and thinks “What if this was a quiet, understated drama instead?” but apparently that kind of person is out there.

-Brandon Ledet

Nobody May Come (2020)

When I was a kid living way “down the road” in St. Bernard Parish, New Orleans felt like it was planets away. I was fascinated by the boozy, draggy glam of the city but too young to access it without constrictive parental supervision – an endless source of frustration at the time. One of the ways I would scratch my ever-worsening itch for New Orleans hedonism those years was by frequenting a long-forgotten 1990s website that profiled & documented the most eccentric weirdos of The French Quarter as if they were celebrity icons. The site had individual pages for local Personalities like Ruthie The Duck Lady, Varla Jean Merman, and a clown who supposedly sold weed out of his balloon cart (a fuzzy memory that yields no useful Google results two decades later). I’d return to that site every now and then the way most kids ritualistically review their baseball cards or comic book collections; it was an aspirational window into a much more interesting world I couldn’t wait to occupy as soon as I had some personal freedom (and a car).

Valerie Sassyfras is very much of that tradition of New Orleans-specific eccentrics. Usually, when I catch her playing her spaced-out avant-garde new wave jams around the city, it’s totally by happenstance. I’ll be walking my dog in City Park and stumble onto her abrasively bewildering the tourists & Metairie Moms just trying to enjoy a beignet with their kids at Cafe Du Monde. Her legendary status as a local eccentric is built on those kinds of guerilla gigs in unlikely venues, starting with her regular features at a now-closed Piccadilly Cafeteria. Usually, very few people in the audience are directly paying attention to her, but she always parties hard on her keyboards, mandolin, and accordion as if she’s playing the most important gig of her life. Inevitably, one or two fellow weirdos in the crowd lock onto her warped wavelength and have the time of their lives, while everyone around them tries their best to remain politely oblivious to the outsider-art theatricality just outside their peripheral view. It’s always a wonderful spectacle to stumble into, more like encountering a magical creature than a struggling gig musician.

Sassyfras may never have had a page on whatever bullshit GeoCities website about New Orleans eccentrics I was frequenting as a kid, but she now has a much more substantial mythmaking platform to highlight her persona and her art: a documentary. Nobody May Come is the exact kind of niche-interest no-budget filmmaking you only see at festivals: a local documentary about a New Orleans street musician that only a handful of like-minded weirdos ever seek out in concert on purpose. It premiered at this year’s (mostly) digital New Orleans Film Fest, with much cheerleading & social media promotion from Sassyfras herself. On Valerie’s Facebook page (a wonderful follow that I highly encourage you to pursue), she promoted Nobody May Come as “a funny, fabulous movie all about me!” I’m not sure we saw the same film based on that description, but I’m also not sure anyone experiences the world the way Valerie Sassyfras does; that’s exactly what makes her so fascinating as an outsider artist & a documentary subject. I also don’t think it would improve her life at all if she found this movie about her art and her daily drudgery to be as upsettingly grim as I did.

If you’ve ever stumbled across an impromptu Valerie Sassyfras show in the wild and were curious about what, exactly, is her Whole Deal, Nobody May Come is eager to sketch out those details. It’s an intimate slice-of-life doc that captures Sassyfras at her most glamorous (performing with sequins & backup twerkers to adoring bar-scene audiences) and at her most mundane (stoned and eating Popeyes in her favorite armchair while listening to modern pop-country tunes). She’s an unreliable narrator of her own life’s story, defending herself against past accusations of abuse & neglect within fraught familial relationships as if the audience were interviewing to be her lawyer. Meanwhile, her career is enjoying newfound national attention thanks to her party jam “Girls Night Out” being memed by mainstream bullies like The Ellen DeGeneres Show and America’s Got Talent. Sassyfras’s avant-garde, zydeco-turned-new-wave pop tunes are much better suited for weirdo bar culture than they are for wide public consumption, falling somewhere between the conceptual art pageantry of a Laurie Anderson stage show and the crude prankishness of a Tim & Eric bit. Watching her expectations of impending fame clash with the ironic get-a-load-of-this-weirdo bullying of mainstream American television can be just as dark & upsetting as listening to her grumble about the ways she’s been left behind by her family and the world at large.

Nobody May Come is a jarring mix of fun outsider-art punk aggression and severely upsetting social & mental dysfunction. It would be easy to slap together a montage from the film of Valerie struggling to accomplish simple, mundane tasks: opening elevator doors, playing videos on her phone, negotiating with venue staff, routinely ordering Popeyes over a fuzzy drive-through intercom, etc. It would be just as easy to edit together a full-glam rock star fantasy montage that highlights her aggressively bizarre crowdwork and music videos instead of her personal & professional Issues. Personally, I would have preferred that the film lean harder into that latter option, if not only to gift Sassyfras the “funny, fabulous movie” she was looking for. There’s a lot of dark energy running throughout Nobody May Come that contextualizes her as a Daniel Johnston-type outsider artist who has her Good Days and her Bad. There may be some truth to that, but I personally found the doc to be most useful as an act of local mythmaking, not a warts-and-all exposé.

It would have been nice if Nobody May Come were as purely fun & fabulous as Valerie Sassyfras’s concerts, but I am still very much appreciative of it as-is for seeking to preserve her Local Legend status with a document much more substantial than a meme-of-the-week viral video or a late-90s blog post. She deserves the attention (and more).

-Brandon Ledet

To Decadence With Love, Thanks for Everything (2020)

The very last in-person social event I attended before the COVID lockdowns hit New Orleans this March was a Joni Mitchell tribute show at the AllWays Lounge. Watching drag queens, burlesque performers, and other assorted weirdos pay homage to as unlikely of an icon as Joni Mitchell was a bizarre treat, especially by the time Krewe Divine member CeCe V. DeMenthe was doing Mitchell as Divine in a Female Trouble-inspired get-up late in the show. I very much miss going to local, avant-garde drag shows like that Joni Mitchell tribute, most of which are anchored to the AllWays Lounge and the surrounding bars on St. Claude Ave. It’s a gaping, ever-widening hole in my social calendar that only became more glaring while watching To Decadence With Love, Thanks for Everything at this year’s (mostly) virtual New Orleans Film Festival.

To Decadence With Love is a local documentary that follows two exceptionally hard-working performers on the contemporary New Orleans drag scene: Franky and Laveau Contraire. Chronicling the two queens’ whirlwind of nonstop gigs over Southern Decadence weekend in 2019 (think Pride Weekend, only much sweatier), the film manages to capture a wide-ranging portrait of contemporary New Orleans drag over a shockingly short period of time. It’s amazing that Franky or Laveau had enough time to freshen their make-up or nap between gigs, much less talk to a documentary crew, but their guided tour of the city on a big moneymaker weekend is continually engaged & energetic. I don’t know that it fully captures what I love about watching these two performers in particular (Franky’s attention-commanding crowdwork and Laveau’s tightrope walk between the traditional & the avant-garde, respectfully), but it certainly sketches out a bigger-picture portrait of the scene where their art is near omnipresent.

I’m most grateful for this documentary’s efforts to capture how drastically different the New Orleans drag scene is now vs. the traditional Southern Pageant Drag I remember growing up with here. While Franky and Laveau Contraire are the overworked tour guides at the center, they make sure to pull the audience by the hand through the performance-art oddities of fellow weirdos & New Orleans Drag Workshop alumni like Maryboy, Apostrophe, Tarah Cards, and Gayle King Kong – some of my very favorite local performers, all of whom I miss tossing sweaty dollar bills at in various cabarets around town. Laveau Contraire in particular is a perfect choice of narrator in deciphering what makes the modern scene here so distinct & worthy of archival documentation, as she is intimately familiar with the traditional Pageant scene that contrasts it (which is still around, and still entertaining on its own merits). The movie also just wouldn’t be complete without her no matter what, since she tirelessly works practically every show on the local calendar.

I don’t know that To Decadence With Love will have much of a life outside of The New Orleans Film Festival, despite winning the fest’s Jury prize for Best Louisiana Feature. I imagine that, at the very least, its music clearance logistics would be an absolute nightmare in terms of distribution, considering how much drag relies on pre-existing pop media. There also isn’t much to its formal approach that distinguishes it as a documentary, outside maybe the way it interviews rideshare drivers on the trips between shows with equal weight as if they were also drag queens (emphasizing their shared reliance on spontaneous gigs & tips). Still, it’s a smart, entertaining document of a hyper-specific pocket of contemporary New Orleans culture that deserves this kind of attention before it’s lost to time. I also personally found it bittersweet to see that scene so vibrantly alive just one year ago, considering how drably uneventful my 2020 social life has been without it.

-Brandon Ledet

Undine (2020)

The last time I saw a movie in public with a live audience was The Invisible Man back in March of this year, at the start of the COVID-era lockdowns. I recently ended that drought eight months later at the New Orleans Film Festival, which included a few outdoor screenings among the virtual at-home viewing options that comprised most of this year’s fest. The projection was a little hazy, mostly due to the lights of passing cars and my own glasses fogging up from my mask. The mosquitoes were out, and they were thirsty. The movie was solidly Good, but not entirely My Thing. And yet I treasured every minute of the experience, if not only for the novelty of being part of a moviegoing audience again instead of watching everything alone on my couch. It felt like cinematic therapy, a necessary break in routine.

The movie that dragged me out of the safety of my home for a low-risk outdoor screening was Undine, Christian Petzold’s follow-up to the consecutive critical hits Phoenix & Transit. If Petzold has a particular calling card as a director (at least based on those two prior examples), it’s perhaps in the way he treats outlandish, high-concept premises with a delicate, sober hand. I probably should have known to temper my expectations for Undine, then, which on paper sounds like it’d be catered to my tastes but in practice is maybe a little too subtle & well-behaved to fully warm my heart. Its IMDb plot synopsis hints at an aquatic horror fairy tale: “Undine works as a historian lecturing on Berlin’s urban development. But when the man she loves leaves her, an ancient myth catches up with her. Undine has to kill the man who betrays her and return to the water.” Filtering that modernized Little Mermaid thriller premise through Petzold’s normalizing, prestige-cinema eyes, though, the movie somehow lands under the Breakup Drama umbrella instead.

I can’t imagine being the kind of person who watches the glammed-out disco horror musical The Lure and thinks “What if this was remade as a quiet, understated drama?,” but apparently that kind of person is out there. Meeting Petzold halfway on those terms, Undine is a smart small-scale romance, the exact kind of Adults Talking About Adult Issues filmmaking that has been abandoned by Hollywood movie studios and now only exists on the indie festival circuit. While it treats its fairy tale premise with a quiet, restrained sense of realism, the drama it seeks in the relationship dynamics at its core is both wryly funny and passionately heartfelt. It’s difficult to make sense of what all of its lengthy train rides & lectures on the urban planning of a reunited Berlin have to do with the aquatic-horror myth of its premise, but the breaking-up and falling-in-love cycles of its two opposing romance storylines are engaging enough to prop up those intellectual indulgences. The chemistry between actors Paula Beer (Undine) & Franz Rogowski (Undine’s next potential lover/victim) is especially potent & worthy of attention.

It’s embarrassing to admit, but I probably would’ve been more enamored with this film if it were a little messier or a lot more over the top; that’s just not Petzold’s deal. Still, it’s easy to picture a dumber, less nuanced American remake of this exact screenplay (starring Nicole Kidman & Joaquin Phoenix as the central couple), and there’s no way it would be half as thematically rich or dramatically accomplished. Besides, American studio movies don’t offer many COVID-safe venues for public screenings right now, so I couldn’t have enjoyed the outdoor film fest experience that Undine had afforded me if it were a mainstream genre pic. I’m very thankful for that therapeutic break in pandemic-constricted routine, even if I overall found the film itself to be Good Not Great.

-Brandon Ledet

#NOFF2019 Ranked & Reviewed

Here we are almost two full months since the 30th annual New Orleans Film Festival concluded and I’m finally gathering all of titles I caught at the fest in one spot. CC & I already recorded a more fleshed-out recap of our festival experience on Episode #95 of the podcast, in case you’re interested in hearing about the goings-on at the handful of downtown theaters where the festival was held and the various short films that preceded some of those screenings. This list is a more bare-bones kind of recap: a ranking from the best to the . . . least best of the features we managed to catch at this year’s festival.

This year we focused entirely on boosting the profile of micro-budget indies that are unlikely to get wide theatrical distribution, skipping the New Orleans premieres for bigger titles like Jojo Rabbit, Knives Out, and Harriet. Each title includes a link to a corresponding review. Enjoy!

1. Swallow Appearing like a scared child in June Cleaver housewife drag, Bennett conveys a horrific lack of confidence & self-determination in every gesture. Her fragility & despondence under the control of her wealthy, emotionally abusive family make you want to celebrate her newfound, deeply personal path to fulfillment, even though it very well might kill her. As she snacks on fistfuls of garden soil while watching trash TV instead of obeying her family’s orders all I could think was “Good for her!”‘

2. Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project As Stokes’s D.I.Y. archive is an extensive cultural record of American society over the past thirty years, the list of trends & topics that could be explored in their own full-length documentaries are only as limited as an editor’s imagination. This film is an excellent primer on the cultural wealth archived in those VHS tapes, as it both explores larger ideas of how media reflects society back to itself and does full justice to the rogue political activist who did dozens & dozens of people’s work by assembling it.”

3. Gracefully “Smart to never allow the flashiness of its craft to overpower the inherent fasciation of its subject. When it does get noticeably artful in its framing & imagery, it’s only ever in service of its subject’s dancing—often showing him performing in pitch-black voids as if his D.I.Y. glamor was the only thing in the world that matters.”

4. Jezebel “Perrier doesn’t shy away from the exploitation or desperation that fueled her online sex work as a cash-strapped, near-homeless teen, but she’s equally honest about the joy, power, and self-discovery that line of work opened up to her at the time, making for a strikingly complex picture of an authentic, lived experience.”

5. A Great Lamp “Feels akin to the aimless slacker comedies of yesteryear – the kind of deliberately apathetic, glibly existential art that put names like Jarmusch & Linklater on the map back when Independent Filmmaking was first becoming a viable industry. It’s got the handheld, high-contrast black & white look of a zine in motion (and I’m sure many a Clerks knockoff from festivals past), evoking a bountiful history of D.I.Y. no-budget art. However, in both tone & sentiment there’s no way the film could have bene made by previous generations of artful slackers, as its heart is clearly rooted in a 2010s sensibility.”

6. Hunting for Hedonia “Most valuable for its ability to explain the full scope of Deep Brain Stimulation’s history in concise layman’s terms. It covers the horrific past of its abuse, the promising present of its success in the therapy field, and the terrifying future of its rapid, unavoidable escalation in a modern capitalist paradigm.”

7. The World is Full of Secrets “Plays like Are You Afraid of the Dark? reimagined as a traumatizing stage play or audio book – with long takes of sub-professional teen actors struggling to conquer unnecessarily complex monologues. What’s amazing about this set-up is that the film not only finds room to establish a genuinely creepy mood, but it’s often prankishly hilarious and light on its feet despite its potential for academic pretention.”

8. Pier Kids “Its personal, intimate documentation of a new, specific crop of homeless queer kids is just as essential as any past works – if not only as confirmation that the epidemic is still ongoing. These children are still out there taking care of themselves & each other with no end or solution to this cycle in sight. I do hope there will be a day when these documentaries are no longer such a regular routine, but only in the sense that I hope for a future where they’re no longer necessary. We’re not there yet.”

9. Reži “Even if the film is overall too frustrating to merit a hearty recommendation, the combatively prankish attitude it performs in every frame is too infectious to fully ignore – like so many festering stab wounds.”

10. Singular Whatever faults this might have as an overly reserved document of a wild, punches-throwing artist, it does have plenty of net benefits in pushing Cecile McLorin Salvant in front of an even wider audience. I imagine if you’ve never heard of her before this doc could play as a revelation that a Nina Simone-level genius is alive & working in plain sight, waiting for your eyes & ears. The contrast between her work & the doc’s reserved nature might even unintentionally emphasize her art’s subversive playfulness, which seeps through the concert footage despite the buttoned-up style of the interviews.”

-Brandon Ledet

Singular (2019)

I first fell in love with jazz vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant at her 2015 Jazz Fest performance, where her unpretentious, playful stage presence felt like a once-in-a-lifetime gift I didn’t deserve. It says a lot about her accessibility that she affected me at all, given that I listen to essentially zero modern jazz. Yet, there was a sinisterly subversive, rawly sexual prankishness to her art that read as being punk-as-fuck to me across that genre divide. Salvant has also been a hit among people who actually are in tune with the current state of jazz, winning multiple consecutive Grammys in the few years since that performance and many other accolades besides. Part of her rise-to-legend path now includes the PR-boosting documentary Singular, which premiered in her hometown of Miami this year before screening at The New Orleans Film Festival to an audibly delighted crowd. Unfortunately, the film itself doesn’t quite live up to Salvant’s subversive, audience-rattling stage presence, but I’m not sure it ever had a fighting chance to do so.

Smartly, Singular anchors its recap of Salvant’s quick rise to relative fame on a Miami concert where the genius of her art is on full, open display. Talking-head interviews & home video footage of her pre-fame years interrupt the concert at regular intervals, but you do get just enough of a taste of what she’s up to onstage to understand why she’s so distinct in her field. The problem is that it’s difficult to not want more, especially if you’re hearing her music for the very first time. I’d usually be thankful for a film with this straightforward of a subject sticking to a slim 68min runtime, but here that compression means that Salvant’s performances are frequently disrupted by the commentariat, with interviewees talking over her art about how great that art supposedly is, as opposed to letting the work speak for itself. It’s probably unfair of me to wish this were a full-on concert film instead of a documentary, but in all honesty the story of Salvant’s life (as presented here) isn’t nearly as interesting as the story her work tells onstage. Few things are.

This is ultimately a very polite, well-behaved documentary for a subversively raunchy, confrontational performer who deserves something with much sharper teeth. Salvant’s backstory of training with an intimidating French professor at her “momager’s” insistence before returning to America to wow jazz snobs who didn’t know what to expect from her is endearing, but not especially eye-opening. As the narrative approaches her modern day interests—confronting the performance of racial caricature in jazz history, drawing psychedelic cartoons of a “lobster woman” in her free time, modeling some world-class couture glasses-frames, etc.—the story starts to get more interesting but then abruptly shuts down as if those were footnotes & addendums instead of the central text. Part of the issue might be that these legend-building docs usually arrive posthumously or late in an artist’s career, while Salvant’s story is still very much unfolding. At this point, anything but a proper concert film is bound to feel a little premature.

Whatever faults Singular might have as an overly reserved document of a wild, punches-throwing artist, it does have plenty of net benefits in pushing Salvant in front of an even wider audience. I imagine if you’ve never heard of her before this doc could play as a revelation that a Nina Simone-level genius is alive & working in plain sight, waiting for your eyes & ears. The contrast between her work & the doc’s reserved nature might even unintentionally emphasize her art’s subversive playfulness, which seeps through the concert footage despite the buttoned-up style of the interviews. The movie also does convey a kind of lighting-in-a-bottle aspect of her current work by contrasting it with her life & career as a whole. In early footage of her amateur concerts & competitions, Salvant is obviously talented, but feels like a relatable, pedestrian nerd from Miami. In her contemporary performances, she’s a ferociously confident, once-in-a-lifetime persona, as if something magical within her had clicked into place that cannot be fully explained. It’s difficult to not yearn for more of that modern, magical footage in a feature-length concert film, but this document of that trajectory from green talent to world-conquering confidence is still worthwhile on its own merits – even if barely so.

-Brandon Ledet

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project (2019)

I remember when the news of Marion Stokes’s death made headlines because of her massive home-recorded VHS collection. At least, I recall the news of that self-produced library being absorbed by the Internet Archive in San Francisco years later, where its unparalleled immensity first became evident. For three consecutive decades, the seemingly anonymous, obsessive woman simultaneously recorded multiple television news networks on 70,000 VHS cassettes. In the hands of a media watchdog organization or an avant-garde digital artist, this project might have been contextualized as a radical act of persevering history. From a non-publicized, self-funded effort from an unknown, private citizen, however, it was treated more as a sign of mental illness. The inherent value of Marion Stokes’s D.I.Y. archive is instantly recognizable to anyone with a passing interest in pop culture preservation – especially given the scope & consistency of her efforts – but the discussion around what she accomplished was initially framed as an unintended byproduct in the life of a hoarder & a crackpot. Recorder, a new documentary that attempts to clarify who Stokes was and why she created such a labor-intensive archive, is an essential corrective to those misinformed assumptions. This movie vindicates Marion Stokes as an absolute fucking genius who know exactly what she was doing, even when those closest to her didn’t have a clue.

I don’t mean to suggest that Stokes’s characterizations as a reclusive eccentric and a hoarder are entirely inaccurate. Her obsessive collection of television news broadcasts extended to other, less uniquely valuable “archives” of furniture she liked, Apple computer products, books, and the tell-tale Achilles heel of many hoarders: newspapers & magazines. It’s just entirely unfair & disingenuous to suggest that Stokes did not understand the full value of her D.I.Y. television news broadcast archive, which was very much a deliberately political & academic project of her own design. At one time in her early life as an ideologically combative idealist, Stokes worked as a legitimate, professional librarian in NYC. Her political associations with Socialist and Communist organizations in the 1950s eventually locked her out of that work, as she was effectively backlisted for her leftist ideals. Her interest in broadcast television as a powerful ideological communication tool began with later appearances on a local roundtable panel discussion show called Input, where she was a regular pundit as a political organizer in the 60s & 70s. Recording & preserving a physical archive of TV news broadcasts became a personal interest to her since even the primordial days of Betamax, but it was the news coverage of the Iranian hostage crisis in the late 70s that really kicked her diligent recording into high gear. As coverage of the event evolved from news to propaganda, she became fascinated by the way TV news was reshaping & repackaging facts in real time – something that would extend to how American crises like police brutality, the War on Terror, and the AIDS epidemic would be covered in the future. This was not some unplanned hoarder’s tic that blindly stumbled into cultural relevance; it was a purposefully political act from the start.

You could easily assemble a hundred distinctly fascinating documentaries out of this one rogue librarian’s archive. Stokes’s tapes are a bottomless treasure trove for an editing room tinkerer, which leads to some truly stunning moments here – particularly in a sequence that demonstrates in real time how all TV news coverage was gradually consumed by the tragedy of 9/11. As this D.I.Y. archive is an extensive cultural record of American society over the past thirty years, the list of trends & topics that could be explored in their own full-length documentaries are only as limited as an editor’s imagination. Recorder does excellent work as a primer on the cultural wealth archived in those VHS tapes (which have since been digitized), as it both explores larger ideas of how media reflects society back to itself and does full justice to the rogue political activist who did dozens & dozens of people’s work by assembling it. The film doesn’t shy away from acknowledging that the project became an escapist & dissociative mechanism for the increasingly reclusive Stokes as the years went on, but it also makes it explicitly clear that she knew the full value of what she was preserving well before anyone else validated her efforts. Was Marion Stokes paranoid that America was being taken over the by the Nazi Right, that the media was systemically racist in how it contextualized police brutality, that all of this raw cultural record would be lost by television networks that claimed they were archiving their own material? Or was she an incredibly perceptive activist who’d be proven right on all those counts, given enough time? Recorder is a great film, but it’s only the first step in giving this visionary her full due.

-Brandon Ledet

Reži (2019)

The basic premise of the low-budget Serbian indie Reži (also distributed as Love Cuts and Cutting Close) is an incredible hook: a teenage brat attempts to reconcile with her ex-boyfriend while also suffering a stab wound from a local gang. I was so sold on that logline that I dragged my decrepit body out to the very last programing slot at this year’s New Orleans Film Festival, a brutally unforgiving condition to see any feature film. It’s unclear how much of my exhaustion during that screening was due to the film itself vs. its late-night position at the tail end of a full week of low-budget wonders (or, most likely, a combination of both). I did feel frustrated that it didn’t fully live up to the darkly comic mayhem promised by its central hook, though, as it’s ultimately a pretty good film that’s constantly on the verge of being great.

Kristina Jovanovic stars as Aja, a tiny blonde teen with the attitude of a knuckle-dragging biker. Her brattiness borders on abuse as she stalks her long-suffering boyfriend, shouts “What the fuck is wrong with you?” at her doting mother, and just generally fills the world with nothing but combative violence & homophobic slurs. When Aja’s shit-talking bestie, Maja, starts a fight with a local gang, our loudmouth antihero is unexpectedly stabbed in the gut with a switchblade while defending her honor. Pervesely, it’s almost a relief when she’s stabbed, as the first moments of quiet & calm don’t arrive until after that act of violence. Before the stabbing, Aja moves through the world as an abusive whirlwind, unable to even eat a sandwich without appearing to be in a rage. Afterwards, there’s a sweetness & vulnerability to her character that reluctantly bubbles to the surface as she asks herself “What is it about me that makes people want to stab me?” and “How can I work on that so I don’t get stabbed again?” The tragedy of the film is that this wounded self-reflection arrives a little too late, as she’s already kickstarted a chain reaction of escalating violence with its own self-propelling momentum.

Reži feels like it’s reaching for the kind of tenderness & humor against a backdrop of constant cruelty that’s achieved to much greater effect in films like Wetlands & Tangerine, only further proving how difficult of a tone that is to balance. The chaotic, handheld camerawork & absurd dismissal of how serious stab wounds are can be enrapturing in stops & starts, but I do feel like the film overplays its acidity to the point where it can’t ever be fully endearing. Jokes about how girlfriends be crazy, threats of sexual assault, and constant barrages of ableist & homophobic slurs sour the mood too much for the bittersweet counterbalance of its repentance & romance to fully break through. Still, even if the film is overall too frustrating to merit a hearty recommendation, the combatively prankish attitude it performs in every frame is too infectious to fully ignore – like so many festering stab wounds. I may have never fully lost myself in its romantic or self-improvement drama, but I was certainly impressed by its sneering attitude & wickedly dark sense of humor.

-Brandon Ledet