Welcome to Episode #148 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon is joined by local film critic Bill Arceneaux to review the films they caught at the 32nd annual New Orleans Film Festival (which Bill also covered for The Bayou Brief), starting with the eating disorder-themed body horror Shapeless. Enjoy!
When I visited a close friend during post-Katrina exile in their home state of Alabama, one of their favorite ways to pass the time was listening to a swap meet radio show that negotiated a buy-sell-trade market of second-hand items among their audience. It was a fascinating listen, not only for the absurdism & obscurity of the items being bartered, but also because of the eccentric personalities of the people who’d call in to haggle over them. That memory flooded back to me watching the documentary/narrative hybrid film Socks on Fire, which disrupts its central drama with reenactments of that exact call-in swap meet show, deployed as Greek-chorus chapter breaks. Even more so than its subjects/characters endlessly chanting “Roll tide!” and dressing in crimson red, that radio show device placed me in its Alabama setting with an uncanny specificity I never thought possible, considering it’s a state I’ve only visited a handful of times in my life.
As its title promises, Socks on Fire opens with flaming socks pinned to a backyard clothesline, with filmmaker-poet Bo McGuire narrating questions of what you’re supposed to do with a loved one’s leftover possessions after they pass away. What to do with his deceased grandmother’s used socks has a clear-enough answer: burn ’em. It’s much trickier for the family to decide what to do with her lifelong home, of which she did not leave a living will to assign possession to any of her surviving children or grandchildren. The most obvious answer is to hand the empty house over to McGuire’s uncle, a near-destitute drag queen who doesn’t have another place to live. McGuire’s fiercely homophobic aunt opposes that plan, despite her supposedly Christian values, and viciously fights to leave her brother homeless. McGuire uses the documentary as an excuse to prod at how the siblings’ relationship got to be so poisoned in the first place, and how that friction distorts his own sense of place as a gay artist in his insular Alabama hometown.
I want to describe Socks on Fire as a Southern-fried revision of this year’s auto-documentary Madame, but that doesn’t quite capture the camp or sardonicism of its humor. It operates more like an earnest version of the over-the-top Southern theatrics of Sordid Lives, played like a tell-all airing of a family’s dirty laundry instead of a sitcom. Bo McGuire illustrates his sordid family history with a mixed-media approach, breaking from traditional documentary storytelling with photo album collages, home video tape distortions, fine art photography of suspended household objects, and poetic monologues that ominously refer to decades of conflicts that have gnarled his family tree. It’s when his uncle & fellow queens start re-creating those conflicts in camped-up drag routines that the movie touches on something really special, though. Turning his homophobic aunt into a drag character was an especially inspired choice, and it’s one that clues you into McGuire’s deliciously fucked up boundaries between humor & heartbreak.
I’m not entirely convinced that Socks on Fire is about the disputes over McGuire’s grandmother’s estate, so much as it’s about his own relationship with his isolated hometown. The swap-meet radio show, the Steel Magnolias-style trips to the hair salon, and the awed references to Reba McEntire as a living god are all tied into his aunt & uncle’s battle over a home that only one of them needs, but they feel more personal to Bo McGuire as the narrator than they feel relevant to that story. By the time he collects all the small-town women who shaped his life & persona for a single photoshoot, it’s clear that he’s mostly returning to that place of origin to uncover something about himself, not necessarily about his family. It’s all hyper-specific, intensely intimate, and playfully experimental in its internal visual language, which is pretty much all I ever ask for out of a movie. It’s a privilege to be invited into McGuire’s boozy Southern psyche like this, an old-fashioned flavor of Alabama hospitality.
Of the three low-budget, low-profile indies I caught as virtual selections from this year’s New Orleans Film Festival, I did not expect my favorite would be the crossgender body-swap comedy. In Homebody, a gender-questioning 9-year-old boy discovers the meditative power to inhabit the body of his adult-woman babysitter and lives a day in her literal shoes. It’s a premise you’d expect to find in a 1980s sex comedy or in amateur online erotica, but here it’s handled with an innocence & sweetness that disarms its potential for moral or political disaster. Four years ago, Your Name.kicked open the door for more thoughtful, earnest gender-swap comedies to saunter through, and this is the first movie I’ve seen take advantage of that opening so far. It makes sense that delicate, modernized approach to the genre would come from a film festival acquisition and not a mainstream comedy, so let’s appreciate this sweet little movie before the inevitable live-action Hollywood remake of Your Name. spoils the mood.
Relative newcomer Colby Minifie puts in an A+ slapstick performance as the babysitter host-body in this possession story. Her client is a “Wells For Boys” type indoor kid who’s obsessed with his babysitter in a way that extends beyond the boundaries of a typical childhood crush into an intense jealousy & idolization. A few quick YouTube tutorials later, and he’s using “free spirit” transcendental meditation to inhabit her body, living a casual afternoon as an adult woman. Meanwhile, her consciousness is locked away in a Sunken Place limbo, slowly emerging to coach him through the trickier parts of living in her body before their proper places are righted. The scope of the picture is intimately small & mostly guarded from danger, but it doesn’t shy away from the squirmier curiosities children have when figuring out their relationships with their gender & their bodies. This particular kid indulges in crayon illustrations of his vore fantasies, carefully listens to adults piss from the outside of locked bathroom doors, and inadvertently invites his babysitter’s boyfriend to hook up while he’s piloting her body – all uncomfortable glimpses into his private psyche. For the most part, though, you just hope he has a nice afternoon exploring his feelings & identity on the other side of the gender divide, hopefully without ruining this sweet woman’s life in the process.
Homebody makes an impressive impact, considering its limited means. Director Joseph Sackett wrings a lot of visual vibrancy out of the crayon drawings & YouTube meditation tutorials that illustrate his protagonist’s gender journey. The movie also would not work at all if not for the talent of Minifie in her dual role as babysitter & client, clearly defined as two separate personae through the subtleties of her physical presence. It’s a movie that could very easily sour its own mood with a tonal or political misstep. It’s also one that could allow itself to be reductively summed up as “Freaky Friday meets My Life in Pink“. It’s got a lot more going on than that sales pitch would imply, though, especially as an intimate character study of a highly specific type of child that doesn’t tend to get a lot of screentime. Overall, it’s a wonderfully earnest exploration of childhood gender identity & general obsessiveness. It was also the highlight discovery of this year’s New Orleans Film Fest, at least for me.
As you would likely assume, the COVID-19 pandemic has sabotaged my usual filmgoing routine during the New Orleans Film Society’s annual New Orleans Film Festival. In a typical year, I fill my NOFF schedule with a dozen or more low-profile independent films that I likely wouldn’t be able to see on the big screen (or see at all) outside a festival environment. I’ll zip around the city for a week solid, cramming in 3-4 no-budget titles a day, the more esoteric the better. I tend to avoid most of the big-name movie premieres at NOFF every year – both because those films are likely to be widely distributed to local theater chains in a few months anyway, and because the events are time-sucks that keep me from catching the smaller, weirder titles that will not screen in any other local venue. The pandemic shifted those priorities greatly for me, though. As I’ve been going to the movies a lot less frequently this year, the appeal of seeing a film festival screening of a major release with a masked, vaccinated crowd instead of gambling that I might be comfortable seeing it at the multiplex in a couple months is much less resistible. And so, my participation in the 2021 edition of the New Orleans Film Festival was most boldly defined by attending the city’s premieres of three Awards Season prestige pictures, the exact thing I usually avoid during this ritual.
I will still do my best to individually review the few smaller NOFF selections that I watched at home on the festival’s virtual platform, since those no-distro titles are the ones that can most use the attention. Since the three Spotlight Films I attended in person will most likely be discussed to death in the coming months by professional publications, I’m okay just grouping them here in bite size quick-take reviews. As always, we’ll also provide an audio round-up of all the films we caught at this year’s festival on an upcoming episode of The Swampflix Podcast in the coming days. Some traditions are worth maintaining, pandemic or no. For now, here’s a brief round-up of all the major spotlight releases I caught at this year’s NOFF.
The most thematically on-point selection for this year’s New Orleans Film Festival was definitely C’mon C’mon, which was highlighted with a lavish red-carpet premiere at The Orpheum. The film was an obvious programming choice for that festival-opener treatment because the city of New Orleans features prominently in its cross-generational road trip narrative, which visits—in order—Detroit, Los Angeles, New York and, finally, N.O. Director Mike Mills was in attendance to gush about the locals who collaborated on the picture, especially the New Orleanians who trusted him to interview their children on-camera about their visions of what they expect the future will be like.
While that choice to highlight a (partially) local production in one of the city’s most gorgeous venues makes total sense thematically, I do think the presentation clashed with the film’s low-key nature. I walked out Mills’s previous film wowed by his concise encapsulation of subjects as wide-spanning as punk culture solidarity, what it means to be “a good man” in modern times, the shifts in the status of the American woman in the decades since the Great Depression, the 1980s as a tipping point for consumer culture, the history of life on planet Earth, and our insignificance as a species in the face of the immensity of the Universe. For all of C’mon C’mon‘s interviews with real-life kids about the daunting subject of The Future, it’s mostly just a road trip movie where a socially awkward uncle (Joaquin Phoenix at his most subdued) bonds with his socially awkward son. It’s about the same thing a lot of low-key indie dramas are about: how difficult it is to meaningfully connect with the fellow human beings in your life, which is a much smaller scope than what I’m used to from this director.
Since C’mon C’mon is a lot more contained & intimate than either Beginnersor 20th Century Women, it never approaches the heights of what Mills can do at his best. Still, it’s pretty darn charming as one of those heartfelt friendship stories where a precocious child drags a lonely grump out of their shell. And I love that you can feel Mills falling in love with New Orleans in real time in the third act, especially in a brief sequence set during a walking parade. He looked genuinely inspired by the city on that stage.
The other two Spotlight screenings I caught at this year’s fest were staged at AMC Elmwood – a very clear vision of what it would’ve been like to see them presented outside of the fest. Of the Elmwood screenings, the title I was most stoked to see was Sean Baker’s latest black comedy Red Rocket, since his previous film The Florida Project ranked among my personal favorite films of the 2010s (several spots below Mills’s 20th Century Women). Red Rocket did not disappoint, but it did leave me in a worse mood than Baker’s previous two features, which are much sweeter despite dwelling in the same bottomless pits of economic desperation.
Former MTV VJ Simon Rex stars as a down-on-his-luck pornstar who returns to his hometown in rural Texas to recover from his rock-bottom fallout in Los Angeles. From the opening seconds of the film, Rex chatters & schemes at a brutally unrelenting pace, weaponizing his conman charm (and gigantic dick) to climb the local drug-ring ladder at the expense of everyone he encounters – including his closest family members and innocent neighborhood teens. The only moment of relief from his sociopathic motormouth is when the community joins forces to shout “Shut the fuck up” into his face in unison. The film boasts all the D.I.Y. visual splendor & infectiously rambunctious energy that typify a Sean Baker film, but they’re re-routed into a stomach-turning, pitch-black character study of Beach Bum-level proportions.
In its broadest terms, Red Rocket is just another bleak poverty-line comedy from Baker, exactly what you’d expect from him. It’s just that this time it’s more of a feel-bad hangout than a nonstop plummet into chaos, and the protagonist is deeply unlikeable instead of charmingly vulgar. It’s like a goofier, laidback version of Good Time, where you feel terrible for laughing while a desperate scumbag exploits every poor soul in their path just to keep their own head slightly above water. It really slows down to make you squirm between the punchlines. I didn’t appreciate it as much as The Florida Project or Tangerine, where you are invited to love Baker’s protagonists for their misbehavior, but at least he’s not repeating himself, nor shrinking away from what makes his work divisive.
While the appeal of the other two NOFF Spotlight selections I caught this year was the previous work of the creatives behind them, I’m embarrassed to admit that I was drawn to the third & final film on my schedule mainly because of its exclusivity. I’m generally a fan of Sean Baker & Mike Mills, but the only other film I’ve seen from Apichatpong Weerasethakul left me dead cold. What drew me to his latest slow-cinema arthouse drama, Memoria, was less the artist behind it and more the William Castle-style gimmickry of its distribution. A large part of the appeal of film festivals is having access to movies I wouldn’t be able to see otherwise. Memoria fits that bill perfectly: a challenging head-scratcher indie film that may never play in New Orleans again.
In a publicity-generating power move, Memoria‘s distributor Neon has announced that the film will “never” be presented on a streaming service or physical media. It will instead perpetually “travel” in a “never-ending” theatrical release that will only play on one screen in one city at a time. Personally, I very much value the novelty of attending an Event Movie right now. It’s been a lackluster year for me, so I appreciate a little carnival barker razzle dazzle on the arthouse calendar, luring marks like myself who don’t even enjoy the director’s previous work into the circus tent just to feel like I’m witnessing something special. I also recognize the pretension & elitism of that release strategy, so I was proud of the NOFF audience for outright laughing at the explanation of it during the festival’s pre-recorded intro. That moment of communal mockery turned out to be one of the precious few highlights of the experience, unfortunately.
Memoria stars Tilda Swinton as a Scottish academic who’s spiritually adrift in Colombia, haunted by her sister’s mysterious illness and an even more mysterious sound that only she can hear. Much of the film consists of non-sequitur tangents & intentionally overlong shots of its star sitting in still silence, as seems to be Apichatpong’s M.O. I had about the same level of engagement with this film as I had with Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: short bursts of baffled awe drowning in a bottomless sea of boredom. Both films have exactly one scene that I flat-out love (a tense family dinner at a restaurant here & the catfish encounter in Boonmee) but for the most part were decidedly Not For Me. I was practically begging for Memoria to end by its final half-hour, cursing myself for being suckered into the theater by its “never-ending” exhibition gimmickry. Taking chances on difficult-to-access art films that make you feel intellectually bankrupt for not “getting” them is a quintessential film festival experience, though, and it oddly felt nice to be let down in that distinctly familiar way. Made me miss the before times, may they soon return.
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:
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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 Lureand 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.