It’s usually a meaningless cliché when people say they were born in the wrong era, but I would make an exception if I heard it from Ana Lily Amirpour. Since her 2014 debut A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Amirpour has been making the exact kind of high-style, low-effort hangout indies that earned easy festival buzz in the slacker culture days of the 1990s. Two films later, it’s getting frustrating to see her drag that proud burnout energy into the 2020s. It makes sense that her debut was a small-scale genre picture that coasted on laidback cool, but her resources have expanded greatly since then and she’s still making low-effort slacker films with attention-grabbing premises and a snotty “Fuck you” attitude. The only difference is she’s now armed with celebrity stunt-casting & more extravagant locales. Her post-apocalyptic cannibal whatsit The Bad Batch remains the most frustrating waste of her Flashy Debut clout to date, but its follow-up telekinetic fairy tale Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon is only a half-step up from that disappointment. Like her previous two films, Mona Lisa leans back & hangs out in a way that makes you wonder why Amirpour is making high-concept genre films when she’d clearly have more fun making no-concept, character-driven comedies. The marquee promises a bubblegum pop version of Scanners or The Fury, but Amirpour is more interested in making a neon-lit Clerks.
Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon isn’t bad; it’s just a little underwhelming. Imagine if Harmony Korine couldn’t afford to be choosy with his projects and settled for making a straight-to-Shudder Gen-Z update of Carrie for an easy paycheck. The titular Mona Lisa is an escaped mental patient with violent impulses & telekinetic powers. She’s effectively a blank slate, having grown up in a padded cell with nothing but a straitjacket & a prison cot to keep her occupied. Like the DaVinci muse, that internal void invites strangers to project meaning & intent onto her, which says more about their worldview than it does about her own personality (especially the freaked-out cops who want to lock her back up and the scheming hustlers who exploit her powers for cash). This is Horror of the Hassled, as all Mona Lisa really wants is to hang out, eat junk food, and watch trash TV. Her potential for violent mayhem is only unleashed when people get in the way of those totally reasonable goals. Instead of seeking revenge in a cathartic Carrie-on-prom-night showdown with all the jerks who hassle her, she seeks moments of calm at corner stores, laundromats, and TV-lit living room couches. She’s an out-of-time 90s slacker hanging out in a city of desperate, scheming dirtbags who’d all be better off if they just keep their distance and let her vibe.
Although not a great film, Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon was a great programming choice for opening this year’s Overlook Film Festival. It’s steeped in plenty N’awlins Y’all flavor to acclimate tourists who traveled here for the fest – starting in the swamps outside the city during Mona Lisa’s initial escape before trudging its way down to Bourbon Street strip clubs, frog ribbits bleeding into grimy DJ beats. It’s also commendable for offering substantial character-actor roles to Kate Hudson (as a Quarter-smart stripper) and Craig Robinson (as the only kind NOPD officer in the history of the department). Surely there’s an audience out there hungering for Amirpour’s high-concept slacker thrillers, real freaks who’d love to see Joel Potrykus’s own no-effort comedies dressed up in dingy pop soundtracks & Rainbow Store fast fashions. I most appreciated Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon as a collection of oddball characters in no rush to do anything in particular. I, too, would love to live a junk-food life unhassled, downing cases of cheap bear in parking lots with metalhead burnouts and chomping my way through well-done hamburgers at the Claiborne Frostop. I just wish Amirpour would move away from the vampires, cannibals, and telekinetic witches of her film’s flashy premises, since she doesn’t seem motivated to do anything exciting with those conceits.
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!
A common theme among my personal selections at this year’s New Orleans Film Festival was that every single movie felt oddly low-key & unrushed. Beyond the obvious scaling-down that all film festivals have suffered throughout the pandemic, the movies themselves just felt unusually relaxed. I expected that lack of momentum from filmmakers on the schedule like Apichatpong Weerasethakul, but even the reliably frantic Sean Baker’s latest feel-bad comedy Red Rocket felt like more of a hangout than a nonstop plummet into chaos. There’s no way to tell if that lack of narrative urgency appealed to the festival’s programmers when making their selections for this year’s docket, whether it reflects a communal headspace the filmmakers themselves shared as a response to the rapid escalation of global collapse we’re all suffering right now, or if it was just happenstance that I selected a few movies in a languid key this year. What I do know is that the low-key vibe of the festival at large was most sharply felt in the local low-budget horror film Shapeless, which even indicates in its title a laidback formlessness that you wouldn’t expect in its genre.
Whatever Shapeless may be lacking in narrative momentum, it makes up for with a killer hook in its premise. Kelly Murtagh stars as Ivy, a dive-bar lounge singer & street busker struggling to catch a break on the New Orleans music scene. Her professional stasis is partly a result of working in a city that’s overcrowded with phenomenally talented musicians vying for the same spotlight (notably, in her case, a chill-as-fuck bartender played by The Deuce‘s Jamie Neumann). Mostly, it’s a result of her personal struggles with mental illness, namely an eating disorder that isolates her from peers who are much more at ease around public consumption of food & drink. Whenever Ivy’s not singing for tips or working her shitty day job at the dry cleaners, she shrinks away to the privacy of her apartment where she can binge & purge in peace. Only, the longer she spends in isolation, the more damage her disorder does to her body – shredding her vocal cords and, most notably, mutating her into a Cronenbergian monster with excess digits & eyeballs emerging all over her body.
Translating eating disorder dysmorphia through body-horror genre tropes is a genius idea for a movie, but Shapeless isn’t especially interested in pushing its narrative past that starting point. Its flashes of body-mutation gore are upsetting & wildly varied—including lesions, swelling, and the sudden growth of extra fingers & orifices—but there’s no discernible escalation of their severity as the movie drifts along. After the initial discomfort of Ivy’s isolation & mutation settles in, I struggled to latch onto the tension the movie was trying to generate during its long stretches of eerie silence. We spend a lot of time hanging around Ivy’s apartment waiting for her dysmorphic horror to exponentially escalate, but instead it stagnates – par for the course, considering the unrushed quality shared among every film I saw during this year’s NOFF. However, I will admit that Shapeless really made me squirm in those long stretches of quiet discomfort, especially in scenes when Ivy was visually repelled by food. One thing that will always be effective for me is when movies make the sights & sounds of people eating grotesque. It gets me every time, and in this case that particular gross-out tactic was one of the main drivers of the plot.
Oddly, most of the outright horror programming selections I’ve seen at the New Orleans Film Festival over the years have been centered around the grotesqueries of eating disorders. I’m thinking of 2019’s Swallow, and 2016’s Are We Not Cats?, to be specific. Again, I will not speculate on whether that programming reflects a thematic preoccupation among the festival’s programmers or just a happenstance of the movies I personally have the time & money to seek out on my schedule. I will say, though, that Shapeless is the least vibrant & energetic movie of that trio, so it fits right at home with this year’s festival selection at large – which leaned heavily towards low-key hangouts over shocking bursts of energy.
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 watched Reminiscence on the Friday night before Hurricane Ida hit Louisiana, knocking out our power & internet service for weeks. In any other context, the film might have landed as low-key escapist entertainment, but that particular weekend afforded it an eerie magnetic pull on my attention. A sci-fi noir starring Hugh Jackman & Rebecca Ferguson as its incongruously gorgeous leads, Reminiscence splits its time between near-future Miami & New Orleans. Both fictionalized versions of those cities are decorated with constant street flooding, like a modernized urban version of Vienna. It’s like a Gulf South remake of Chinatown where there’s too much water instead of too little, a stomach-turning preview of what Climate Change will inevitably do to my beloved home city, likely within my lifetime.
Maybe I wouldn’t have watched Reminiscence in the lead-up to a hurricane had I known about that submerged urban setting, but I’m glad I did. It’s a surprisingly solid movie, especially considering its ice-cold reception in theaters. Jackman stars as the owner & operator of a machine that tricks the human brain into reliving & re-experiencing memory in full sensory detail. It was created as an interrogation tactic for police investigations, but over time became a commercial form of therapy for post-apocalypse urbanites, then a form of dwelling-on-the-past addiction. His business gets by okay until he is hired by a mysterious femme fatale (Ferguson), who hires him to help remember where she lost her keys . . . which of course leads him to becoming entangled in a larger, lethal political conspiracy. Luckily his partner in time (Thandiwe Newton) has his back, since he’s in way over his head, especially once he falls in love with his mysterious client . . . or at least his selective memory of her.
The biggest hurdle for most audiences to enjoy Reminiscence is going to be its shamelessness in collecting every possible trope of classic noir in its modern action sci-fi shell. You pretty much know exactly where the film is going at all times, even if its scrambled timeline & false-memory rug-pulls confuses the path it takes to get there. Beyond that predictability, its broad-strokes noir homage overextends itself to the point of parody in Jackman’s constant, overbearing narration, where he gruffly whispers things like “Time is no longer a one-way stream. Memory is the boat that sails against the current,” and “Memories are just beads on the necklace of time.” I’m going to choose to believe that the film knows how funny & outdated these overwritten turns of phrase are, the same way that a lot of classic noir could be darkly hilarious & absurdly wordy in its own day. I half-expected Jackman to complain, “Of all the memory joints in all of Sunken City, this dame walks into mine”, but that sadly never came to be. I wonder if the film might’ve been more immediately popular if its humor was more readily recognizable & self-aware, but I’m glad it plays it straight. It’s funnier that way, intentional or not.
If Reminiscence feels overly familiar, it’s not necessarily because it’s paying homage to vintage 1930s noir; it’s because its exact style of homage was already hammered to death in big-budget sci-fi of the late 1990s. Titles like Strange Days, Dark City, The Matrix, The Thirteenth Floor, and Gattaca have already tread this exact ground before, although maybe not with as much (suspiciously clear) water flooding their urban settings. And even all of those movies owe a recognizable debt to Blade Runner‘s visionary estimation of sci-fi noir in the 1980s, putting yet another been-there-seen-that barrier between this genre-mashup and its 1930s source of inspiration. Luckily, genre movies don’t have to be The First or The Best to be worthwhile; they just have to be memorably entertaining on their own terms. I can pretty confidently say I’ll remember the experience of watching Reminiscence for a long time coming, if not only because the hurricane flooding that hit Louisiana that weekend echoed a lot of the imagery of the submerged New Orleans onscreen.
Mardi Gras in New Orleans is many things: cheesy, transcendent, sleazy, cheap, goofy, sinister, magical, communally handmade. Even if it’s spiritually corrupt and technically inept in its filmmaking, the cheap-o horror curio Mardi Gras Massacre is all those things as well. Yes, Mardi Grass Massacre is locally-flavored misogynist trash about a ritualistic serial murderer who targets French Quarter sex workers. It’s also the kinky, near-pornographic New Orleans equivalent of Manos: The Hands of Fate, in that it’s wonderfully, quirkily inept to the point of being Cute despite the repulsive cruelty of its genre. Better yet, all the qualities that make it memorable as a horror novelty are the exact same qualities that make our city-wide masquerade on Fat Tuesday such an extraordinary communal experience year after year, century after century. Unfortunately, 2021’s Carnival season has been completely upended by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, leaving a parade float-shaped hole in my heart. I don’t know if it’s just because of my desperate need to experience some semblance of that ritual through the safest means possible, but I was shocked to find some genuine Mardi Gras magic in such a lowly, putrid gutter. It felt great.
The poster for Mardi Gras Massacre sells the movie as if it were a giallo murder mystery, complete with a straight razor weapon that never appears in the actual film. In practice, it’s not a mystery at all. The killer’s identity is immediately apparent, as he plainly introduces himself to a pair of prostitutes at a Bourbon Street drinking hole, asking around for “the most Evil woman” they know. Once he secures a transactional “date” with the most Evil sex worker in the bar, he brings them back to his French Quarter torture dungeon, where he ritualistically removes their organs as a sacrifice to an Aztecan goddess. So much about this murder ritual is viciously amoral & tacky, which does not at all improve the two or three times it’s repeated beat for beat with subsequent victims. From the presentation of Aztecan religious practices as Anton LaVey-styled Satanic pageantry to the eroticized dismemberment of women as if it were a mere S&M kink, Mardi Gras Massacre is repugnant in its social politics – as most 1970s grindhouse horrors are. And, yet, as scope of the film expands outside those bloody dungeon sessions, the movie gradually becomes uniquely adorable in pure N’awlins fashion. Its distinctly 1970s misogyny is entirely overpowered by its distinctly local flavor.
The heroes of this story are a crooked cop and a French Quarter prostitute who form an unlikely love connection, turning the first ritualistic murder into a morbid meet-cute. The cheery pair play tourist on cutesy dates up & down the Riverwalk, inanely grinning at each other as the Natchez rolls by in the background. Before you can get incensed at the cops for being positioned as The Good Guys, however, this romantic fling eventually breaks down as the sex worker starts to resent her pig boyfriend’s sense of superiority over her. She calls him out for being a thief & a predator, and they split up to face the killer by their lonesome. The initial performative misogyny of the murder scenes gradually breaks down in a similar way. As we spend more time away from the dungeon rituals, the movie appears to have a much less Conservative viewpoint on women & sexuality than it initially pretends. The sex worker victims are more fleshed out & humanized than the evil caricature who hunts them down. Gender-ambiguous and flamboyantly queer side characters & extras are presented as matter-of-fact members of the French Quarter community instead of the punchlines you’d expect. Meanwhile, an incessant disco soundtrack constantly reminds the audience that the show is all in good fun. It would be absurd to posit that Mardi Gras Massacre was anything more than amoral sleaze—at least in terms of its political messaging—but it’s at least amoral sleaze that feels authentic to the French Quarter lifestyle once you emerge from the murder dungeon.
Of course, the real draw here is the novelty of the murders’ Mardi Gras setting, which frames the film as an act of regional filmmaking just as much as it is generic 1970s exploitation schlock. For most of the runtime, Carnival season is only as important to the plot as the approach of the 4th of July weekend in Jaws. Occasionally, cops & newspaper men are pressured to stop reporting the sex worker serial murders out of fear that it’ll ruin business during Mardi Gras, scaring away tourists. The climactic ritual is set on Fat Tuesday, however, where the killer feels emboldened to dress in his faux-Aztecan ritual garb in public, letting his freak flag fly among the other pedestrian revelers. I love this candid street footage with all my heart, as it captures the French Quarter masquerading of Fat Tuesday that most movies set here ignore in favor of the St. Charles Ave. float parades. As the on-the-street extras swarm around our costumed, misogynist killer, it’s fascinating just how little that real-life ritual has changed over the last four decades. The haircuts are a little different, but the costumes & the atmosphere are exactly the same. It was a time-warp to the exact blissful chaos of Mardi Gras that I’ve bene missing this year in quarantine, and it could not have come from a less reputable source.
There’s plenty of unsavory New Orleans flavor flowing throughout Mardi Gras Massacre even when it’s not parting its way through the Fat Tuesday crowds. At the very least, the movie is a wonderful guided tour of the Bourbon Street strip club scene of the 1970s, including an extensive novelty act with a dancer costumed as Lucifer. My favorite N’awlins Y’all moment in the entire picture is the shot where cops discover the abandoned body of the first victim near the Riverwalk, then the camera zooms in on the Cafe Du Monde signage lurking in the background. C’est magnifique. You can likely find these same New Orleans touches in far less grotesque regional horrors; The Exotic Ones is a much lighter, sillier equivalent that immediately comes to mind. Still, there’s just something about the lurid colors, the shameless hedonism, and the sinister non-stop partying of Mardi Gras Massacre that really won me over despite my initial misgivings. I did not expect the film to earn the “Mardi Gras” portion of its title, but its gawdy sub-professional ritualism got there in a roundabout, endearing way. The kills are mind-numbingly repetitive & grotesquely amoral, but everything that surrounds them forgives the indulgence, like Wednesday-morning ashes smeared on a hungover reveler’s forehead.
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.
For the past couple months, I’ve shifted our weekly “What’s Playing in Local Theaters” report to a list of Swampflix-recommended movies you can stream at home. This choice was initially a no-brainer, as the governor had ordered the closure of all Louisiana movie theaters in response to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. As of two weeks ago, cinemas are allowed to operate again as part of Phase One of the state’s re-opening strategy, but I’m personally not confident that’s such a great idea. So, I’m still going to stick with Online Streaming options as a moviegoing substitute for the time being.
In that spirit, here are some suggestions for movies that you can stream at home while under quarantine: a grab bag of movies Swampflix has rated 5-stars that are currently available for home viewing.
Streaming with Subscription
The Cabin in the Woods (2012)– From my review: “The film is at once a celebration of the horror genre as a cruel, ritualistic blood sport that serves a significant purpose in the lives of its audience and a condemnation of that very same audience for participating in the ritual in the first place. An ambitious, self-reflective work of criticism in action, Cabin in the Woods in one of the best horror films I’ve seen in recent years, not least of all for the way it makes me rethink the basic structure & intent of horror as an art from in the first place.” Currently streaming on Amazon Prime and Hulu.
Black Moon(1975) – From our Movie of the Month discussion: “Black Moon is extremely surreal. It has the rare quality of having the most dream-like logic of any movie I’ve ever seen. I frequently have sort of stressful dreams where I’m running in and out of buildings and rooms struggling to find something. The something is always vague. Watching this movie kind of put me into a familiar, trance-like state, which I’m not entirely sure if that’s a positive or negative attribute. In a way I think is dreamlike surrealism finds its own kind of horror whether intentionally or not.” Currently streaming on The Criterion Channel and for free (with a library membership) on Kanopy.
The Neon Demon (2016) – From my review: “I’m caught transfixed by its wicked spell & its bottomless wealth of surface pleasures, even as I wrestle with their implications. This is where the stylized form of high art meets the juvenile id of low trash and that exact intersection is why I go to the movies in the first place. The Neon Demon may not be great social commentary, but it’s certainly great cinema.” Currently streaming on Amazon Prime and for free (with library membership) on Hoopla.
The Masque of the Red Death(1964) – From our Movie of the Month discussion: “A lot of what we think of as the hippie-dippie 60s came very late in the decade. The era-defining Summer of Love was in 1967, the same year Roger Corman dropped acid for the first time and fictionalized his experience in the film The Trip. The Masque of the Red Death‘s 1964 release positions the film as years ahead of its time. Corman was pulling off the Satanic psychedelia vibe the same year that Mary Poppins & My Fair Lady were huge cultural hits. I’m not saying Masque was particularly a major influence on the countercultural swell that was to come, but it at least was somewhat visually intuitive. And Corman himself did have direct influence on the later films that typified that counterculture, films like Easy Rider and Bonnie & Clyde. Even back then, when ‘Don’t trust anyone over 30’ was a motto to live by, he was the hippest geezer in the room and a filmmaking rebel.” A $4 rental on all major VOD platforms.
Peeping Tom (1960) – From my review: “It’s near impossible to gauge just how shocking or morally incongruous Peeping Tom must’ve been in 1960, especially in the opening scenes where old men are shown purchasing pornography in the same corner stores where young girls buy themselves candy for comedic effect & the protagonist/killer is introduced secretly filming a sex worker under his trench coat before moving in for his first kill. Premiering the same year as Hitchcock’s Psychoand predating the birth of giallo & the slasher in 1962’s Blood & Black Lace, Peeping Tom was undeniably ahead of its time. A prescient ancestor to the countless slashers to follow, Powell’s classic is a sleek, beautifully crafted work that should’ve been met with accolades & rapturous applause instead of the prudish dismissal it sadly received.” A $4 rental on all major VOD platforms.
Crimes of Passion (1984) – From our Movie of the Month discussion: “In some ways Crimes of Passion, a 1984 sex thriller starring Kathleen ‘Serial Mom‘ Turner as a fashion designer by day & prostitute by night, is the prime example of Russell’s self-conflicting nature. It’s a visually stunning work that uses a Bava-esque attention to lighting to create an otherworldly playground of sexual fantasy & escapism, but it’s also just pure smut. It occasionally attempts to laud the virtues of sex work, but also uses the profession as a means to leer at naked bodies. It reads like an intentionally cruel vilification of marriage & monogamy that also has a lot to say about the hypocrisy of self-righteous religious piety, but it’s also just a long string of dirty one-liners like ‘Don’t think you’re getting back in these panties; there’s already one asshole in there.’ Crimes of Passion is thoroughly bewildering in its refusal to be engaged with as either high art or low trash, but instead insists that audiences simultaneously appreciate it as both. In other words, it’s pure Ken Russell.” A $2 rental on all major VOD platforms.
For the past couple months, I’ve shifted our weekly “What’s Playing in Local Theaters” report to a list of Swampflix-recommended movies you can stream at home. This choice was initially a no-brainer, as the governor had ordered the closure of all Louisiana movie theaters in response to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. As of last week, cinemas are allowed to operate again as part of Phase One of the state’s re-opening strategy, but I’m personally not confident that’s such a great idea. So, I’m still going to stick with Online Streaming options as a moviegoing substitute for the time being.
In that spirit, here are some suggestions for movies that you can stream at home while under quarantine: a grab bag of movies Swampflix has rated 5-stars that are currently available for home viewing.
Streaming with Subscription
Society (1992)– From our Movie of the Month discussion: “Society was largely panned in its time for this disinterest in thematic subtlety, struggling for three years after its initial release in 1989 to earn a proper US distribution deal. Treating its class politics as a flimsy excuse for the disturbing practical effects orgy in its final act seems like a mistake to me, though, and I’m delighted that the film has been reassessed as a cult classic in the decades since its humble beginnings. The way it explores class divisions in the most literal & grotesque terms possible is highly amusing to me in an almost cathartic way.” Currently streaming on Shudder, Amazon Prime, Kanopy, and Tubi.
20th Century Women (2016) – From my review: “Although 20th Century Women is constructed on the foundation of small, intimate performances, it commands an all-encompassing scope that pulls back to cover topics as wide as punk culture solidarity, what it means to be a ‘good’ man in modern times, the shifts in 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 the planet Earth, and our insignificance as a species in the face of the immensity of the Universe. For me, this film was the transcendent, transformative cinematic experience people found in titles like Tree of Life & Boyhood that I never ‘got.’ Although it does succeed as an intimate, character-driven drama & an actors’ showcase, it means so much more than that to me on a downright spiritual level.” Currently streaming on Netflix and for free (with a library membership) on Hoopla & Kanopy.
I Married a Witch(1942) – From Britnee’s review: “It’s very cliché to say that a film is ‘ahead of its time,’ but I can’t think of a better way to describe Rene Clair’s comedy, I Married a Witch. For a film that debuted in the early 1940s, it’s got a very different style of humor when compared to other comedies that came about during that era. When I think of films of the 1940s, I think of Casablanca, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Meet Me in St. Louis, so watching a film that is about a resurrected witch that preys on a soon-to-be-married man just feels so scandalous!” Currently streaming on The Criterion Channel and for free (with library membership) on Kanopy.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) – From my review: “It’s difficult to put into words exactly what Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is or what it’s about, so I’ll just tell you how Ebert described the film’s genre: ‘It’s a camp sexploitation action horror musical that ends in a quadruple murder & a triple wedding.’ Does that about clear it up? At times it feels like the only thing Beyond the Valley of the Dolls isn’t is a sequel to Valley of the Dolls, which is what Meyer was initially hired to direct. At least the film warns you of that outright in a prologue that distances itself from the melodrama original. What quickly follows is one of Meyer’s trademark industrial/sex montages, this time combatively pointed at Los Angeles & set to an inane slam-poetry style monologue about hippie culture. The difference is that the montage never ends this time, adopting Mondo Topless‘s frantic energy for a full-length narrative feature. As Meyer put it, he wanted the film to establish “a punishing rhythm, pummeling the audience.” Boy, did he succeed.” A $4 rental on all major VOD platforms.
Queen of Earth(2015) – From Boomer’s review: “As rare as it is to see a film that so unabashedly stares into the face of mental illness, it’s even rarer to see a film that understands and appreciates that, from the outside, the behaviors of an irrational person can be objectively humorous even if they are subjectively heartbreaking, and Queen of Earth manages to tread that line in an insightful and deft way. More than just adding more scenes to Moss’s career highlight reel, this movie is the most honest portrayal of unhealthy bonds I’ve seen in as long as I can remember. It will break your heart and then make it sing, and you’ll be haunted by the images and their emotional resonance for weeks.” A $4 rental on all major VOD platforms.
Innocent Blood (1992) – From our Movie of the Month discussion: “A decade after An American Werewolf in London, John Landis brought the public Innocent Blood, a movie about a French vampire in … Pittsburgh. Marie, the fey French vampire, decides to help herself to Pittsburgh’s criminal element. Mistakes are made, spinal cords are left intact, and before too long Marie and ousted undercover cop Joe are duking it out with a proliferating vampire Mob. There’s something for everybody! Stunts! Grotesque special effects! Gallons of blood! Strippers! Don Rickles! Innocent Blood is entertaining, weird, and a little self-conscious.” A $2 rental on all major VOD platforms.