Episode #71 of The Swampflix Podcast: #NOFF2018

Welcome to Episode #71 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our seventy-first episode, Brandon and CC review the overwhelming list of oddball films they caught at this year’s New Orleans Film Fest: shorts, documentaries, and narrative features. Enjoy!

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– CC Chapman & Brandon Ledet

#NOFF2018 Ranked & Reviewed

Here we are almost a full month since the 29th annual New Orleans Film Festival has concluded and I’m finally gathering all of titles I caught at the fest in one spot. CC & I will be recording a more fleshed-out recap of our festival experience on a near-future episode of the podcast (Episode 71, due early December) – in case you’re interested in hearing about the goings-on at the handful of downtown theaters where the festival was held, the various short films that preceded some of those screenings, and the reasons why we suspect Vox Lux is going to be the mother! of 2018. 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. Each title includes a link to a corresponding review. Enjoy!

1. Vox LuxLike mother!, Vox Lux is a divisive, gleefully unsubtle work that gets outright Biblical in its internal, philosophical conflicts. It dares you to hate it, then asks for forgiveness. It spits in your face, then blows you a kiss.”

2. Pig Film “The degradation of the picture quality (as it was shot entirely on expired, second-hand film stock) combines with the grimy art-instillation surreality of its pig farm setting to establish an overriding sense of isolation & rot that feels more emotional & subliminal than overtly political. Human or not, our sole on-screen character is the last shred of humanity left stalking the mess of a planet we’ll soon leave behind, emptily mimicking the records of our behavior she finds in our rubble and converting that industrial garbage into beautiful song. It’s a gorgeous, grimy nightmare – a sinister poem.”

3. Chained for Life “At times eerie, howlingly funny, cruel, sweet, and disorienting, Chained for Life mines a lot of rich cinematic material out if its initial conceit of discussing Hollywood’s historic tradition of exploiting disabled & disfigured performers for gross-out scares & sideshow exploitation. Freaks isn’t the movie’s target so much as its jumping point, so that Browning’s self-contradictory act of empathetic exploitation is demonstrative of how disabled & disfigured people are represented onscreen at large.”

4. The Gospel of Eureka “The documentary finds its most satisfying groove in cutting back & forth between performances of the Gospel drag show & the Passion Play as they separately cycle through their respective routines. Performers on both sides apply their own make-up, lip-sync to pre-recorded soundtracks, and exaggerate their religious narratives to the point of over-the-top caricature – practically in unison thanks to editing room cross-cutting. More so than a shared passion for Biblical scholarship, they share a weakness for over-the-top pageantry; the only difference is that the drag end of the divide is self-aware of that commitment to camp & caricature, whereas the other end believes they’re merely being devout.”

5. United Skates “A documentary ‘about’ black skating rink culture that’s actually about how all pockets of black culture are policed & legislated out of existence in small, cumulative increments.”

6. Cane River (1982) – “Effectively a Romeo & Juliet love story without all that pesky tragedy & bloodshed getting it the way of its humor & romantic melodrama, Cane River is just as much of an escapist fantasy as it is a political screed & a historical document. The small-stakes love story at its center is so playfully sweet that it’s easy to frequently forget that it’s all in service of illustrating a culture clash within a geographically specific black community – one with implications of class & skin-tone discrimination with much larger cultural significance.”

7. Jules of Light and Dark“Dual coming of age stories— one for a smart kid in their early 20s and one for an overgrown man-child in their early 50s— are allowed to remain largely separate throughout Jules of Light and Dark, but they converge early when the fallout from ‘the last rave of the year’ leaves several characters in need of intensive post-trauma physical therapy. Estranged from their families because of their sexuality, our two disparate protagonists find unlikely kinship & emotional support in each other; their parallel tales of recovery are both quietly transformative, although never grand nor overachieving.”

8. Empty MetalEmpty Metal‘s greatest strength is in its direct, assertive call for violent uprising against vile real-life public figures. It’s a shame some of that direct, assertive messaging is lost in such a messy, loosely edited-together sci-fi narrative that just can’t muster up the enthusiastic momentum needed to match the energy of its politics.”

9. Nailed It “As fascinating, succinct, and stylish as Nailed It can be, the film never really transcends its limited means to become something especially great. It’s the kind of moderately successful documentary that gets by on the interest of its subject, when it has the promise to be so much more.”

10. This One’s for the Ladies . . . “As compelling (and visually interesting) as its subject matter can be, it’s undeniable that This One’s for the Ladies hits a wall somewhere in its brief 80min runtime. The pro wrestling & ball culture-style pageantry of the dance events never gets tiring, and the times the film documents the prurient pleasures therein it’s a hoot. Where it struggles to maintain that excitement is in the behind the scenes interviews with participants, which stray from discussing the dance event circuit to touch on issues of racial & economic inequality the film makes no point to explore in a distinct or substantive way.”

-Brandon Ledet

The Gospel of Eureka (2018)

The Gospel of Eureka has a tough needle to thread in its establishment of tone & POV. Two Portland filmmakers descend upon the quaint Christian bohemia of Eureka, Arkansas as outsiders, intending to document the parallels between two local arts scene novelties: a Gospel-themed dive bar drag show & an elaborate Passion Play production that supports the town’s lucrative Christian tourism industry. This outsider POV opens the film to a Waiting for Guffman style of local-theatre mockery, where the absurdism of the Passion Play & the old-fashioned pageant drag’s co-existence are contrasted for yuck-em-up laughter. That ironic, outsider humor does crop up in stray moments of the film, but co-directors Donal Mosher & Michael Palmieri mostly allow the audience to find them on our own in their matter-of-fact tone, making us complicit in the culture-gawking. Instead of pushing for absurdist humor, they lean heavily into the surreal parallels between the drag & Passion Play pageantry. These are two disparate modes of artistic expression that offer plenty of intense visual fodder for the film to pilfer. What The Gospel of Eureka does best is in explaining how they’re also two sides of the same performative coin.

Narrated by one of the drag queens as if it were an animated storybook, The Gospel of Eureka closes the gap between its local drag queen community & the Evangelist Christians who run the Passion Play production by tracking the proposal of & voting on a transgender “bathroom bill” that landed their shared small town in the national spotlight. That impulse for linear storytelling & narrative structure proves to be unnecessary, however, as the parallels between the two supposedly opposing contingents require very little explanation. The documentary finds its most satisfying groove in cutting back & forth between performances of the Gospel drag show & the Passion Play as they separately cycle through their respective routines. Performers on both sides apply their own make-up, lip-sync to pre-recorded soundtracks, and exaggerate their religious narratives to the point of over-the-top caricature – practically in unison thanks to editing room cross-cutting. More so than a shared passion for Biblical scholarship, they share a weakness for over-the-top pageantry; the only difference is that the drag end of the divide is self-aware of that commitment to camp & caricature, whereas the other end believes they’re merely being devout.

Both the Gospel drag show & the oversized Passion Play could justify their own documentary in isolation. The drag bar owners’ history as a same-sex married couple in a small Christian town that has historically attempted to eradicate homosexuality & transgender identity through exorcism & conversion therapy is rich enough on its own to deserve documentation (as is especially apparent in their 1980s AIDS crisis battle stories). The Passion Play, which has blossomed from the homophobic & anti-Semitic Evangelism of public figures like Anita Baker in the 1970s to become a 2010s tourist attraction for tens of thousands of visiting outsiders, is even more worthy of its own documentary. It operates on the massive scale of an amusement park attraction, even though its effect is roughly the same as a dive bar drag act. Just the sight of the town’s massive statue of Jesus Christ, the largest of its kind in the US, is indication enough that Eureka’s outsized modes of religious expression are worthy of a documentarian’s attention. The Gospel of Eureka’s pinpointing of the most extreme possible binary within that expression and the unmistakable parallels between both sides (despite their apparent political opposition) is far more interesting – often to the point of being outright surreal – than the ironic mockery a lesser film might have exploited for easy laughs.

-Brandon Ledet

Jules of Light and Dark (2018)

Robert Longstreet isn’t an especially flashy actor, neither in celebrity nor in performance. He has the appearance & demeanor of a kindhearted, broken-down Russell Crowe, playing most of his roles as a lovable but emotionally volatile galoot. As quietly sad & reflective as his screen presence can be, I find myself getting excited whenever I see his name among a project’s credits. Between Mohawk, Septien, Take Shelter, The Haunting of Hill House, Sorry to Bother You, and I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore, Longstreet has demonstrated that his choice in projects is at the very least consistently interesting; he may not always steal the show, but the show itself will never be a bore. I’m used to seeing him as a minor (even if often eccentric) character in these works, so it was a wonderful surprise to watch him co-lead an indie drama in Jules of Light and Dark. A dual trauma & recovery narrative, Jules of Light and Dark splits its POV between two unlikely protagonists: a listless partygoing college student (Snowy Bing Bongs’s Tallie Medel) & a hopeless-drunk oil field worker played by Longstreet. It’s a small-scale drama that could easily sink into indie film fest tedium, but Longstreet’s presence effectively vouches for the young cast around him, as well as for first-time director Daniel Laabs.

The college student drama of Jules of Light and Dark follows a young lesbian at the center of a romantic triangle, as her longtime girlfriend Jules pushes her to reluctantly experiment with bringing a third, masculine partner (a sweet, but clueless DJ) into the bedroom. The local rave scene they’re involved in—staged in empty, isolated Texan fields—clouds their ability to negotiate this sexual discomfort soberly (in multiple meanings of the word), and the movie is densely packed with college-age sexual mishaps. The oil worker drama half is also clouded by substance abuse and sexual discomfort, as Longstreet’s co-protagonist struggles to out himself as queer and instead hides his true colors beneath untold gallons of alcohol. These dual coming of age stories— one for a smart kid in their early 20s and one for an overgrown man-child in their early 50s— are allowed to remain largely separate throughout Jules of Light and Dark, but they converge early when a car accident after “the last rave of the year” leaves several characters in need of intensive post-trauma physical therapy. Estranged from their families because of their sexuality, our two disparate protagonists find unlikely kinship & emotional support in each other; their parallel tales of recovery are both quietly transformative, although never grand nor overachieving.

Laabs strikes an interesting balance here, both searching for small moments of intimate drama between his well-defined characters and chasing the aesthetic pleasures of rural rave culture – especially in the way glitter & nightclub lighting clash with the campfire-warmed barnyard setting of a horse ranch. Medel holds her own as a wide-eyed, wholesome queer punk in the middle of a college-age identity crisis she was reluctantly pushed into by a restless girlfriend. Her character’s attempts to hold onto failed or fading relationships at any cost are wonderfully paralleled by the oil worker’s own desperation to re-forge meaningful connections he already drank into oblivion long before the movie started. It was Longstreet’s performance as that drunken, broken down galoot that really won me over. For all the film’s glitter & molly excess and frustrated moments of sexual exploration, the best sequence throughout simply follows Longstreet as he decides whether to adopt a kitten or a puppy from the local animal shelter in his desperate, misguided attempts to establish emotional connections with another living being. Watching that sappy drunk play with a kitten from the opposite end of a kennel makes him pitiful enough to fall in love with, which only makes him more dangerous. Longstreet nails that quietly, lovably pathetic tone perfectly, as he already has many times before, largely unnoticed.

-Brandon Ledet

Nailed It (2018)

Nailed It: Vietnamese and the Nail Industry does everything exactly right within the bounds of microbudget documentary filmmaking. At roughly sixty minutes, it’s too short to drastically overstay its welcome the way many niche-subject docs do. It’s rich in both interview subjects & extratextual material, collecting oral history anecdotes from generations of participants and pulling news & pop culture clips from the darkest corners of YouTube. It has its own distinct sense of style, thanks largely to anthropomorphic hands adorned with acrylic nails strutting their stuff across the screen in Flash-style 2D animation. Most importantly, Nailed It works hard to investigate an overlooked, understudied subject: Why is more than half of the American nail salon industry Vietnamese? Who were the first Vietnamese people to do nails? Is the industry a source of pride for the communities it supports or more of a necessary evil? As fascinating, succinct, and stylish as Nailed It can be, however, the film never really transcends its limited means to become something especially great. It’s the kind of moderately successful documentary that gets by on the interest of its subject, when it has the promise to be so much more.

The answer to how the first Vietnamese people got involved in the nail salon industry arrives early and with certainty, although maybe not from the source that you would expect. The Birds star Tippi Hedren is explained to be the instigator of the Vietnamese nail industry boom. South Vietnamese families who cooperated with American soldiers during the Vietnam War were granted asylum in the US once the North Vietnam government was declared victor. As a humanitarian effort, Hedren traveled to Vietnam with her personal manicurist to prepare local women with a potentially lucrative trade so that they weren’t arriving empty-handed. Because this history stretches just one generation back, most of the participants are still alive for interviews, even reuniting with Hedren & her manicurist to rehash the past. The stories of how workers who could not speak English transformed a crash course in manicurist skills into entire chains of self-owned salons (and even nail polish production factories, effectively become their own suppliers) is still stupefying regardless of the explanation. The ways they survive outside competition by outpricing them or seeking increasingly more lavish novelty nail designs eventually makes it so that Vietnamese salons encompass a majority of the market – something that has since been accepted as a decades-old fact, with little consideration for how we got there.

Where Nailed It might fall a little short as a feat in documentary filmmaking is that its subject isn’t quite as niche as it initially seems. There’s enough thematic material in Tippi Hedren’s initial crop of manicurist trainees alone to support an hour-long documentary, but the film extends far beyond that historical account. Nailed It condemns racist caricatures of Vietnamese nail techs in popular media like sketch comedy & stand-up routines, likening it to Donald Trump’s jingoistic “shithole countries” rhetoric. It seeks to contrast sensationalist news reports about how filthy & health-hazardous (supposedly) unsanitary nail salons can be with intimate documents of their community-supporting reality. At the same time, it advocates for healthier working conditions for manicurists who spend hours on end inhaling harmful chemicals. The histories of notable notorious salons and decades-long emotional bonds formed between specific manicurists & clients are profiled at length. Director Adele Pham also inserts her own relationship with her Vietnamese heritage into the already-sprawling narrative, even interviewing her own family members who aren’t directly connected to the industry. Any one of those individual topics might support an hour-long documentary; the stunning artistry of over-the-top novelty nail designs in particular isn’t afforded enough attention, which is understandable given the political implications of the subjects it has to share screentime with, but also frustrating because the few glimpses we get are so gorgeous.

Nailed It appears from the outset to be a short, concise documentary on a niche topic. By the time it’s over it instead plays like a surface-level overview of a much larger, more sprawling subject that deserves more extensive documentation. It feels more like a promising start than a compete work, with dozens of tangential threads that could be better served in isolation & elaboration.

-Brandon Ledet

This One’s for the Ladies . . . (2018)

It’s difficult to pinpoint what separates a truly great niche-subject documentary from a mediocre one, especially in a film festival environment. At a certain budgetary & distribution level, the festival-circuit indie documentary is only going to have so much variation in its successes & failures (give or take a form-breaking bomb-thrower like Rat Film or The World is Mine). They all usually excite in their initial rush, thanks to the novelty of their subject matter that likely landed them festival screenings in the first place. The Litmus Test for a great niche-subject doc then, as opposed to a merely serviceable one, might be in sustaining that initial rush throughout. Whether in finding deeper political or societal implications in its subject beyond surface-level interest or in exploiting those surface pleasures for all they’re worth, the well-behaved small budget doc has to work tirelessly to sustain its initial, opening-minutes appeal. A straight-forward, small budget documentary about the raunchy black male erotic dancer circuit, This One’s for the Ladies has an even harder (heh) time than most keeping it up (heh heh) once its initial rush settles into a well-worn filmmaking groove. The initial immersion into the explosive hedonism of its subject is a tough act to either follow up or maintain, so the movie instead just coasts on that initial appeal. It mostly gets away with it.

The black erotic male dancer circuit may not see much mainstream media exposure (outside maybe the Atlanta mansion sequence in Magic Mike XXL), but it’s explained to be long-established, self-contained culture in This One’s for the Ladies, one with its own celebrities & legendary figures. Pulling clips of VHS footage from “dance events” dating back to at least the 1990s, the doc sketches out a densely populated world of celebrity dancers & dedicated fans. Oiled up muscle-men with gigantic cocks stuffed into colorful sleeves boast over-the-top monikers like Smoove, Raw Dawg, Mr. Capable, Fever, and Satan. The more well-established regulars in their audience have their own nicknames (women like Mamma Joe, Pound Cake, and Double Trouble), as their own contributions to the dance events are just as crucial as the erotic performers’. These are self-catered D.I.Y. happenings staged in living rooms, cruise ships, and rented event halls. The more infamous dancers might sell merchandise like DVD compilations, autographed headshots, and erotic wall calendars, but their art is also the center of a community where performer & patron have to pull equal weight to keep the scene alive. It’s a weirdly wholesome subculture, considering that its anchor is a group of muscled-up dancers who mime making love to strangers who wave dollar bills at their face & genitals, but its existence outside a brick & mortar strip club establishment affords it a genuine sense of community.

As compelling (and visually interesting) as that subject matter can be, it’s undeniable that This One’s for the Ladies hits a wall somewhere in its brief 80min runtime. The pro wrestling & ball culture-style pageantry of the dance events never gets tiring, and the times the film documents the prurient pleasures therein it’s a hoot. Dancers licking chocolate syrup from a blushing participant’s inner thigh or simulating making them squirt with a concealed water hose rig is some A+ cinematic content, and those indulgences never feel repetitive or dull. Where it struggles to maintain that excitement is in the behind the scenes interviews with participants, which stray from discussing the dance event circuit to touch on issues of racial & economic inequality the film makes no point to explore in a distinct or substantive way. It’s an understandable impulse from a filmmaker’s perspective, but this search for wider cultural context only feels satisfying when it creeps up naturally through the subject. For instance, interviews with a butch lesbian dancer named Blaze about her conflicts with fiercely Christian parents or unaccepting male dancers who don’t want her working “their” circuit both opens the film to wider cultural context and feels specific to the subject at hand (so much so that a doc just about Blaze could easily be justifiable). The same just isn’t true about tangential commentary on underfunded neighborhood schools or childhood Autism; they’re worthwhile topics in isolation, but too disconnected to be explored here in earnest.

My quick fix for This One’s for the Ladies would either be to come in 20min shorter or 20min raunchier. There’s no way the movie could ever have time to fully tackle the wide world of systemic racism outside the dance events, so it might as well just lean into the prurient strengths of its subject instead and let the implications of those cultural circumstances creep up naturally (as they do with Blaze). There may not be enough time to solve racism or poverty in a documentary of this scale, but there’s certainly time for more exposed erect dick (there’s only one!) and erotic pageantry, leaving the cultural subtext implied. Whether or not that’s the correct fix for this fine-not-great doc, it definitely needed something to help sustain the initial rush of its subject’s inherent interest – the documentary equivalent of a cock ring.

-Brandon Ledet

United Skates (2018)

There’s a threshold a lot of niche-subject, microbudget documentaries struggle to cross: maintaining audience interest after the initial appeal of their subject fades. United Skates has a lot to live up to in that respect, as the initial rush of its documentation of black skating rink culture is so fun & visually stunning that it seems nearly impossible to sustain that energy. In the early days of hip-hop it was difficult for acts to book legitimate venues outside of house & block parties, and the open-floor venues of skating rinks were some of the first spaces to fulfill that need (as you can see depicted in narrative biopic films like Straight Outta Compton, White Boy Rick, and CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story). Skating rink hip-hop culture evolved from there to flourish on a national level, with regional scenes in cities like Chicago, L.A., and Miami developing their own unique skating styles & soundtracks. United Skates documents this culture in decline, with many of the most significant venues in the culture closing their doors forever, long after performers like N.W.A., Naughty by Nature, and Salt & Peppa had moved on to other venues (and eventually faded away in their own right). United Skates finds plenty of distinct visual fodder in documenting the fashions & skating styles of each participating region, but where it really develops into something special is documenting the means & methods of those closures.

United Skates is a documentary “about” black skating rink culture that’s actually about how all pockets of black culture are policed & legislated out of existence in small, cumulative increments. This is a subculture that was only forged in the first place because rinks would unofficially segregate their weekly schedule by signaling a “black night,” promoting events like Soul Night, Martin Luther King Jr. Night, and Adult Night. The “Adult Night” designation in particular unified black skating rink culture with a clear signifier that created the very culture white rink owners were attempting to discourage from developing. Two decades later, Adult Night parties are being policed out of existence in both small-scale rules applications and systemic city-level legislation. On a rink-to-rink level, cops are hired to provide “security” (read: intimidation) at Adult Night events that rinks don’t bother to enforce otherwise. Custom skates (along with more universally discriminated clothing markers like “saggy” pants) are outlawed from rinks as a private policy to discourage black patronage. On a city level, skating rinks are zoned out of existence to supposedly make way for condos & corporate retailers, only to rot in vacant lots, unused & blighted. United Skates’s titular subject is incredibly niche in its specificity, but the way it’s documented here has much larger, systemic implications on how black culture is legislated into oblivion.

Watching Adult Night skaters from all over the country show off their particular performance styles and custom skating gear as the cinematographer glides in the rinks beside them is incredibly endearing, but it’s a pleasure that can only carry the film so far. Where United Skates excels is in framing that Adult Night partying as an act of political resistance. Black-owned skating rinks, national Adult Night travelers, and decades-running “rink rats” are demonstrated to be direct political resistors to a system that would like nothing more than for them to just give up & fade away. The flashy hip-hop parties that gave birth to this culture are long gone, but continuing its existence is explained to be far more than empty, stubborn nostalgia. It’s a refusal to give into micro & macro policing of a culture that’s being pushed out only because of the racial demographics of the community behind it. It’s that larger political importance that makes United Skates much more rewarding & substantial than you might initially expect, given the scale of tis budget (perhaps explaining its Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature at this year’s New Orleans Film Festival).

-Brandon Ledet

Empty Metal (2018)

There aren’t many ways left for small-budget indie cinema to truly upset or transgress, but advocating for direct, violent political action is certainly one of them. Born in Flames’s World Trade Center-exploding conclusion has only gotten more potent since the film’s initial 1982 release. Noctruama’s stubborn refusal to condemn bomb-setting teenage terrorists in 2010s Paris is just as morally reckless as it is invigorating. Now comes Empty Metal, a no-budget crust punk sci-fi narrative that asks why we haven’t collectively retaliated against known killer-cops who’ve executed young black men like Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown. We know the names of their killers; we know where they live. Why hasn’t mob justice righted the wrongs that the legal system has deliberately failed? Empty Metal’s greatest strength is in its direct, assertive call for violent uprising against these vile public figures. It’s a shame some of that direct, assertive messaging is lost in such a messy, loosely edited-together sci-fi narrative that just can’t muster up the enthusiastic momentum needed to match the energy of its politics.

Where Empty Metal loses some of its tonal intensity is in its early stabs at a crust-punk scene satirical humor. A noise trio named Alien talks a big radical game about changing the world through their political but unfocused music. Yet, they can’t even hold the attention of peers on their local scene, who wander off gazing at their smartphones during the band’s debut set. The mockery of a radical-politics punk band wasting their time on a go-nowhere art project instead of direct, tangible action is on-point. However, the band’s backstage dynamic lands awkwardly with jokey crust scene inside-humor, where the comedy feels like wasted time in the lead-up to the film’s much more vividly realized sci-fi thriller elements. This intense spark arrives via a trio of militias headed by Native American protestors, Rastafarian militants, and Timothy McVeigh style conspiracy theorists. By the time these militias recruit the members of Alien into direct, useful political action (read: the assassination of real-life evil public figures), the film finds a fascinating groove all of its own; but even that momentum is occasionally disrupted by fleeting moments of amateur sketch comedy.

I admire so much about Empty Metal as an inflammatory act of political filmmaking that I can’t help but be frustrated by the other ways in which it falls short. Its collage of staged drone surveillance of radical militias, computer simulations of real-life police shootings, and seemingly authentic cellphone footage of protests of events like the instillation of the Keystone Pipeline swirls into a deeply upsetting, eerie gestalt. Telepathic communication and past-tense discussion of the Apocalypse & complete societal collapse (even though the film is set in present-day) push this real-life discussion of political unrest into the realm of sci-fi & fantasy in a consistently fascinating way. The core political messaging of “We must have an enemy to exist” remains potent throughout as well, so that all the visual aesthetic experimentation feels like it’s in service of something purposeful & worthwhile. The thing about that same radical messaging in Born in Flames, though, is that it’s too relentlessly energetic to ever lose focus. In Nocturama, it’s so richly gorgeous that its moments of loose, eerie quiet still land with intense impact. Empty Metal fails to match either predecessor on those respective, disparate terms and instead risks losing its most distinct impulses on nonstarter comedic bits shared among its punk scene performers (and, later, their macho militia counterparts). I very much appreciate it political outrage, but it would have been better served if the film were either eerier or more relentlessly energetic, as opposed to comedically meandering.

-Brandon Ledet

Pig Film (2018)

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

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

Cane River (1982)

There are plenty of examples of long-out-of-print cinematic artifacts getting the 4k digital restoration treatment in recent years, but few restorations can match Cane River’s storied path to 2010s rehabilitation & reassessment. “Unseen for 36 years,” Cane River premiered to a New Orleans audience in 1982 before being considered lost in distribution limbo ever since, largely due to the untimely death of its wirer-director-producer Horace B. Jenkins. While in town filming The Toy, Richard Pryor happened to attend the film’s 80s premiere and offered to help the director land proper national distribution, but Jenkins died before anything came of it. A recovered print of the film surfaced in 2013 and (thanks to financial support from Chaz Ebert & a couple lengthy write-ups from The New York Times promoting its legacy) has been meticulously restored over the last few years as funding has allowed. Even the restored version of the film that marked its second official screening in 36 years was announced to be a work-in-progress, with several glaring sound-mixing issues needing to be addressed before the film is ready for physical media distribution. Still, Cane River’s recent screening at the 29th annual New Orleans Film Festival felt like a righted wrong, a momentous correction to a historic cinematic tragedy.

A large part of Cane River’s historical significance is that it was filmed with a black cast & crew and funded independently by black arts-patrons at a time when that feat would have been incredibly rare (as if it wouldn’t also be rare today). The film also carries hefty cultural cachet in the specificity of its setting: the real-life Cane River region near Natchitoches, Louisiana – one of the country’s first “free communities of color.” Where the film excels is in seeking accessible entertainment value to soften those more academic, cultural accomplishments. Effectively a Romeo & Juliet love story without all that pesky tragedy & bloodshed getting it the way of its humor & romantic melodrama, Cane River is just as much of an escapist fantasy as it is a political screed & a historical document. The small-stakes love story at its center is so playfully sweet that it’s easy to frequently forget that it’s all in service of illustrating a culture clash within a geographically specific black community – one with implications of class & skin-tone discrimination with much larger cultural significance. Cane River takes the Mary Poppins edict “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” to heart, burying the audience under so much sugar that it easy gets away with clearly stating its political messaging in the dialogue without detracting from the romance that sweetens it.

A local football hero returns from big-city college life with the intent to live out the rest of his days in his Cane River community as a farmer & a poet, leaving a professional athlete career he found to be distastefully exploitative behind. He immediately falls for a young woman the small community of busybodies believes to be below his class (and below the cultural prestige of his lighter skin-tone). This class politics divide, socially policed on the basis of centuries-old resentments, simmers loudly in the background but the two young lovers’ conflict is mostly defined by their respective desires to remain in or flee Cane River. One intends to live a quaint, poetic life of rural calm after being disenchanted by the world outside. The other can’t wait to leave the community’s various confines and make something of herself on her own terms as a New Orleans college student, refusing to settle for a life as a local farmer-poet’s housewife. The Romeo & Juliet influence on this dynamic dictates that these conflicts build to a tragic end, but Cane River smartly allows its stakes to remain intimate & contained. The class, feminist, and racial politics that arise in its community-defying romance are just as delicately handled as the consequences of the controversy the two lovers stir. Their story is frustrating & politically complex, but also endearingly sweet and a really smart anchor for the film’s more emotionally detached, academic concerns.

Nothing about Cane River is subtle – neither in its romance nor in its politics. The history of Cane River’s significance as an early free community of color is so clearly stated in the dialogue that the characters recommend specific reading material to the audience on the topic: a book titled The Forgotten People. Its romantic melodrama is relentlessly scored by a soundtrack of original songs by local soul singer Phillip Manuel, whose singing is so pervasive & repetitive that his in-the-flesh appearance behind a microphone at a mid-film house party feels like a surprise celebrity cameo. Our lead is established as a poet by riding around horseback and tenderly writing into his trusty notebook while making eyes at his steed, like a precursor to Mariah Carey’s “Butterfly” video. When a character over-indulges in drinks after work, an accompanying novelty song jokes “Chug-a-lug, have a slug, drink your blues away” before the implications of that alcoholism spoils the mood.

Cane River is, at heart, regional cinema – like a John Waters film, a Matt Farley joint, or a romantic melodrama parallel to The Pit. As a result, the mood is generally light, the talent of the cast varies wildly, and a large part of its inherent fascination is in documenting a very specific community that isn’t often represented onscreen (along with more frequently-seen French Quarter tourism by natural extension). The further we get away from its initial release the more useful & interesting that documentation inevitably becomes to people outside that community. The brilliance of Horace B. Jenkins’s work on the film is that he reinforced it with enough wide-appeal entertainment value & substantive political messaging that its fascination as a regional cinema curio and an act of ethnographic documentation aren’t the limit of its cultural cachet. Like other underseen black cinema artifacts recently given new life in restoration – Daughters of the Dust, Born in Flames, The Watermelon WomanCane River is too politically significant & creatively appealing to have been allowed to slip into obscurity for so many decades. Its politics may be a little less radical and more sugar-coated than those other examples, but the level of obscurity it’s been allowed to slip into without official distribution is unmatched in that subset.

Every year I see amazing, potent titles at New Orleans Film Fest that never land proper theatrical distribution, so I doubt Cane River is the only “lost” film of its kind that deserves the restoration treatment; but I’m joyed to see that the one that got through is so endearingly romantic & thoughtfully political.

-Brandon Ledet