Jezebel (2019)

I first heard of the new memoir drama Jezebel when the writer-director-star of the film, Numa Perrier, was interviewed on an episode of the Switchblade Sisters podcast this summer, discussing how the deeply personal project came to be. It’s near-impossible to resist the film’s premise as “a true story” wherein Perrier looks back to her teen years in the late 1990s, when her older sister roped her into being a camgirl in the early days of online sex work. The context & conflict of that premise is only made more intriguing by the fact that Perrier performs in the film herself as that older sister character, making the project as personal & intimate of an account as possible. What surprised me most about the film when it screened at the New Orleans Film Fest after months of anticipation was how sweet & delicate it was willing to be with its subject despite its creator’s obvious closeness to its emotionally raw context. Perrier doesn’t shy away from the exploitation or desperation that fueled her sex work as a cash-strapped, near-homeless teen, but she’s equally honest about the joy, power, and self-discovery that line of work opened up to her at the time, making for a strikingly complex picture of an authentic, lived experience.

Thematically, Jezebel falls somewhere between the poverty-line desperation of The Florida Project and the tense online sex work fantasy realms of Cam, but it’s not nearly as aggressive as either of those predecessors in terms of style or sensibility. Mostly, we follow the fictional Tiffany (who performs under the titular stage name Jezebel) as she ping-pongs between two suffocating, cramped locales: an extended-stay hotel room in Vegas and a nearby office space that’s been converted into an online pleasure dome. She has zero privacy in either her work or home life, where her “alone time” & her professional sex acts are quietly under surveillance by authority figures in just the other room. Understandably, a lot of the emotional drama is centered on her relationship with her older sister, who’s ultimately doing the best she can to equip the youngster with a self-sustaining skill (one the sister picked up herself over years of working dial-up hotlines). What’s more striking than that increasingly tense relationship, however, is Tiffany’s relationship with her own body & inner desires. The circumstances of how she got roped into sex work are far short of ideal, but she quickly comes to enjoy the freedom, power, confidence and expanding sexual passions the profession offers her – in a relatively low-stakes form of sexual labor she’s careful not to escalate. That conflict between desperation & autonomy rages throughout the movie, but it is mostly contained under a wryly humorous, surprisingly sweet surface.

While it’s nowhere near as deliberately horrifying as the chat sessions in Cam, Jezebel does a great job of distinguishing both the dangers & escapist fantasies inherent to working as a camgirl. The flood of unfiltered, hedonistic comments from anonymous men online are an overwhelming menace here, something Tiffany is especially vulnerable to as the only black girl working at her jobsite. There’s also just something horrific about how devastatingly young she looks as a 19-year-old babe in the woods who’s treating this incrementally risky line of work as a self-discovery playground. Watching her learn to wield power over her clients (one of them voiced by eternal sleazebucket Brett Gelman) or developing an internal sexual persona of her own, you can tell that working as a camgirl has overall been a genuine good in her life, but it’s impossible to lose sight of the fact that you’re watching a vulnerable child navigate potentially dangerous waters that are gradually rising above her head.

Perrier’s experience in the field is fascinating for the period-specific details of how early webcam lag, lack of audio, and chatroom etiquette informed the first wave of camgirl artistry (which mostly amounted to pantomimed sex acts instead of The Real Thing). Where Jezebel really shines, though, is in how the complexity of larger themes like familial politics, racial othering, financial power dynamics, and self-discovery are effortlessly, subtly weaved into a story that could have so easily been played for flashy shock value. Few things about this scenario are easy or fair, but Perrier finds plenty of room to convey a full inner life for her semi-fictional teenage surrogate, including touching bouts of joy, tenderness, and self-fulfillment despite the subject’s potential for pure exploitation and despair.

-Brandon Ledet

Hunting for Hedonia (2019)

I am a luddite by nature, so the ethical and hypothetical questions raised in the documentary Hunting for Hedonia make me absolutely terrified of the future. That’s not exactly what I expected from the film, since so much of its subject is rooted in the past. The central topic of this documentary is research in the field of Deep Brain Stimulation – wherein the physical pleasure centers of the human brain are activated by electric pulses via surgically inserted wires. It’s a technology that was first developed in 1950s New Orleans by Dr. Robert Heath of Tulane University. Seeking to depopulate the grim mental institutions of the era that treated patients like prisoners, Heath and his team experimented with this radical technology to cure the most hopeless cases of clinical depression and put an end to the practice of lobotomy. Their success led to more exploratory applications of the tech that immediately crossed major ethical boundaries and retroactively damaged the reputation of the research among their peers. Now, modern neurosurgeons are rediscovering the benefits of DBS independently of Heath’s forgotten, discredited research and finding entirely new, complexly fucked up ways to abuse the tech – hinting at a terrifying near-future we’re somewhat helpless to avoid.

The horror and the wonder of DBS is that it really works. Patients suffering from extreme, incurable cases of suicidal depression, addiction, OCD, and Parkinson’s have had their lives saved by this experimental frontier of neuromodulation. This combination of psychology & neuroscience that engages the physical location of pleasure in the brain (Hedonia) has produced unignorable results in patents who have been failed by medication & talk therapy in the past. That doesn’t mean DBS is a perfect, foolproof science, though. Side effects in “cured” patients have included unexpected increase in rage & loss of impulse control, suggesting that these neurosurgeons are tapping into capabilities of the brain that we don’t yet fully understand. That’s where the terrifying vision of our near-future abuses of DBS come in, as excited, capitalistic interest in the re-emerging field is getting ahead of the technology’s currently limited applications. There’s money to be made in being able to alter the functions of the human brain – cosmetically, recreationally, militaristically, and so on – that raise dangerous ethical questions not yet fully ironed out by its application in the medical field, where it’s actually warranted. The scary thing is that these boundaries have already been crossed in the past, as Heath & crew contributed to nefarious DBS applications like participation in MK Ultra & gay conversion “therapy” (read: abuse) and yet no one seems to have learned from their unforgivable mistakes.

As a documentary, Hunting for Hedonia is most valuable for its ability to explain the full scope of DBS’s history in concise layman’s terms. It covers the horrific past of its abuse, the promising present of its success in the therapy field, and the terrifying future of its rapid, unavoidable escalation in a modern capitalist paradigm. Considering its detached narration from the expertly icy Tilda Swinton and its innocuous score, I don’t think the film necessarily leans into the eeriness of its subject in a flashy or deliberate way. If anything, it often plays like a well-behaved, informative BBC documentary instead of a work of art. Still, I was thoroughly creeped out by its subject’s ethical implications for our insidiously techy future, to the point where its 1950s lab footage & Rotoscope animations felt like vintage sci-fi horror from the drive-in era. That feeling of unease was only amplified by catching a screening of the film at this year’s New Orleans Film Festival, where local neurosurgeons familiar with Dr. Heath’s research were muttering to each other about what a genius he was before the lights went down. I felt like running around the theater shouting “Don’t you see what he’s done?! Stop before it’s too late! Soylent Green is people!” in protest. Then again, DBS has obviously already helped people in desperate need and my luddite skepticism of its grim implications for the future are so far hypothetical in nature. That screening felt like an ethical Litmus test, and it’s unclear to me which side of the divide failed it.

-Brandon Ledet

Movies to See in New Orleans This Week: The Horrors of #NOFF2019 10/16/19 – 10/23/19

There’s a wonderful overlap of goings-on in the city this week, as the 30th annual New Orleans Film Festival is descending upon us just as we approach Halloween. There are hundreds of titles screening all over the city for NOFF and we plan to cover at least a dozen or so of all types and shapes and genres for the site in the coming weeks. For the purposes of keeping our weekly Now Playing feature spooky all October, however, I’m only going to highlight a few horror-related NOFF titles here, so you can work the festival into your regular Halloween-season movie binging. Happy hauntings!

Spooky Movies Screening at NOFF

Scream Queen! My Nightmare on Elm StreetA long-awaited documentary chronicling actor Mark Patton’s troubled relationship with the Nightmare on Elm Street series. Closeted at the height of Reagan Era homophobia, Patton felt he was bullied by the gay “subtext” the filmmakers behind Freddy’s Dead added to his de facto “Final Girl” character. He’s since embraced the role (and the horror community at large) in his journey to self-acceptance, but that turnaround has not been easy or fair. An important episode in queer horror history. Thursday 10/17 (9:15pm) & Friday 10/18 (8:30pm) at The Broad Theater.

The World is Full of Secrets Set during the nostalgic haze of a mid-90s summertime sleepover, a group of teenage girls compete to one-up each other by telling the ghastliest, goriest stories they can conjure – answering the prompt “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever heard?” Described in the NOFF program as “something like a deconstructed episode of Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark?.” Saturday 10/19 (7:30pm) at The Broad Theater.

Swallow Recalling the horrors of modern life & patriarchal control in Todd Haynes’s classic chiller Safe, this discomforting atmospheric creep-out centers on “a newly pregnant woman whose idyllic existence takes an alarming turn when she develops a compulsion to eat dangerous objects.” Sunday 10/20 (9:00pm) at The Broad Theater.

Hunting for Hedonia A Tilda Swinton-narrated documentary on the history of medical research in Deep Brain Stimulation. Both a testament to the practice’s benefits for neurological disorders and a nightmarish exploration of its implications in mind control, psychological abuse, and sexual debauchery. Only “horror” in the sense that it explores the uncomfortably thin, easily exploited border between our minds and modern tech. Saturday 10/19 (2:30pm) and Tuesday 10/22 (6:30pm) at The Broad Theater.

Horror Classics Screening Elsewhere

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) – This bizarro tale of child-melting Halloween masks and ancient Stonehenge-worshipping cults was once the most hated entry in its franchise (as an experiment in releasing a Halloween film that opted to not feature Michael Myers) but has since been reclaimed beyond the point of being a cult classic. It’s just a classic now. Maybe the best film about Halloween as a holiday; certainly has the all-time best Halloween jingle. Screening in the midnight slot at The Prytania on Friday 10/18 and Saturday 10/19.

Alien (1979) – Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror classic, bolstered by the bottomless subliminal nightmare of H.R. Giger’s visual art, is still the all-time scariest movie ever set in outer space (and maybe even beyond). Screening to commeorate its 40th Anniversary on Sunday 10/13, Tuesday 10/15, and Wednesday 10/16 via Fathom Events.

Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers (1988) – The first Sleepaway Camp film stumbled into over-the-top melodrama, deep psychosexual discomfort, and Problematic-As-Fuck gender politics by attempting to spice up the first-wave slasher formula with some unexpected twists. This lesser-seen sequel is much more self-aware in its slasher-riffing intentions, functioning as a full-on parody of the genre in surprisingly fun & clever ways. Screening for free at the Frenchman Theater & Bar on Wednesday 10/23 (10:00pm, with a pre-party celebration beginning at 8:00).

House on Haunted Hill (1959) – Long before it trickled down into a nu-metal atrocity under the Dark Castle brand (thanks largely to its open-season copyright status in the public domain), this classic team-up between director William Castle and horror icon Vincent Price defined the haunted house horror flick for an entire generation of dweebs. No word yet on whether these showings will incorporate Castle’s innovative “Emergo” technology – in which a “skeleton” on a pulley system swooped over the audience to punctuate specific scares. Screening Sunday 10/20 (10:00am) and Wednesday 10/23 (10:00am) as part of The Prytania’s regular Classic Movies series.

-Brandon Ledet