Dottie Gets Spanked (1993)

PBS programming was apparently a lot more adventurous in the 80s & 90s than I remember it being as a kid, even though I watched it religiously as a pretentious nerd without cable access. Or maybe it’s that local PBS affiliates in Louisiana weren’t broadcasting The Good Stuff (the gay stuff) that aired in less morally regressive areas of the country. Whatever the case, a few weeks ago I learned that PBS broadcast the radically queer video art flamethrower Tongues Untied the year of its initial release (admittedly to some national controversy in the press), and now I’m just finding out that the publicly funded network also broadcast a 30-minute Todd Haynes short about a child’s sexual awakening as a burgeoning kinkster. Made between Poison & Safe, Dottie Gets Spanked was a dispatch from the earliest, most abrasive period of Haynes’s career, when his voice was such an anomaly on the indie film scene that critics had to coin a new term for it: New Queer Cinema. And PBS was there to push that outsider-art queerness in front of a larger audience, risking morally righteous pushback from the Conservative pundits who are always on the hunt for excuses to defund the network. I think that’s beautiful, and it’s very different from the super-safe (although still incredibly helpful & informative) version of PBS I remember from my own childhood.

In Dottie Gets Spanked, a small suburban child in the 1960s becomes fetishistically obsessed with a spanking scene in an I Love Lucy type sitcom, much to the horror of his super straight parents. True to the messy multimedia style of Haynes’s early work, this simple story is told in a deliriously fractured, layered narrative that’s spread across three tiers of reality: the real world, the sitcom world, and the dream world. In the real world, the young boy is terrified of his emotionally distant father, a cold brute who mostly looms in doorways & watches football while his wife takes care of the actual parenting. The child escapes this tension by sitting inches away from the television and disappearing into the sitcom world, a black & white spoof of I Love Lucy era comedies (a fan-favorite of girls his age, which makes him out to be an outsider at school). In turn, this sitcom world informs the boy’s fantasies: surrealist De Chirico dreamscapes that become intensely erotic once a spanking episode of The Dottie Show introduces a burgeoning fetish into his nightly repertoire. It’s an uncomfortable but deeply relatable portrait of a young child discovering their first sexual impulses in a household where anything that’s not married heteros in the missionary position is considered an abomination & a personal moral failure. Because Haynes is behind the wheel, it’s implied that the young child is gay but unaware of that predilection, but the story is universal enough to hit home for anyone who’s ever discovered their queer identity or unexpected kink obsession while growing up in a conservative household.

Personally, I identified with this on a cellular level. It reminded me of recording sitcom episodes & other random television ephemera that overlapped with my own emerging kinks onto homemade VHS tapes in the 90s. It’s a shame those tapes were lost to flood waters in Hurricane Katrina; I imagine they might play with the same feverishly horny delirium that’s established in this film’s spanking dreams (or maybe the found footage video diary of a serial killer, if I’m being more honest with myself). A lot of those clips were likely pulled from PBS, appropriately enough, even though I don’t remember my local station’s programming being as boldly daring as the psychosexual overtones of Dottie Gets Spanked. But the whole point of this movie is that the content we fixate on while we’re mapping out our own erotic imaginations does not have to be direct or overt to be effective. Even when locked away from the broader spectrum of sexual play & identity in a morally buttoned-up household, we still find a way to indulge ourselves in what turns us on. That searching-for-scraps-of-kink scavenging may now be a relic of a pre-Internet world, considering how much access most children have to information outside their parents’ control, but it is perfectly captured in this playfully naughty Todd Haynes short from the 90s. Knowing that the movie’s production & distribution was at least partially publicly funded only makes its existence more perversely amusing.

-Brandon Ledet

The Nightlife that Was (2004)

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Like many kids who grew up without cable, PBS was my major television window into the weirdness abyss a milquetoast suburban life in St. Bernard sheltered me from. A lot of what I learned about the various subcultures of punks, painters, and poets as a kid started with hour-long documentaries on New Orleans’s local PBS affiliate WYES (in between daytime offerings of Old Hollywood standards), initial introductions I would later flesh out by hunting down something people used to call “books.” I have a lot less time for “books” now that I’m watching/reviewing so many goddamn movies every week (Seriously. I’ve been reading the same biography of pro wrestler Gorgeous George & the same Howard the Duck comics collection since early summer when I usually would have knocked them both out in a week), but I did recently bring home one of WYES’s made-for-TV documentaries about local New Orleans culture from a university library that brought me back to that Chalmette bedroom where I was forever rapt & eager to learn more. Maybe I’ll even pick up a “book” on the subject (though, more likely, I’ll click around on Wikipedia between theater showtimes like the increasingly uncultured heathen I’ve become).

The Nightlife that Was first aired on WYES in 2004, but it might as well have been 1994 given the fashions & sensibilities that drives its awe-struck history of local nightlife. The hour-long documentary is not only a glimpse into the legendary bars & clubs that made New Orleans one of the coolest cities on the planet in the 1950s & 60s; it’s also a glimpse at a much more recent time where pre-Katrina New Orleans was relaxed & content with falling behind on every current trend other major cities were chasing. It’s very difficult to believe this documentary was made as recently as the aughts, not because it’s corny or old fashioned, but because it reflects a very specific kind of untouched-by-time aspect the city’s lost in its modernization over the last decade. The Nightlife that Was is a really fun, informative look back at half a century old pop culture history in my favorite city, but it also made me miss The New Orleans that Was in much more recent memory in its own charming way.

As a history lesson, The Nightlife that Was plays like a slowed-down, actually-informative version of Mondo Topless set in New Orleans instead of San Francisco. In a wild, hedonistic time, before-they-were-famous musicians like Dr John & Clarence “Frogman” Henry played background tunes for barroom strippers & cops were very relaxed on enforcing age restrictions for patrons; New Orleans was the wildest party on the planet. As one interviewee puts it, “If you couldn’t find something to do, you were a hermit.” Names like Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, and a babyfaced Bill Clinton traveled to the city in the search of “the naughty & the gawdy,” finding an endless wealth of jazz musicians, killer soul singers, drag queens, comedians, and larger than life personalities for their troubles. Local standards like “Bill Baley” & “Stacker Lee” blare through a barrage of rapidfire anecdotes about the city’s rich history of “colorful squalor”, eventually giving way to hippie dippy bullshit like The Grateful Dead & the more recent Fat City disco scene as the years roll on before your eyes. The film makes a couple larger statements about the importance of nightlife to the city’s culture like its (very much true) assertion that “The gay political scene came out of bars, much like how the black political movement came out of churches,” but mostly The Nightlife that Was plays like a best-of highlight reel of priceless vintage nightlife footage. It’s mostly a reminder that the music may have gotten shittier on Bourbon Street & the people may not dress up to go there like they used to, but the debauchery has remained largely unchanged.

As far as the objective quality & importance of The Nightlife that Was goes, it’s probably much more in line with the post-Katrina check-in of Max Cusimano’s recent New City doc than with the priceless documentation of works like Always for Pleasure or The Sons of Tennessee Williams. That is to say that it’s interesting & worthy of discussion, but maybe not a home run in terms of thoroughly covering every topic it unearths. For instance, I found myself wanting to know more, much more about the history of the infamous black nightlclub The Dew Drop Inn than what the film had time for, to the point where I’d sacrifice the rest of its runtime to just focus on that one club. Nostalgia-wise, though, there was something special about this WYES production that struck a very particular chord in my heart. Everything from host/narrator Peggy Scott Laborde’s shoulder padded blazer to local legend Irma Thomas’s mid-00s visage to the fact that the film’s official for-purchase print appears to be a DVD-R brought me back to a childhood place of warmth & fascinated curiosity. Even the fact that I wanted to learn more than what little the film provided on many of its subjects reminded me of the role WYES has filled for a long time in my life. It made me want to read “books.”

-Brandon Ledet