Tongues Untied (1989)

The most impressive, inspiring films are always the ones that achieve a transcendent artistic effect with subprofessional resources or distribution. By that metric, Tongues Untied is one of the most impressive films I’ve seen in a long while. Its means are severely limited by its VHS aesthetic & camcorder-level resources, which makes it initially register more as D.I.Y. video art than legitimized Cinema. Still, it pushes through that financial gatekeeping barrier to achieve a fantastic poetic effect that’s frequently surreal, furious, grief-stricken, hilarious, and erotic, sometimes all at once. The film’s distribution was controversial to the point of near-extinction, sparking a highly-publicized national debate about whether or not it should be allowed to be broadcast on the PBS network because of its explicit sexuality (no doubt largely due to that sexuality’s homosexual orientation). Still, it lives on decades later as one of the most vital, fearless documents of American gay life in its era, legendary on the same level as more frequently canonized works like Paris is Burning & The Queen. Tongues Untied is D.I.Y. filmmaking at its most potent and least timid, throwing stylistic & political punches far above its budgetary weight class and landing each one square on America’s crooked jaw.

At its core, this is an essay film about black gay life in the United States during the darkest days of the AIDS crisis. Building off the thesis that “Black men loving Black men is a revolutionary act,” a small sample of interviewees (including director Marlon Riggs himself) intimately share their life experiences as a kind of collective Oral History. They start by explaining how they’re outsiders in every community they inhabit, demonized & othered either through racism or through homophobia in every direction they turn. These confessionals gradually give way to an overt call to action as the film continues. They demand that more queer black men untie their tongues and become vocal about their own sexuality, so that their shared identity can become more normalized and less of a shamefully hidden peculiarity. The direct-to-the-camera messaging, photoshoot backdrops, and VHS patina of these interviews often recall a 90s anti-drug PSA or a local doc from a PBS affiliate, but the raw pain & sensuality of their stories smash through any potential aesthetic roadblocks. This is a doubly marginalized group who have to muster all of their collective strength just to be able to proclaim “We are worth wanting each other,” a revolutionary act after centuries of being told from all sides that they are worthless.

Even if it were just limited to these oral history interviews & editorials, the film would still be an essential document of black homosexual identity in late-80s America. Marlon Riggs pushes his work far beyond that humble act of self-anthropology, though, and instead aims to achieve pure cinematic poetry. Collaborating closely with the poet Essex Hemphill (who appears onscreen just as often as Riggs), he abstracts the interviews & essays at the core of the film by warping them into a layered, rhythmic vocal performance – as if all onscreen subjects were sharing the same artistic voice. The effect can be surreal or literary, making direct allusions to Ralph Ellison & Langston Hughes to tie the film into a black poetic tradition, and using a Gertrude Stein-style punishing repetition of phrases like “Brother to brother, brother to brother” to completely obliterate the audience’s senses. It can also be hilarious in a sketch comedy way, allowing for out-of-nowhere tangents into the sassy art of snapping or the playful sleaze of 1-900 dial-up phone sex. Most importantly, it unlocks the film’s full potential so that it’s not just a vocal diary of black gay men’s lived experiences but rather a soul-deep expression of all the pain, anger, lust, and joy they feel all at once within a society that would prefer they didn’t feel anything, or exist at all.

Tongues Untied uses the vocal rhythms and subliminal associations of poetry to crack its videotaped oral histories wide open, unlocking something much greater and more resonant than its means should allow. It is a transcendent work of art just as much as it is an anthropological time capsule, which makes it uniquely valuable to both cinephiles & political academics. There are plenty of examples of video art that pushed past the boundaries of fringe D.I.Y. experimentation to genuinely achieve cultural significance. However, I doubt there are many that could legitimately claim to be one of the greatest films of all time the way this scrappy, urgent VHS poetry relic could.

-Brandon Ledet

The Beach Bum (2019)

I best appreciate Harmony Korine when he reins in his aimless, nonsensical character studies with the semblance of a guiding structure. Deliberately off-putting, nihilistically empty provocations like Trash Humpers & Mister Lonely are immediately fascinating for their surface eccentricities but exhausting at full-length. By contrast, the reason Gummo & Spring Breakers stand out as clear highlights in the director’s scummy arthouse catalog is that they afford the audience a recognizable genre framework with built-in dramatic payoffs, whether post-Apocalyptic sci-fi or a neon-lit heist thriller, without sacrificing the eccentricities that distinguish Korine as a phlegmy creative voice. The Beach Bum joins those ranks of Korine’s best-behaved works by meeting the audience hallway with a recognizable tone & structure while its minute to minute rhythms still recall the off-putting, amoral deviance of provocations like Trash Humpers. The guiding structure in this sunshiny Floridian nightmare is the most unlikely genre the director has barnacled his schtick to yet: the 1990s major studio comedy. The Beach Bum is essentially Harmony Korine’s Billy Madison. I mean that as a compliment.

Matthew McConaughey stars as the titular preposterous beach bum, a Florida-famous stoner-poet named Moondog. As you might expect from a Korine protagonist, Moondog is The Worst. “The most prolific poet in Key West, Florida,” he lives in a haze of cheap beer, pot smoke, and dehydrating sunshine, relying on his local fame to pave over his schoolyard bully brutality. He ruins every life he touches, but everyone around him continually excuses his behavior with shrugged-off phrases like “That’s just Moondog,” and “He’s from another dimension.” Meanwhile, Moondog laughs maniacally at his own villainy, barking “I write poetry, you little bitch” at anyone who doesn’t immediately respect his literary pedigree. He announces in a poem, “One day I will swallow up the world and when I do I hope you all suffer violently” to his adoring audience, briefly dropping his worry-free beach-frat exterior to reveal his true nature: a hedonist monster who’s wiling to destroy lives if it means he can get laid, get high, and have a laugh. The film builds itself around exploring the intricacies & eccentricities of a character who is too stoned & too spiritually empty to be genuinely interesting on his own merits. It’s pure Korine in that way, even if its surface details resemble a much more conventional comedy.

As off-putting & nihilistically empty as The Beach Bum is as a character study, the marketing company that cut its misleading trailer had plenty to work with in making it look like a 90s stoner comedy. A plot contrivance that pressures Moondog to finish his next poetry collection in order to inherit a fortune that was willed to him with that stipulation feels like it was ripped directly from an unpublished Adam Sandler screenplay. To reinforce that association, Jonah Hill plays Moondog’s literary agent as a full-on impersonation of The Waterboy’s Bobby Boucher. Moondog’s own persona seems to have derived from a fantasy where Billy Madison grew up to be an even grosser, less effective version of The Dude from The Big Lebowski, which is the kind of fan-fiction you write as a teenage idiot only to rediscover it in horror as a sober adult. All the plot really amounts to, though, is an excuse to send Moondog on a go-nowhere, circular road trip with his trusty typewriter slung over his shoulder in a trash bag. Like all road-trip comedies, The Beach Bum is mostly a series of episodic run-ins with over-the-top caricatures: Snoop Dogg & Jimmy Buffett essentially playing themselves in extended cameos; Martin Lawrence as a dolphin-obsessed sea captain (who would almost certainly have been played by Chris Farley in a genuine comedy of this ilk); Zac Efron as a JNCOs-wearing Christian-rocker who apparently time traveled directly from a late-90s Creed concert. They’re all recognizable archetypes from mainstream 90s comedies but distorted into horrific grotesqueries. And none are half as nightmarish as Moondog himself.

The Beach Bum bills itself as “The new Comedy from Harmony Korine,” but I was the only person at my first-weekend 4:20 screening howling in laughter or gasping in horror. A certain familiarity with the director’s schtick is likely required at the door to get on this film’s wavelength. It wears the clothes of a laugh-a-minute yuck ‘em up from the Happy Madison brand, but beneath those vestments it’s the same aimless, puke-stained nightmare Korine has always delivered. As a hot-and-cold admirer of his work, I found plenty to be impressed by here – particularly in the way he mimics Moondog’s semi-conscious, lifelong-blackout engagement with the world in an editing style that works in half-remembered, repetitious circles. Moondog is a destructive menace with nothing novel or insightful to say about the world but somehow continually gets away with passing off his villainy as gonzo poetry. Living inside his burnout, bottom-feeder mind for 95 minutes is a frustrating, fruitless experience, but also fascinating as a character-specific nightmare. It’s less a satirical attack on the juvenile manbabies of mainstream comedies past than it is an acknowledgment of a kindred spirit between them and Korine’s own catalog of useless, preposterous lunatics. Whatever critiques or subversions of the mainstream comedy you may pick up along the way are just a result of the director doing his usual thing to an unusual level of success.

-Brandon Ledet.

Fan Art: An Ode to Black Phillip

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Imagine the depths of your infant American hubris, you bearded doofus:
“We will conquer this wilderness. It will not conquer us.”
Tough luck, paterfamilias. A black goat commands
your children’s spirits, his curved horns aimed to gore
the nearest patriarch unafraid of the old world horrors
of the woods. He commands a coven of vvitches bathed
in your baby’s blood & the light of an impossibly enormous moon.
You will meet Black Phillip soon, so clutch your holy axe

and ask yourself how you would respond to the goat’s temptation.
Wouldst thou like the taste of butter, a pretty dress?
Wouldst thou like to live deliciously? Ask the goat to guide
your hand as you sign your name in the mystic book.
He’s ceremonially holding court in the backyard barn
before the real party starts in the woods. Black Phillip’s whispers
to Thomasin are far from empty promises. He can help you transcend
the bounds of flesh & godliness. Even gravity & New England

heat are small concerns under his hooved feet. Black Phillip
pants heavily, lazily eating his allotted hay as your family
tears itself to shreds. Nature’s chaos is not a threat,
but an inevitability. Again, wouldst thou like to live deliciously?
Wouldst thou like to see the world? He affords these luxuries
to all, not just little girls. Baa baa baa, Black Phillip,
Dark Prince of the Puritan New World. His magic is pure American
wilderness. Baa baa, so says the rightful owner of your doomed soul.

[Black Phillip is a fictional goat from the film The Witch (2016)]

-Brandon Ledet

Fan Art: Honey I Skunked the Kids

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The dog throws the baseball
through the Raygun Room window
and, of course, all four kids get shrunk
and swept up with Rick Moranis’s skunk weed crumbs.

They fall face-down in the dry stem tree trunks,
look up to find plastic walls Zip-locked shut.

After dark, the sleeping teens wake to Rick’s God-hands
pinching their bodies together in paper bed sheets.
The red cherry sun burns down the forest
as they share their first kiss. Meanwhile,

the younger kids crawl around alien munchie landscapes,
calling out to Rick in synthesized squeaks.

The gang re-unites in the ashtray’s gray mush,
crawls up a balled-up receipt’s crinkled ladders,
and makes itself noticeable in the bifocals
folded on Rick’s stacked 80’s crap comics tower.

Rick, the mid-life crisis scientist with a nerd’s wet lisp,
blows up the kids and sends them dazed to bed
to rest for the morning’s sequels and syndicated TV serials.

-Brandon Ledet

Fan Art: Giallo Poetry

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As I mentioned in last week’s article on April’s Movie of the Month, Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace, there’s a finesse to gaillo movie titles that was somewhat lacking in the genre’s Bollywood equivalent Veerana (a title that roughly translates to “Creepy Forrest”). The giallo title is a beautiful, needlessly complicated art form that requires at least six or seven syllables to properly breathe. As the genre’s pioneer, Mario Bava was prescient in many ways and the beauty of his films’ titles is certainly among them. There’s no denying the inherent draw of movies with names like Blood and Black Lace, The Body and the Whip, Planet of the Vampires, and Knives of the Avenger. That’s not to say that longer, more complicated titles always indicate higher quality giallo movies. My favorite films by Dario Argento are Opera & Suspiria, not Four Flies on Grey Velvet & The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. There’s just an undeniable poetry & sense of one-upsmanship with the more complicated titles that feel unique to the genre.

Keeping the poetry of these titles in mind, I attempted compile a poem composed almost entirely of titles of giallo films I have never seen, but admire for their names alone. I have added a few words here or there to make some sort of sense out of madness, but most of the words are drawn directly from the titles in the sequence they appear. Enjoy!

Giallo Poetry

Your vice is a locked room
and only I have the key. We kill
the fatted calf and roast it in the black
belly of the tarantula, my sweet. So perverse, my lizard
in a woman’s skin. Strip nude for your killer. Bring
a hatchet for the honeymoon, a dragonfly
for each corpse, a black veil for Lisa.

The bloodsucker leads the dance
in the house of the yellow carpet. Death walks
on high heels in the house with laughing
windows. The Devil has seven faces, seven blood
stained orchids. The flower with the petals of steel, the twitch
of the death nerve, forbidden photos of a lady above suspicion.

The night Evelyn came out of the grave, the young,
the evil and the savage committed the crimes of the black
cat. It was on the short night of the glass dolls, five dolls
for an august moon. The weapon, the hour, and the motive
cast a bloodstained shadow on all the colors of the dark.
The case of the bloody iris was cracked by the perfume
of the lady in black, who asked that we don’t torture

a duckling. Can I get you anything, my nine
guests for a crime, my iguana with the tongue
of fire, my man with icy eyes? No thanks,
coffee makes me nervous. Now smile
before death & watch me when I kill. Naked,
you die, reflections in black, nothing
underneath. The killer reserved nine seats.

For more on April’s Movie of the Month, 1964’s Blood and Black Lace, visit our Swampchat on the film & last week’s article on its Bollywood brethren, Veerana (1988).

-Brandon Ledet

Fan Art: An Ode to Large Marge

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As your headlights were shinning down that dark, lonely road
I knew that you would change my life forever
The dignified way you blew your big rig’s horn
Not a soul could ever do it better

Sitting behind the wheel with a blank stare on your face
Your dingy lumberjack shirt made you look a bit odd
You began to tell a tale filled with horror and fright
And I realized you were more than just some old broad

You explained the worst accident you had ever seen
And how it took place on this same road 10 years ago
The tone of your rough voice began to sound personal
Were you describing the death of someone you used to know?

Oh, but it was you that was killed in that terrible crash
Now you’re a ghost driving on a road that never ends
How I wish I could be sitting in your passenger seat
We could get to know each other and become best friends

-Britnee Lombas