The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2006)

I don’t remember ever crying over a celebrity’s death before this week, when Daniel Johnston died of a heart attack at 58 years old. A singular talent as a songwriter and a cartoonist, Johnston deserved so much better than the hand that life & biology dealt him. He lived long enough to see his work respected by other outsider artists who could tune into the pained genius of his uniquely perceptive song lyrics, but he was also crushed under a life-long struggle with schizophrenic & manic-depressive episodes that could only be kept at bay with a debilitating routine of heavy medications. Johnston’s art, career, and eventually his body where cut short by a mental disorder beyond his or anyone’s control, and it fucking sucks. He deserved so much better.

The one minor consolation in his passing is that Johnston recorded hundreds of songs about death & depression while he was alive to help fans process this deeply shitty news. His low-fi recordings & confessional songwriting style established an intimacy with his audience that’s only fueled by his relative in-the-know obscurity. I first heard Daniel Johnston in the pre-file-sharing days when I got my hands on a burned copy of the Kids soundtrack (years before I saw the actual movie), which featured his song “Casper the Friendly Ghost.” It was a perfect intro to his insular world for not only reflecting his fixations on Death & pop culture iconography, but also feeling like a window into an obscure, unobtainable catalog of outsider music – the exact kind of in-the-know exclusivity you crave as a teenager. It took me years to piece together a collection of Daniel Johnston recordings in the early aughts, starting with a purchase of his sole major-label release Fun and eventually moving on to what stray mp3s I could find on file-staring platforms. That changed drastically with the arrival of The Devil and Daniel Johnston in 2006, a documentary about the fame-seeking-turned-reclusive singer that told his whole life’s story thirteen years before his death. Suddenly, Johnston’s catalog was more accessible in local pop culture media stores; I could find cassettes, CDs, and reissue LPs of his work with much greater, much appreciated ease. He also miraculously started appearing in concerts nearby, arriving as one of the first touring acts I remember seeing in New Orleans post-Katrina, and at least twice more in the decade since.

Weirdly, with this sudden wealth of Johnston material in my life after years of waiting & searching, the documentary itself became almost more of a personal favorite than the recordings it was promoting. You’d think that as a 20-year-old hipster dipshit (with all the protective “I got here first!” snobbery that comes at that age of music fandom), I would have had a chip on my shoulder about a documentary boosting Johnston’s public profile (to the point where his song “Story of an Artist” that’s prominently featured in the film was recently deployed in an Apple commercial, unfathomably). Instead, it became an obsession, the first documentary I ever truly fell in love with. We would watch this film over & over again in my college years, back when it was much cheaper & more convenient to just grind the few DVDs you owned into dust than to constantly loop back to the (rapidly disappearing) local rental stores for fresh content. Not only did The Devil and Daniel Johnston fill a need for more information about a niche musician I could previously only access through the occasional scraps that trickled down to Southeast Louisiana, but the story of his struggles with mental health really hit close to home at that time. A close college friend, like Daniel, had recently triggered an inevitable crisis with bipolar disorder in a period of recreationally experimenting with LSD. After he shed his possessions, began raving about God & The Devil, and started putting himself & others in danger in high-risk situations like moving traffic, we eventually (and conflictedly) found ourselves having him committed to a grim mental institution nearby. Unlike Daniel, that friend appears to be doing fine now, but it still meant a lot to see that same story play out on the screen at the time, even with the worse ending.

Revisiting The Devil and Daniel Johnston the night his premature death was announced, it felt great to confirm that, yes, this is an exquisite specimen of the modern documentary and that I didn’t replay it incessantly in college only because I loved and related to the subject. In the thirteen years since its release, the film’s visual & storytelling style has since become a kind of standard norm in documentary filmmaking, but it really felt emotionally & formally exceptional at the time. Talking-head interviews, still photographs, home movies, television clips, and animated illustrations of Johnston’s songs combine to create a collage portrait of an artist whose world had been fractured many times over. Seeing this template repeated for other troubled artists like Amy Winehouse, Betty Davis, and DEATH in the years since has admittedly lessened some of the film’s impact as a structurally playful piece, but there are still details to the film that make it feel unique in its musician’s portrait genre. Firstly, Johnston’s life story of recording songs in his basement while his parents yelled at him from the stairs to give up on his dreams and get a job, only for him to later make those very tapes infamous by elbowing his way onto MTV (in-between joining a traveling carnival & working at McDonald’s) is incredible. Then, the way his mental disorder disrupted what could have been a thriving career as a songwriter by making him obsess over The Devil and a “love of his life” who he hardly knew (before finally wrecking his ability to take care of himself on a daily basis) makes the film just as much of an emotional experience as it is an informative one. Finally, the wealth of documentation of Daniel’s daily life—from audio recordings, super-8 home movies, photographs, journals, etc.—afford the filmmakers a wealth of material to illustrate the story they’re telling. It’s an incredibly rich experience, one of the very best of its kind.

Much like Johnston’s countless songs about death & depression in his music catalog, this documentary is incredibly helpful in processing the heartbreaking news of his passing. Also like with his songs, that process is not necessarily easy or fun. The opening shot is of Daniel talking in a selfie pose with his super-8 camera pointed at a mirror, announcing, “Hello, I am the ghost of Daniel Johnston,” as if from beyond the grave. Much of the movie plays this way, prematurely covering his life & art as if he were already dead. The final credits play over footage of Johnston posing in a Casper the Friendly Ghost costume in what appears to be a public park, obscured & wraithlike. It hits an emotionally raw nerve, but it’s also beautifully & radically honest, perceptive work. It’s pure Daniel Johnston in that way, so that the movie feels just as essential to his body of work as any of his songs or drawings. If you’re interested in becoming familiar with the life & art of this eternally tragic entertainer or if you need a way to properly say goodbye after years of sharing an intimate connection with his deeply personal D.I.Y. recordings, I highly recommend returning to this film. It will likely fuck you up, but you might also find yourself incessantly replaying it for morbid comfort & for curious friends the way I once did. Life was incredibly shitty to Daniel Johnston, but at least this movie was worthy of him.

-Brandon Ledet

When I Get Home (2019)

When I Get Home is a feature-length music video from R&B singer-songwriter Solange, who has presented the work as an “inter-disciplinary performance art film” and a companion piece to her album of the same name. As such, the film has been projected in select art museum spaces and arthouse movie theaters across the country (including NOMA and The Broad in New Orleans) instead of being quietly shoveled off to streaming platforms like so may “visual albums” have in recent years, despite their lofty cinematic ambitions. I went into my screening When I Get Home not being especially familiar with Solange’s work as a musician (despite her status as an adopted New Orleans local), but still wanting to support projects like this, Lemonade, and Dirty Computer getting the proper thematical treatment – as they often prove to be among the best filmmaking achievements of their respective years. I’m a huge sucker for the feature-length music video as a medium; it’s a format that’s primed to reach levels of #purecinema ecstasy that traditional narrative features are often too weighed down by plot & logic to achieve, as it’s free to experiment with the basic sensory combination of visuals + sound that defines cinema in the first place without being distracted by any other concerns. When I Get Home is no exception there. It’s pure visual poetry, the exact transcendent visual lyricism we look for when we venture out for Art Movies at the cinema, which are sadly in short supply as of late (at least through proper distribution channels).

The “home” referred to in this title is not New Orleans, but rather Solange’s nearby hometown of Houston, TX. Although the film does not follow a clear plotline the way Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer video anthology project did last year, this concept of examining Houston as a homeland does serve as a unifying theme for When I Get Home. This is a kind of R&B sci-fi acid Western portrait of the black people of Houston that reaches more for poetry than it does for clear messaging. Traditional black cowboys & cowgirls on horseback trot through the Texan deserts that surround the city, as well as the more rural suburban environments that define its borders. The crisp, geometric lines of Houston’s downtown business district present the city as a modern space as well (albeit one somewhat stuck in the sensibilities of the 70s & 80s), and that architecture is abstracted throughout the film as a backdrop for a series of high-fashion photo shoots. We also jump from this stylish present into a peculiarly kitschy retro-futurism, where a Barbarella-type astronaut stripper drags a sparking spaceship motherboard through the desert (in heels!) and glitchy agriculture robots with giant dongs dance under a crop duster in a sports-stadium-turned-future-farm. It’s a bewildering collection of past-present-future imagery that’s most clearly tied together by Solange’s constant soundtrack – which includes Houstonian touches throughout among its melancholy vocals & synthy flourishes (like DJ Screw chops & tape-warps and lyrical references to “candy paint”) to keep the picture on-theme. This is a sprawling multimedia work that invites subjective interpretation more than straightforward communication, but it does amount to a stunning portrait of black life in Houston across time when considered in total.

What really lands When I Get Home close to my own heart is the way it juxtaposes high-art formalism with pedestrian Digital Age media like text messages & YouTube clips – a combination that I will always be on the hook for. So much of this film operates like an ethereal art piece dedicated to seeking pristine beauty in every frame that it’s outright jarring when these sensual pleasures are interrupted with Power Point-level animation graphics and flip phone-quality online found-footage. I couldn’t get enough of it. I’ve seen dozens of feature films from 2019 so far and, yet, there’s a montage in this where Solange adjusts the webcam on her laptop over & over again that I swear is the most invigorating thing I’ve seen on the big screen all year. There are more affordable, wide-ranging means of production in filmmaking than ever before, yet most of the tech that’s available to us in our daily lives (even in just the tools we use to record & broadcast our day via social media) are often locked out of inclusion in Legitimate Cinema. Already freed from these concerns a both as a music video and as a multimedia collage, When I Get Home uses every tool at its disposal to create its surreal Houstonian dreamscape, and its most effective moments often come across when its imagery look cheapest – if not only through the virtue of contrast. There’s also a kind of overexposed photography aesthetic about its high-art vignettes that ties them into the more pedestrian online imagery, as it affords the film the patina of a well-selected Instagram filter (even though these images were mostly recorded on actual celluloid). There’s something vitally honest and comprehensive about this high-low filmmaking inclusivity that I found more daring & exciting than most Real Movies I’ve seen projected in theaters all year.

The synth-heavy, off-center musical compositions in the film are phenomenal. The fashion, sculpture, choreography, and makeup artistry on display are exquisitely composed & presented in surreal juxtaposition with their locales. Its vision of an eternally black, mystical Houston is pure cinematic poetry. Even the old-fashioned cowboy aesthetic of this Black Houston portraiture (complete with exaggerated Spaghetti Western zoom-ins) is remarkably well timed, considering “Old Town Road’s” year-long dominance of the Billboard charts. When I Get Home is not a novelty act or a meme-in-motion like that Lil Nas X hit, however, no matter how much irreverent humor and dirt-cheap online imagery it weaves into its more pristine cinematic impulses. This is a work of pure artistic ambition, unconcerned with the limitations of its medium that are usually dictated by commercial concerns (despite it effectively being an advertisement for its accompanying album, in longstanding music video tradition). My only disappointment when leaving the theater was that I didn’t get to see Dirty Computer or Lemonade presented in the same proper theatrical environment, as these visual album projects really are pushing cinema forward as an artform in a way few other modern genres even dare to attempt.

-Brandon Ledet

Mamma Mina!: A Crash Course in Musicarelli

One of the most purely joyous moments in our current Movie of the Month, the horned-up Italian romcom Ginger & Cinnamon, is the climactic musical number on the bus where the main couple lip-sync to the Italian pop song “Ta Ra Ta Ta” by 1960s icon Mina. It’s the moment when the film fully blossoms into the proto-Mamma Mia! jukebox musical it’s been teasing for its entire runtime and, thus, plays like more of a major emotional payoff than an out-of-nowhere indulgence. However, it’s a moment that I completely misinterpreted when we first discussed the film. At the time, I believed the big “Ta Ra Ta Ta” dance number to be an homage to the similar romantic conclusions of a typical Bollywood production. That made enough sense to me at the time, given the wistful sitars that pepper the soundtrack and the film’s general scatterbrained approach to eclectic musical tastes: Boy George, Wire, The Village People, Saturday morning cartoon theme songs, etc. I was wrong, though. That climactic dance number was meant as an homage to an entirely different film genre: the musicarello.

Instigated by the 1958 musical comedy Regazzi del Juke-Box (directed by Lucio Fulci, who would later become infamous in the sleazy world of gialli), the musicarello was an Italian genre of rock n’ roll pictures meant to exploit teenage culture & promote rising pop acts. Combining the rebellious teenage energy of Roger Corman’s drive-in era with the variety show rock performances of television programs like Ed Sullivan & American Bandstand, musicarelli were mostly irreverent slapstick comedies that enabled youngsters to see their favorite pop groups on the big screen in proto-MTV music videos. It was a shamelessly commercial version of teenage rebellion, one that’s lightly anti-conformist & anti-bourgeois messaging did not survive the more radicalized politics of the late 1960s. Ginger & Cinnamon’s climactic homage to miscarello tradition would have been a distinctly nostalgic indulgence, then, which lines up perfectly with its main character’s nostalgia for Saturday morning cartoons & club music from the 1980s. It’s the exact kind of outdated fluff entertainment that would have been in heavy rotation on Italian television when she was a kid.

If I had been more familiar with Italian pop culture of yesteryear, I would have known instantly that the “Ta Ra Ta Ta” sequence was a nod to musicarelli, not Bollywood. That’s because the song choice of a Mina tune in particular has strong ties to musicarelli of the 1960s, so that any Italian Woman Of A Certain Age would have recognized the reference. Mina was famous in Italy (and internationally) for many reasons. Her three-octave vocal range as a soprano made her a standout in her field. Her public image as “an emancipated woman” and the mistress to a married man made her a popular topic for tabloid coverage. Her rambunctious stage presence and predilection for song topics like sex, religion, and (in “Ta Ra Ta Ta”) smoking cigarettes earned her the nickname The Queen of Screams. However, one of the biggest boosters for Mina’s career were her starring roles in musicarelli. Mina performed her 60s pop tunes in over a dozen musicarello titles, making her one of the most popular figures in one of Italy’s most popular film genres. Unfortunately, I can’t find any musicarelli featuring Mina available with an English translation in the US, but thankfully there’s plenty performances from them hosted on sites like YouTube.

Below are a few of my favorite Mina musicarello performances that are available on YouTube, a 60s rock ‘n roll primer I wish I had discovered before we discussed our Movie of the Month.

1. “Ta Ra Ta Ta” from Totò Ye Ye (1967)

2. “Mandalo giu” from Pere amore per magia (1967)

3. “Nessuno” from Howlers of the Dock (1960)

4. “Tintarella di Luna” from Juke box – Urli d’amore (1959)

5. “Io bacio… tu baci” from Io bacio… tu baci (1961)

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, the horned up Italian romcom Ginger & Cinnamon (2003), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Guava Island (2019)

The natural impulse when trying to find a proper context for the Donald Glover vanity project Guava Island is to consider it in conversation with recent “visual albums” like Beyoncé’s Lemonade or Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer. While it is billed as “a Childish Gambino film” and features a smattering of songs from Glover’s most recent album under that pseudonym, this isn’t exactly the form-breaking music video experiment we’ve been seeing echoed in the post-Lemonade era. It’s far too loose & laid-back to hold up to that standard. Guava Island is an hour-long, low-key movie musical that only allows its surrealist touches & music video interludes to creep in from the borders of the frame. It’s more narratively focused than its fellow visual albums, but also too casual & relaxed in its narrative to feel too substantial without its occasional breaks for Glover’s music. Guava Island is deliberately minor in some ways as a result, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s unpleasant or not worthwhile. The worst you can say about it is that it often feels like a thin excuse to watch beautiful pop stars vacation in Cuba; that’s not such a terrible thing.

An opening narration from Glover’s costar, Rihanna, promises something much more adventurous & detached from reality than what’s ultimately delivered. She establishes the fictional island setting in a magical-realist folktale about the battle between Love & War that has raged since the island’s creation, a storybook monologue illustrated by 2D animation akin to 90s era Disney titles like The Emperor’s New Groove. This tale of The Dueling Truths (love & war) is only faintly echoed in the live-action story that follows – love in the beautiful silks & music that the island creates and war in the evil capitalist shipping company Red Cargo that seeks to commodify those arts. Of course, Donald Glover’s protagonist finds himself at the exact center of this struggle. He seeks to woo Rihanna (along with the rest of the island) with his beautiful music, but the wicked Red Cargo company only wants him to sing jingles promoting their products and encouraging their workers to remain productive. The whole thing culminates in a kind of workers’ uprising in the form of an all-night party that Red Cargo attempts to shut down, so its employees won’t be too tired to be industrious the next day. The stakes can be tragic, but defiance through partying & letting loose is exactly the film’s M.O. throughout.

Formally speaking, Guava Island is a gorgeous wonder. It has the classic shot-on-film look of a 70s arthouse picture (or a well-curated Instagram profile) and is effortlessly charming in its documentation of two charismatic pop stars, barely in character, vacationing in a lush tropical locale. Director Hiro Murai, who has previously collaborated with Glover on career-high achievements like the “This Is America” video & Atlanta, occasionally choreographs its music video sequences as if it were a movie-musical reiteration of arthouse relics like Touki Bouki or Black Orpheus. Glover himself brings a surreal touch to what’s otherwise a romantic hangout film in his writhing dance moves – reinterpreting the Iggy Pop contortions of his “This Is America” choreography in a newly interesting context (and prompting questions of what it would it be like if he were in a Magic Mike sequel now instead of four years ago). The only frustrating thing about the film, then, is that there isn’t more. Rihanna is a joy to watch here but doesn’t sing herself. Glover & Murai hint at a sinister, surrealist tone just under the surface of their dance sequence collaborations, but never fully unleash that impulse. The songs themselves are pleasant, but far more abrupt & spaced out than what you’ll hear in Lemonade or Dirty Computer. In almost every way, Guava Island could be more and could be better with just a little extra effort from each of its collaborators, but that doesn’t mean what’s onscreen isn’t worthwhile as is.

-Brandon Ledet

Vox Lux (2018)

The riskiest gamble of Vox Lux: “A 21st Century Portrait” is that it looks and sounds like a mainstream movie with wide appeal when it is, in reality, a purposefully divisive work meant to enrage & alienate. Featuring an Oscar reel-worthy performance from Natalie Portman (in full Black Swan mode) and arriving just in time to make that PR push happen, the film masquerades as a must-see Important Drama friendly to mainstream discussion in wide release. It’s the most flagrantly misrepresented film in that vein I’ve seen since mother!, however, and it’s sure too piss off just as many onlookers unprepared for the cold, mean, absurdist melodrama that awaits them. The funniest thing about that gamble is that this is a film about marketing and public perception. It’s about a pop culture artist who has a hostile relationship with the public, so it’s already sneering in the general direction of its inevitable detractors. It’s brutal and coldly funny like a Yorgos Lanthimos film, yet it’s absurdly earnest like a Mommie Dearest melodrama. It’s a distanced philosophical statement on the current shape of Western culture, but also a gleefully perverse, intimate portrait of a woman behaving monstrously. There’s no way to properly market a work that tonally volatile to a mass audience, so the film is going to be paraded around like an Oscar Season drama when it’s actually something much weirder and more deeply sinister. It’s a Trojan horse, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a concealed weapon; it’s a film I admired on its own merits, but also look forward to seeing it being met with hostile negativity.

Vox Lux’s cheeky air of self-importance extends beyond its festival circuit & Oscar Season release strategy. Its self-appointed intent to function as a “21st Century Portrait” is not only a reference to its depiction of a pop star’s rise from teenage darling to thirty-something monster, but also its cold, detached commentary on the modern world at large. A bitterly sarcastic antidote to the earnest, vulnerable pontification of 20th Century Women, the film is relayed through the dry, humorously overwritten narration of Willem Dafoe, who acts as our godlike tour guide of the last 20 years of terrorist violence & pop culture rot (and finding those two forces grotesquely symbiotic). Portman’s central character, Celeste, is a kind of cipher for this cultural commentary. A permanently scarred victim of domestic terrorism as a teenager, Celeste turns a personal tragedy into a hit song to achieve instantaneous fame, so that the film can comment directly on how horrific violence is marketed for easy profit. The pop music machinery of this divide is anchored by an original soundtrack of Sia compositions, performed by “Celeste.” The menacing violence of the world it exploits & mismarkets is represented in contrast by a horrifyingly minimalist score from Scott Walker, approximating his best 21st Century mutation of John Carpenter. That internal musical conflict matches the other binary confrontations represented throughout: pop vs. metal, terrorism vs. Public Relations, “real art” vs. “having an angle.” By the time the film reaches its climatic Celeste concert and all that’s left is the conflict between Sia’s songs & Dafoe’s narration, the clearest binary at play is Good Vs. Evil. Like 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.

All that thematic discussion is just me intellectualizing the real reason I enjoyed this film: it’s fun to watch women misbehave, unconcerned with whether or not you like them. Celeste starts the film as a relatively normal teenager (played by Raffey Cassidy­­), but the circumstances of her rise to fame and 24/7 pampering transform her into a monstrous, irredeemable brat. Portman has way too much fun going over-the-top as a power-hungry villain in the role, chewing scenery with an exaggerated Staten Island accent and an addict’s insatiable desire for more, more, more. She admits her latest album cycle’s “sci-fi anthems” are creatively bankrupt in one breath, then claims she is a literal god in the next. She pretends to be a thick-skinned badass in a leather jacket, but crumbles at any mention of her glaring, public faults – a vulnerability visually represented by the decorative neck guards he uses to conceal the wounds from her teen-years tragedy. A lesser film would portray Celeste as a victim of her circumstances, a product of an abusive, exploitative culture and frustrated expression of mass violence. Vox Lux refuses to let her off the hook so easily, instead allowing her the space to alienate & enrage with a comically escalating set of temper tantrums and demands for attentive admiration. Even her one saving grace as an artist, the frequent defense that “at least she writes her own lyrics,” is demonstrated to be a vicious lie, as she constantly takes credit for loved ones’ work and then bullies them into silence. The concluding minutes of concert footage that gloss over all that backstage misery with a pure-fantasy pop star sheen only make her monstrous behavior more horrific in contrast: yet another internal conflict meant to sit queasily on the viewer’s stomach.

I don’t expect universal backup for my love of Vox Lux, nor do I really want it. Just like how the movie is perversely fun in its uncompromising depictions of a woman’s monstrous behavior, I suspect some of my enjoyment of it as a final product is its built-in divisiveness. There were several walkouts at our New Orleans Film Festival screening of the picture, and even the audience who remained to squirm in their seats weren’t sure what to do with the film’s cold brutality & absurd melodrama humor. You either revel in that discomfort or you dismiss the film as a failure, and I very much look forward to seeing the most polarized reactions in that binary divide. My favorite kinds of movies are the ones where I look forward to reading their most fiercely negative reviews; that’s not something I’m used to getting out of an Oscar Season prestige release, so I find this instance especially exciting.

-Brandon Ledet

The World is Mine (2017)

Truth is elusive & reality is a bore. Many modern, post-Herzog documentaries feel free to distort & subvert the “real life” facts of the stories they capture once they accept those basic tenants of their craft, which requires them to make a tidy, exciting story out of an untidy & frequently mundane existence. Ann Oren’s cosplay “documentary” The World is Mine is fully committed to this distortion, to the point where its presentation of a simulated, heightened reality is essential to both its form and its subject. As Oren appears onscreen herself, crafting a conspicuously false version of who she is and how she relates to the cosplay fandom she invades, she reflects the artificial, simulated existence of the pop culture character she dresses as throughout. Hatsune Miku is a “vocaloid,” a computerized simulation of a Japanese pop music diva who can be programmed to perform any song her democratized collaborators/devotees can conceive. Miku is a conduit, a non-person simulated as a human form only so she can fulfil the fantasies of as many people as possible. In The World is Mine, Oren attempts to serve the same function by dressing in Miku’s stylized persona & garb, hiding the truth of her own existence behind the false, fantastic shield of cosplay. As a documentary, her story has little interest in the truth of “real” life, instead searching for an eerie, distorted truth in a life that’s artificial by design. The results aren’t exactly informative in a traditional documentarian sense, but they are effectively uncomfortable and, at times, deeply sad.

As a documentary subject, I have no idea who Ann Oren is, where she’s from, or how she makes a living. I’m not even certain of whether or not she even speaks Japanese (she often smiles & nods silently to subtitled dialogue). She just appears as a conspicuous Westerner on a popular Tokyo street corner, already dressed as the Hatsune Miku character in search for strangers’ attention. We will never see her outside the costume. We learn slightly more about Miku “herself,” but only through incrementally-detailed interactions with the vocaloid’s rabid fandom. Oren presents herself to Miku’s fans and to the audience as an in-the-flesh extension of the anime-style simulated character who sings lost-in-translation pop music lyrics about “deciding to become a god” & “the homecoming of our future” in a roboticized voice throughout. Her camera infiltrates cosplay meetups whether pop culture obsessives dress as Miku & the like and, more surprisingly, “concerts” where hundreds of fans crowd to cheer for Miku’s onstage performances via a projection screen. Her drift through this obsessive fandom occasionally strays into the kawaii territory of aggressive, meticulous cuteness, but the ambient horror of the film’s score, the disjointed poetry of Miku’s song lyrics, and Oren’s own shaking hands as she pretends cosplay affords her confidence & contentment convey something much more sinister. Suggestions of BDSM-leaning age play & unspoken asexuality color her attempts to find romance as a human extension of Miku. Obsessive fans’ collections of Miku ephemera and Miku-adorned apartments & vehicles vaguely touch on the empty consumerism of obsessive fandom. Mostly, though, The World is Mine explores the alienation of living without a sense of self-identity, finding an awkward, upsetting tone of discomfort as its director & subject takes on an artificial life in a foreign culture with little use for who she “really” is.

It would be easy to imagine a more traditional, informative documentary about Hatsune Miku’s history as a cultural phenomenon or Westerner cosplay as an act of cultural appropriation, but The World is Mine isn’t especially interest in either line of thought. Instead, Oren implies a simulated identity crisis performed for the camera through the guise of an already simulated character. Lines like “The problem with reality is that fairy tales are full of frauds,” don’t help much in illuminating what Oren’s learned as a living doll modeled after a popular computer program. She’s just one physical copy of Hatsune Miku among many and the eeriness of her lack of a distinct personality is only amplified in the Miku fandom visually approaching a kind of ecstatic singularity. I don’t know how much of The World Is Mine to accept as true or personal to Oren, but I also don’t believe documenting real life was chief among her concerns while making the film. There’s an awkward, isolating eeriness to the film’s estimation of Hatsune Miku fandom that Oren’s much more enthusiastic about documenting than any kind of factual, historical, personal, or cultural reality. As long as you don’t need documentaries to be traditionally informative to be worthwhile and an evocation of a discomforting feeling is enough to satisfy with what you want from the picture, The World is Mine is an effective little chiller with a strong sense of eeriness in its mood.

-Brandon Ledet

Bob Dylan’s Indifference towards Hearts of Fire (1987), The Press, and Life in General

The only reason to ever dig up our current Movie of the Month, the 1987 rock n’ roll melodrama Hearts of Fire, from its VHS format burial ground is to gawk at how baffling Bob Dylan’s presence is in the film. Cast as a washed up rock n’ roller with an attitude problem & Bad Boy sex appeal, Dylan is insanely wrong for the role. Every mumbling line reading of flirtatious cynicism & every moment of tough guy macho posturing plays like an unintended joke. Dylan consistently fails at the basic task of pretending like he cares about the young woman he’s meant to seduce or the hotel room furniture he lazily smashes as he sleepwalks through the whole ordeal as if he were a man twice his age. It appears as if Dylan’s presence in Hearts of Fire was entirely a marketing decision cooked up by his agent and the music industry legend himself had zero interest in fulfilling the project’s basic requirements. Dylan needed an image rejuvenation after his 80s gospel period pleased no one, but was entirely indifferent to any opportunities presented to accomplish that turnaround. He simply didn’t give a shit.

If you need any confirmation of Bob Dylan’s indifference to Hearts of Fire, there’s a BBC-produced documentary about the making of the film, titled Getting to Dylan, that should make his total lack of interest in the film crystal clear. 1980s press organizations were just as baffled by Dylan’s decision to star in the film as we are now, looking back. It had been decades since Dylan had appeared in weirdo art movies like Don’t Look Back and Renaldo & Clara, so no one could parse out why he chose to revive his nonstarter cinema career with a love triangle music drama where he plays a washed up rocker archetype clearly written for Mick Jagger. Determining the answer to this question was no easy task, since Dylan’s indifference to Hearts of Fire extended to his feelings on speaking to the press and, seemingly, being a living human being. It takes producers of Getting to Dylan almost halfway into their hour-long runtime to get their subject to even speak on what drew him to the project. His answers are, to be expected, mostly a series of cryptic mumbles. When asked what his favorite scenes in the movie involve, he shrugs, “I don’t even know the scenes in the movie, to tell you the truth. They’re all good, I guess.” The only time he seems like he cares about or even knows what’s going on in the movie is when he jokes that he’s being standoffish with reporters because he’s “getting into character.”

As easy as it is to have a laugh at Dylan’s indifference towards the press & his craft as a dramatic actor, Getting to Dylan does offer some insight into why he feels that way. The cynics & sycophants of pop media journalism are grotesque monsters in the BBC doc. First of all, although they’re professionally tasked to ask Bob Dylan questions about Hearts of Fire, they care even less about the movie than he does. While he’s sitting directly next to a stone-faced Fiona (the actual star of the film) he’s asked why he’s debasing himself with such lowly pop culture material when a writer of his talents could presumably have penned a better movie himself. Journalists use Hearts of Fire as an excuse to get close enough to the notoriously reclusive Dylan to ask questions about what the really want to know: the details of his heyday in the 60s & 70s folk scene. Dylan shrugs off the praise heaped on him by music journalists in the film, shyly making self-deprecating nonsense like, “I just write [songs] because nobody tells me I can’t write ‘em.” He shoots down grandiose statements about his work with mumbled repetitions of “Not really,” until the reporters who’ve desperately tried to get him on the mic the entire film ask questions that have nothing to do with his work at all, searching for tabloidish info about his family life & potential assassination attempts. The press is just as gross in their coverage of Hearts of Fire as Bob Dylan is aloof.

There’s nothing especially significant or revelatory about Getting to Dylan. The short-form TV doc is mostly amusing for watching the BBC attempt to cull together scraps of interviews & promotional clips for a movie its subject has less than zero interest in promoting. They have to meet Dylan more than halfway to produce something that resembles a finished product, which is more or less just desserts considering the way they chose to cover his involvement in the film. The most animated Dylan becomes in the doc is in an out of nowhere tangent where he (idiotically) complains that modern, synthesized pop music has “no roots” & “no foundation.” For that brief moment real life old fart Bob Dylan resembles the old fart he was hired to play in Hearts of Fire, a character who similarly turned up his nose at 80s pop & new wave. It’s kind of a shame he couldn’t translate that passionate distaste for modern music into an authentic performance in the film, but it’s still entertaining in its own way to watch him half-heartedly trash a hotel room & seduce a woman half his age with nearly inaudible mumbles and a profoundly stupid earring.

For more on November’s Movie of the Month, the Bob Dylan rock n’ roll disaster Hearts of Fire, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Velvet Goldmine (1998)

After watching Todd Haynes gradually shift towards traditionalist, Douglas Sirk-inspired dramas like Carol & Far From Heaven, it’s been fascinating to return to the wild, fractured, untamed excess of his earlier, more transgressive works. Haynes’s debut feature, Poison, was a roughly assembled, anxiously queer anthology that covered territory as widely varied as 1950s mad scientist B-pictures & Jean Genet’s masterful, poetic smut Our Lady of the Flowers. Before that debut, his name-making short Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story re-imagined a high profile celebrity tragedy through hand-operated Barbie dolls. It’d be near impossible to reconcile the two disparate ends of Haynes’s beautifully improbable career, the controlled drama & the wildly fractured art film, if it weren’t for his magnum opus, Velvet Goldmine, a glam rock opera that somehow encapsulates the totality of what the director has accomplished to date in a single picture. Velvet Goldmine remains Haynes’s grandest achievement by somehow elevating his youthful passion for melodrama, disorder, and camp to the level of the Oscar-minded prestige productions he’d later settle into as he aged within the industry, all while remaining aggressively, unapologetically queer. It’s overwhelming to watch a filmmaker this ambitious throw every possible tone & technique he can achieve at the screen, but drowning in Haynes’s chaotic, yet glamorous sensibilities is a pure, intoxicating pleasure.

Christian Bale stars as an ex-Brit reporter working out of NYC on an investigative assignment about the publicity stunt “murder” of a glam rock star he had worshipped religiously as a queer teen. It had been a decade since British rocker Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) faked his own death onstage & disappeared from the public limelight. It seems as if the glam rock lifestyle, with its outrageous gender-androgynous costumes & conspicuous absence of sexual norms, had died along with that persona. Through the relatively dull framing device of watching Bale’s gloomy reporter research the missing Slade, Haynes opens up the wild world of glam rock past in a series of disjointed vignettes following Slade’s life from birth to “death”. The film is primarily concerned with Slade’s musical collaboration & bisexual affair with American proto-punk icon Curt Wilde (Ewan McGregor), an obsessive relationship that wrecked his sobriety, his closeness with his wife (Toni Collette), and his overall ambition to change the world through the transformative power of rock n’ roll. Haynes crafts a deliberately messy, loose story out of this rock n’ roll romance by employing every tool he had in his arsenal: the Barbie doll performances of Superstar, the James Bidgood tableaus & Jean Genet allusions of Poison, the Douglas Sirk melodrama of Safe & Far From Heaven, flesh on flesh pansexual erotica, etc. He also conjures glam rock’s natural mystique by allowing X-Files style record company conspiracy theories & supernatural claims that Oscar Wilde’s origins as a space alien changeling to inform his narrative without batting an eye. The only restrained-feeling aspect of the plot is Bale’s investigative framing device, but even that boasts the perverse virtue of essentially reimagining Citizen Kane as a glam rock opera.

Although narratively loose & ambiguous, Velvet Goldmine clearly evokes two real-life romances/collaborations in this patchwork plot: David Bowie’s affair with Iggy Pop & Britain’s affair with American rock. Slade is a clear Bowie stand-in, a connection deliberately referenced in the title & unappreciated by Bowie himself, who threatened to sue before the script went into rewrites. The film mostly follows the Ziggy Stardust & post-hippie eras of Bowie’s career before his romace/heroin-sharing/music collaboration with Iggy Pop unraveled those glory days. It’s a relationship that’s understood more through myth & rumor than confirmed, openly admitted fact, so Haynes is smart to abstract any 1:1 comparison, even if it was a decision inspired by threat of a lawsuit. Bowie’s life story is blended with other pop stars like Marc Bolan & Buster Poindexter to create the figure of Brian Slade, while Curt Wilde emerges as a similar blend of Iggy Pop & Lou Reed. This abstraction & democratization of their characters leads to the film feeling like a larger, more mythical tale of American & British rock n’ roll’s endless back & forth romance & collaboration than an affair between two queer men in the 70s & 80s. A childhood Little Richard drag routine Slade stages in his parents’ living room feels just as essential to his stage persona evolution as any of the film’s Oscar Wilde space alien weirdness, making this moment in time shared between British & American rock to feel like a smaller thread in much larger tapestry, albeit an essential one. Velvet Goldmine depicts glam rock as less of a craze or a passing fad than a failed revolution that very nearly topped the world in a flood of glitter & lube before it lamely succumbed to the pitfalls of heroin & romantic jealousy. Bowie & Iggy were useful figured for that story, but the overall effect is much larger than anything two men could amount to alone.

Velvet Goldmine was a box office bomb that was met with middling, confused critical response upon its initial release. It’s the exact kind of overly ambitious, insularly passionate art picture that’s doomed for cult status over wide appeal, but I selfishly wish that were the kind of art Haynes were still making today. As much as I appreciate Carol‘s intoxicating allure, it feels like a film that could have been pulled off by any number of visually skilled, queer-minded craftsmen. Velvet Goldmine, by contrast, is undeniably a Todd Haynes film. The same way Citizen Kane posits that a man’s full persona can’t be contained by a single picture, Velvet Goldmine argues the same for the spirit of glam rock at large. Haynes structures this argument around a sprawling all-inclusive clusterfuck of every weird, passionate idea he’s ever projected onto the screen in his life. It’s a magnum opus that makes room for drag queens, Barbie dolls, Bowie worship, Oscar Wilde conspiracy theories, an extended cameo from glam-revivalist band Placebo, and Ewan McGregor’s spread-open butt cheeks. It’s risky, go-for-broke cinema that doesn’t have a 100% success rate in its individual elements at play (Christian Bale’s gloomy sulking is a lot to stomach), but consistently impresses in its visual beauty & sheer audacity. It’d be a cultural tragedy if we never see Haynes working in that mode again.

-Brandon Ledet

Band Aid (2017)

Band Aid is one of those intimate indie comedies that are easy to advertise in trailers as Sundance-flavored quirk fests packed with cutesy flights of whimsy, but deliver something much darker & more painfully honest once they get butts in seats. The last time I watched a film this tonally contrary to the light-hearted romcom romp it was advertised to be was last year’s Joshy: a darkly funny, yet emotionally devastating reflection on themes like grief, addiction, repression, and suicide. Band Aid similarly sweeps genuine emotional trauma under the rug until it can no longer be ignored, but sweetens its bitter medicine with even more of a quirk-friendly premise than Joshy‘s rogue bachelor party shenanigans: the formation of a novelty punk band. The film offers the same exciting swell of watching a fresh musical collaboration come together that was such a joy in last year’s Sing Street, except with a lot more focus on the stop & start failures necessary to make that magic work and a constant Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? mode of bickering romantic cruelty that consistently sours the mood. It’s much more of a personal, slyly devastating work of deep hurt & genuine pain than its quirk-focused advertising (understandably) makes it out to be, a kind of tonal sucker punch that arrives early & often enough to feel like an outright pummeling.

Writer, producer, and first time director Zoe Lister-Jones stars as a failed author & moderately successful Uber driver who’s stuck drifting through a joyless haze. Painfully conscious of her peers’ seemingly successful marriages & constantly bickering with her lazy stoner husband (Adam Pally, who was also in Joshy), she suffers every slight to her confidence, her independence, and her social status as a motherless wife as if it were a violent stab to the heart. Being around friends’ children seems especially painful for her, an anxiety she barely keeps at bay with the help of marijuana & old-fashioned emotional suppression. Couples’ counseling is not working. She seems to be stuck reliving the same fights with her husband over menial bullshit like doing the dishes & not having enough sex while more drastic elephant-in-the-room issues are allowed to fester, unspoken. While stoned at a friend’s kid’s birthday party & avoiding questions like, “When are you guys gonna make one of these things?” from cultish parents her age, she finally rediscovers the one healthy way she can still interact & collaborate with her husband without bickering & wanting to die: art. Music, specifically. As an act of self-actualized therapy, the couple decide to start a band (with the help of their wide-eyed creep of a neighbor, played by Fred Armisen) and turn all of the topics of their daily bickering into playful punk songs. Things get much better from there . . . for a while.

One of the most rewarding aspects of Band Aid is that it doesn’t allow for easy answers in what’s clearly an emotionally complex situation. At first it appears as if the couple’s cheeky songs about diminished sex drives & unwashed dishes are going to magically fix all of their deep-seated emotional pain in a convenient, only-in-movies release of pressure. That infectious spirit of creating art together eventually crumbles, though, and when they inevitably end up fighting again it’s over something much more significant & severe and they go about it in a much crueller way. But that’s okay. This is a film much less about mending a broken relationship than it is about embracing your right to fail. Bands, marriages, and all other kinds of intimate partnerships are difficult collaborations to negotiate, ones where successes can be less frequent than the failures necessary to make them possible. Band Aid is a film about that interpersonal push & pull just as much as it is about internal grief & despair.

Zoe Lister-Jones was not only ambitious in imprinting her auteurist personality in nearly all levels of production on her first feature as a director; she also set out to experiment with the general gender dynamics of a typical film production, indie or otherwise. Band Aid boasts an all-woman crew behind the camera, which has to be some kind of a rarity in film. Although gender dynamics is certainly high on the list of subjects tackled by Band Aid, I’m not sure you can clearly detect a tonal difference in the effect that atypical crew has on the final product. It is an idea worth celebrating & exploring, though, and it’s likely only Lister-Jones herself would be able to fully articulate the difference that dynamic made on bringing her script to life. There’s an undeniable omnipresence of the director’s personal voice throughout the work, not only because she plays the main character & sings all of her on her own songs. Dark humor about ISIS, Nazis, and mental disability offset a lot of the film’s potential twee whimsy. Its focus on the failures inherent to art & romance feels so much more relatably human it should in a film with this kind of a comedic premise. I guess it’d be easy to dismiss Band Aid as the quirky romcom it’s advertised to be if you only engage with its novelty songs & scenes of Armisen doing his usual post-Andy Kaufman schtick, but the film is so much more honest & nakedly sincere than that. It’s an impressively vulnerable work that often transcends its financial means and recognizable genre tropes by exposing an obviously raw nerve, then repeatedly attacking it with joking song lyrics & power chords. If nothing else, I very much respect it for that emotional ambition alone.

-Brandon Ledet

The Icy Road from Hip Hop to Nu Metal

After watching Cool as Ice, our Movie of the Month for June, I became more interested in Vanilla Ice than ever before. He’s so much more than a one-hit-wonder with terrible pants. He actually does have talent. There’s something about Vanilla Ice that’s just so mysterious & strange and it’s pulling me in. While on my Vanilla Ice high during our Movie of the Month viewing, Brandon mentioned that Vanilla Ice dabbled in some nu metal during the late 1990s. I absolutely love nu metal, so I was determined to find out more about nu metal Vanilla Ice.

In 1998, Vanilla Ice aka Robert Matthew Van Winkle, released his third studio album, Hard to Swallow.  The edgy album cover features a mirror image of a nude woman with bloody eyes surrounded by roses. How did the creator of “Ice Ice Baby” get to this point? Well, it turns out that a whole lot happened to Vanilla Ice after his one hit wonder faded away. He got heavy into drugs (mainly heroin) and jet skiing, but he was still attempting to stay relevant in the music world. Thus, an unsuccessful nu metal album was created.

I listened to the entirety of Hard to Swallow, and while it isn’t by any means a great album, it does have some redeeming qualities.

Track 1 – “Living” (0:00): The song begins with a Jonathan Davis-like scat before very angry, violent lyrics start spewing out of Vanilla Ice, or as he refers to himself in this song, “Iceman.” It’s pretty awful, but it gets even worse at the chorus where Iceman starts to babble on in a Jamaican accent about not having control of his life; at least that’s what I think he’s trying to say. When looking up the lyrics for the song on multiple websites, majority of the lyrics were transcribed as “incomprehensible,” and that sums up this track perfectly.

Track 2 – “Scars” (3:45): The root of Iceman’s anger definitely comes out in this track, and it’s his abusive & absent father. After he says his father threw him out of a window for watching TV, I can’t help but feel for this guy. He also gives a shout out to Mama Ice for doing her best considering the circumstances, which is really sweet. His “scars” are what motivates him to be a better family man. There are so many uplifting messages hidden behind the mildly terrible guitar riffs.

Track 3 – “Ecstasy”: Nine seconds of instrumental confusion that’s nine seconds too long.

Track 4 – “Fuck Me” (8:51): Featuring vocals from Casey Chaos (co-writer for the System of a Down hit “B.Y.O.B.”), this song is a whole lot of fun and very catchy. “Fuck” is said at least every 5 seconds, so it’s obvious that he’s trying really hard to blend into the nu metal crowd. Ice makes fun of himself throughout this entire song with lyrics like “Ice ice baby, ice ice biatch” and “Fuck Vanilla Ice! He sucks! He eats shit!”

Track 5 – “Valley of Tears”: A guy that sounds a lot like Johnny Cash utters a short yet poignant phrase in this short interlude.

Track 6 – “Zig Zag Stories” (13:36): I was waiting for a song about smoking weed, and it only took me six tracks to get to it. Ice pretty much raps about smoking weed and not abusing it, so it’s almost like a liberal D.A.R.E. course. There’s a part in the song where he sings “You know I like to fly,” and it sounds a lot like when Fred Durst says “If only we could fly” in my favorite Limp Bizkit song, “My Generation.” This song came out two years prior to Limp Bizkit’s “My Generation,” so did Fred Durst rip off Vanilla Ice? Say it isn’t so!

Track 7 – “Too Cold” (19:03): Lucky number seven! “Too Cold” is the only song from this album that made it to radio. It’s a nu metal remake of Vanilla Ice’s one-hit-wonder “Ice Ice Baby,” and it’s a damn good song, at least by nu metal standards. Turning a cheesy 90s hip-hop anthem into an alternative hit really shows off Ice’s musical genius.

Track 8 – “Prozac” (22:27): Honestly, this song is pure garbage. How did he legally get away with writing a song called Prozac? Maybe it was so bad and unknown that the major pharmaceutical company never caught him? Watch out Iceman, they may be coming for you.

Track 9 – “S.N.A.F.U.” (26:55): S.N.A.F.U. stands for “situation normal all fucked up”. What is that even supposed to mean? He sounds like a clown on speed during the chorus, and I can’t even handle it. Jimmy Pop from The Bloodhound Gang lends some of his talent on this track, but it’s not enough to save this song from being a piece of crap.

Track 10 – “A.D.D.” (31:42): This is one of my favorites for sure, and that’s probably because it’s heavily influenced by The Deftones. Ice strays away from his rap rock vocals and reveals his softer, more emotional side. He, of course, has some intense rap rock moments in this song, but it’s tastefully done.

Track 11 – “Stompin’ Through the Bayou” (36:57): The next time I visit my parents down the bayou, I am blaring the hell out of this. I would’ve loved this song so much when I was an angry teen living in Larose, LA. This song was made to be played while throwing back a few beers around a bonfire and smoking a shit ton of menthols.

Track 12 – “The Horny Song” (40:21): This track was really hard to get through because it’s pretty much a douchebag anthem. I didn’t expect much from a song titled “The Horny Song,” but I hate it more than I initially thought I would. There are actually lyrics in the song that state, “All I wanna do is hump with it and make you scream, and eat you up as I floss with your g-string.” It’s just the worst.

Track 13 – “Freestyle” (44:55): C-Note, Cyco, and 2-Hype are rappers that are featured in the last song on the Hard to Swallow album. I’ve never heard of them, and while they’re not the completely terrible, they’re not very memorable. This song isn’t very alternative like the other songs on the album. It’s a trip back to Vanilla Ice’s weird gangster rap stage that occurred after “Ice Ice Baby” and before Hard to Swallow, best captured by the video to “Roll Em Up.”

All in all, Hard to Swallow isn’t really a terrible album. There are some crappy songs, but there are also a couple of gems. I will be adding “Stompin’ In the Bayou,” “Fuck Me,” “Zig Zag Stories,” “A.D.D.,” and “Too Cold” to my music collection very soon.

For more on June’s Movie of the Month, the Vanilla Ice vehicle Cool as Ice, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this episode of the We Love to Watch podcast that covers similar themes of artful commercialism, and our look at how it functions as a remake of the Marlon Brando classic The Wild One (1953).

-Britnee Lombas