Touki Bouki (The Journey of the Hyena, 1973)

Although it’s been an annual occurrence on the local calendar for the last fifteen years, 2019 was the first year I attended PATOIS: The New Orleans International Human Rights Film Festival. I only caught four screenings over two days at the fest, but it was a rewarding, energizing mix of political activism, queer community organizing, and avant-garde art that’s left a major impact on how I’ve been thinking about the purpose & boundaries of cinema in the weeks since. A lot of that political stimulation & intellectual contextualization stemmed from the activists tabling in the lobby, the panelists who hosted post-screening Q&As, and the organizers’ own pre-screening acknowledgements to the Indigenous Peoples whose land the festival, and by extension modern New Orleans, occupies. Of course, it was also largely due to the proper cinematic experience afforded to the often-underserved figures represented in the films themselves – funk pioneer Betty Davis, trans activist Marsha P. Washington, the anonymous women of Zambian labor camps, etc. Of the few films I saw at this year’s festival, none benefited from the big-screen theatrical treatment quite as much as the 1970s Senegalese road trip movie Touki Bouki (The Journey of the Hyena in English). While not as much of an overt, explicit call-to-arms in its politics as other activist selections at the fest, Touki Bouki was the screening that most benefited from the sensory immersion of the theatrical experience. If I had seen Toki Bouki at home, I would have assumed that I missed something that explained the disoriented, illogical patterns of its storytelling in a moment when my attention wandered. Seeing it undistracted at PATOIS, I was still super confused & disoriented by its disinterest in A-B logic, but pleasantly so.

To call Touki Bouki a “road trip movie” is more a nod to the listless, episodic nature of its storytelling than it is reflective of its characters’ trajectory. Mory, an ox-herder, and Anta, a politically active college student, scheme throughout the film on how to grift enough money to fund an escape to Paris. It’s a mission that requires them to travel all over Senegal to attack their lack of funds from multiple angles (mainly petty theft). Josephine Baker’s romantic chorus of “Paris, Paris, Paris” serves as a rallying cry in this escapist mission, just one of the many notes of repetition that defines the cyclical rut the characters are stuck in. The most confounding of these cycles is the repeated fracturing of its timelines. Cross-cut with absolutely horrific footage of oxen being led to slaughter in a real-life abattoir, we repeatedly see Mory meet a deadly end before he can manufacture his Parisian escape. The nature of his fated death varies as the film sprawls into both documentarian observation & total detached fantasy: motorcycle crash, suicide, murder, etc. Its fractured, sensory-driven narrative has a clear surrealist bent to its sensibilities, but its editing room tinkering is almost outright Cubist: dissecting the same events repeatedly from multiple angles to establish a scattered, but more accurate truth. This is the story of a romantic dreamer who is not nearly as slick as he believes himself to be and is doomed to a violent death no matter how grand or wistful his ambitions of Parisian escape become. It’s a road trip movie where the trip itself is an impossibility – not only because no roads lead from Senegal to France, but because the only ultimate destination for flames that burn this brightly is a young death. Yet, it stubbornly carries on like a carefree road trip movie anyway, having fun sightseeing, posing fashionably, and meeting outlandish characters on the journey to its grim, cyclical destination.

There’s a kind of kinship between Touki Bouki and the 1966 Senegalese labor drama Black Girl; both films adopt filmmaking sensibilities from the French New Wave only to weaponize them against their own audience. The clearest this parallel shines through is in Touki Bouki’s third act, when white French colonialists on a ship in port complain about the loyalty & dignity of Senegalese servants, entirely unaware of how abhorrent they sound. The difference is that Black Girl overtly pursues this anti-French-Intellectuals perversion of French New Wave aesthetics for its entire runtime, whereas Touki Bouki is much looser in its narrative & messaging. In that way, Black Girl would almost be the more obvious choice for PATOIS programming (and for all I know, it has been included in the festival’s past). Touki Bouki is less overtly interested in politically subverting the French New Wave and often instead borrows the psychedelic Cool of that movement’s intense cinematography & sound design to create something unique, something distinctly Senegalese. Its fractured, psychedelic road trip creates a visual language & narrative pattern entirely of its own, which has made the film itself substantial standout outside any context of a cinematic movement. Its expansive palette allows for emotional peaks as varied as passionate sex, shit jokes, elaborate fantasies of wealth, graphic documentation of animal slaughter, and broad slapstick humor. Its own iconography has persisted so conspicuously that the cowskull-adorned motorcycle that facilitates Mory & Anta’s journey was even referenced in the promotional materials for Beyoncé & Jay-Z’s recent “On the Run” tour. Maybe that’s where its political activism lies: establishing a new cinematic aesthetic that’s distinctly black, African, and cerebral. Regardless, I’m very much appreciative that it landed on the PATOIS lineup so I could see it blown up loud and in the dark, fully immersed in its Cubist fantasy realm.

-Brandon Ledet

Like Me (2018)

A neon-lit technophobic thriller profiling a teenage hedonist who posts videos of her increasingly violent, entirely preposterous crime spree on social media for likes, Like Me portends to be about the violence & voyeurism of modern online culture. Its title & basic premise promise the exact kind of genre-film fearmongering about the Evils of the Internet that I love so much in titles like Cam, Nerve, Unfriended, and #horror. That genre’s influence certainly runs throughout Robert Mockler’s microbudget debut as a constant, background hum, but the film overall is more of a character study of an ambitionless slacker who fills her days with drugs & violent pranks as a destructive form of self-amusement. The moral pitfalls & visual hallmarks of online culture are mostly an aesthetic choice used to flavor the post-Gen X road trip drama our reckless slacker protagonist stumbles through aimlessly. Given her grotesque impulses to indulge in large quantities of brightly colored junk food – both as sustenance and as bodily decoration – the film is just as much about sploshing as it is about the Internet. The command “Like me” from the title, then, is a clever indication of the midpoint where the film teeters between genres: stuck between an Internet Age crime spree thriller and a character study of a timeless teenage-loner archetype who just desperately needs attention & adoration.

The first 20min of Like Me is the exact social media-obsessed cyberthriller its surface-details promise. The film opens with our adoration-craving anti-hero filming her robbery of a late-night convenience store as if it were a 1st person shooter video game. Everything from her pixelated mask, her victim’s discomfort, and her audiences’ flippant online response to the misery being documented for their entertainment is a perfect encapsulation of the fearmongering cyberthriller that’s promised on the tin. Her subsequent stunts stray further from that theme as she often forgets to even film her crimes, which range form staging an elaborate dine & dash with a homeless man to kidnapping & shooting a pervy motel owner with a handgun. It’s in her relationship with that kidnapped perv (Larry Fessenden, looking like a mix between Jack Torrance & the Too Many Cooks creep) that Like Me begins to show its true, hideous colors. Its online-voyeurism critiques fade to the background as this unlikely, doomed pair become increasingly friendly on a go-nowhere road trip. As they hop novelty motels, share cheap drugs & morbid stories, and loosen the constraints of their captive-captor dynamic, the film becomes more about a single interpersonal connection made irl instead of thousands being made online – as irrevocably fucked up as the relationship might be.

As much as I’ve been focusing on Like Me’s various themes & character relationships here, those are admittedly the film’s most glaring weaknesses. Online commenters reducing human misery to the same entertainment value applied to movie trailer reaction videos & Funko Pops unboxings on YouTube is too thin of a critique to carry the movie on its own – both due to over-familiarity & to the broadness of its caricatures of an online audience. The closest Like Me gets to making a unique, interesting point about the evils of online culture is in casting a young female lead in a world where she’s surrounded almost exclusively by misogynist MRA types who make her feel small no matter how large her social media following becomes. It fares slightly better on that front once it becomes a kidnapping road trip drug movie, but for the most part the themes are razor thin and the quality of its actors’ performances is wildly uneven. It’s just easier to dwell on those narrative weaknesses in discussion of the film than it is to convey what makes it worth a watch: its visual experimentation. Like Me’s hyperactive editing style, neon-soaked production design, and glitchy .gif-influenced cyber-psychedelia transform what should be an entirely dismissible microbudget thriller that’s kind of about the dangers of the Internet into something genuinely worth a look. It didn’t deliver the Internet Age fearmongering I was hoping for, it stumbles a little in its search for having something to say, and the acting talent on hand is spotty, but the imagery it assaults the audience with is undeniably something – especially in its drugged-out, up-close depictions of day-glo sploshing.

-Brandon Ledet

American Honey (2016)

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three star

American Honey was a very specific kind of disappointment for me, a type of letdown I only ever seem to find in buzzed-about indie releases. For months, the critical narrative surrounding this film has been that it’s intensely divisive. Even the film’s trailer, with all of its Shia LaBeouf-with-a-rat-tail earnestness & musings on the joys of making money/getting turnt, promised a production that could elicit a strong love it or hate it reaction. I went into American Honey expecting intensity, so I was oddly disappointment when I mostly found it to be fairly okay. Normally, enjoying a movie on the whole, but not finding it to be too big of a deal would still be a totally worthwhile, even comfortable cinematic experience. With titles like American Honey, Gaspar Noe’s Love, and The Revenant, however, the expectation is to have an extreme reaction, positive or negative, and it’s kind of a bummer when they don’t deliver on the divisiveness promised by their reputations.

Part of the reason films like this are such a letdown when they’re only moderately enjoyable is that they require so much work from the audience’s end. American Honey is deliberately light on plot, yet stretches nearly three hours in length. Its squared-off aspect ratio and daydreamy tendency to get lost in traditional beauty detail like hair blowing in the wind & flowers waving off the side of the highway play more like a lengthy scroll through an Instagram account than a feature film. The movie asks you to hang out in a closed space with Shia LaBeouf for hours on end; while LaBeouf is actually serviceable at worst here, that’s still a lot to ask from some people in light of his James Franco x1000 Misunderstood Artist public persona. The film clears these potential hurdles with ease, avoiding a lot of eyeroll-worthy indie movie cheese with a decidedly laidback, candid tone. However, its overall effect of capturing the directionless drift of a never-ending road trip might not be worth the headache required to get on its wavelength. If you meet American Honey halfway to buy what it’s selling (magazines or otherwise), the best you can hope for is a warm, comfortable meandering through America’s dead spaces and a visit with the young ghosts who haunt them. It’s an enjoyable experience, but one with a hefty toll.

A van full of teenage castaways tour America selling magazine subscriptions door to door, parking lot to parking lot. Although they could not care less about the product they’re peddling, the operation is handled like a “legitimate” business. They have orientation rituals, meetings, big seller rewards, and a boss figure who stands to benefit the most from their sweat & persistence as they remain fixed in their economic standing. These are America’s throwaway kids, drifters. They hitchhike, sport dreadlocks, dumpster dive for raw chicken, self-medicate with a steady diet of bong rips & grain alcohol. In the film’s more unique moments it strives only to see the country through their eyes. Economic desperation drives them down dusty roads, through cheap motels, and hundreds of miles past the families who abandoned or abused them. In their words, they “explore America, party, a bunch of stuff. It’s cool.” In our eyes it’s not cool at all; it’s depressing. The movie attempts to construct a will-they-won’t-they romance between two of the kids (LaBeouf’s mostly-nude body being part of that bargain) and to find moments of intense physical & emotional vulnerability in its narrative tangents, but it can never fully escape its status as a delicate, laidback hangout film, with all of the underwhelming impact that distinction entails.

British director Andrea Arnold captured this downstream drift with just as loose of a battle plan as you’d expect. In her own first tour of America, she’s acting as a sort of explorer/partier herself, packing the van with real-life drifter kid non-actors, which makes for some truly effective moments of quiet devastation. Sometimes she can reach a little too far in her attempts to capture America’s spirit. Her camera’s strange fascination with the mechanical ritual of line-dancing makes for a bizarre moment of authentic detail, but we also get shots of wildflowers juxtaposed with the blood river runoffs of slaughterhouses that really test the resolve not to roll eyes & walk away. There’s a sort of sweet, childish sensuality in the physical flirtation that builds the central romance, but the entire courtship is sparked with the lovelorn pair making eyes to Rihanna singing “We fell in love in a hopeless place,” which is just about the least subtle music cue possible; and I’m saying that as someone who typically places no significant value on subtlety. When the kids are daydreaming & sing-shouting along to the same endless repetitions of songs by Kevin Gates, Juicy J, and the like, Arnold captures something convincingly true & brutally sad about these nomadic ragamuffins pursuing an eternal road trip to escape the inevitability of “real life.” When she starts peppering the scenario with loaded guns, stolen cars, and soul-shattering romance, the movie loses its footing a little and resembles something much more generic & familiar.

The overall result, then, is a mixed bag. American Honey winds up being enjoyable, but maybe not worth all of the trouble it takes to reap its smaller, more delicate benefits. Like I said, calling a film out for being merely enjoyable is a strange complaint to get hung up on, but I’m honestly jealous of the folks who had a strong reaction to it, either way that response swung. I wish I could call this film high art or low trash, but I instead find myself drifting between the two extremes, mumbling half-remembered rap lyrics to myself & hazily waiting for my next drink.

-Brandon Ledet

Crossroads (2002)

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twostar

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Shonda Rhimes is currently one of the most powerful women in television. She’s the mastermind behind programs such as Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, and Grey’s Anatomy, but before all of her fame and success, she wrote the infamously terrible film, Crossroads. After attempting to figure out how Rhimes was responsible for writing such a bad movie, I came across a quote that explains everything: “I never thought the critics were going to say Crossroads was a brilliant movie. My goal was for 12-year-olds to think it was brilliant [. . .] I became a rock star to the preteen set.” She went on to say “That movie bought my house.” It turns out that she has always been a genius. In 2002, Britney Spears was a god to teenagers around the globe and Rhimes was able to make loads of money by writing this garbage.

I was a 12-year-old Britney Spears super fan when this film came out and I annoyed every adult I knew by constantly begging them to bring me to the movie theater so I could see Crossroads. The movie trailers would play on MTV all throughout the day and I never got tired of watching them. I remember thinking that by watching this movie I would be an even better and more loyal Britney Spears fan. Come to think of it, it was like being in a preteen cult. Well, someone finally caved in and I was able to see Crossroads on the big screen. I didn’t really understand most of the movie, but that didn’t matter because I was so thrilled to see Britney Spears in something other than a music video or a Pepsi commercial. I recently revisited the film for the first time in 12 years and the experience I had was very different compared to my initial one. Everything was just so embarrassing and awkward to watch, but it was slightly enjoyable due to its nostalgia value.

Lucy (Britney Spears) has lost touch with her two childhood friends, Kit (Zoe Saldana) and Mimi (Taryne Manning). After their high school graduation, the girls dig up an old “wish box” they created as children and they’re reminded of their past wishes and friendship. They all decide to go on a road trip across the U.S. to fulfill their wishes: Mimi, who is pregnant, wants to go to California; Lucy wants to visit the mother who abandoned her in Arizona; and Kit wants to visit her flawless fiancé in Los Angeles. They hitch a ride to California with a supposed ex-con from a local trailer park, which is such a terrible idea for 3 immature teenage girls, but since this is a tween flick, he actually turns out to be a hunky good guy who doesn’t slit their throats. Their journey brings out many horrible secrets and truths, but it really makes them all closer to each other while allowing them to sort of “find themselves.” The film ends with Britney performing “I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman” and the song pretty much sums up the meaning of the film.

The most memorable scene from the film would be the “I Love Rock n’ Roll” karaoke performance. The ex-con’s car breaks down near New Orleans, and no one has the money needed to fix it. They just so happen to come across a karaoke contest with a cash prize at a bar on Bourbon Street, so the girls decide to give it a shot. They do a really awkward performance of Joan Jett’s classic hit and end up winning a good bit of cash. Even though it’s the most memorable, I think this is actually the worst scene in the entire film because it’s so embarrassing to watch. Lucy, Kit, and Mimi try their best to look “alternative” and cover themselves in glitter. Mimi nervously attempts to do the lead vocals, and the audience trys to boo them off the stage. Dave Allen has a quick cameo as a bar patron that yells “Get off the stage!” and it’s pretty damn hilarious. Of course, Lucy saves the day by taking over the lead vocals, and the entire bar starts dancing and cheering them on. I cringed the entire time because everything about their performance (especially their outfits, facial expressions, and dancing) was so horrendous.

Britney Spears is a kickass performer that I still adore to this day, but she is definitely not cut out to be an actress. She didn’t seem to be very comfortable with her role as Lucy; every gesture she made and every word out of her mouth felt forced. It’s a good thing she sticks to music videos, commercials, and the occasional guest appearance nowadays. Still, I honestly think that Crossroads is worth a watch due to its goofy nature and its nostalgia value. Thankfully, it’s currently streaming on Netflix.

-Britnee Lombas