Episode #71 of The Swampflix Podcast: #NOFF2018

Welcome to Episode #71 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our seventy-first episode, Brandon and CC review the overwhelming list of oddball films they caught at this year’s New Orleans Film Fest: shorts, documentaries, and narrative features. Enjoy!

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– CC Chapman & Brandon Ledet

#NOFF2018 Ranked & Reviewed

Here we are almost a full month since the 29th annual New Orleans Film Festival has concluded and I’m finally gathering all of titles I caught at the fest in one spot. CC & I will be recording a more fleshed-out recap of our festival experience on a near-future episode of the podcast (Episode 71, due early December) – in case you’re interested in hearing about the goings-on at the handful of downtown theaters where the festival was held, the various short films that preceded some of those screenings, and the reasons why we suspect Vox Lux is going to be the mother! of 2018. This list is a more bare-bones kind of recap: a ranking from the best to the . . . least best of the features we managed to catch at this year’s festival. Each title includes a link to a corresponding review. Enjoy!

1. Vox LuxLike 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.”

2. Pig Film “The degradation of the picture quality (as it was shot entirely on expired, second-hand film stock) combines with the grimy art-instillation surreality of its pig farm setting to establish an overriding sense of isolation & rot that feels more emotional & subliminal than overtly political. Human or not, our sole on-screen character is the last shred of humanity left stalking the mess of a planet we’ll soon leave behind, emptily mimicking the records of our behavior she finds in our rubble and converting that industrial garbage into beautiful song. It’s a gorgeous, grimy nightmare – a sinister poem.”

3. Chained for Life “At times eerie, howlingly funny, cruel, sweet, and disorienting, Chained for Life mines a lot of rich cinematic material out if its initial conceit of discussing Hollywood’s historic tradition of exploiting disabled & disfigured performers for gross-out scares & sideshow exploitation. Freaks isn’t the movie’s target so much as its jumping point, so that Browning’s self-contradictory act of empathetic exploitation is demonstrative of how disabled & disfigured people are represented onscreen at large.”

4. The Gospel of Eureka “The documentary finds its most satisfying groove in cutting back & forth between performances of the Gospel drag show & the Passion Play as they separately cycle through their respective routines. Performers on both sides apply their own make-up, lip-sync to pre-recorded soundtracks, and exaggerate their religious narratives to the point of over-the-top caricature – practically in unison thanks to editing room cross-cutting. More so than a shared passion for Biblical scholarship, they share a weakness for over-the-top pageantry; the only difference is that the drag end of the divide is self-aware of that commitment to camp & caricature, whereas the other end believes they’re merely being devout.”

5. United Skates “A documentary ‘about’ black skating rink culture that’s actually about how all pockets of black culture are policed & legislated out of existence in small, cumulative increments.”

6. Cane River (1982) – “Effectively a Romeo & Juliet love story without all that pesky tragedy & bloodshed getting it the way of its humor & romantic melodrama, Cane River is just as much of an escapist fantasy as it is a political screed & a historical document. The small-stakes love story at its center is so playfully sweet that it’s easy to frequently forget that it’s all in service of illustrating a culture clash within a geographically specific black community – one with implications of class & skin-tone discrimination with much larger cultural significance.”

7. Jules of Light and Dark“Dual coming of age stories— one for a smart kid in their early 20s and one for an overgrown man-child in their early 50s— are allowed to remain largely separate throughout Jules of Light and Dark, but they converge early when the fallout from ‘the last rave of the year’ leaves several characters in need of intensive post-trauma physical therapy. Estranged from their families because of their sexuality, our two disparate protagonists find unlikely kinship & emotional support in each other; their parallel tales of recovery are both quietly transformative, although never grand nor overachieving.”

8. Empty MetalEmpty Metal‘s greatest strength is in its direct, assertive call for violent uprising against vile real-life public figures. It’s a shame some of that direct, assertive messaging is lost in such a messy, loosely edited-together sci-fi narrative that just can’t muster up the enthusiastic momentum needed to match the energy of its politics.”

9. Nailed It “As fascinating, succinct, and stylish as Nailed It can be, the film never really transcends its limited means to become something especially great. It’s the kind of moderately successful documentary that gets by on the interest of its subject, when it has the promise to be so much more.”

10. This One’s for the Ladies . . . “As compelling (and visually interesting) as its subject matter can be, it’s undeniable that This One’s for the Ladies hits a wall somewhere in its brief 80min runtime. The pro wrestling & ball culture-style pageantry of the dance events never gets tiring, and the times the film documents the prurient pleasures therein it’s a hoot. Where it struggles to maintain that excitement is in the behind the scenes interviews with participants, which stray from discussing the dance event circuit to touch on issues of racial & economic inequality the film makes no point to explore in a distinct or substantive way.”

-Brandon Ledet

United Skates (2018)

There’s a threshold a lot of niche-subject, microbudget documentaries struggle to cross: maintaining audience interest after the initial appeal of their subject fades. United Skates has a lot to live up to in that respect, as the initial rush of its documentation of black skating rink culture is so fun & visually stunning that it seems nearly impossible to sustain that energy. In the early days of hip-hop it was difficult for acts to book legitimate venues outside of house & block parties, and the open-floor venues of skating rinks were some of the first spaces to fulfill that need (as you can see depicted in narrative biopic films like Straight Outta Compton, White Boy Rick, and CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story). Skating rink hip-hop culture evolved from there to flourish on a national level, with regional scenes in cities like Chicago, L.A., and Miami developing their own unique skating styles & soundtracks. United Skates documents this culture in decline, with many of the most significant venues in the culture closing their doors forever, long after performers like N.W.A., Naughty by Nature, and Salt & Peppa had moved on to other venues (and eventually faded away in their own right). United Skates finds plenty of distinct visual fodder in documenting the fashions & skating styles of each participating region, but where it really develops into something special is documenting the means & methods of those closures.

United Skates is a documentary “about” black skating rink culture that’s actually about how all pockets of black culture are policed & legislated out of existence in small, cumulative increments. This is a subculture that was only forged in the first place because rinks would unofficially segregate their weekly schedule by signaling a “black night,” promoting events like Soul Night, Martin Luther King Jr. Night, and Adult Night. The “Adult Night” designation in particular unified black skating rink culture with a clear signifier that created the very culture white rink owners were attempting to discourage from developing. Two decades later, Adult Night parties are being policed out of existence in both small-scale rules applications and systemic city-level legislation. On a rink-to-rink level, cops are hired to provide “security” (read: intimidation) at Adult Night events that rinks don’t bother to enforce otherwise. Custom skates (along with more universally discriminated clothing markers like “saggy” pants) are outlawed from rinks as a private policy to discourage black patronage. On a city level, skating rinks are zoned out of existence to supposedly make way for condos & corporate retailers, only to rot in vacant lots, unused & blighted. United Skates’s titular subject is incredibly niche in its specificity, but the way it’s documented here has much larger, systemic implications on how black culture is legislated into oblivion.

Watching Adult Night skaters from all over the country show off their particular performance styles and custom skating gear as the cinematographer glides in the rinks beside them is incredibly endearing, but it’s a pleasure that can only carry the film so far. Where United Skates excels is in framing that Adult Night partying as an act of political resistance. Black-owned skating rinks, national Adult Night travelers, and decades-running “rink rats” are demonstrated to be direct political resistors to a system that would like nothing more than for them to just give up & fade away. The flashy hip-hop parties that gave birth to this culture are long gone, but continuing its existence is explained to be far more than empty, stubborn nostalgia. It’s a refusal to give into micro & macro policing of a culture that’s being pushed out only because of the racial demographics of the community behind it. It’s that larger political importance that makes United Skates much more rewarding & substantial than you might initially expect, given the scale of tis budget (perhaps explaining its Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature at this year’s New Orleans Film Festival).

-Brandon Ledet