Episode #65 of The Swampflix Podcast: Art House Herstory with CeCe V DeMenthe & Cosi (1996)

Welcome to Episode #65 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our sixty-fifth episode, Brandon & Britnee are joined by local drag performer CeCe V DeMenthe to discuss the ways the New Orleans art house & repertory cinema scene has changed since the 1970s. Britnee also makes Brandon watch the Australian opera dramedy Cosi (1996) for the first time. Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– Britnee Lombas & Brandon Ledet

Errol Morris vs Small Town Eccentrics

I struggled a lot with questions of tone & intent in Errol Morris’s landmark documentary Gates of Heaven, our current Movie of the Month. In the film, Morris documents a small-town dispute over ownership of a pet cemetery with both an emotional & editorial remove, leaving a lot of room for interpretation in how he relates to his interviewees. Given the way the quaint subject is presented in Morris’s editing room choices, it’s often tempting to read an ironic humor in his fascination with his subjects (recalling more blatantly comedic works like Christopher Guest’s Best in Show in the process). The economic hardships detailed early in the film generate genuine empathy and the rich bastards who profit off it later in the narrative likely deserve to be mocked, but there’s still something uncomfortable about a young NYC intellectual invading small town communities to have a chuckle at the local yokels. Gates of Heaven never fully tips in the direction of outright meanness & big city elitism, but I can still detect those impulses lurking in its morally compromised DNA. You don’t need to look far into Morris’s other works from that late-70s era to justify that unease, either. The filmmaker abandoned a few much more blatantly exploitative false-start projects before he completed his critically lauded debut, the scraps of one even becoming its de facto sequel.

Errol Morris would eventually enjoy a successful, prolific career as a documentarian, but his early professional years were more or less defined by false starts. Werner Herzog literally ate his own shoe because he was incredulous that the Gates of Heaven project would ever be completed. It was a fairly safe bet that it wouldn’t, as it was Morris’s third attempt at making a film to date, with nothing substantial to show for it. His first abandoned project was a documentary on notorious serial killer Ed Gein. Morris took an edgy, provocative approach to the subject, interviewing Gein himself and making plans to dig up the killer’s mother’s gave to prove suspicions that her body had already been exhumed. When Herzog showed up ready to dig up the grave, Morris chickened out and the project was never completed. The same goes for Morris’s second attempt at documentary filmmaking, a project that was initially going to be titled Nub City. Foretelling Gates of Heaven’s humorous gawking at local yokels, Nub City was meant to be an investigative piece about the curiously high number of citizens of Vernon, FL who had amputated their own limbs to collect insurance money. It’s unclear if Nub City would have lived up to its exploitative title as a total “Getta load of this freak show!” endeavor or if it would have balanced that impulse with the same empathetic & economic concerns that complicated Gates of Heaven’s potential irony. What is clear is that the impoverished insurance scammers Morris hoped to document were not fond of the scrutiny. The filmmaker was beaten up by the Marine son of one of his potential subjects, received death threats, and smartly abandoned the project.

Unlike the Ed Gein project, an untitled narrative crime thriller screenplay, and a documentary about an unscrupulous court case expert witness nicknamed Dr. Death, Morris did not abandon the Nub City project entirely. He instead pivoted by using interview footage from other, non-insurance scamming locals to scrape together an eventual sequel to Gates of Heaven titled Vernon, Florida. As an art project, Vernon, Florida is more formally daring than the already context-light pet cemetery document of Gates of Heaven. It’s a film comprised entirely of leftover scraps, something you can feel in every second of tis meandering, non-sequitur interviews with local eccentrics. On the Florida pan handle (not too far east from here, despite my viewing of the film requiring subtitles) Vernon is portrayed to be a quaint town crowded with Southern Eccentrics. Without the David vs. Goliath capitalist narrative of Gates of Heaven or any kind of narrative direction at all, these subjects’ eccentricities themselves seemed to be the crux of what’s on display. Occasionally an old man will do something adorable like show off his pet tortoise, but the residents of Vernon are mostly shown as babbling kooks who can bore any open ear for eternity with go-nowhere stories about anything: turkey-hunting, buying a van, God, suicide, the word “therefore,” why we should bring back tar & feathering, etc. Without plot or music providing this empty pontification with any momentum, Vernon, Florida is stubbornly directionless. At its best it feels like the avant-garde indulgences of Werner Herzog or Harmony Korine; at its worst it feels like the art world ancestor to The Jerry Springer Show. Either way, it confirms my suspicions that in his youth Morris approached his small-town subjects with an unhealthy dose of ironic detachment.

Morris matured greatly by the time he completed his next documentary in 1988, the pioneering true crime pic Thin Blue Line. Meanwhile, interview clips from Vernon, Florida have been consistently used to mock poor Southerners (again, sometimes with merit), most recently as commercial bumps on the Adult Swim comedy show The Heart, She Holler. It’s a film that’s nowhere near as essential as Gates of Heaven, defiantly so, but it is one that helps illustrate that landmark work’s more unseemly impulses. At least the morbid fascination with this tone echoed in comparable, narrative works like Trash Humpers & Even Dwarfs Started Small didn’t risk exploitation of real-life, economically devastated people for the sake of artistic effect, a mistake many young provocateur documentarians make, including the greats.

For more on June’s Movie of the Month, the landmark pet cemetery documentary Gates of Heaven, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this look at its resulting promotional-stunt Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, and last week’s comparison to the Christopher Guest comedy Best in Show.

-Brandon Ledet

Werner Herzog, Gates of Heaven (1978), and the Artistic Value of the Side Show Publicity Stunt

Werner Herzog’s entire public persona is a kind of performance art, the documentation of which has become increasingly crucial to his filmmaking projects in recent decades. A Werner Herzog “documentary,” no matter its subject, is just as much about the filmmaker’s own philosophical worldview as it is about the world outside his mind. This suits the audience just fine, since Herzog is what would classically be described as A Character, someone who’s naturally entertaining and whose mere presence is always a kind of performance. A succinct, early taste of this performance art can be found in the Les Blank short-doc Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, which takes Herzog’s natural presence as a one-person side show as literally as possible. Staged as a promotion for Errol Morris’s debut feature Gates of Heaven (our current Movie of the Month), Blank & Herzog collaborate to document a blatant publicity stunt in which, as the title suggests, Herzog eats his own shoe in front of a live audience to draw attention to his friend’s work. With clips from Gates of Heaven interspersing with Blank’s Always for Pleasuremode of documenting the labor of food preparation (if you can consider a leather shoe to be food), and Herzog’s signature pontification on the nature of art & humanity, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe is an essential, one-of-a-kind collaboration between three of the most prestigious voices in documentary filmmaking. That’s an absurd thing to be able to say about what’s essentially a 20min infomercial for another, more substantial work.

Herzog opens this film complaining that television & talk shows are “killing” culture. He ends it confessing that filmmakers are also cheap illusionists & clowns, that his own chosen profession is embarrassing. Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe is self-aware of its participation in the death of culture. Just as its title is a cheap provocation, the event it documents is advertised in circus-style side show posters promising the shoe-eating stunt to a potential live audience. Herzog eating his own shoe is a stupid, pointless act designed to grab public attention for better art he believed deserved it. Supposedly, Herzog first jokingly bet that Errol Morris would never have the courage to complete a feature length documentary on a subject as inconsequential as a pet cemetery business. The story goes that he said if Gates of Heaven were ever completed & screened for an audience, he would eat his own shoe. Morris does not appear onscreen to confirm the terms of the bet in Les Blank’s short, nor is it confirmed whether the shoe Herzog eats is actually the one he was wearing when he made the bet, as he claims. The entire act is performance art born of flippant humor & male bravado, staged without apology as a publicity stunt to draw attention to Gates of Heaven, which had then yet to secure theatrical distribution. Les Blank shows an interest in the preparation of the shoe as it transforms into “food,” carefully documenting the hot sauce, duck fat, garlic, and vegetable stew used to soften & flavor it. Mostly, though, he allows Herzog to ramble on like a carnival barker throughout the stunt, pontificating as much nonsense as you’d likely encounter in a television broadcast or a talk show, yet framing it as art.

The idea that Gates of Heaven’s topic was too inconsequential for a documentary feels so foreign in a 2010s context. Some of my favorite documentaries in recent memory have been on topics as miniscule as erotic tickling, trash harvesting, and a single dead dog (as opposed to cemetery full of them). It’s also arguable that critic Roger Ebert later did much better by promoting Gates of Heaven in his own way, raising its profile by often citing it as one of the greatest films ever made. Herzog’s side show publicity stunt’s own value as a work of art is in making an even smaller film than the one he promoted with it. If Gates of Heaven’s topic was too absurdly thin to justify a documentary (something I doubt Herzog ever said or believed) then Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe is an even more extreme distillation of that same kind of art. This is an advertisement & an awkwardly staged performance art piece that somehow makes for compelling filmmaking thanks to Herzog’s natural charisma & gift for shit-talking. Like Gates of Heaven, it’s proof that you can make a worthy documentary on just about anything, even a frivolous bet that may or may not actually have even been real. In 2018, it likely would only have been presented to the world as a DVD extra. In 1980, it was art.

For more on June’s Movie of the Month, the landmark pet cemetery documentary Gates of Heaven, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Wings of Fame (1990), Harmony Korine, and the Virtue of Restraint

One of the more fascinating aspects of December’s Movie of the Month, 1990’s Wings of Fame, is how delicately surreal the picture can be despite the heightened absurdity of its premise. You’d think that a movie about a fame-economy afterlife where celebrity & cultural longevity determine your post-mortem soul’s access to eternal existence would be an aggressively bizarre work, but Wings of Fame is exceedingly gentle with its own surrealist fantasy. The movie is patient with the potential absurdity of its juxtapositions of dead famous people converging in a shared afterlife, finding much more interest in poking at the existential & philosophical implications of how that fantasy realm would work. To contrast that restraint with a more aggressively bizarre version of a similar work, you’d have to look to one of the most unrestrained button-pushers working in modern cinema: habitual provocateur Harmony Korine. As a filmmaker, Korine’s grimy, crassly misshapen aesthetic is downright antithetical to the refined elegance of Wings of Fame, which calls on respectably mannered performances from actors Peter O’Toole & Colin Firth to establish its tone. That’s what makes him such an excellent point of comparison, even if an unlikely one.

Sandwiched between the unrelenting oddities Julien Donkey-Boy & Trash Humpers, it should be no surprise that Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely is an uncompromising, aggressively surreal work. Considered in the larger context of the director’s career, however, it’s much more akin to his more strictly narrative works Gummo & Spring Breakers than those looser, less accommodating titles. Diego Luna stars in Mister Lonely as a Michael Jackson impersonator struggling to make a living as a street performer in Paris. His life changes dramatically when he’s recruited by a Marilyn Monroe lookalike (Samantha Morton) to live in a Scottish commune with other celebrity impersonators. Michael Jackson did not die until a year after Mister Lonely went into wide distribution in 2008. The film also features impersonators of the still-alive Madonna and the deceased-since-2014 Shirley Temple. Still, it explores similar themes to the fame economy afterlife in Wings of Fame. In an early scene before he’s recruited for the commune, “Michael Jackson” shouts to patients he’s entertaining at an old folks home, “We can all live forever! We can all be children forever! Don’t die! Live forever!” between his iconic dance moves. The immortality he’s promoting in that speech is something he achieves in his own life through adopting Michael Jackson’s celebrity, just like the fame-envious consumers in The Congress. When Jackson boats to the Scottish castle commune with Monroe, it’s like he’s crossing over into a surrealist afterlife (much like the foggy rivers Styx access to the afterlife in Wings of Fame) where famous people like Charlie Chaplin, James Dean, Abraham Lincoln, Sammie Davis Jr., Buckwheat, and Little Red Riding Hood can cohabitate, seemingly removed from the reality of space, Death, and time.

An odd commonality shared between Wings of Fame & Mister Lonely is that they both structure their famous fantasy realms with a remove that restrains the full potential of their absurdist premises. Besides a few recognizable names line Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, and Lassie, Wings of Fame mostly fills its celebrity ranks with non-existent historical figures. Instead of a specific Russian political poet or psychedelic rocker, the movie substitutes an archetype placeholder. This may limit the potential absurdity of seeing famous dead people from across time share a single space, but it does leave more room for philosophical discussion of their fantastic plight instead of dwelling in the details of their individual personalities. Similarly, Mister Lonely uses the remove of gathering celebrity lookalikes instead of actual celebrities in its own fantasy realm. The image of Michael Jackson & Charlie Chaplin playing ping-pong together is absurd, but not nearly as absurd as it could be if those players were the real deal, not lookalikes. Korine’s remove through impersonators might be the one area where his film displays restraint exercised in the much more delicate Wings of Fame. It’s a choice that opens the film to the same fame-as-immortality themes as its counterpoint, although their approaches to the subject are drastically different.

It’s strange to cite any given element in a Harmony Korine film as an example of artistic restraint, since so much of his work is associated with aggressive looseness & crass self-indulgence. Indeed, the only limiting choice made in Mister Lonely is in structuring the film around dead celebrity impersonators instead of actual dead celebrities. Everything else is a free-for-all, completely detached from the subtle tone of Wings of Fame. “Abraham Lincoln” spins a basketball under a strobe light while cursing like a sailor. “Michael Jackson” tenderly says goodbye to individual pieces of his furniture in his rented room with deep sincerity before departing to his new communal home. Celebrity faces appear in clouds & painted eggs to sing to Michael and address his internal conflicts. An entire subplot unfolds, separate from the concerns of celebrity lookalikes, where Werner Herzog plays a priest who wrangles a mission of nuns who resemble The Virgin Mary; together they develop a skydiving cult that requires them to regularly leap from airplanes without parachutes. In typical Harmony Korine fashion, this all sounds very chaotic, but somehow amounts to a slow-moving, unrushed feature that’s just as willing to abandon its audience in its pacing as it is playful with its subject. It’s a challenging watch, but one that rewards in individual, absurdist moments.

The difference in the relative restraint exercised in Wings of Fame & Mister Lonely, respectively, could not be clearer. At the conclusion of the much less bombastic Wings of Fame, the audience is left with so much to ponder about what the film is trying to say about the real life implications of its fame-as-immortality premise. Mister Lonely, by contrast, exhausts its audience with an overload of frivolous (though often fascinating) indulgences, leaving very little room for spiritual or philosophical thought to linger among the flashier details. Wings of Fame can feel frustratingly incomplete & reluctant to fully push the absurdity of its fame-economy afterlife premise, but Korine’s counterpoint suggests that’s not entirely a bad thing. Its quiet, restrained surrealism leaves room for a much more extensive philosophical provocation & thought exercise. Korine’s aggressive exhaustion of his own subject leaves so much less ground to be explored in his viewer’s minds after the credits rolled, having laid all of his cards out on the table. Both films are entertainingly absurd in their own surprising ways, but patience & restraint affords one of them cinematic immortality their characters could only achieve through celebrity.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the delicately surreal afterlife puzzler Wings of Fame, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #41 of The Swampflix Podcast: NosferaToo & A Dark Song (2017)

Welcome to Episode #41 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our forty-first episode, we explore the enduring impact of the silent horror vampire classic Nosferatu (1922). James & Brandon discuss the original Nosferatu, its Herzog-directed remake, and two Hollywood productions that directly pull influence from its legacy.  Also, James makes Brandon watch the occultist indie horror A Darky Song (2017) for the first time. Enjoy!

-James Cohn & Brandon Ledet

Into the Inferno (2016)

EPSON MFP image

fourhalfstar

When I heard that there were going to be two Herzog documentaries released this year, I was pumped. I knew one was going to be about the internet. You may remember my review about that and enthusiasm. Then I found out that the second one was about volcanoes, which, if you can think of the internet as very in our control and of our creation, volcanoes are a destructive force of nature, out of our hands, and very capable of shutting down mankind’s creations.

Lo and Behold was very theoretical, nebulous, and introspective for a movie about how the internet has connected us all and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Volcanoes, while not 100% predictable or understood, are still well studied and more predictable than the future of technology (look at any science fiction novel that tried to predict what the year 2000 was going to be like). The great irony is that Lo and Behold had an actual theatrical release, whereas Into the Inferno was distributed by Netflix, a service that is almost entirely streaming over the internet at this point.

For Into the Inferno, Herzog teamed up with vulcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, whom had he met on the set of Encounters at the End of the World. They made a good team. Oppenheimer is a lovable volcano nerd whose exuberance and enthusiasm make the technical descriptions engaging. Herzog is himself, which is to say that he’s very interested in the small, very human details. Every documentary he helms ends up being just as much an anthropological work as it is art. Together they vowed to explore aspects of how volcanoes effected human culture, no matter how weird it gets. The result is a portrait of how nature has helped build and destroy humanity from the very beginning. And it also gets very weird, as they explore volcano based cults, North Korean mythology, and sift for early hominid bones with paleo-anthropologists in the Awash Valley, Ethiopia.

This is also one of the most beautiful movies of this year. It is just full of astonishing shots of rolling mountains. There are amazing scenes of visible magma inside calderas, just popping and bubbling up. The only sounds are the dangerous grumbles and the splatters. It’s as inside the inferno as many of us will ever get, which is really, truly amazing. When the camera isn’t on the volcanoes, there’s incredible footage of unique cultural practices, dances, and villages.

Into the Inferno is vast and beautiful. We are blessed to live a year with two feature length Herzog documentaries. This is a nature documentary but more so a cultural one. It covers so many parts of the world in a way that many of us will never get to experience and we shouldn’t, lest we destroy them.

-Alli Hobbs

Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World (2016)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

I love the Internet. I spend a lot of time here. I’m also a huge sci-fi nerd. I love looking towards the future, thinking about highly intelligent A.I., and I’m not afraid of the great robot uprising. On top of all of that, I’m a big Herzog fan. Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World kind of seems like it was tailored specifically for me. All that considered, though, it’s ambitious subject matter to tackle. How would anyone make a film about the Internet and how it’s affected our society? Herzog’s solution to that problem is to separate it into vignettes.

The first vignette is about the very beginning at UCLA’s campus. Very early on we get Herzog’s dry sense of humor as he remarks about how hideous the corridors are in the building that houses the start of this massive cultural and technological revolution. Then, we get the basic good and bad sides of the Internet, learning about the widely released EteRNA game which helps researchers learn about new RNA molecules and also meeting a family who’s faced very real harm after a privacy invasion. As the film progresses, however, the ideas and themes sort of spiral out of control in a way that mirrors what the Internet has done.  At some points, the spiral seems less intentional than at others and often times it’s unsure whether or not Herzog — who admittedly didn’t even make his first phone call until age 17 and still doesn’t have a cell phone — really understands the information being passed to him.

The real strength of any Herzog documentary is in the interview subjects. He has a strength in finding the most interesting people to talk to. He also handles each subject with such neutral respect. Whether it’s talking to Elon Musk or students trying to program soccer robots in the attempt to beat the World Cup champions or people in technology rehab, he’s never combative and respects their boundaries.

One thing I really appreciated about this documentary was all the technology-positive viewpoints. So often in our age of smart phone and augmented reality games people are extremely and unfoundedly critical. It was truly refreshing to hear people say positively that the Internet has been a great equalizer and that the conveniences brought on by robots and self-driving cars will be helpful. Yes, Herzog still interviews people who think the Internet is the embodiment of the antichrist and others who believe that wireless radiation is ruining their lives and causing chronic pain, but they are in the minority. Everyone else looks towards the future inquisitively and optimistically.

Lo and Behold is sprawling and out of control and at some points it feels like Herzog was in over his head like someone’s misguided documentarian great uncle. There’s history to speculation, best case scenarios, and worries about an impending apocalypse included here. The film is out of control in the way the Internet has become.

-Alli Hobbs

Jack Reacher (2012)

jack reacher

three star

campstamp

Imagine a world without Scientology, a world without Katie Holmes, a world without Oprah’s couch. In this alternate universe Tom Cruise’s decade-old public meltdown never happened. Cruise is still top gun in all of our hearts. Every film he stars in is a major success. Beautiful women throw themselves at his feet. He merely needs to show up & wink at the camera to win us all over and collect his giant paycheck.

This isn’t a world we get to live in all the time, but we are allowed to visit. For instance, last year’s surprisingly entertaining Edge of Tomorrow saw Tom Cruise in full movie star mode, smooching ladies & killing space aliens in a violent version of Groundhog Day. Even Edge of Tomorrow is a little too eccentric to recall vintage Tom Cruise, though. If you’re looking for purely smug, top-of-the-world, Days of Thunder Cruise you have to go back to 2012’s Jack Reacher.

Jack Reacher is a straight-forward Tom Cruise vehicle. It’s not stylish. It’s not cool. It doesn’t pretend to be anything more than it is: a loud & dumb action movie. Think less The Guest and more Face/Off or Road House. Cruise, who of course plays the titular Jack Reacher, is so deliciously full of his smugly sexy self here. He drives maniacally, flirts with co-star Rosamund Pike like she owes him something, has the problem solving skills & inherent knowledge of an omnipotent god, and delivers smartass one-liners before every inevitable kill (those one-liners take a nastily sexist left turn in a particularly anachronistic bar fight scene). If you have any affection or nostalgia for Cruise before Oprah’s couch outed him as a total weirdo, Jack Reacher is a sight for sore eyes.

Bonus Points: All of this Tom Cruise talk is truly burying the lede. The real Jack Reacher story is that auteur director Werner Herzog plays the movie’s villain. Herzog’s role is minimized in the film the same way it’s minimized in this review. He doesn’t appear onscreen until nearly an hour in and delivers maybe one or two speeches, but the potency even a couple lines from Evil Herzog is something to be cherished. If you have no affection for vintage Cruise (or loud, dumb action movies in general) you owe it to yourself to at least watch Evil Werner Herzog perform here in the film’s best two minutes.

Brandon Ledet

Jack Reacher is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.