Reviews From South By Southwest 2021

by on March 23, 2021

"Swan Song"

First-time documentary filmmaking siblings Chelsi and Gabriel de Cuba deserve huge props for not giving the freak show treatment to the subject of their short film “Plant Heist.”  Admittedly, their film concerns a bizarre crime.  Yet the de Cubas show the serious implications of this theft while avoiding full-on thunder and brimstone preaching.

Stealing succulents from California state lands may sound to the average viewer like a crime of little consequence.  After all, local native succulents are commonly found along the California coast.  But as Dan Gluenkamp Ph.D. of the California Native Plant Society explains in the film, of the 40 different dudleya farinosa species in California ⅔ of those species are incredibly rare and are found in only one or two places.  It is these rare plants originally intended for everyone to enjoy that have been targeted by poachers.  One South Korean black market website lists prices for these poached plants as anywhere from $50 for a single rosette to $700 for a larger plant.

Hearing about the lengths poachers will go to steal rare dudleya farinosa feels utterly mind-boggling.   One poaching team was willing to rappel down the side of a 45-degree cliff at night to steal these succulents off the cliff face.  Particularly cheeky poachers use the U.S. Postal Service to send hundreds if not thousands of these stolen plants overseas.

What has proven an effective deterrent to further poaching of rare dudleya farinosa has been a combination of factors.  The penalties for stealing these succulents have been increased to include jail time.  The California Department Of Fish And Wildlife has gotten more aggressive in prosecuting such poaching.  And ordinary Californians, perhaps shocked by the Orange Skull showing just how aggressively he could sell off America’s natural resources to greedheads,  have become more sensitive to the fragility of the state’s wilds.  In one wonderfully heartening anecdote, ordinary Monterey resident Jade Davis encountered a couple of blatant succulent thieves.  Her tip to Fish And Wildlife led to the recovery of over 500 stolen succulents and a phone filled with text messages to black market buyers.

“Plant Heist” is supportive of people who grow their decorative houseplants from seeds or obtain them legitimately through a nursery.  But the de Cubas present a very good reason for not being sympathetic to those impatient enough to feel a black market shortcut is worth obtaining a large and beautiful dudleya farinosa.  The filmmakers ask how much environmental damage results from poaching rare succulents?

The frightening answer is scientists don’t know the full extent of the damage.  Some of the consequences are unfortunately obvious.  The large succulents that have been stolen will take 50-100 years to grow back, if ever.  In a twisted version of nature abhorring a vacuum, the space formerly occupied by a now-stolen California succulent gets usurped by an invasive non-native plant.  The nectar and pollen the stolen succulent would have produced is no longer available to attract honeybees and other pollinators to the area.  Professor Stephen Mc Cabe of the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum sums things up with a chilling note that it’s not known just how far up the natural food chain a rare succulent theft will ripple.

The sense of dread over the unknown consequences of short-sighted human avarice on the world of plants is worsened by an ending title card.  Even if dudleya farinosa thefts are discounted, 365 different rare plant species that have been stolen from the wild are still being openly sold.

***

Kristian Mercado’s dazzling and sometimes hallucinogenic animated short “Nuevo Rico” generously delivers plenty of visual slaps upside the heads to Americano simpletons who culturally patronize the U.S. territory.  Mercado’s short thrums with a strong reggaeton pulse and boasts a vibrant visual palette thanks to its mix of cel and 3-D animation.

Latinx futurism may unfortunately still be a rarity in American popular culture.  Consider “Nuevo Rico” a bright and colorful cinematic calling card of the genre’s possibilities.

The short film’s title happens to be the re-dubbed name of what would otherwise be known as 2068 A.D. Puerto Rico.  It’s a highly stratified world where the neon-lit skyscrapers that dominate the island and the streets teen twin siblings Barbie and Vico inhabit might as well be on two separate planets.

Reggaeton is in the twin siblings’ blood.  Yet Barbie and Vico’s uploaded reggaeton songs have drawn zero attention.  That situation changes after the duo are forced to flee into the jungle to escape highly unamused cops.  (Those critics in blue didn’t appreciate the siblings’ graffitied alterations to a prominent billboard.)  In the jungle, brother and sister accidentally stumble onto a meeting between the old Taino gods and the Yoruba trickster/messenger god Eshu.  The Taino gods are entrusting Eshu with a special contract which will make its owner a new reggaeton star.  This musical genre, it turns out, can channel the voice of the gods.  Thanks to the messenger god’s “carelessness,” Barbie and Vico run off with the contract and achieve reggaeton fame and fortune.  But stealing from the gods eventually requires a repayment…in blood.

Mercado’s short admittedly uses the familiar trope of fame and fortune being ultimately empty prizes.  But the director distinguishes himself by showing the answer to the next question: if fame and fortune are ultimately meaningless, why does capitalistic culture still aggressively extol them?  In the case of Barbie and Vico, fame and fortune for them offers illusory power and freedom on one hand while severing the relationship between them and their patria (homeland) with the other.  Barbie and Vico’s stardom takes them away from Puerto Rico to Miami.  But Barbie no longer hears the gods while Vico’s vices get encouraged to disastrous effect.  Unsurprisingly, the music Barbie and Vico once used to express their souls is now just another commodity like a toilet paper roll.

If the story’s mechanics possess an air of familiarity, the music and visuals provide “Nuevo Rico”’s beating heart.  The Josh Madoff-produced songs throb with energy and freedom.  The unique look of the short’s animation comes from combining the work of several different studios from around the world.  For example, Colombia’s Tunja York studio handled the main and background animation while Vietnam’s Fustic studio handled both 3-D design and animation.  The resulting visual blend of animation styles suggests the siblings aren’t truly part of either the world of Nuevo Rico or the Taino gods’ world.  The sharp angularity of Nuevo Rico’s buildings and cops contrast with the round and gentle angles used to depict the siblings.  On the other hand, the Taino gods are rendered as masks possessing visual depth and richness while Barbie and Vico appear to be simple flat drawings by comparison.

“Nuevo Rico” delivers the thrill of being introduced to a new wellspring of cultural creativity.  Here’s hoping the price of attracting outsiders’ attention will not be as dire as that paid by Barbie and Vico.

***

One of this writer’s cinematic rules of thumb holds that a film’s hipness factor at least triples if actor Udo Kier gets more than a cameo appearance.  In the case of Todd Stephens’ semi-melancholy comedy “Swan Song,” Kier’s handling of the lead role bumps the film’s hipness factor up to 10.  Whether Kier delivers a wonderfully scathing quip or wears a spectacularly unique headdress, his character proves a devastating blend of fabulousness and personal faults.

As an opening title indicates and an ending title card reinforces, Kier’s Patrick “Mr. Pat” Pitsenbarger was an actual Ohio queer icon.  In the small town of Sandusky, he was a hairdresser to the local elite as well as a popular local queer performer.

But as “Swan Song” shows early on, Mr. Pat is now only a step or two away from being a zombie extra for “The Walking Dead.”  The nursing home he’s stuck in has mind-numbingly boring fellow residents.  Neatly folding paper napkins liberated from the cafeteria offers only a way of passing the time.  His only pleasures now are artistically re-arranging the still luxurious hair of a mute wheelchair-bound woman and smoking his More cigarillos.  Patrick’s continuing to smoke despite surviving a stroke suggests a lack of concern over the point of living further.

What pushes the former hairdresser out of his emotional doldrums is the indirect intrusion of  Rita Parker-Sloan (Linda Evans).  The wealthy woman and demanding former client of Patrick’s has just died.  A request in her will asks Pitsenbarger to make up her hair for the funeral ceremony.  The former hairdresser eventually sort of commits to doing it despite some long-standing bad blood between Patrick and Rita.  A promise of $25,000 for his services does help spur Pitsenbarger to leave the nursing home.  However, Patrick’s quest to gather the supplies needed for the job might be undermined by both his self-doubt regarding his retained skills and old resentments regarding the death of his lover David.

Yes, the film’s plot is that indie filmmaking standard, “the quest that allows the protagonist to make peace with his past and recover his mojo.”  However, familiarity is not necessarily the same thing as blandness.  As Stephens shows, despite being set in and around the small town of Sandusky, Ohio (yes, that’s a real town), “Swan Song”’s story is ultimately bigger than just Mr. Pat’s quest to complete what may be his last hairstyling job.

“Swan Song” delivers a gentle farewell to the world Pitsenbarger represented.  Gay bars such as the film’s Universal Fruit And Nut Company may have served as both essential social gathering places and pickup spots.  But as Mr. Pat’s old buddy Eunice remarks, hanging out in gay bars also made him an alcoholic.  Living in the moment may have been forced by the times, but it also created a blind spot of not thinking about planning for the future.  Patrick’s “knowing his place” relationship with Rita didn’t prepare him for dealing with her personal betrayal over David.  Seeing a pair of openly gay dads is something the former hairdresser could never have conceived of back in the day.

Mr. Pat’s interactions with younger gay men offer a mix of both “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and Despair!” irony and a tender thank you.  Jonah Blechman’s hairdresser’s assistant Tristan gives the former Liberace of Sandusky the “who you” treatment.  Universal Fruit And Nut bartender Gabriel treats his work as just a job and not a connection to local queer cultural history.  But it’s Patrick’s conversations with Rita’s grandson Dustin (Michael Urie) that ultimately show the older man how he did manage to leave something positive behind.

Stephens’ treatment of Mr. Pat pulls the viewer into not unquestionably accepting his victim worldview.  His confrontation with his former assistant Dee Dee (Jennifer Coolidge) brings up the possibility that the former hairdresser’s business losses were partially self-inflicted.  Tristan’s raised eyebrow hints that Pitsenbarger might be mistaken about having a paid hairdressing job.  Several important conversations Patrick has in the film turn out to have occurred only in his mind.  It’s a tribute to Kier’s acting skill that even as his character’s mental facilities start becoming more unreliable, the emotions he expresses still feel honest and true.

The amount of verbiage expended on Kier’s performance may create the false impression that the actor dominates the screen at the expense of his fellow actors.  But the truth of the matter is that such character actors as Coolidge, Evans, and Urie hold their own and even  bring out aspects of Mr. Pat’s personality and the truths about his character.  Blechman, sadly, doesn’t get a truly good moment to shine.

Some of the music cuts, on the other hand, do wind up providing shining moments in “Swan Song.”  The disco music heard in the film goes from symbolizing Mr. Pat’s barely beating heart to the joyful defiance of one last raucous party night.  Even Melissa Manchester’s “Don’t Cry Out Loud” gets its proud spirit liberated from its moments of bathos.

What will ultimately stay with the viewer besides Kier’s performance are some of its images.  The hair makeovers, even on a water-damaged wig, are breathtaking.  Mr. Pat’s ride on a motorized wheelchair creates a hilarious Sandusky version of San Francisco’s Critical Mass.

But the best visual moment comes about halfway through the film.  For the first half of the film, Patrick mostly looks drab and unimpressive.  The nursing home clothes he wears has food stains set into its fabric.  But thanks to the kindness of a customer who visited Mr. Pat’s salon only once, he emerges onto the Sandusky streets stylishly reborn.

(“Nuevo Rico” won a SXSW Jury Award for Best Animated Short.

(“Swan Song” has been acquired for commercial distribution by Magnolia Pictures.)

Filed under: Arts & Entertainment

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