Reading through the synopses of Fantasia’s sprawling and incredible lineup, one stood out to me as particularly indecipherable — and oddly alluring as a result.
“Conceived by their parents in the back seat of a Chevy at the local drive-in, bottle-fed with images of exploitation cinema, monsters, and fears, they are now fighting against social norms and a “life of feudalistic servitude”. TEXAS TRIP — A CARNIVAL OF GHOSTS, directorial duo Maxime Lachaud and Steve Balestreri’s beguiling debut feature documentary, is a portrait of Attic Ted, Virginia Black, Mother Fakhir, and more — artists making strange sounds, experimenting to the extreme with abstract ideas through the materiality of their own flesh.”
The film’s bizarre and nearly wordless opening is an amazingly cool segment, but does nothing to allay any of this confusion. A chaotic stream of exploitation and B-movie clips gives way to current imagery of modern drive-ins, forlorn and empty, threatened by encroaching suburbia and weird masked figures, set to ominous music. This strange and exhilarating non-sequitur culminates in a recording of Joe Bob Briggs’ recitation of the “Drive-in Oath”, followed by a live drum solo, before the title card drops.
It’s a really fascinating intro, but at this point, we’re ten minutes in and still have no idea what we’re watching (actually if anything, we have the wrong idea) .
The film finally does introduce some narration to clue us in — it’s not a documentary about drive-ins or exploitation cinema, but rather a look at group of avante garde artists in Texas, primarily as musicians but also artists involved with mask-making, photography, filmmaking, visual arts, and on the more extreme side, body mutilation.
There’s an attempt to tie these artists as film devotees to the world of drive-in culture and exploitation cinema that we see in the intro, but it’s not really bridged, in part because nothing in the film is explained or qualified; it’s just sort of hung out there.
There’s some pretty neat artistry on display, and some of the music is really intriguing, but the filmmakers’ framing of these artists is so hands-off and explanation-free, simply training cameras on the subjects and relying entirely on their own dialogue or narration to provide any semblance of a narrative, that it’s all rather confusing and frustrating. The film’s synopsis above rattles off a list of artists’ names, but even having watched the film, those names don’t mean anything to me, as they are are barely (if ever) actually directly mentioned. We’re just dropped into the room with them with little to no context.
The first artist we meet is Mother Fakir, an artist whose musical genre might be called electronic-noise, and whose live performances include jabbing hooks and needles through his face and neck.
I enjoyed the music of Attic Ted, the band arguably most prominently featured in the film, and they have a great sound that’s difficult to classify — electronic klezmer folk-industrial? It’s legitimately good and unique stuff. A particularly memorable live performance has a surreal vibe as the band plays to an intimate crowd, many wearing bizarre masks in the fashion of the band.
I would’ve probably enjoyed the film more as a straightforward “band doc”, than this frustrating fly-on-the-wall anti-narrative. Simply introducing each of the artists profiled, or putting their name on the screen (I had to Google all these names in order to actually place them), would’ve allayed 90% of the frustration I felt while watching this.
Good news, though, you now have that context. So if you’re intrigued by the film’s synopsis or concept, simply by reading this review you’re better prepared to enjoy its philosophical musings on artistry and culture without constantly questioning what you’re watching.
16:9 screen images in this review were captured from an online screener of the film provided by Fantasia press.