The title of Texas Trip – A Carnival of Ghosts doesn’t tell you much about the documentary’s subject matter, nor do the film’s first few minutes. Written and directed by Steve Balestreri and Maxime Lachaud, this bizarre film begins with footage of B-movies, creature features, and pornography —hurtling us into nether-realms and nether-regions. We also hear about the mythologized image of the drive-in theater, described by the filmmakers as a quasi-legendary entity that haunts cultural imagination.
But this documentary is not about drive-ins, horror movies, or exploitation cinema. Rather, it looks at avant-garde musicians and performance artists in Texas who are on the fringes of creative expression. Drive-ins — transgressive spaces that could screen films that couldn’t be shown on TV or in cinemas — and other forms of cult entertainment are used as jumping-off points for delving into underground art.
What follows is a series of poetic and near-wordless images: a chaotic stream-of-consciousness with fragments calling out about personal ghosts and demons of the frequently tortured and twisted artists. Mother Fakir, an experimental electronic noise artist, discusses how he frequently jabs hooks and needles into his face during live performances — there are profound pain and pleasure found in inflicting injury on himself, as well as in making music. The filmmakers also interview Grady Roper, part of the surreal band Attic Ted who performs to their crowds wearing strange masks. These performers discuss the development of alter egos and the feeling of Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde personalities. Distorted organs and clarinets playing draw us into feeling like we are watching a psychological and spiritual battle unfold.
There are plenty of fans, though, who cannot get enough of the weird and slightly disturbing world of cult entertainment. At a drive-in, an uproarious crowd chants with pride: “We are not like other people. We are sick, we are disgusting. We believe in blood, in breasts, and in beasts.” For Mother Fakir, masochism is a means of catharsis, expelling his demons in a safe way; for ravenous audiences, too, blood and brutality are ways to work through the madness of the world together.
The documentary wanders and meanders in a daze through the music scene, which makes it slow and lacking in guidance, and there’s no voiceover to walk us through this funhouse or to impart any wisdom.
Rather than being a portrait of a specific community or particular artists, Texas Trip is more of a poem on creativity — a travelogue of a hallucinatory trip. This, admittedly, is somewhat unsatisfying if you’re looking for a more definitive statement on artistic expression today. There are some threads of potential commentary that go unrealized: when Joe Bob Briggs’ “The Drive-In Oath” is juxtaposed with scenes of empty drive-in lots, it starts to raise questions about the increasing difficulties certain kinds of entertainers face under capitalism, an idea the film never brings to the forefront. The world of old movies feels far away from some of the boundary-pushing performances we see that appear more intent on moving forward and paving new roads for what “art” can entail than looking back, but perhaps some of the costume masks conceal uncertainty about the future and nostalgia for a simpler time — we are only left to guess.
This is probably not a film that will move everyone. It’s admittedly and intentionally strange. Yet even if we don’t connect fully with the colorful characters onscreen, we can still tune into the film’s wavelength, bolstered by the eerieness of the score and the ominous soundscape. If there is a message here, perhaps it’s that artistic creation, like birth itself, is often bloody, messy, and downright painful, but results in something astonishing. Descend into the depths of the avant-garde and you might have your stomach churned a bit by what you see, but you won’t come out thinking about what it means to create art in the same way.