Camp / Film / Trash

It’s Kinda Long but Full of Suspense: A Conversation on “Zola”

Riley Keough and Taylour Paige as Stefani and Zola in Zola, directed by Janicza Bravo (A24)

An ill-fated trip to America’s heart of darkness–Florida–that becomes a whirlwind of sex work and crime. A doomed friendship forged over stripping and text messages. A montage of the most repulsive dicks you can imagine. It’s no question that Zola, the cinematic adaptation of A’Ziah “Zola” King’s jaw-dropping and riveting 148-tweet Twitter magnum opus directed by Janicza Bravo and written by Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris, is right up Filthy Dreams’s alley. After seeing the film separately and both thoroughly enjoying it, your ever-dedicated co-founder Emily Colucci and contributor Jessica Caroline came together for a chat on the film while trying to avoid being merely gushy sycophants:

Jessica Caroline: What’s left to praise of a highly praised film like Zola? Shot on 16mm, Bravo puts a cartoonish gloss on this American nightmare. How else would one capture the lurid colors of urine in the toilet cubicle scene that foregrounds all the nasty things about to happen? Not only are Zola (Taylour Paige) and Stefani (Riley Keough)’s urines vastly different in color (Zola’s a healthy near clear; Stefani’s dark and cloudy, to which my companion in the theater exclaimed “Whoa, dehydration!”), Zola squats on the public toilet seat, whereas Stefani sits right on it—another signpost of their behavioral differences. The drive down to Tampa scene looks like it’s intercut with GoPro footage and reminded me a bit of Spree with that maniacal and crazed energy. I really loved the mise en abyme scenes where the girls apply makeup and suck their fingers as the harps play, surreal and magical. The ultra 90s Romy and Michele-inspired costumes by Derica Cole Washington were also brilliant. What were some of your favorite scenes? 

Emily Colucci: That comparison of the two characters–Stefani and Zola–by their urine color and pissing styles alone was so absolutely raunchy and pitch-perfect for the film’s glorification of the trash aesthetic. It’s something right out of John Waters’s playbook. And as a filthy public toilet seat-sitter, I felt called out! I’m lazy and dirty too! Though I assure you the color is not…that. Go see a doctor, Stefani! 

But that scene (like many others) displays such a jarring juxtaposition with the idealized mise en abyme scenes you also mention. With the heavenly harps and mirrored images, Bravo creates this alluring and romanticized vision of dancing, sex work, and over-the-top feminine glamour–it’s pure confection and visual pleasure. But, this intoxicating fantasy, one that I assume represents what Zola imagined this odyssey to be, is short-lived, contrasted with the dingy, stink, and likely bed bug-infested Tampa roadside motel rooms, the crowded backstage at the strip club, and the sketchy redneck characters filling the club, including one skinny man who tells Zola she looks like Whoopi Goldberg. Not to mention her fellow car-mates who make the trip to Tampa: Stefani’s alternately clownish and terrifying “roommate”/pimp X (Colman Domingo) and her mostly clownish but also suicidal bipolar boyfriend Derrek, played by Nicholas Braun who I can only see as Succession’s Cousin Greg (Even in Zola, he was Cousin Greg to me). Overall, what I loved about the film was its unabashed reveling in the exaggeration of the trash aesthetic, which I’ve, of course, spent a lot of time obsessing about and trying to articulate. Though seemingly distinct, the mise en abyme scenes, the most violent, crime-riddled scenes, and grungiest Florida wasteland scenes, like Derrek’s budding friendship with his motel neighbor filmed through a gas station security mirror, all felt equally hyper-stylized to augment the sheer trashiness of it all.

Other than that overarching aesthetic, my favorite parts of the film were actually some of the subtle camp elements–some squirreled away and others more obvious. From the appearance of TS Madison providing her inspiring pre-pole stripper prayer to an extended shot of some sort of fetish video of a woman trying to get her car out of mud playing on a hotel room television to the tacky portrait of X and the near-silent Baybe in their mansion to a little person in a suit (very Twin Peaks) laying on a lounge chair near the swimming pool as the gang runs back after yet another traumatic incident, Bravo and Harris clearly set out to make a film that people would return to repeatedly as an instant cult classic. Though done with much more intention, I saw this as a nod to Showgirls’s so-bad-it’s-good qualities. In another director’s hands, this could have come off as too forced and try-hard, but with the overblown Florida energy of the whole film, it fits.

With your reference to the juxtaposition between Zola and Stefani, I’m curious what you thought of the depiction of the relationship between the twosome–their fast friendship that slowly (and towards the end of the film, not-so-slowly) slides towards disgust. In particular, Taylour Paige did so much acting just with her eyes, reflecting Zola’s ongoing shock, horror, revulsion, and mostly disbelief that she found herself in this scenario. Riley Keough, who should be noted is American royalty as Elvis’s granddaughter, also was quite believable with her constant white girl ‘blaccent,’ which makes for some uncomfortable moment like, for instance, when she’s ranting about another girl’s “nappy-ass weave.” 

Zola, directed by Janicza Bravo

JC: That was such a cringe moment, wasn’t it!  The friendship was definitely a transactional one of convenience, from whimsical start to bitter end, but Keough nailed that performance with her baby from the block voice (who I’ve been informed is a near-exact replica of a rapper I had never heard of who goes by the name “Bhad Bhabie”). While you’re feeling for Zola the whole way through as she increasingly loses autonomy, you do feel a modicum of sympathy for Stefani’s circumstances, especially because Stefani appears so unphased by every instance of her exploitation—much to Zola’s astonishment and understandable irritation. 

It was obvious to me that Paige would be an instant star, especially after the first glimpses of her in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. While only a supporting role, she stole every scene with her gaze. That said, Zola/Paige has all the best lines in Zola: “Based on fuckin’ it was gross,” “Pussy’s worth thousands bitch,” and “YOUR BRAIN IS BROKE!!” It’s very cute that they’ve formed a close friendship in real life. 

We need to touch on Mica Levi and their music for the movie, which predictably I loved. I have been obsessed with Levi ever since Micachu and the Shapes debuted their album Jewellery, featuring tracks that are still so fresh like “Guts” and “Turn Me Well” that clang and ping and sample the vroom of a vacuum cleaner. In Zola, Levi’s synths, horns, harps, glockenspiels, and unconventional instrumentation are the wonderglue between the energy of the trap tracks; it was such perfect sonic alchemy during those driving scenes. I had some special chocolate a friend gave me beforehand, which also enhanced the whole experience, but I was the most annoyingly vocal person out of the six people in the cinema, laughing my ass off. The music elaborated the absurdity, giving the heaviness a fairytale lightness. The pace and the abrupt cuts give you little time to dwell too much but keep the plot propelling forward…

EC: Songs like Migos’s “Hannah Montana” in those fast-paced driving scenes did a lot to drive the plot forward, depict the wild excitement and misplaced anticipation of their trip to Tampa, and showcase the utter ridiculousness of the crew in which Zola finds herself, especially with Derrek rapping along. The one thing with the soundtrack that I don’t think worked consistently was the frequent text/tweet notification sounds through much of the film. In some scenes, it was smartly done. For instance, when Zola gives her now-iconic opening line to her Twitter thread: “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out? It’s kind of long but full of suspense,” which ends in a recognizable alert whistle. It also worked in the scene when Stefani is convincing Zola to join the trip to Florida, which is done entirely over texts. However, these noises were peppered through the entire film and they not so much bothered me in their disruption of the action, but it just felt too literal and on the nose. I mean, we get it–this story was told through Twitter. At some point, this meta-commentary about social media in films just feels staid. We experienced a presidency run through Twitter; it’s no longer so novel for a film to be based on a Twitter thread that we need to be constantly reminded of it through the score. What did you think of those endless notification sounds?

JC: For me, those constant pings added to the intensifying psychic malaise and sense of chaos. There’s a good interview with Levi in Rolling Stone about their choices. Endearingly Levi doesn’t engage with social media, because they are too busy being a genius. 

Speaking of social media, I wonder how much you’ve read about and around the film in terms of what the film omitted from the Twitter story. I learned in a Vanity Fair article interviewing A’Ziah “Zola” King that King had actually grabbed Jessica, the real-life version of the film’s Stefani, by the hair and dragged her out of the almost-gang bang/rape, which was for King the darkest moment of the trip. At that point in the film, Bravo goes into Stefani’s “version” of events, which, of course, is a complete distortion. Bravo also chose to omit the part of Zola’s story where Stefani/Jessica would douche after every client instead of showering. She saves the genital details for the men, making a point to exploit male bodies instead of the women and show in close-up a sequence of hideous dicks, not to mention an eggplant-shaped one. I was practically squealing by that point! Any thoughts on the omissions?

EC: I never read A’Ziah “Zola” King’s full Twitter thread about Jessica until after I watched the film. Somehow I missed this piece of trash history as it was happening! Nevertheless, when I read it, as preserved on Imgur, I was surprised that the biggest reveal at the end of her story was cut out of the film: after returning home, King received a call from a Las Vegas jail from Jessica days later and it turns out Z was “wanted for kidnapping 15 underaged girls & is linked to 6 murders including FL.” Apparently afterward, Z was sentenced to life. I’m curious about the film’s decision to leave this detail out and end with the silent drive as Derrek bleeds in the backseat post-kneejerk suicide attempt. Was kidnapping and (more) murder a little too dark for this already dark romp? I guess omitting it helped maintain the sense that the entire film was happening in a particularly Florida vacuum, away from authorities or any other consequences. That would get disrupted once Z ends up on the news for being a sex trafficker. Personally, though, I think it would have provided another shocking turn.

I also found and read Jessica’s Reddit thread of her side of the story, which is pretty bad (especially the description of King’s “short nappy wig” that “excuse my language, smelled like ass!”). However, it’s not quite as exaggerated as the one in the film with Stefani as a Jesus-fearing lady of the Lord and Zola wearing a garbage bag with straw in her hair. That sudden cut to Stefani’s perspective in the film felt jarring and not quite as funny as intended. Did you think this scene was effective?

JC: “Reason to be a jealous bitch number one!” My god, you can’t (or I guess you CAN) make this shit up! Somehow her story falls short of coherent and well, it is nowhere near as riveting as the way Zola recounts it. I didn’t mind the sudden switch, but you’re right, perhaps the exaggeration wasn’t entirely fair on Jessica. Fanciful hyperbole is Bravo’s default mode in all her projects. Have you seen her other films? I didn’t really wanna see Lemon, which she co-wrote with her partner Brett Gelman who stars in it too. I’m sure it’s got some funny moments but, I dunno, the trailer is basically a dumbass white guy/wannabe actor being awkward. I saw Bravo’s short, Woman in Deep, which centers this intolerable white petal of a woman played by Alison Pill, who spends the entire time smoking cigs and crying hysterically into a vintage rotary phone while on hold with a suicide prevention line. I could barely stand it. It was intentionally annoying and thankfully brief. There was a better short she did, called Pauline Alone, which again centers a white woman—this time Gaby Hoffman—and she is so supremely odd in her demeanor.

EC: I haven’t seen any of Bravo’s other films. But, of course, I’m familiar with Jeremy O. Harris’s playwriting, especially the not-at-all controversial Slave Play, which I saw before it made its big-time Broadway debut, and other plays like Daddy. While I don’t want to be like many of the reviews that delve way-too-deep into the quite blatant racial politics of Zola (Can’t we just enjoy a trashy film without writing an interdisciplinary Master’s thesis about it?), it’s hard to miss Harris’s humor and biting satirization of how race plays out in relationships in Zola’s script, even his tendency to maybe push things just a bit too far like Zola in a garbage bag or Z’s ever-changing and reappearing African accent. 

Speaking of race, there were certain extended shots that seemed to harken to wider politics beyond this hermetically sealed world of the main four characters and the strip club clients, johns, gang members, fellow criminals, and others that dip in and out of their story. I’m thinking specifically of the waving half-mast Confederate flag, which they drive by on their way to Tampa. It’s quite a long, lingering shot of the flag for such a fast-paced film. What did you think of this or of the film’s engagement with race?

JC: The film engages race similar to the way it engages class. Class positioning is what binds these women together, but that aspect is also glazed over with that Dorothy in Oz sparkle since they are wearing real vintage Dior and Fendi and Louis Vuitton! That shot of the Confederate flag is more of a foreboding specter that just hints at the broader horrors of America, but it’s not conclusive when it comes to race because everything winds up in a kind of amoral soup. The white people are obviously the dumbest of the bunch. Zola and Z are the only semi-rational and strategic thinkers; Zola makes the most out of a bad situation and Z exploits both women to fund his lavish lifestyle. 

The Florida Project, directed by Sean Baker, 2017

I found myself thinking of points of comparison that are dealing with intersections of race and class—Sean Baker’s The Florida Project from 2017 came to mind that also has a childlike filter through which we see a young girl’s obnoxious young white mother who is unemployed and feuding with her Latina neighbor over disciplining their children. The young girl at the center of the story is put in the bathtub while her mother turns tricks in the bedroom to make rent. Zola is like The Florida Project meets Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, though I think Zola is more exhilarating than both because the fantastical elements are undergirded with dread. By smashing those conflicting vibes together, Bravo is, in a way, bolder than Korine… Did the film remind you of any others that came before?

EC: Naturally, as previously mentioned, I thought of Showgirls, as all stripper films should recall this masterpiece. I’m only sad there was no aggressive French fry eating send-up of that classic. There’s also Demi Moore’s corresponding stripper foray in Striptease, which is overshadowed by Showgirls’s perfection. However, like you, the film made me think a lot about Harmony Korine’s recent films, namely Spring Breakers but also the trashy Florida antics of Beach Bum. I agree that Zola was better than these two films. Though the violent escapades of Spring Breakers are there in Zola, the film felt way more visually lush and less cartoonish even in its overblown qualities. 

Spring Breakers, directed by Harmony Korine, 2012

JC: Oh god, Beach Bum. I forgot to see that. It looks so bad I have to see it. Yes, Zola is much more visually lush as a whole. Have you seen the book version of the tweets A24 is flogging on Instagram? I fully support King making as many bucks out of her story as possible, but I looked at a few pages of the design, and it kind of kills the raw charm of the tweets in those embellishing typefaces. Guess they are milking it however which way they can… 

EC: I hadn’t seen it until just now. It’s funny that even a fairly cutting-edge production company like A24 can’t figure out that the Internet has its own aesthetics and benefits beyond dusty media like books. The joy of King’s Twitter thread is that this saga appeared on a social media platform, cutting through all the noise and chatter to present a compelling narrative for free. The importance of the accessibility of writing on social media or the Internet, in general, is something a lot of people can’t understand. I feel like I’m often trying to explain to people why I don’t want to do a collected publication of Filthy Dreams essays. Uh…I already have one…it’s called a website, You’re free to browse. Anyway, to collect King’s tweets in this precisely designed book feels like something is lost. But, capitalism does what it does and somehow Roxane Gay always ends up being a part, doesn’t she? I just hope King got a good cut of the money.

On a larger scale, it appears that novelized versions of films are coming back with Quentin Tarantino’s novelization of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. I watched his interview with Joe Rogan recently and he was talking about how he used to love novelizations of films when he was younger. I also loved this completely disreputable literary genre and I can see how, as a fellow obsessive, Tarantino would gravitate towards it too. And while I had my own problems with Once Upon a Time’s historical revisionist ending (I am a Manson Family obsessive after all), I am curious enough to want to read his novelized version. Perhaps A24’s book version of King’s tweets is a part of this return to the combination of print and film, though maybe a misplaced one.

JC: Plus, websites cost enough money to keep going without even thinking of printing expenses. I’m all for the digital free-flow of ideas and info (I mean, isn’t it a thought that when you die Filthy Dreams dies with you unless you’re strategic enough to do the legacy planning thing and program some bot to renew your domain annually in perpetuity? There’s a kind of beauty and value in fleeting and precarious digital life, one hack even and it could all be wiped away!!). 

Though I won’t be caring much for anything Tarantino does (I was very neutral about Once Upon a Time—didn’t love, didn’t hate, was kind of bored actually), I wanted to ask one more thing of you, because Cannes Film Festival just spewed forth a slew of forthcoming movies… I’ll want to see Julia Ducournau’s Titane for sure. It looks like a sequel to Cronenberg’s JG Ballard adaptation Crash, and who wouldn’t want to see those car copulation scenes?! I also want to see Bruno Dumont’s France, Gaspar Noé’s Vortex, Joachim Trier’s Worst Person in the World, some probably depressingly bleak new thing by Nadav Lapid that I’ll want to see anyway, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car, and Sean Baker’s Red Rocket (same director as The Florida Project)…I guess I’ll watch Wes Anderson’s Dispatch too, even though I’m largely sick of his schtick. I want to know what all the fuss is about with those five-star reviews. In other words, I feel like at least 20 films just got added to my viewing list. Did anything grab you trailer-wise yet? 

EC: To answer about Filthy Dreams being tied to my existence, I always sort of liked Reza Abdoh’s insistence that his plays not be produced after his death. YOU don’t get to enjoy my legacy once I’m gone. And with how much the art and literary world loves women’s work posthumously, I like the potential for a final misanthropic refusal.

My must-see films are a little more…let’s say…lowbrow than yours. The film review out of Cannes that had me cackling with glee was for Aline, an unofficial biopic of Celine Dion in which Valérie Lemercier, the 57-year-old writer, director, and actor plays Celine…I mean, all ages of her life. Including when she was a toddler!!! That’s all I had to hear to know this was going to instantly be one of my favorite films of all time. I saw another review that said it was a “journey beyond all cinematic taste” and suggested the Cannes audience was too shocked to even boo. Near, far, wherever you are—Count me IN!! Speaking of Showgirls, the other Cannes film that sounds right up my depraved alley is Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta, an adaptation of a book about lesbian nuns, Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy by Judith C. Brown. The Guardian described it as “a bizarre nunsploitation drama” and gave it a paltry two stars, which is how you know it’s good! Oh, Mary, full of grace! Beyond the festival circuit, I am looking forward to the final, always Oscar buzz-worthy installment of the Jackass cinematic series, Jackass Forever, and Jessica Chastain’s mascara-drenched turn as weepy role model Tammy Faye Bakker in The Eyes of Tammy Faye.

JC: “Too shocked to boo”—could a director ask for a better critic’s blurb than that?! That’s a NO from me to anything Jackass-related and a tentative yes to Verhoeven’s lesbian hoe-nun movie, though nuns are particularly chilling to me and it looks intensely grim with brutal flagellation scenes and steely blue glares from Charlotte Rampling. I may rewatch Verhoeven’s last film Elle and Ken Russell’s The Devils to psychologically prepare. There was another nun movie you mentioned earlier, from last year I think, which sounded brutal too, my memory is failing me…

EC: I believe you mean Saint Maud, which was also, like Zola, produced by A24. However, Maud isn’t a nun, but a nurse who becomes increasingly a saint in her own mind and comes to quite an explosive end. I think grim and punishing Catholic/Christian films are just a niche genre that I particularly enjoy. I also liked Paul Schrader’s First Reformed and also Gordon Stevenson’s No Wave test of endurance Ecstatic Stigmatic. In some respects, it’s the exact opposite of Zola’s candy-colored trash fantasy. But there’s still something camp about it all, especially the films that really push the limit of feverish religious self-destruction. I mean, shuffling around with pictures of saints punctured with nails in your Converse sneakers may seem deeply serious to the one doing it, but come on…that’s also pretty camp.

JC: Aha, that’s right! I loved First Reformed and think it’s probably the best thing Ethan Hawke has done. And if that’s anything to go by, thanks for the Ecstatic Stigmatic mention. I just found a YouTube link to it so I have the next hour or so cut out for me. I had a hunch this conversation was gonna start spiraling out of control! 

EC: Every conversation that starts with analyzing the color and consistency of stripper piss should end with never eating any solid foods but the Holy Eucharist! Or at the very least a prayer from TS Madison!

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