Red, White & Wasted, the first full-length documentary by Andrei Bowden-Schwartz and Sam Jones, closes on a montage soundtracked by a foggily recognizable song by the indie singer Kurt Vile. This brings to mind the ending of last year’s widely beloved Minding the Gap, which ends on a song by the Mountain Goats, a slightly more popular indie band. Bowden-Schwartz and Jones’ movie is not unlike Bing Liu’s Oscar-nominated character study of the poor backroads of the American midwest. It only takes place in the poor backroads of Florida, instead.
And in lieu of documenting the once-misunderstood skater culture, Red, White & Wasted tackles the culture of mudding, a sport that remains still-bizarre and involves dunking large all-wheel drives into enormous pits of mud in front of cheering bystanders. Instead of profiling incidents of domestic violence among poor folk beset by the ruthless and never-ending recession that haunts the disconnected bits of flyover America, Bowden-Schwartz and Jones profile small gangs of racists, beset by much the same. We live in a land of such multitudes.
It is also worthwhile that while it has become passé to refer to everything from the latest Elvis doc to the latest Frederick Wiseman as a detour to that quasi-mystical “Trump Country,” Bowden-Schwartz and Jones, at one point, actually take us to a particularly Dantian circle of mud called the Redneck Yacht Club, populated by pale and bare-chested hordes who devilishly howl “Trump That B*itch” into the bleary and hot night. Filmed right before the 2016 election, Red, White & Wasted chronicles the repugnant energy of these forgotten people getting what they want. As another Southerner would cynically growl two years later: “This is America.”
The South always makes so much sense. Bowden-Schwartz and Jones, a pair of music video directors from Ditmas Park, enter as proverbial carpetbaggers and their work hews, maybe, closest to the long tradition of gawking at these people and brings to mind, for me, the James Agee and Walker Evans whose Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is often read in college by aspiring journalists. Shot with the diametric precision of a Nat Geo crew in the Amazon, there are moments you can see the granular bits of all the mud hit the glass and I like this knowledge that good lenses will soon be affordable to filmmakers on all budgets. Imagine the future of documentaries without camcorders.
The pair of tourists are as transparent as their subjects, but I think I like this kind of honesty — or prefer it, at any rate, to the lo-fi life story that occupies so much of a movie like Liu’s Minding the Gap. Red, White & Wasted would, naturally, be immediately unbearable if we had to see either filmmaker, but smartly they do not peek from behind the camera and do not confuse their morbid curiosity for the real story. Instead, we leer transparently through the lives of these arresting people, who bare all.
A fellow that the press notes identifies as Matthew “Video Pat” Burns says his wife left him because he spent their shared lives and that of their children taping obscene trucks barrel through a beloved nearby pit called Swamp Ghost, which has since been reclaimed by property developers. Like Huckleberry Finn before him, he curses this idea of civilization. The wife and much of the family is long gone, but he has the tapes and he loves them as much as those children. The movie’s narrative spine follows the birth of his grandson, but fortunately for the movie, he is more concerned with mudding.
It is the fashion to flatten all activities to an art of some sort, and mudding sits squarely in between the lower tier of popular sporting hobbies (NASCAR and monster truck racing, the more outwardly violent styles of authorized fighting) and getting trashed in a semi-organized fashion. “Sanctuary,” one of the movie’s characters calls his local off-road mud pit. Bowden-Schwartz and Jones, whose primary experience in this line of work largely involved shooting videos for once-buzzy New York alt-rappers like A$AP Ferg and Le1f, apply the same ironized gaze of those videos to the similar gestures of conspicuous consumption. Agape at large wheels, centering on shots of minimally-clad women twerking
The profusion on Confederate battle flags, combined with observations of Confederate-branded tchotchkes (e.g. “Save Your Confederate Money, Boys, The South Shall Rise Again!” reads a cartoon hanging on the wall) arrest Bowden-Schwartz and Jones’ attention, and throughout Red, White & Wasted they ask if these people identify as racists. It rather reminded me of a recent bit by Borat-director Larry Charles, who in his latest show profiles comedies from various corners of the globe and asks Nigerian rape comics if they identify as misogynists.
The most insightful answer provided here aligns mudding itself, related by one of these characters in some long historical way to early 20th century bootlegging, with some larger idea of antisocial rebellion — it also often involves trespassing on private land. A gesture adopted by the functionally powerless, much like diving into mud if only to eventually get out of it, it is adhered to for no discernable end.
Red, White & Wasted positions mudding as a central cultural experience for its fans and, while the filmmakers are unconcerned with anything so vulgar as finding “redeeming” gestures inside of it, there is abundant value in recording these activities, which have been little filmed outsize promotional YouTube videos and the Animal Planet reality TV series Mud Lovin’ Rednecks. Before the warming ocean turns Florida into an uninhabitable flood land, there is value in having a real idea of how some of them lived.