Archive for the ‘documentary’ category

Life Itself

June 29, 2014

roger-ebert-gives-a-thumbs-up-after-receiving-a-star-on-the-hollywood-walk-of-fame-in-hollywood-inWell, Roger, you made it. You’re in a movie. Not only that, you’re its star and focus. Life Itself is based partly on your memoir of the same name. Readers who are not you will no doubt wonder why I’m addressing this review to you, who are not here, and not to them. Well, it’s because you had a knack for writing reviews seemingly addressed to me and me only, and millions of other readers likely felt and feel the same way. You didn’t bother much with film theory or ten-dollar words. You wanted everyone to understand you: the film buff, the folks at the bar, the kid who was just starting to develop critical thinking. The movie about you is likewise straightforward. It doesn’t exclude anyone. It doesn’t get fancy. It just tells your story.

The documentarian Steve James, whose great film Hoop Dreams you tirelessly promoted, has directed Life Itself with open eyes and no fear of showing you in your least glamorous moments. You allowed James to film you undergoing an undignified throat-suction procedure, and then you emailed him that you were glad his movie would show what is seldom seen in a movie. You always respected that in a movie: something you hadn’t seen before, and something that told the truth. That suction bit, hard as it is for the rest of us to watch, is almost the defining moment of the movie, since we know it’s there because you wanted it there. You also wanted the movie to tell the truth about your lost years as an alcoholic, when you would kill hours in bars and take home women who were bad for you.

Finally you met, and married, a woman who was good for you: Chaz Hammelsmith Ebert, whom you called “the great fact of my life.” You would no doubt be grateful to know that Chaz comes off beautifully in the movie, yet still human, someone who could get frustrated with you when you didn’t feel up to doing things you needed to do. There is a scene where you don’t want to climb some stairs, and Chaz says you have to, and eventually you do it. Many of us have lived this scene in one or both of the roles. We can all be annoying and stubborn at times, and you were no exception. You would have respected a movie that touches on realities of human relationships that Hollywood usually ignores.

Many of your friends, some famous (Scorsese, Herzog) and some only known in Chicago newspaper circles, speak movingly on your behalf. One friend, of course, is absent: Gene Siskel, who died in 1999. Gene’s widow, Marlene, says at your funeral in the movie that when you were still alive she felt as though she still had a piece of Gene left. Life Itself devotes a chunk of time to your prickly partnership with Gene, with many amusing outtakes of you two roasting each other. But Marlene reads aloud a letter you sent her in your later years, saying that as you got older and sicker you thought more and more about him. You soldiered on without him, first with other critics and then as a solo act, something Gene might have snippily said would never and should never happen. But in the end he probably would have been proud that, just as you were losing your ability to speak, you gained a new voice on Twitter and in your blog. You were both tough Chicago newspapermen who wanted to keep going no matter what.

As Life Itself goes on it becomes more cinematic, as if your fading life force were naturally resolving itself into the movie it would become. It is difficult for those of us who were fond of you to see you so frail and to see the increasingly depressed-sounding emails you were sending Steve James. You sensed the movie was nearing its conclusion. You wanted to see more; you wanted to see what happened next. You didn’t want to leave Chaz and your stepchildren and stepgrandchildren. For all that, Life Itself doesn’t milk your death for cheap tears. Chaz soldiers on without you, as we all must do when bereaved, and carries on your website and your life passion. She’s sad, Roger — we all are — but she’s going to be okay, and the movie notes that. Beyond all that, your life has made for a sharp, intimate, honest and compelling film. Congratulations, Roger. Thumbs up.

Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton

June 14, 2014

the-pleasure-garden-x-5551_1Big Joy is a flavorful and affectionate documentary about a narcissist, James Broughton, who seemed to be a satellite around the cinematic and poetic revolutions of the ’50s, but whose name doesn’t seem to have endured alongside his peers. Partly, I think, it’s because Broughton’s work, his experimental short films and his verse, doesn’t seem to express much outside a diaristic impulse to record what was going on in his life and his head at the time. He was more effective, it seems, as a mystic and guru, throwing his arms out and accepting the young in their quest for love. This is a charitable way of saying that Broughton was a classic horny old goat. His films are full of young men with their kits off and their bits out.

One wonders if a James Broughton would be possible today, when it is leagues more easy (though still not 100% safe) to be openly gay in America. Broughton was in at least two serious hetero relationships; one was with revered film critic Pauline Kael and yielded a daughter, the other was a marriage to designer Susanna Hart that produced another daughter and a son. The son, Orion, is the only offspring willing to appear in Big Joy, though it seems as though he was about as neglected by Broughton as his siblings were. In the mid-’70s, at age 61, Broughton met 25-year-old poet Joel Singer and fell hard for him; he ditched Susanna and their two kids and ran off with Singer, who stayed with Broughton until his death in 1999 at 85.

What I’m getting at here is that if Broughton was a narcissist and a skunk with women, it wasn’t necessarily his fault; the times made him that way. This was a man who hit sexual maturity decades before Stonewall. Like William Burroughs, he fell into the societally approved man/woman thing as a cover story. Then he figured out he could express a lot of his yearnings through his art. His films aren’t stark like Kenneth Anger’s, nor brooding like Maya Deren’s. They embrace the juice and happy furry chaos of life, and his poems read a little much like kiddie poetry, not imagistic or sensual but straightforward odes to playfulness. Finding his voice as an artist and as a gay man, relatively late in life (he was 33 when he made his first short film), must have been cathartic for Broughton. Still, I wouldn’t want to have been the wife unceremoniously dumped with two kids at home while Broughton achieved beautiful oneness with his new boyfriend.

The movie uses ample footage from Broughton’s films, which helps keep Big Joy visually spiky and arresting. Broughton had an eye, although he was far from a technical wizard — the avant-garde cinema of mid-century America wasn’t about technique, though a lot of it sure influenced later masters like Scorsese. From what we see and hear of his work, there isn’t much darkness or pain in it. It’s wish-fulfillment, full of good cheer. Which may be another reason Broughton has more or less been forgotten. His work lacks the chiaroscuro Cold War hysteria and paranoia of that of his peers, all of whom seemed to be flashing tabloid Weegee snapshots of the horror of being an outsider. Broughton projected his own idealized fantasies — he was essentially a romantic comedian.

It seems that Broughton peaked creatively with 1953’s The Pleasure Garden, which took a prize at Cannes, though Pauline Kael generously called his 1971 This Is It (starring Orion as a toddler) “a perfect little object.” After his Cannes triumph, Broughton actually had nibbles from Hollywood, which he blew off, to Kael’s consternation (“This,” she told him, “is the biggest mistake you’ve ever made”). He didn’t want to pimp his angels out to the studios; he wanted to keep making little 8mm baubles. He was, I guess, a naïve artist, oblivious to the almighty buck — though Big Joy is tight-lipped on the subject of what exactly Broughton lived on for all those years. He was fortunate enough to get in on the ground floor of a San Francisco art movement that swept him up and probably kept him in benefactors for decades. That phenomenon seems unlikely to repeat. So, no, a James Broughton would be impossible today.

Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia

May 25, 2014

GoreVIt’s a little unnerving to see a sentimental portrait of a rigorously unsentimental man. Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia profiles the writer and historian in his painful autumn years, shuffling the new footage with archival clips of Vidal from the days when he was all but inescapable on TV, the literary equivalent of Carl Sagan (and equally parodiable). We see the Vidal of the ’60s and ’70s in varying degrees of slimness or paunch, intellectually limber and grinning when he sniffs rhetorical blood in the water, but then we always return to the octogenarian version, sodden with wrinkles and disappointment. He’s as sharp as ever, but the grin is gone. For one thing, nobody’s left to cross swords with him; his media adversaries have fallen one by one. William F. Buckley, Norman Mailer, even the relative whippersnapper Christopher Hitchens — all gone. Vidal outlived his enemies and his friends, finally excusing himself from the room in 2012.

This documentary, which numbers Vidal’s nephew Burr Steers among its producers, tries gamely to fit an 86-year life into an 89-minute film. What we get is unavoidably Gore’s Greatest Hits. The Vidal/Buckley verbal shoot-out is here; Norman Mailer snarling at Vidal (and everyone else, including the studio audience) on The Dick Cavett Show gets a short clip; Vidal clowning Jerry Brown while running against him for the California U.S. Senate seat is probably the comic highlight. Brown sits there, scowling and furious, while Vidal more or less makes the very notion of Jerry Brown seem absurd. (It made me want to seek out Gary Conklin’s documentary on this episode in Vidal’s life, Gore Vidal: The Man Who Said No.) Essentially, the movie is a feature-length A&E Biography, from back when A&E still aired such things and not, say, Duck Dynasty.

Unadventurously directed by Nicholas Wrathall, the movie opens with Vidal standing at his own tomb — shared with longtime partner Howard Austen — and reaches a climax of sorts when, after Austen’s death, Vidal moves out of the Italian villa they also shared. Having lost his slice of paradise, Vidal seems to long for the grave. What does Wrathall have to say about any of this? Nothing. The film is carelessly structured; it began as a couple of filmed interviews and then grew into a feature. It hasn’t been shaped to tell any particular story. It seems to exist only because Wrathall had the footage. It certainly isn’t as radical as Vidal’s own words often were and are. I suppose Wrathall might say that his film will lead people to Vidal’s writing, though Vidal himself might bitterly counter that (a) nobody watches documentaries and (b) even if they did, nobody reads books either.

That was why Vidal valued his TV appearances: he knew he could get some splinter of his ideas across to a much bigger audience than would read his essays or even his historical novels. (Of course, that was back when writers still showed up on TV.) Vidal was often called cynical, but, having grown up around politics, he was simply a realist who knew how politics work. He was also a class traitor, a rich white man who was calling out income inequity decades before Occupy Wall Street. The film trots out some loyal talking heads to testify on Vidal’s behalf, including the fallen angel Hitchens, whom Vidal excommunicated when Hitchens supported the Iraq War. By the time Hitchens sat for Wrathall’s camera, he was gaunt and bald from chemotherapy, and delicate sad-bastard piano music plays as Hitchens laments that he hasn’t seen Vidal in years (oh, come on; Vidal and Hitchens would have found this noxiously trite). Soon he would be dead, presumably never having gotten absolution.

The Hitchens anecdote sketches Vidal as a cold cod, a grinch whose heart was four sizes too small. The movie runs some standard diagnostics on him: he hated his mother and lost his one true love, athlete Jimmie Trimble, at age 19 in World War II. The price of being an intellectual titan, the movie seems to reassure us, is going about a long, loveless life with a Trimble-sized hole in it. (Trimble, I guess, is Vidal’s Rosebud.) Wrathall approaches Vidal humbly, hat in hand, his head as empty as his hat. He doesn’t quite know what to make of Vidal; the man was simply bigger and more complex than one trial-size documentary can capture. It is nice to see vintage clips of Vidal the verbal samurai, but we have YouTube for that. The danger with this sort of movie is that our affection for the man will rub off onto the film. But Vidal himself, if he were sizing up this film, would have known how to separate one from the other.

Room 237

March 30, 2013

room2373900x506Everyone who loves movies needs to see Rodney Ascher’s Room 237, if only to roll their eyes at certain points. The documentary is about Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining — not the making of the film, but, really, the deconstruction of it. Ascher interviews five theorists who have very different perspectives on The Shining and what Kubrick was trying to say in it. Bill Blakemore thinks the movie is really about the genocide of the American Indians. Geoffrey Cocks opines that it’s really about the Holocaust. Juli Kearns makes much of the supposed minotaur imagery and points out the “impossible” architecture of the haunted Overlook Hotel. Jay Weidner thinks the film was really Kubrick’s acknowledgment that he helped NASA fake the moon landing. John Fell Ryan talks about projecting The Shining running forwards and backwards, an experiment that yields some memorably weird and oddly beautiful images.

The first order of business might be to ask, Why this film? Why not another ghost movie from the same year, like The Changeling? Why not another Stephen King adaptation, like The Dead Zone? Why not another Kubrick film — ah, but there we answer part of the question, because a cursory surf around the web will unearth countless deep-dish analyses or close readings of practically every Kubrick film. His swan song, Eyes Wide Shut, for instance, is really Kubrick telling dark truths about the Illuminati, who promptly assassinated him days after he finished it. Well, at least a guy on the internet says so. I think the same guy also says Lady Gaga is an Illuminati tool. He’d probably find Illuminati stuff in The Shining, too.

The thing is, you can find anything you want to see in any movie. Rodney Ascher could as well have found five people who discovered profound meanings in Dude, Where’s My Car? But The Shining is the perfect launching pad for a movie about obsessive film theorists, because Kubrick in general attracts theories like lint, and this film in particular is perhaps his most stubbornly mystifying work. Pauline Kael’s review noted the film’s many “deliberate time dislocations.” Stephen King himself didn’t like or understand the movie, and still doesn’t. Years later, King would show how little he understood what made not only Kubrick’s film but his own book work, and wrote a terribly boring TV adaptation of The Shining, a clip of which we see in Room 237. The majority of the footage here, of course, comes from the Kubrick version, as well as from all his other films.

Some of it I enjoyed; some of it I’d heard (or read) before; some of it made my eyes glaze over and made me want to revisit The Shining. In form, Room 237 is more of a video essay than a documentary; the video essay is, to these eyes, an unfortunate bastard child of the close-reading film review, apparently made by people who don’t like to write, for people who don’t like to read. Copious use of other people’s work is an easy bonus for the video essayist. Room 237 also doesn’t show the five theorists onscreen — we just hear their voices — which tends to emphasize the “text” of what they’re saying instead of offering an Errol Morris-type study of five obsessives fondling Kubrick’s film like the blind men touching the elephant in the ancient fable. It’s a pillar! No, it’s a snake!

Kubrick himself preferred to let his movies speak for themselves, which for some viewers creates a void they rush to fill. Amusingly, Kubrick’s former assistant Leon Vitali, who was there at the time, scoffed at many of the theorists’ claims in a recent New York Times interview. Sometimes a typewriter is just a typewriter, even if it changes color; sometimes a chair that’s there in one shot and gone in a later shot is just a continuity goof. Directors — especially those who started before the advent of home video — are far less concerned with editing gaffes than many would suspect. “That’s the only usable shot, and that’s the shot we’re using” is what most disappearing-chair mysteries boil down to. Directors hope the narrative will move you past the small errors, but of course when a movie is available to watch again and again in your living room, the disappearing chair becomes noticeable.

I’ve seen The Shining more than a few times myself. What do I think it’s about? My take, briefly: it’s another chapter in Kubrick’s epic, decades-long doctoral thesis about the ongoing folly of man. Jack Torrance (man) has always been the caretaker (murderer). King, an active alcoholic when he wrote the book, meant the story to illustrate generational, genetic frailty (Jack’s father was an abusive drunk). Kubrick took that and magnified it into a statement about the timeless rivers of blood (redrum) running through human history. The theories about the Indian genocide and the Holocaust would seem to fit neatly inside mine, but I’m going to do us both a favor and let the moon-landing thing pass in silence.

My Amityville Horror

March 17, 2013

amityville8f-1-webAll most of us can know for sure about what happened at 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville is that the Lutz family moved there in December 1975 and left 28 days later. Everything else, over the course of 37 years’ worth of books, movies, and TV re-enactments, has been essentially a matter of what you find believable, or what you prefer to believe. Eric Walter’s low-budget documentary My Amityville Horror sits down with a member of the family, Danny Lutz, who was ten when he moved into the house along with his mother, his stepfather, and his two siblings (both of whom declined to participate in the film). Danny, now a 47-year-old UPS driver, looks older than his age, as though his ordeal in the Amityville house stole his youth and continues to steal his life.

Is he telling the truth, though? Danny Lutz seems like a very angry man, and we are left with several explanations for that. He hated his stepfather George Lutz, a former Marine who “had no parent skills whatsoever.” Danny suggests that George’s interest in the occult made the family a target for whatever was haunting the house. He claims that George had telekinetic powers. Is it possible that Danny and the other children were brainwashed by George into believing in paranormal activity? Or intimidated by George into going along with the story? I wouldn’t want to speculate, but in the film, Danny certainly seems to believe what he’s saying. The thought of not being believed triggers his temper worse than anything else — as when Eric Walter asks if he would take a polygraph test.

My Amityville Horror becomes not so much an “untold story” of the Amityville case as a psychological study of a troubled man. Whatever you believe Danny went through, it’s clear he went through something, something that still eats away at him. We see him talking to a therapist, to a reporter who’d covered the original story, to a psychic investigator who had visited the house. They all seem to take him at his word. Danny seems to feel an intense need to tell his story, though he also says he doesn’t want to — doesn’t want to have to. He just wishes he had a normal childhood, a normal life. If that’s so, he hasn’t really helped his blood pressure by appearing here; those, like me, who couldn’t have picked the grown Danny Lutz out of a line-up before will now recognize him as “the Amityville guy.” (I’m also not sure why he didn’t trade his adoptive name Lutz — his loathed stepfather’s name — for his given name Quaratino, though maybe he wanted to maintain a connection to his mother.)

At certain points I stopped thinking about the Danny I was watching and reflected on another spirit-haunted Danny of the 1970s with a bad-tempered father figure — Danny Torrance, the child hero of Stephen King’s The Shining. Over the years I wondered what kind of man Danny Torrance would grow up to be, and later this year King himself will provide an answer with his sequel, Doctor Sleep. But watching My Amityville Horror, I could imagine that Danny Torrance might turn out something like Danny Lutz, carrying around ghastly memories and bottomless anger issues either learned or genetic or both. Life is messier than fiction, though, and I predict King’s Danny will be more tragically heroic than the other Danny we meet here.

The movie occasionally feels dawdling, despite its abbreviated length. Not much time is spent on Danny’s actual recollections of the horror; we more often hear him talk about how it affected him in the years since. He left home as a teenager, lived homeless in the desert for a while; married, had two kids, divorced. He lugs packages for UPS and in his spare time apparently sits in his garage a lot and plays electric guitar. Eric Walter digs where he can, but he, like almost everyone else, seems intimidated by Danny, who is a big guy who always seems a heartbeat away from punching someone. A documentarian like Nick Broomfield, who’s usually fearless about bluntly asking for the truth (he would’ve gotten Danny on a polygraph), might have provided a more in-depth Rashomon-like account — though he probably wouldn’t have gained access to Danny, whereas Walter, who started an Amityville website at age 17, most likely struck Danny as a more sympathetic ear. That’s ultimately what we take from My Amityville Horror — nothing shockingly new about the case, just sympathy for a man who, even if he didn’t literally flee from demons with his family 37 years ago, certainly appears to be living with some now.

See also: The Amityville Horror (2005)

2016: Obama’s America

September 8, 2012

In 2016: Obama’s America, the conservative writer Dinesh D’Souza tells us that America is being run not by Barack Obama II, but by Barack Obama Sr. Our current president barely knew his father, but, D’Souza argues, Obama carries out his absentee dad’s anti-colonial ideals anyway. All of this was found in D’Souza’s 2010 book The Roots of Obama’s Rage, which followed a Forbes article called “How Obama Thinks.” In response to that article, a writer opined, “Dinesh D’Souza has authored what may possibly be the most ridiculous piece of Obama analysis yet written.” Who wrote that? Michael Moore? Howard Zinn? No, Daniel Larison in The American Conservative. Other conservatives have been scarcely more kind to D’Souza’s blend of conspiracy theory and pop psychology. So it isn’t just liberals who might have trouble swallowing 2016: Obama’s America.

The first reel or so is almost The Dinesh D’Souza Story. D’Souza talks about his upbringing in Mumbai and his escape to the embrace of America. To hear him tell it, D’Souza and Obama are doppelgangers: both were born in 1961, both graduated from Ivy League colleges in 1983, both even got married in 1992. We do not hear, alas, whether D’Souza and his wife attended Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing on their first date, as Barack and Michelle reportedly did. In any event, D’Souza feels emboldened by his life’s parallel track to Obama’s, and he feels he is uniquely qualified to outline the ways in which Obama is a shadow radical bent on reducing America’s power on the global stage. He understands Obama, you see.

To make his case, D’Souza bends reality in small, weird ways (a baffling dramatization of a black man entering a bar, leading to two white men walking away, only, it turns out, to return with a birthday cake for their black friend — awww!) and in large, disingenuous ways. He lies about Obama’s stance on Iran; he lies about Obama wanting to give the Falkland Islands back to Argentina; he lies about Obama’s supposed blocking of American oil drilling and support for Brazilian oil drilling; he even lies about the Churchill bust Obama allegedly removed from the Oval Office (it was on loan and was slated to be returned before Obama had any say in it). And the timing of D’Souza’s attempted slam-dunk on Obama’s supposed gutting of NASA in favor of “reaching out to Muslims” is hilarious, given what’s trucking around on the surface of Mars as you read this.

How is it as a movie? I had the same problem with it that I had with Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, to which 2016 is clearly intended as an heir apparent: it preaches to the converted. Moore, however, produced convincing documentation regarding the Bush family’s ties with the bin Laden family, and he had a star witness in Lila Lipscomb, the former war supporter whose son died in Iraq. D’Souza has nobody comparable, though he tries to pull a gotcha with Obama’s half-brother George, who seems, inconveniently for D’Souza, rather blasé about the president’s alleged neglect of him. Why hasn’t the richer, more powerful Obama pulled his kin out of Nairobi squalor? Well, because George is an activist and chooses to live as he does.

2016: Obama’s America comes to seem like clownish alarmist speculation (the Middle East will become “the United States of Islam”!) taking place in an echo chamber of talking heads who, like D’Souza himself, have never spent time with Barack Obama. It ends with D’Souza’s boyhood avatar staring out into the audience as D’Souza intones “The future is in your hands.” At the end of all this, I was no more persuaded of Obama’s anti-colonial agenda than I was before. The film moves fast, so that, while we’re saying “Wait a minute,” it’s already on to the next theory, the next guilt-by-association fallacy, the next pearl of pop-psych wisdom. According to the film, Barack Obama is president because the American people wanted to feel good about finally electing a black man, even though he’s half-white and that very half-whiteness made America comfortable with him. But, D’Souza is very sneakily saying, it’s not Obama’s white half you have to worry about. D’Souza, I recall, is the same man who in The Enemy at Home held liberals responsible for 9/11. Christ, even Michael Moore said it was al-Qaeda.

Marley

April 21, 2012

It’s weird to see Bob Marley without that iconic thick head of dreadlocks, which he called “my identity.” Near the beginning and end of the epic documentary Marley, we do indeed see a closer-cropped Marley — in his youth, when he was covering American hits like “A Teenager in Love,” and close to death, when chemotherapy had ravaged his identity but not his spirit. The latter is a tragic sight, the former sort of comic. One revelation, for a casual Marley listener like me who hasn’t dipped into the zillion or so biographies written about him, is that Marley didn’t emerge fully-formed. Once upon a time he was Robert Marley, a kid trying to do something with “What’s New Pussycat”; like Richard Pryor, whom he resembled in those pre-dread days, he took a while to find his own voice. Once he did, the serenely ecstatic sound of it moved millions.

Marley is a family-approved documentary (Marley’s oldest son Ziggy is one of the executive producers), co-produced by Bob’s own label Tuff Gong, so if there were any truly troubling aspects of his personality — aside from some anecdotes about his competitive streak, expressed best in his full-tilt foot races against his toddlers — we don’t hear much about them. He comes through when he speaks for himself, most often subtitled for the benefit of Western ears that can’t decipher his light patois. By and large, many other heads do the talking for him. In the end, the songs explain him most eloquently. We hear bits of dozens of them, including the dorm-room standards “Could You Be Loved,” “Stir It Up,” “Jamming,” and “No Woman No Cry.”

If that last song is true, Marley must’ve cried a lot. As the film tells us, he fathered eleven children by seven women; only three were with his official wife Rita, who more or less looked the other way as Bob welcomed a wide variety of lovers, including one-time Miss World winner Cindy Breakspeare. (Even a German nurse who treated Marley near the end tells us there was “a spark” between them.) When asked if Marley was charming, one woman looks bemused and answers “D’you know Bob?” Actually, we don’t, not really. When a man who only died 31 years ago inspires biographies numbering in at least double digits, it speaks of a man who was a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Marley buys into the view of him as a humble Trenchtown kid who became the voice of the poor and disenfranchised not only in Jamaica but worldwide. (The film reaches a climax of sorts during footage of his 1980 performance at Zimbabwe’s Independence Day.)

A little bit is made of Marley’s mixed ancestry: he was the son of an Afro-Jamaican mother and a white Jamaican father. After visiting the father’s construction offices and being turned away, Marley wrote “Cornerstone” (“The stone that the builder refused/Will always be the head cornerstone”). We get a sense of a much more complex figure than the hagiography of the film is really equipped to deal with: even at two hours and twenty-four minutes, Marley feels like a well-rendered sketch, but still a sketch for all that. It’s smoothly drawn, though (and nice-looking: one of the cinematographers was Christopher Nolan regular Wally Pfister); director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) does manage to suggest the turmoil Marley rose out of and seemed to be a part of despite himself. Pressured to come down on one side or the other during a particularly fraught conflict between the Jamaica Labour Party and the People’s National Party, Marley demurred, only to be shot in 1978. Soon after, he came out at his scheduled One Love Peace Concert and showed off his scars to the crowd.

“Holy Wound of the Left Arm of my Bob, I adore thee…” Well, the movie doesn’t go quite that far. The more relevant comparison would be to Achilles, though it was Marley’s toe, not heel, that started giving him trouble in 1977, portending the malignant melanoma that would later infest his entire body. This was thought by those close to him to be more of a caucasian disease than a black one, so if you take that all the way, the white man in his very DNA killed him. The movie doesn’t do much with this irony, nor the added irony of Marley’s sojourn to a holistic clinic in Germany, which barely a generation earlier would’ve treated an ailing Jamaican far less gently. Marley recounts a short life that seemed to straddle worlds and eras, and perhaps the definitive portrait will never be filmed or written. Until it is, though, there’s always the music.

Public Speaking

November 22, 2010

One New York City icon gives the floor to another in Public Speaking. We may forget that Martin Scorsese, aside from directing some of America’s first-rank narrative films of the last forty years, has spent almost as much time making documentaries. His latest is a showcase for Fran Lebowitz, a writer most famous these days for not writing. After publishing two well-received collections of humor essays, 1979′s Metropolitan Life and 1981′s Social Studies, Lebowitz fell mostly silent. She still files the occasional article, and in 1994 she wrote a children’s book, but the novel she contracted for years ago has yet to materialize.

In other ways, Lebowitz has been far from silent. She makes her living by giving campus lectures, a vocation that appeals to her more than writing does. Why would colleges pay a woman who hasn’t written much of note in thirty years to speak to students too young to know who she is? Because she’s funny. Always has been and, from the sound of it, always will be. In Public Speaking, Scorsese sits across from Lebowitz at a booth at the Waverly Inn, and Lebowitz talks and talks. If she never wrote another word but instead sat for a filmed interview every year or so, holding forth on society’s latest absurdities, society might not be so absurd — but then what would she have to talk about?

Of course, part of Lebowitz’ lament is that there’s no room for the intellectual in popular culture any more. Scorsese shows us vintage TV clips of, on separate occasions, James Baldwin and Gore Vidal both debating William F. Buckley. Now, I’m not Buckley’s biggest fan, but as a conservative voice he was far more eloquent than, say, Glenn Beck or Sean Hannity, which is what we get now. And certainly nobody given significant airtime on today’s TV is near the level of a Baldwin or a Vidal — or a Lebowitz (though appreciators of wit like Letterman and Conan will gladly have her on). Lebowitz opines that everything went downhill when all the best and brightest gay artists and audiences fell to AIDS in the ’80s. Now standards have fallen because the tough, demanding audience for tough, demanding work gets smaller every year, and mediocrity is not only rewarded but lionized. Take a look at any week’s New York Times bestseller list and it’s hard to argue Lebowitz’ point.

Lebowitz is a loner who spends a lot of time observing and judging. As if to underscore this, Scorsese films Lebowitz driving her cherished 1979 Checker cab, in footage that echoes an earlier clip from Scorsese’s own Taxi Driver. Lebowitz briefly worked driving a cab herself when she first got to New York; the weird but somehow appealing implication is that the only difference between Lebowitz and Travis Bickle was that she was female, Jewish, gay, and witty. She wrote pithy observations; he stockpiled guns and went on a rampage. Both tried to make sense of what they saw around them, but whereas Travis was sickened by the “scum” on the streets, Lebowitz these days bemoans the Disneyfication of the once-scuzzy Times Square.

In Scorsese’s hands, the film, propelled along by Lebowitz’ voice, becomes a wistful tribute to the New York City of the ’70s — perhaps the only place at the only time in American history that could have embraced artists as disparate as Scorsese and Lebowitz. The culture there, and everywhere else, is too vanilla now to support a Taxi Driver or a Metropolitan Life. But Scorsese is still directing, of course, and Lebowitz is still talking, if not writing, and the film by its very existence offers some solace.

Waiting for “Superman”

November 6, 2010

The “Superman” being awaited is the person who will fix the broken American educational system. Good men and women have tried for decades to fill that role. But then, to the accompaniment of ominous bass strings, emerges the evil Lex Luthor and his kryptonite — teachers’ unions! According to Waiting for “Superman,” the inchoate and divisive documentary by Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth), children everywhere in America are suffering and dying because bad teachers are being shielded from accountability by such brimstone-stinking cults as the American Federation of Teachers. In all, the film is positively Reaganite in its scorn towards organized labor; it’s disorienting to see a more-or-less liberal film (and filmmaker) casting unions largely run by and peopled by women (about 80% of U.S. teachers are female) as the Devil.

Guggenheim allows that, despite his own respect for the good public-school teachers (his 2001 debut, The First Year, followed five rookie educators), he sends his own kids to private school. He also allows that not everyone can afford that option. Having said that, he wades into the morass of debate about American education and comes up mostly empty. Charter schools, non-unionized and uncrowded, are one good answer, the film says. Waiting for “Superman” (I presume the quotes are at the behest of Warner Brothers, so that this won’t be confused for a film about the Man of Steel) speeds past the information that four out of five charter schools aren’t much better than public schools; it tracks five kids of various ages trying to get into charter schools, and we get to watch their anxiety at the end when they wait to be accepted by lottery, and their pain when they aren’t. (Three of the five don’t make it.)

The way Guggenheim builds up suspense by, in effect, watching the life or death (in the film’s terms) of five kids decided at random is a little sickening. We know very little about the kids; most of them, bashful and wary, don’t open up to the camera, and we spend some time with their various parents or guardians, most of whom grew up in poverty and just want their kids to have it easier than they did. (One kid is actually already saying this about his own, hopefully years-in-the-future kids, as if he had guiltily internalized his mother’s rhetoric.) So this human story, shakily carpentered, is surrounded by much footage of people in the educational system expounding on various talking points. Occasionally we get Michael Moore-style animated segments insulting in their we’ll-spell-it-out-for-you-dummies breeziness.

To get a sense of how haplessly simplistic the film is, look up Dana Goldstein’s piece in the October 11 issue of The Nation, which points out that teachers’ unions have worked closely with former or even current adversaries (like Bill Gates) to get things done for the sake of students, not teachers. Former D.C. public schools system chancellor Michelle Rhee, who resigned a few weeks ago, is held up as a mover and shaker instead of the often destructive and dismissive influence she actually was, while Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, is cast as a human roadblock to progress. Harlem Children’s Zone founder Geoffrey Canada is fawned over, though the movie doesn’t mention that the HCZ benefits from millions of dollars of private funding.

In truth, the movie hems and haws and then comes up with the missing “Superman”: us. If we’re to get through this crisis, we’re all to band together and buy war bonds, uh, I mean do something — Guggenheim is unclear on what. The real problem, outside the purview of this confused film, is that American education is a broken system inside a larger broken system, and that external factors like poverty, crime, indifferent or toxic parents, and disastrously inadequate funding¹ have more to do with the shameful state of our education than the demands of unions or the tenure of a relative few inept teachers. For those with money, there’s private school. For those with the luck of the draw, there’s charter school. For those whose parents have the time, patience and education, there’s homeschooling. The rest will sink or swim depending on the toughness and innate smarts they bring into the public system — and that goes for the teachers, too. The times call for grimming up, finding a spine, and facing facts, not pointing at one group or another. Guggenheim points. I respond in kind, and will leave to your imagination which finger I use.

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¹I can’t quite help pointing out that the citizens of all those other countries that are smoking our asses on the educational front — unlike historically and currently tax-averse Americans — probably don’t mind kicking in a few more bucks, tax-wise, to ensure better schools for their or others’ children. On this point, the silence of Waiting for “Superman” speaks volumes.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

June 11, 2010

Joan Rivers is not a happy woman, from the evidence in Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. She is driven — almost demonically driven — insecure, filled with anger. In other words, she’s a comedian.

Comedians are like rock stars in a lot of ways, but particularly in regards to longevity. Some burn out early (Mitch Hedberg, Greg Giraldo, Bill Hicks). And some hang in there well into their seventies, eighties, nineties. Joan Rivers turned 75 during the filming of this documentary. As I write this, she is 77. Jerry Lee Lewis is 75. I think Rivers might have more to talk about with Jerry Lee Lewis than with Jerry Lewis, who is 84, and who once infamously said that women aren’t funny. Anyway, why focus on age? Partly because Rivers herself can’t escape it. She hears, as one associate puts it, the ticking of the clock. She has five decades in show business, and she vehemently refuses to slow down or retire. She practically defines herself by how many dates are filled in on her gig schedule.

Rivers holds grudges and holds onto past traumas. She co-wrote and appeared in a play, Fun City, in 1972, and it got poisonous reviews on Broadway and closed in six days. So when she prepares her new stage show, Joan Rivers: A Work In Progress By A Life In Progress, she opens it in London. If it doesn’t fly there, she will refuse to take it to New York. It gets lukewarm reviews. She kills it. She can’t bear to go through a Fun City experience all over again. Roger Ebert wrote that Rivers “doesn’t know fear.” I think that’s true onstage; I think that’s the only place she doesn’t know fear. Offstage she knows it all too well.

Several times in the documentary, we hear Rivers announcing that she will do anything. Anything. Any demeaning commercial, any flyover hicksville gig. She did not voice the vagina character Vajoana (which looked and sounded like her) on the Comedy Central cartoon Drawn Together, but perhaps only because she wasn’t asked to. “I’ve been a cunt all my life,” she might have said; “I might as well play one.”

Searching for a suspenseful narrative arc after Rivers torpedoes her own play, the film latches onto Rivers’ appearance on Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice along with her daughter Melissa. Melissa got “fired” off the show and left amid much acrimony. Incensed, Rivers stayed on and ended up winning the competition. She sees this as a triumph, a life-saver, a way to stay in the game. From what I can tell, it doesn’t seem to have affected her career one way or the other. People will still want her for what she can do, or they won’t. Melissa, in the film, seems to be developing the same scowling mask as her mother. Neither of them seems happy, flitting from gig to gig, Joan badgering Melissa about her smoking and Melissa countering that she’s cut down.

They both, I presume, live in the shadow of Melissa’s father and Joan’s husband, Edgar Rosenberg, who married Joan in 1965 and took his own life twenty-two years later. This came on the heels of the failure of Rivers’ The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers, from which she was fired after several months, and which went on without her for about another year. Three months later, Edgar was dead; and the very fact of Rivers doing a talk show on a rival network cost her her relationship with her mentor, Johnny Carson, who never spoke to her again, and who, Rivers insinuates, made it impossible for Rivers to get any work on NBC until Celebrity Apprentice in 2009. Since Carson left The Tonight Show in 1992 and died in 2005, this seems unlikely, but what do I know?

This is a woman who’s taken any number of private and public punches and keeps on going. The portrait here is neither flattering nor unsympathetic. The structure and style reminded me a little of Kathy Griffin’s My Life on the D List — it feels like an 83-minute pilot for a Joan Rivers reality show, in which Joan, like Kathy, roves around endlessly looking for work, which really amounts to looking for love and reinforcement.


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