Archive for February 1992

Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer

February 22, 1992

coverNick Broomfield’s 1992 film Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer is worth a look for more than just post-Monster curiosity. The point of most of Broomfield’s documentaries is the Rashomon-like unknowability of truth — he ventures into scuzzy outlands, boom mike in hand, and tries to get people to talk to him, like Michael Moore only a lot more fearless. (Moore generally only has to worry about being ignored by corporate types; Broomfield routinely visits the kind of people you’d cross the street to avoid.)

Broomfield is willing to believe that Aileen Wuornos, sitting on death row for murder, is being manipulated and betrayed by everyone around her. And indeed — as in Broomfield’s later film, Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam — everyone around the notorious woman comes off as much more devious and calculating than she does. In both Aileen Wuornos and Heidi Fleiss, Broomfield’s exertions pay off with a climactic interview with the lady herself, who seems rather presentable and sane in comparison.

By that point, we’ve met Aileen’s adoptive mother Arlene Pralle and Aileen’s lawyer Steven Glazer, both of whom, it appears, have convinced Aileen to plead guilty so as to get her the death penalty and profit off of her corpse. Both of them also unblinkingly ask Broomfield for $25,000 for the privilege of sitting down with Aileen (a figure he later manages to reduce). It’s also suggested that Aileen’s lover Tyria (played in Monster in a sanitized version by Christina Ricci) not only helped the cops nail her — she also stood to profit, along with the Florida police, from the movie rights to Aileen’s story.

After a shaky start, Broomfield’s film, true to its subtitle, examines how Aileen may have been fucked over once again by people she trusted. The irony of it produces something far from laughter. Without carrying out an Errol Morris-like investigation — he doesn’t try to argue that Aileen is innocent of her crimes — Broomfield ends up exploring a world that cares more about money and deals than about life and death. When Broomfield finally sits across from Aileen on death row, hardly a word passes between them on the subject of what she did or what drove her to it. Questions start expanding from what isn’t said, and then Broomfield leaves us alone with them.

Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse

February 2, 1992


Or, how a young director’s romantic notion of a cinematic statement comes back to haunt him and turns into a prolonged nightmare. Probably nothing in this excellent documentary about the making of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is more telling than George Lucas’ admitting that he (who once planned to direct it) and writer John Milius wanted to shoot the movie in Vietnam while the war was still going on. That may not have been much worse than Coppola’s ordeal some years later, in the oppressively hot Phillippines, where monsoons destroyed entire sets, helicopters on loan from Ferdinand Marcos were recalled in mid-scene, original star Harvey Keitel left the film, replacement star Martin Sheen almost died of a heart attack, and so on.

Whatever our opinion of Apocalypse Now, we come away from the documentary with a profound admiration for Coppola, if only because he didn’t kill himself or someone else. His wife Eleanor catches him on camera saying things like “This is not a good movie” and “I don’t know what I’m doing,” not to mention the infamous, often-misquoted “If Marty dies, I want to hear that everything’s okay until I say he’s dead.” The documentary actually outdoes the movie it examines in terms of illustrating a specific brand of madness and how it flourishes in the right heady atmosphere. Coppola went up the river as Willard and became Kurtz, and it’s all here on film.

Radio Flyer

February 2, 1992

Radio Flyer comes advertised as a wonderful feel-good fantasy, but it’s one of the most infuriating films I ever expect to see. Thank Christ nobody fell for it. Director Richard Donner (the Lethal Weapon series) sets out to make the impossible: an inspirational tale about child abuse. Every damn time the material starts to grow thorns, Donner clips them, backing off and laying on the soft-focus lighting and string instruments. The result is embarrassing at best and horribly misleading at worst.

The plot is simple. A genial father (Tom Hanks, squinting into the sun a lot) gathers his two sons around him and tells them about his childhood — when he, Mike, was eleven and his brother Bobby was eight. The film segues into his story, with Hanks narrating Stand by Me-style. It’s 1969, and little Mike (Elijah Wood) and Bobby (Joseph Mazzello) travel cross-country with their recently divorced mom (Lorraine Bracco), who wants to make a fresh start. They settle in California, where Bracco meets and marries a welder (Adam Baldwin), who turns out to be a boozehound and worse: Late at night, when Bracco is at work, Baldwin singles out little Bobby and beats him with an electrical cord. Bobby makes Mike promise not to tell, because he wants his mom to stay happy. But Mike has to do something, and one night he has a vision of a weeping buffalo — a buffalo he saw on a ranch while en route to California. The buffalo gives Mike some obscure advice, and soon the kids start work on a modified Radio Flyer wagon — a flying machine that will deliver Bobby from Baldwin’s clutches. Things get really bad at home, and in the tearful climax Bobby soars away in the contraption, free at last.

What kind of foolishness are Donner and screenwriter David Mickey Evans selling here? What world do they live in? Donner’s other films have tended towards the manipulative, but this is his worst yet. In an unforgivable scene, the boys’ faithful, adorable dog appears to be dead — beaten to a pulp by Baldwin — and then turns out fine; this dog also saves the kids from a gang of punks, who have no reason to be in the movie other than to supply dumb tension every half hour. The boys playing Mike and Bobby give prodigious, heartfelt performances — Elijah Wood was a formidable presence even then, even in shit like this — but their roles are written as perfect, polite Disney kids, thoughtful and sensitive beyond their years. And they’re used so shamelessly as figures of innocence that you expect to see a halo pop up over poor Bobby’s head. The sad spectacle of an adult brute victimizing young dreamers is such a creaky cliché anyway — this stuff is what Adam Baldwin, a compelling actor in the right role (as any Firefly fan will attest), was already transcending when he played the tough, misunderstood Linderman in My Bodyguard. Baldwin is certainly effective as the psycho stepdad, and the movie obviously wants you to hate him, but you also end up hating the movie.

If it were only sickly-sweet and inept, Radio Flyer would be dismissible, but its stabs at comforting metaphor backfire and make it contemptible. I’m sure Donner and Evans (who was once the director before he was fired and Donner was brought on board) didn’t intend to make a hurtful, exclusionary film, but that’s what this is. Bobby’s flight can be taken as a metaphor for the way some abused children retreat into fantasy to escape ugly reality. But here it’s too literal — it could just as well mean that Bobby gets beaten to death and “flies away” that way — and it’s presented as something only the visionary Bobby can do. The movie says, It’s okay not to tell anyone that your stepdad beats you; as long as you’re imaginative and wish real hard for it to stop, things will work out. But most abused children don’t have “Radio Flyers” — they remain resentful and frightened well into adulthood. If they live that long. Radio Flyer is about as cruel and thoughtless a movie as can be.