Archive for the ‘documentary’ category

Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie

May 21, 2023


Michael J. Fox has always had a surplus of nervous energy. If you picture him in his iconic roles, like Alex P. Keaton or Marty McFly, you don’t recall him at ease. He’s generally bustling, pacing, his body trying to keep pace with his brain. It now seems, some 32 years after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, that Fox’s tremors and lurching movements were forecast right from childhood, where, in re-enacted flashback, he’s often shown as running around, dashing off to the candy store by himself, refusing to be contained. The documentary Still shows, among other things, that Fox’s gradually worsening symptoms are a kind of nightmarish funhouse-mirror parody of how he comported himself in health. 

And now Fox has to learn how to move more mindfully and cautiously. He trips and falls, and often breaks bones. The disease has slowed him down by force, while it has strengthened and sped up his spasms. Medications help, but do not completely quell his involuntary motion. There is no cure, and Fox does not expect to see one in his lifetime. Parkinson’s patients — according to Fox’s own foundation, which has raised almost $2 billion for research — generally live ten to twenty years after diagnosis. Fox was diagnosed at age 29, while most patients get their dx past age 60; he will be 62 next month. So he is at least doubly an anomaly in this realm. Who knows, he may yet live to see a cure. 

As long as Fox can be assured there will be one, though, one suspects he’d be all right with not benefiting from it himself. He is, after all, notoriously optimistic. And that extends to his early days as an actor, when he spent years in obscurity waiting for something. Something turned out to be Family Ties, which made him famous as a pint-sized, restless comedian, the breakout star of a sitcom that was supposed to be about the parents. From there he took off in the Back to the Future franchise and thereafter, for the most part, circled the runway. He was seldom the problem in his films (he was terrific in Casualties of War); the material just wasn’t there for him. He returned to TV (Spin City) and, a couple years into it, decided to go public explaining the symptoms he had more and more trouble hiding.

Still combines the re-enactments, sharply chosen clips from Fox’s filmography, and Fox himself sitting and addressing the camera, or going about his family routines and physical therapies. Fox has retired from acting, but at heart he’s still an entertainer. In a candid moment, Fox is greeted by a passerby, turns to engage her, and falls. He waves away her concern, and redeems the mishap with a warm joke. I think the instinct for the laugh, for the audience love, runs so deep in Fox that it may be a large factor in keeping him together. He’s got to go out and be with people; he can’t just curl fetally into bed and die. 

Besides, Fox has a devoted family who don’t want to lose him any time soon: four kids and his wife and rock Tracy Pollan, who is another large factor in keeping him together. Pollan has been with Fox through the assholery of celebrity, the diagnosis, alcoholism, everything else; he’s aware he hit the lottery with her, and he is lost for words when asked her impact on his life — mere English seems inadequate for the task. “Clarity” is what he comes up with finally. It says a lot for one word. Still brings us closer to Fox as he contends with how his body has forced his mind to adapt. It doesn’t turn him into inspiration porn. It keeps a respectful distance from what must be a certain degree of daily indignity for him. It leaves him where we want him to be: walking towards sunset on a beach, surrounded by family. It’s a cozy profile that invites empathy more than sympathy.

Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time

November 14, 2021


In 1941, an 18-year-old Kurt Vonnegut Jr. inscribed a book to his high-school girlfriend, who would later become his wife. He wrote, “To be shown to our children when they begin to wonder what things are most important in this world that some fools call hell.” Within four years of writing those words, Vonnegut would lose his mother to suicide and, as an American prisoner of war in World War II, witness the bombing of Dresden and its horrific human toll. Sometimes, at least some of the world can be hell. Like any of us, Vonnegut struggled to exist in a world where Dresdens happen but birds also say “poo-tee-weet?” and children dance and elders laugh.

The long-in-the-making documentary Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time, by Vonnegut reader-turned-friend Robert B. Weide, knows enough not to pin Vonnegut down. He was complex, at times irascible or depressive, and towards the close of his time here, he was more or less openly yearning for the exit. (The war didn’t kill him, nor did his lifelong affair with Pall Malls, an untruth in advertising that irked him; he died from brain injuries incurred in a fall in his home, and even then it took several weeks for him to be finished, in 2007 at age 84. So it goes.) The documentary is shuffled around non-chronologically, in keeping with Vonnegut’s premise that life is a simultaneous continuum, that someone dead now is still alive somewhere else in the timeline, and vice versa. If we are all already dead, there’s no need to fear the inevitable.

At the same time, the dead leave behind people who want them still alive in this timeline, thanks very much. The man we meet in Unstuck in Time is a man with some scientific training and artistic instincts who created a buffer between himself and life’s intractable sadnesses. It was difficult to be a loved one finding oneself on the outside of that buffer, and Weide acknowledges that; he talks to Vonnegut’s three grown children as well as his four nephews that he took in after their mother, Vonnegut’s sister, died of cancer. They all chuckle about how the old man could be a grouch, a struggling writer trying to feed a family of nine. Ironically, it was Vonnegut’s magnum opus Slaughterhouse-Five, which came out like a kidney stone over a period of years of stops and starts, that redefined him and settled his money worries forever.

Unstuck in Time is a sympathetic, often fond portrait of a man who knew pain and seemed to consider it humanity’s common denominator, our shared cross to bear. He couched his insights in sci-fi narratives or absurdist premises, written simply so anyone could understand. He talked about kindness, the need for community. He looked the part of elder statesman even at 47, when Slaughterhouse-Five landed and made him a father or grandfather figure to a generation facing its own war. (Stephen King, of that demographic, dubbed him “Father Kurt.”) He functioned as a sort of whimsically dyspeptic eminence on TV, the country’s unofficial conscience. Sadly, he began to feel he’d outlived his time. Slaughterhouse-Five (my all-time favorite book) turned out to be his gravestone achievement, though his subsequent books still sold and he found some late-period purchase as a voice against the Iraq War.

Like his spiritual father Mark Twain, Vonnegut knew the importance of tucking his message inside a candied pill of humor. Weide frequently catches Vonnegut dissolving into laughter — sometimes, as one of his daughters points out, at inappropriate times: at his high-school reunion, Vonnegut looks at a plaque commemorating students who lost their lives in WWII, and he wheezes in mirth as he says that several of them died not in action but, say, during training, or of spinal meningitis. (So it goes.) It was a sweet irony to Vonnegut, who knew there was no good way to die in war. During the end credits, Weide gives us a montage of Vonnegut laughing; it isn’t just a cheap way to send us out comforted — it’s an affirmation of Vonnegut’s ethos and his mission as an artist. Maybe his stories would make you sad, but damned if he wasn’t going to go for some jokes along the way.

Introducing, Selma Blair

October 3, 2021

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As a young actress, Selma Blair developed something of a reputation for being willing to do just about any awkward or potentially thorny thing onscreen. It spoke to her honesty as a performer — we felt she didn’t do it for the attention (in her notorious red-box scene in Todd Solondz’ Storytelling, for instance) but because that was what the character did, and she was being paid to play that character. Within reason, Blair was just going to go for it, perhaps feeling she owed it to the woman she was playing to convey some sort of truth, even in a farcical construct like The Sweetest Thing

In Introducing, Selma Blair, the actress calls on the same candor to pull us into her misery following her diagnosis with multiple sclerosis. Yet even when her body buzzes with pain or her speech becomes halting, Blair can usually summon her self-deprecating wit. Somewhere in Rachel Fleit’s sensitive documentary, Blair says her English teacher told her she had the makings of an actress, not, as she’d initially wanted to be, a writer. But there’s a warm clarity and humor to her language, even when she has trouble enunciating or finding the words. She could have been a writer, and still could be, if she wanted. This, after all, is a woman who begins the documentary self-satirically vamping like the past-it star Norma Desmond and ends it by floating face-down in her pool like the luckless screenwriter Joe Gillis. 

Blair is ready for her close-up, after a career that, in recent years, hadn’t rewarded her efforts. She allows Fleit access to her in her despair and pain and hope; in her hospital beds and tentatively riding her beloved horse again. (Blair’s sense of self is generally too astringent to make the movie a shameless tearjerker, but I felt a hard lump in my throat when Blair tearfully asked her riding trainer if she would adopt Blair’s horse if Blair didn’t make it through stem-cell therapy.) The narrative, for those who have dealt with the maddening ups and downs of real as opposed to Hollywood disease, can get tense at times. Time is a factor: Blair must undergo the stem-cell transplant ASAP or risk permanent brain damage. She bids a temporary (she hopes temporary) farewell to her young son Arthur and her ailing mother and heads in for grueling chemotherapy.

Here and there, Blair sardonically comments on the level of drama the disease and its undignified symptoms (imbalance, brain fog, speech bumps) have brought to her life. I wonder if her snarky self-awareness (a Gen-X icon through and through) helped her see that the role of Selma Blair, anguished MS patient, was a plum and complex role a lot of actresses might jump at. I’m not suggesting that was the impetus for the documentary; I believe Blair when she talks about feeling good that her struggles can bring comfort to others unsteadily walking a similar path — people like Christina Applegate, Blair’s costar in The Sweetest Thing, who went public with her own MS diagnosis in August. I would much rather have seen Blair acting, and only acting, these struggles in a good movie than enduring them for real. So would she have, I’d wager, but here we are.

Occasionally Introducing, Selma Blair (not sure why that comma is there) reminded me of the recent videography Val, which contrasted footage of a young, hot-shot, suave-talking Val Kilmer with the wounded man he is now. Blair’s movie doesn’t engage as much with her celluloid past, although it’s a painful irony to watch her moving with balletic grace in pre-MS clips and then witness her post-diagnosis trying to navigate stairs. We get bits from, I guess, her best-known films: Legally Blonde, Hellboy, Cruel Intentions. It was The Sweetest Thing, though — a rare-in-its-day female gross-out comedy, years before Bridesmaids or Girls Trip — that really showed me to what extent Blair was up for disregarding her pristine features and getting knee-deep in the risible muck of dysfunction and embarrassment. Any time Blair did something like that in a movie, I felt grateful she implicated herself in the eternal mess of being a person — didn’t stand aloof from it or deny it or soft-soap it. And she performs the same service here.


August 15, 2021


Not long before the lights go down on the raw and somewhat depressing videography Val, its subject, Val Kilmer, in character as Mark Twain, offers a question — perhaps, for him, the question: “What are the words that heal a broken heart?” Kilmer, whose peak as a Hollywood actor probably ran from 1984 (his debut Top Secret!) to 1995 (Batman Forever), has lost a great deal in his life. He appears to us now as a rumpled but unbowed version of his younger self, humbled but also possibly delivered into a purer way of being. He no longer gets hired for big-ticket movies, but maybe he had outgrown them anyway. It’s likely Kilmer’s film career in the 2010s would have been fallow even without the cancer that took his voice in 2015.

Kilmer’s voice always landed quirkily on the ear anyway. His defining performance, for me, was in his second feature, Real Genius; his brilliant science brat Chris Knight had a way of making smarts seem sexy, witty, radical. His best-received turns, certainly including his possible peak as Doc Holliday in 1993’s Tombstone, ran off of Kilmer’s self-amused vibe of outsider cool as expressed in a vocal tone that stayed just this side of parody (a good number of his early performances all sound as though his dialogue has ironic quotation marks around it). This was a guy who was going to keep you at arm’s length out of necessity — nursing his own pains, starting with losing his younger brother when Kilmer was about to hang his hat at Juilliard — and it meant all the more when he showed you some vulnerability, as at the end of Doc Holliday’s life.

We certainly see his vulnerability in Val. The movie was assembled by directors/editors Leo Scott and Ting Poo from hours of video footage shot by Kilmer himself over the years — on the sets of Top Gun or The Doors or The Island of Dr. Moreau. The narrative flips back and forth between home movies of Kilmer (narrated by Kilmer’s son Jack) and newer footage of Kilmer talking slowly and painstakingly through his trach button, or fulfilling autograph gigs at conventions or screenings. Kilmer seems to perceive that his acting career is by and large over, supplanted by a sort of extended farewell tour where he scribbles “I’ll be your wingman” on Top Gun posters for fans over and over. Sometimes this turn of events saddens him, and sometimes he’s in a mood to see it as a tribute to the mark he’s made on people’s lives. Having lost nearly everything, he grapples his grown kids (Jack and Mercedes) unto his soul with hoops of steel.

Throughout Val — produced by Kilmer and his kids — we know full well we’re getting one side and one side only. The movie does soften one’s attitude towards him (if we paid any attention to the media’s pegging him as “difficult” in the ‘90s); we come to feel he’s earned some rest, some laurels to rest on. He keeps his creative hand in by doing paintings or cut-up scrapbook projects; Val is like one of his scrapbooks promoted to a “documentary.” Between this film and his 2020 memoir I’m Your Huckleberry, Kilmer seems to be ordering his legacy, in his standard eccentric-shambolic style. The floors of his place are littered with clippings, photos, memorabilia, many highlighted by Kilmer’s magic-marker scrawl.

As The New Yorker’s Richard Brody noted, the Rosebud of Kilmer’s life was his younger brother and early collaborator Wesley, gone far too soon at 15 — perhaps the artistic partner who understood Kilmer the best. It’s tempting though probably simplistic to diagnose Kilmer’s subsequent life and career as looking in vain for Wesley again. Regardless, Kilmer carried that sense of super-8-in-the-backyard playfulness to his film roles. Watching him in that oft-clipped Top Gun scene where he chops his teeth at Tom Cruise and then grins, we felt that whatever private joke this guy was having, we wanted to be in on it. He lured us closer; he never came closer to us, but made us feel it’d be cool to be included on his wavelength, even if he never quite brought us in all the way. In Val, we see him low and sad and sick, but it’s still only the face he wants to put forward. He remains, somewhat triumphantly, off in his own zone.


July 18, 2021


The suicide asks the world, “Why?” The question has levels: Why me? Why am I here? Why should I go on? And the suicide, most often, is answered by the same word with a different meaning: Why did you go? Why did you leave us? Why wasn’t I enough to save you? The messy but honorable documentary Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain does its best work when it engages with all the whys — not only Bourdain’s final why (he took his own life in 2018) and the many whys of those who loved him, but the whys of Bourdain’s packed and perpetually in-motion life. 

A chef turned writer turned host of several food/travel shows, Bourdain seemed to mainline experiences as he once injected heroin. He was never one to err on the side of moderation. As much as we would have wanted a storybook ending for him — retiring to his beloved Vietnam, kicking back — that wasn’t in the cards for him. Director Morgan Neville (Won’t You Be My Neighbor) sits down with a bunch of Bourdain associates and friends, who all still seem raw about losing him. The narrative picks up around the time the spotlight landed on Bourdain — when his addictive tell-all Kitchen Confidential was published in 2000. From there Bourdain wandered into television, a medium he was not initially suited for.

At certain points one might feel a better title for the film would be Storyteller, since more than one person calls him that. But Roadrunner better matches up with the movie’s portrait of a man with an itchy foot. Bourdain was always running towards new worlds; he was also, we begin to sense, running away from himself. We might as well knock it out of the way now: I don’t blame Bourdain’s last lover, Asia Argento, for what he did, and I don’t think anyone who watches Roadrunner with a reasonable amount of attention could, either. Any attempt to make Argento the “why” of Bourdain’s ending runs contrary to his own ethos, his very soul. He knew nothing is that simple. This man who wrote about everything else, though, did not leave a note. He felt, perhaps, the act spoke for him.

By liberally seasoning the film with talking-heads footage of those who loved him — second wife Ottavia Busia-Bourdain, fellow chef Eric Ripert, many others — Neville avoids the trap of making a compilation of clips from all Bourdain’s shows, and Bourdain’s survivors help put him in context. He was generally miserable and dissatisfied with himself, which drove him to immerse himself without restraint in new passions, like jiu-jitsu — or Argento. After a while, the portrait takes shape: the profoundly sad implication is that some people aren’t meant to last — the old “light that burns twice as bright” adage — and that Bourdain escaped self-extinguishment in a few major ways (I still remember the New Zealand episode of No Reservations when an ATV flipped over onto him and, by some fool luck, he didn’t end right then and there) and in countless, everyday minor ways until it finally caught up with him. Bourdain, though, lasted long enough for millions — not just those he hung out with — to mourn him bitterly.

The big takeaway here, I think, is a brief bit when Bourdain sits across from Iggy Pop, who says that what still thrills him is being loved and appreciating that gift. Bourdain nods blankly, as if Iggy were talking about alien abduction. The entirety of the movie is in that opaque nod of incomprehension. Bourdain was stopped and praised wherever he walked in New York City and increasingly elsewhere in the world. It would have been balm for his ego, if not for the damage it did to his role as an observer and chronicler. Once he became the observed and chronicled, which on an elemental level he seemed to feel he didn’t deserve, it was only a matter of time. If you don’t feel worthy of adulation and random stranger affection, you don’t feel you belong in the world that lavishes it on you. And perhaps you act accordingly. Roadrunner shakes out not as a biography so much as an inquiry into grief.

Summer of Soul

July 5, 2021

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If you’ve been on the fence, for whatever reason, about catching Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s Summer of Soul, I urge you to fall on the side of seeing it. It’s a guaranteed mood-lifter. Questlove’s achievement here goes far beyond what some might take to be “just a concert film.” The bulk of the film, under the direction of Hal Tulchin, is footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969. The performers included Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, The 5th Dimension, Nina Simone, and Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples in a duet that generates more power than you’ll find in any Marvel movie.

The Harlem Cultural Festival ran for six weekends in the summer of 1969, and Hal Tulchin shot it all. Then, despite Tulchin’s best efforts to sell it around as “the Black Woodstock,” the footage sat unseen on tapes in his basement for the next few decades. Questlove and his team unearthed it and whittled it down to two hours, with some interview space given to people who were there, either in the dense crowd or onstage. There isn’t a dud in any of the performances Questlove selected, and many of them do double duty as great music and as great human moments. You can see that all the artists know they’re a part of something major. “We were so happy to be there,” says a visibly moved Marilyn McCoo as she watches herself and the 5th Dimension finish a number.

It becomes an almost humorous motif: again and again we hear performers and audience members say they’d never seen that many Black people in one place before. You do see the occasional white face in the crowd (or, surprisingly, on stage; one man who caught the show talks about his bemusement that Sly Stone had a white drummer), but largely it was a Black event. Some of the performers made gestures towards brotherly love between the races, but there is an overriding concern, informed by the urgency of the day, that Black people must be allowed equity before any smiley talk about equality. These were not quiet times, and the Festival was in some respects an oasis but also an opportunity to reflect on the power, pain, and pleasures of the Black soul. (I’d say the use of that word in the title has at least two meanings.) Songs were sung as much in anger and longing as in joy and togetherness.

Questlove’s main accomplishment is to thread the joy alongside whatever anguish it came out of. The energy of the music is profound and rich — the performers, especially the gospel singers, seem to tap into something direct, elemental, occasionally almost frightening in its force. I don’t know anyone still vertical who wouldn’t be wiped out by Nina Simone’s set, or a rare taste of Stevie Wonder on drums, or the moment when Mavis Staples, having scorched the air with her voice, hands the mic to the ailing Mahalia Jackson, a dragon awakened, who reaches inside herself and pulls out something annihilating yet restorative. And this almost never saw the light of day.

What we take with us, perhaps even more than the warming memory of the music, is the vibe passed back and forth between artists and audience. That exchange of spirit is common in concert films, whether the exchange is cool (Jazz on a Summer’s Day) or toxic (Gimme Shelter). Here, the give-and-take is a bit more complex. Some of the faces in the crowd are wary, closed off; some are wide open, embracing the experience. None of the music is insular or wise-ass (they had comedy bits for that — Moms Mabley and Willie Tyler turn up briefly); it’s all transportive, reaching out to community and to life. If you were in that crowd, you would have had to work at it not to be won over. Questlove has a light touch, alternating historical gloom with aesthetic elation. This is a beautiful work of restoration and tribute.

Bad Attitude: The Art of Spain Rodriguez

February 12, 2021

Screen Shot 2021-02-07 at 5.49.08 PMOn a lot of levels, Les Daniels’ 1971 book Comix: A History of Comic Books in America tweaked my ideas of what comics could be. Spain Rodriguez’ anti-bourgeois underground comix hero Trashman, who appeared in a strip reprinted in Comix, was a particularly sharp tweak. Here, relatively early in my experience of superheroes, was an artist with the heart of a biker and the soul of a revolutionary who created an anti-hero, nonwhite to boot, that didn’t care whether larger society approved of him. Down these mean streets a man must go, who is himself quite mean and tarnished but not afraid. Spain may not have been mean — one of his comics stories shows him hesitant to kick a biker adversary when he was down — but he was often the first to admit he was tarnished.

Directed by Spain’s widow Susan Stern, Bad Attitude: The Art of Spain Rodriguez is a portrait of a man who didn’t take well to being told what to do from the right or the left. Neither did most of Spain’s contemporaries in the pages of the seminal Zap comic, such as R. Crumb, Robert Williams, or the recently departed S. Clay Wilson. Many of the male underground artists weathered pointed criticism by feminist comix creators and/or historians (Trina Robbins, who is both, is interviewed here); of them all, Wilson, with his fixation on filthy outcasts and pirates hacking off limbs and genitals, was perhaps the most glaringly “problematic.” So why did Rodriguez, whose depictions of women were relatively benign, take such heat? An unhappy reason begins to fade in: Rodriguez was the nonwhite guy in a collective of pale guys, and his work had a political consciousness that afflicted the comfortable without much bothering to comfort the afflicted.

Stern’s film is about as neutral as it can be, spiced up with archival footage and copious examples of its subject’s art. It doesn’t come near Terry Zwigoff’s masterpiece Crumb, though maybe only because Spain’s life doesn’t offer as much baroque family stuff to work with. In Crumb, you can see for yourself what skewed young Crumb’s perception and drove him to get out. Bad Attitude gives us an artist who seems to have arrived fully formed. Like many of his generation, Spain grew up on the grotesque EC line of horror and crime comics in the ‘50s, and those fed his warts-and-all aesthetic as much as anything. Spain’s comix are highly entertaining, especially his autobiographical biker stories, though I’m partial to his street scenes, masses of humanity moving through boxes of lights and buildings. It’s hard to envision a Spain comic that doesn’t have streets in it, usually littered with junk and billboarded with actual ad art snipped out of magazines. The underground artists were all about drawing stuff you’d never seen in comics before, and that could mean perverse sex and it could also mean just the usual detritus you kick out of your way walking through the city, stuff you wouldn’t see in Superman or Fantastic Four.

Either way, the underground artist was after a more authentic way of representing the world as he or she lived it, and that was certainly Spain’s M.O. (Cancer finally took him in 2012 at age 72.) Spain may not have “gotten” feminism (but struggled to understand it and its evolution all his life), but the ladies all seemed to dig him. (A few, including Stern, pose holding a Spain drawing of their younger, more zaftig selves.) The movie assures us that Spain may not have been 100% enlightened on every progressive topic, but he wasn’t unwilling to learn. His man-eating heroines like Big Bitch are essentially Wonder Woman filtered through Spain’s wish-fulfillment of women as powerful, sexy icons.

Seeing your subject as more than human is, sadly, a kinder way of dehumanizing than seeing your subject as less than human. In both cases the subject isn’t quite human. It’s a common thread in art, but not, I would guess, out of any conscious hatred or need to deny humanity; the artist just naturally has a different take on what humanity is. The highlight of Bad Attitude focuses on one of Spain’s slice-of-life anecdotes about the time he and some buddies encounter a gay guy in the park (who pleasures at least one of them) and then beat him up and “roll” him for his dough. Spain just presents the story without comment — “This is what happened.” In the story, titled “Dessert” and collected in the Fantagraphics Spain volume My True Story, Spain mostly stands apart from the abuse and witnesses it. Should he have intervened? Sure, but he didn’t. He recounts it for us but doesn’t tell us how to feel about it or about him. The last panel of the comic, though, shows the bloodied but unbowed gay guy saying “I can’t wait to come back again next week.” So the joke is on his abusers, who only got what was in his wallet but didn’t take anything important, didn’t stop him from further pursuit of illicit fun. That Spain not only gave the gay guy the last word but imagined a sympathetic way for him to flip the script makes Spain, I think, a great artist who was honest about the failings of humans but not nihilistic. Neither a good nor bad attitude, then — just realistic.


November 1, 2020

zappaSome artists — especially artists like Frank Zappa — must hear Thomas Carlyle in their heads from time to time. Pinching a bit from the scriptures, Carlyle wrote, “Produce! Produce! Were it but the pitifullest infinitesimal fraction of a Product, produce it in God’s name! ‘Tis the utmost thou hast in thee; out with it then. Up, up! Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy whole might. Work while it is called To-day, for the Night cometh wherein no man can work.”

Zappa, who lost his tussle with prostate cancer just shy of his 53rd birthday in 1993, produced as though Carlyle were screaming those words in his ear all the time. At the end of Alex Winter’s new documentary Zappa, we’re told that Zappa put out 62 albums during his life, and his estate has found enough stuff in his sprawling archives to release another fifty-plus. Winter draws from tons of never-seen footage, letting the voluble Zappa tell as much of his story (mainly to contemporaneous interviewers) as possible. At just a hair over two hours (plus several minutes of Kickstarter-lengthened end credits), Zappa feels epic though not too chunky for the newcomer. We get a sense of Zappa the man, composer, performer, and activist against record labels. When Zappa visited Prague in 1990 as a guest of Czech president Václav Havel, he was received, says engineer Dave Dondorf, as “a king of freedom.”

Sometimes we seem to revere the more difficult artists not so much because of the art they make — though that can be enriching — as because of their persistence. Zappa was a one-off who couldn’t make music any other way but his own perfectionist way, and if he ever sold out — his one hit “Valley Girl” came about because he wanted to spend more time with daughter Moon Unit — it was purely coincidental. He was the ultimate cult musician, as well as a musician’s musician; in the film, we see Zappa onstage with John and Yoko, and Lennon genuinely seems honored to be up there with Zappa. (Supposedly Sgt. Pepper was the Beatles’ whack at a Zappa album, and Zappa returned the salute with the cover for the Mothers of Invention’s We’re Only in It for the Money.)

Was Zappa a jerk at times? Winter talks to several people (including Zappa’s tough-minded widow Gail, who died in 2015) who allow that, given Zappa’s driven nature, he couldn’t avoid ruffling feathers. A bit cold and isolated, and not emotionally demonstrative, Zappa must’ve run afoul of many of the session musicians he depended on to realize his work. It wasn’t until he started working with musicians who approached his music as fans that he truly got what he wanted. (We also see him tinkering on some horrible proto-computer moving music files around. He was going to get his music how he wanted it if he had to do it all himself on a box that looks like it packed less RAM than an Atari console.) And Zappa was not immune to the charms of groupies, let’s say.

But his crusade against parental-advisory labels on albums, though not really successful, may be his true legacy in terms of his public face in pop culture. He was the severe-looking guy, hair snipped down to a Wall Street cut your dad would approve of, standing up against “Washington wives” and industry fatcats. (It could just be that that was what got him in front of our TV dinners most often.) It took up more of his steadily-decreasing time than he surely wanted it to. Zappa has time to touch on a couple of lesser-loved segments of his life: his score for Timothy Carey’s amazing 1961 film The World’s Greatest Sinner, which Zappa was dismissive of, but which, he acknowledges here, paid enough to let Zappa open a studio; and his dismal hosting gig at Saturday Night Live in 1978, wherein he kept breaking character and mugging to the camera. The effect is of a peripatetic artistic life, a portrait of an artist who would try anything once except dishonesty.

Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something

October 11, 2020

Screen Shot 2020-10-11 at 3.51.14 PMAlmost everyone in the new documentary Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something smiles when talking about him, and Chapin himself, who died at 38 in a 1981 car wreck, is seldom seen in the movie without a smile. Even when performing some of his saddest story-songs — “Taxi,” “A Better Place to Be,” “Cat’s in the Cradle” — Chapin wore his irrepressible grin, because in these songs he was working with two things that meant a lot to him: music and humanity. His joy was unquestionable and contagious. What we see in this film, though, is that his musical project was inextricable from his life project; he didn’t just sing about the downtrodden worthy of help — he worked to help them.

By hanging his film on the structure of Chapin’s awakening as a man who agitated endlessly for change, director Rick Korn avoids the trap of the conventional rockumentary — the drugs (Chapin was a straight-edge), the rise and fall (Chapin may have given away lots of time and money, but he never really fell), the comeback. Part of the point of When in Doubt, Do Something is that, in the ways that would have mattered to Chapin, he never died, never went away, so never “came back.” His musical legacy is rock-solid, but his political legacy — not only his charity foundations that survive him after almost forty years but the activists he inspired, from Bob Geldof to Michael Moore — almost outpaces it. Chapin might have thought it was nice if someone happened upon “Taxi” and felt less lonely, but he would’ve grinned his grin to hear that one of his charities filled a belly.

Korn is generous with concert clips anyway, and the literally homey sound of Chapin’s voice — making his songs feel like something you came home to, something that wrapped you against the cold outside in the warmth of story — rings clear. We see a few people (Pat Benatar, Bruce Springsteen) make noble efforts to cover his songs; his brother Tom comes closest to nailing that affably sympathetic I’ve-got-a-tale-to-tell-you tone (and Tom has the film’s dramatic highlight, heartbroken and almost losing it while performing “Remember When the Music” at Harry’s memorial service). To the extent that Chapin’s music informed his politics and vice versa, the movie gives his songbook its due, but perhaps only as the thing Chapin used to get where he really needed to be — in a room with President Jimmy Carter, talking Christ down from the cross until Carter in essence said “Okay, enough! I agree with you! Let’s do something!”

Chapin comes across in the film not as a saint but as simply a good man, who in the years after his death might have been diagnosed as a type-A personality. Sometimes in entertainment-media fairy tales you hear the beloved story of the star who gives everything of himself and still, mysteriously, has some left for his family. I have a feeling you had to be accustomed to a certain frequency of scattered energy level to hang with Harry Chapin. He sometimes reads here, in anecdotes and in interview footage of him, as the kind of guy who would give away a bunch of his royalty earnings to help feed the hungry but not save aside enough to pay the electric bill.

A few of his old friends and co-activists who reminisce about him here — Sen. Patrick Leahy (age 40 in the vintage footage, with the hair of a 70-year-old), priest turned rock DJ Bill Ayres — seem to be plugged into a similar vibe. They’re still here, still working for change. Chapin, who would have been 78 this year — and who likely would still be here if not for the semi-truck that rear-ended his VW — would be matching them step for step. When in Doubt, Do Something, like Chapin himself, thinks it’s all well and good that he got up onstage and reached millions with his empathy, but his true work on Earth was putting that empathy into real practice. When that fact clicks into place, we understand why so many people who talk about him smile.

For Madmen Only: The Stories of Del Close

March 22, 2020

for-madmen-only-185820The current situation being what it is, I have no idea when you’ll get to see For Madmen Only: The Stories of Del Close — it was supposed to premiere at the cancelled SXSW festival last week — but you should keep an eye out for it. It’s as worthy of its subject as any movie that isn’t completely shambolic and unconventional can be. The improvisational-comedy master Del Close, who died in 1999 five days shy of his 65th birthday, is probably better known for the comedians he taught and/or inspired than for his own performing. Anyone who was anyone on Saturday Night Live (from the Belushi years to the Fey years), SCTV, and more passed through the turbulent gates of Close’s cracked guidance and wisdom. A guru to hundreds, he was also a self-destructive, self-mythologizing flaming wreck of a human, one who burned bridges while still standing on them.

For Madmen Only combines the usual talking-heads approach with tongue-in-cheek re-enactments. The skilled comedian James Urbaniak steps in as Close in the latter segments; it must have been as daunting a task as Michael Chiklis wandering into enemy fire to play Belushi in the awful Wired, but in this case it pays off — Urbaniak has a strong resemblance to Close in the first place, so he’s free to play Close as an idiosyncratic but occasionally successful collaborator. The segments have to do with Close’s late-period project Wasteland, a short-lived cult comic book from DC, and that’s where I first heard of Close and the many tales, tall or otherwise, about him — his various drug trips, his brushes with Hollywood, his beginnings as a carny performer, or just surreal reveries with himself and sometimes his writing partner John Ostrander as hosts.

Around that same time (the late ‘80s), Close was wandering into major films — you may have seen him in The Untouchables, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, or the remake of The Blob. Once seen, he’s not easily forgotten; he had a leonine, authoritative presence. More and more over the years, though, he used that presence not to hit his own marks on the stage but to make a mark as a behind-the-scenes Svengali, directing youngsters like Stephen Colbert or Mike Myers to reach inside themselves, connect with their stagemates, and produce … well, laughless crap, some of the time. Some of the time, the result was brilliance you couldn’t tap into any other way. Forming his own theater, with longtime creative partner Charna Halpern, Close seasoned his students with a decades-old improv technique he’d developed and insisted on, known as “the Harold.” Despite reading about it on several occasions and hearing about it anew in the movie, I still don’t quite understand the Harold’s intricacies, but then I’m not an improvisational comedian. A comics and sci-fi reader, Close probably enjoyed a concept that enabled extended fantasizing within a context of rules; in that sense, he was the Gary Gygax of comedy, the dungeonmaster.

Close never rose to the level that many of his students felt he wanted to. He had the mind of a teacher but the soul of a performer, a renegade artist. If you know him, it’s from that brief window when directors like Brian De Palma and John Hughes were hiring him. That was him, probably, at his most presentable, the wizard a movie director could wheel out for hipster cred (and to add a few volts to a scene — Close brings avuncular menace to his reading of “You fellas are untouchable, is that the thing?”). Mostly, though, he was simply too unstable for even the unconventional employment of an actor. What this documentary underlines is that Close found his métier as a prophet and visionary, touching the faithful on their fevered foreheads and dispensing grace.

closeuntouchThe shots of Close’s cluttered, dilapidated ashtray of an apartment square with the portrait I remember from the best two books about him, The Funniest One in the Room by Kim “Howard” Johnson and Guru by Jeff Griggs. In person, I gather, Close was the classical irascible old genius with an appetite for stimulation. This was a man capable of telling an interviewer (Bob Odenkirk) that he’d kicked cocaine and heroin, but of course still smoked weed and had a few hallucinogenic trips a year (“Those are health drugs!”). The movie’s mix of anecdotes, dramatizations and animation points up the subtitle — the stories of Del Close. For certainly such a crowded house of a man would not have only one story. We finish with a pair of debunkings of Close legends, and Charna Halpern refers to the “jerky reporter” who broke one of them — the one about Close bequeathing his own skull to play the role of Horatio in future productions at a Chicago theater. Well, as the saying goes, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.