It’s a special day when a documentary comes out that deserves a home here. What makes The Chaperone 3D (2016) unique is that the subject is straightforward, but the presentation isn’t.
FEATURING: Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, Benjamin Utzerath, Vincent Nemeth, Johanna Korthals Altes,
PLOT: An experimental documentary on the Louvre, with dramatic recreations of the Nazi takeover and Napoleon showing up to point out his own portraits.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This stream-of-consciousness companion piece to Russian Ark, ‘s amazing one-shot exploration of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage, is too messy with too many wild hairs. Ultimately, it seems to be more about Sokurov’s own artistic whims and impulses than it is about the Louvre.
COMMENTS: As the opening credits scroll, we hear director Sokurov take (scripted) phone calls regarding post-production work on his latest movie (presumably Francofonia itself). The second caller (“Captain Dirk,” who we’ll meet again later) asks about the director’s progress and he confesses “I don’t think the film is successful.”
I generally agree, although any movie that spotlights so many masterpieces from the Louvre can’t be a complete failure. Sokurov is a true connoisseur of European art (as seen in Russian Ark) and a has a legitimate love for the Louvre, but this documentary/narrative hybrid piece shows no real organization or purpose. It’s like an spur-of-the-moment whirlwind trip to a museum. Partly, Sokurov wants to give an account of how deputy museum director Jacques Joujard hid the museum’s treasures from the Nazis ahead of the occupation of Paris in 1940, with the silent blessing of Count Franz Wolff-Metternich, the cultured professor Hitler had appointed as “caretaker” of French cultural treasures. This potentially interesting story is told with both archival footage and recreations using actors. But Sokurov masks his straightforward tale with multiple digressions: his own poeticized musings on European culture; a mysterious character who runs around the darkened Louvre in a gown saying “liberté, égalité, fraternité”; the ghost of Napoleon (who shows up to point out his own portraits); Sokurov’s fanciful Skype discussions with the aforementioned Captain Dirk, who’s carrying a load of museum-bound historical treasures on a freighter imperiled by rough seas; and so on.
Francofonia suffers by comparison with Russian Ark, whose one-take, two-character gimmick imposed structure and discipline on the film while still allowing Sokurov to indulge his imagination. Sokurov is intelligent, and his a love for museums and for the preservation of European high culture comes across, but Francofonia is so scattershot that his passion is dissipated. A conventional documentary would hit at least as hard: indeed, moments when the camera merely pans over the straining figures of “The Raft of the Medusa” or past each curl in an Assyrian lamassu’s beard, or zooms in so we can see the intimate cracks in the “Mona Lisa”‘s aging canvas, are the film’s strongest sights.
Sokurov says he wants to create cinematic tributes to Madrid’s Prado and London’s British Museum next. I hope he finds a more interesting angle from which to film these projects than he did for his Louvre piece.
The Music Box Francofonia DVD or Blu-ray includes two substantial extras, each about an hour long: the making of documentary “Visitors to the Louvre” and “The Man Who Saved the Louvre,” a conventional documentary (which the DVD refers to as a “play”) on Jacques Joujard.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Sometimes the bizarre can illuminate the poignant, sometimes it distracts. In ‘Francofonia’ it most definitely distracts… terribly over-directed and seems strange just for the sake of being strange.”–Tom Long, Detroit Free Press (contemporaneous)
DIRECTED BY: Frederick Wiseman
FEATURING: The inmates and staff of Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane
PLOT: A documentary chronicling the operations of the Massachusetts Correctional Facility and the lives and treatment of its inmates.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Titicut Follies is shocking, disturbing, disheartening. It helped usher in cinema verité with a direct approach to documentary filmmaking that had rarely been seen before. But it’s only weird to the extent that man’s inhumanity to man is considered weird. In fact, the most bizarre thing about the film may be that, in half a century, things have changed very little.
COMMENTS: It’s remarkable that Titicut Follies exists at all. The subject matter is not typical fare, even for a documentary, with no protagonist to follow and no banner to carry. The presentation is stark and straightforward, showing routine events with no context or explanation, and refusing to allow uncomfortable moments to end through the artificial escape of cutting away. Watching it fifty years after it was shot, in a society where everyone is painfully aware of the need to manage situations to minimize liability and risk, it is astounding to see how open and guileless the staff is in their attitudes and actions toward their charges. The obvious question is, how did anyone let this get on film?
Credit is due first and foremost to director/producer/editor Frederick Wiseman, who is rightfully famous for his blunt approach to his subjects. Eschewing talking heads, narration, captions, non-diegetic music, or anything that would comment upon the images captured by his camera, Wiseman immerses himself in his chosen setting, fading into the background until the subjects forget the camera is even there. This fly-on-the-wall approach allows him to capture moments of extraordinary intimacy, because the participants fail to notice that they never went off public view. Trained as a lawyer, Titicut Follies was Wiseman’s first film as a director, but it cemented both his style and his subject matter, a warts-and-all look at how people function within institutions. (A recipient of an honorary Oscar this year, none of Wiseman’s films has ever even been nominated for a competitive award).
Some of the responsibility has to be placed at the feet of his willing subjects. Clearly, no one at Bridgewater had any worries about how their methods would be viewed. There can be no doubt that many of these inmates are afflicted with severe mental disease. Some are victim to uncontrollable body spasms, others spew endless paranoid monologues that name-check the president and the pope among their tormentors. Even a quiet, composed patient reveals his true nature as he describes his horrible crimes in a flat, detached tone. Without a doubt, keeping control over hundreds of unpredictable, dangerous men requires an approach that would be frowned on in polite society.
Those methods, though, are delivered in such a cold, unfeeling manner that it is ultimately impossible to view them as anything but torturous. Footage of a man named Jim, who is chided for fouling his cell, is peppered with what initially feels like friendly banter from the guards tasked with cleaning him up. However, as the scene goes on, the suggestion that he try harder morphs into bullying, and their repetition of his name is so condescending and insistent that Jim’s eventual outbursts feel utterly justified. The final shock comes with Jim’s revelation that he used to be a teacher; in this place, no honorable past will protect you from the hellish present.
Which points to one more explanation as to how Titicut Follies slipped through the cracks: there’s no empathy left at the institution to trigger embarrassment. No one thinks twice about the decency or appropriateness of what they are doing any more. Concern for humanity has long since left Bridgewater. In the film’s most notorious scene, an inmate is force-fed via a tube through his nose by doctors who openly smoke and discuss his condition in infantile terms. The delivery of nourishment by decidedly non-nurturing means is the film’s greatest oxymoron, and Wiseman magnifies the horror of the moment by crosscutting with footage of the same patient’s funeral, in which he appears to receive far greater care and affection than he did in life.
The movie is framed by scenes from an amateur variety show put on by the prison, with the awkward-looking patients singing standards in stiff white shirts and milkmen’s bow-ties. They are frequently joined by the warden, who, absurdly, views himself as a delightful showman, telling off-color jokes, breaking into song (he does this offstage as well, while walking through the hospital), and lusting after applause from the audience. Those moments feel strange in counterpoint with the daily horrors of life at Bridgewater. Yet, they’re actually a perfect extension of the interplay between inmates and staff throughout the film. Both groups are trapped in Titicut Follies, some by mental illness, some by the apathy and cruelty brought on by years of detached power. However, one of those groups doesn’t realize it’s trapped. But it soon will…
TRIVIA: …and how. Once they got a look at Wiseman’s film, the Massachusetts Department of Corrections sued to block the movie and managed to get Titicut Follies banned for over two decades, ostensibly to protect the privacy of the inmates. A title card added at the end of the movie curtly throws shade on the true impact of the Department’s efforts.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“The opening of the film is appropriately surreal, setting the tone for the next hour and a half… It’s almost something you could imagine seeing in a Harmony Korine film… it’s crazy to think it’s actually real.” – Jay Cheel, The Documentary Blog (DVD)
DIRECTED BY: Don Hardy, Jr.
PLOT: Various talking heads (including a member of the Talking Heads) reminisce and opine about the longest lasting and perhaps most creative performance art group of the past half-century, the Residents, interspersed with clips of performances, videos, and news appearances.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Modestly disappointing, Theory of Obscurity slams through all the familiar tropes of the modern documentary form, with the subject matter its weirding grace. Oddly for a documentary, this seems to be aimed at those who only care to know very little about the subject.
COMMENTS: “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions” is undoubtedly a hyperbolic aphorism to use, but the underlying message is apt in describing Hardy’s underwhelming Residents documentary. Setting his sights on the pop-underground ensemble, Hardy has whipped up a love-letter worthy of a high school freshman. The sentiment is correct, and the delivery is in earnest, but he somehow says far too much without conveying anything of depth. The technical competence of his documentary cannot be argued, but one is left wanting something more than a film version of an All Music Guide bio.
Assorted entertainment luminaries, each with a varying degree of modishness, sit in front of the camera and talk about their feelings or experiences with the mysterious troupe from Louisiana. Les Claypool from Primus particularly shines, likening his first experience of a Residents tune to hearing the “music that plays in Hell,” then explaining it came to be “like a fungus” that he learned to appreciate. Penn Jillette pops in fairly often, but his presence is largely unilluminating, as he wears his fandom (quite rightly) on his sleeve. Tossing in a slew of other less famous individuals (including the soft-spoken gentlemen who made up the original “Cryptic Corporation”, the Residents’ administrative and marketing crew), the viewer is left with not quite an hour and a half of sentimental tales, enthusiastic praise, and archival clips. The fact of the matter remains, and is emphasized, that this group really can and should be judged based on their output.
Along with the main feature, there are some forty minutes or so of remastered Residents material in the supplements, from a (very) bad recording of their first live performance (before they had even adopted their name) to a “found footage” dream narrative put together in the mid-Oughts. While watching these selections, their evolution from unlistenable neo-Futuresque troubadours to dominanting icons of weird, the correct way to study the Residents became even more apparent. Ditch the commentary and listen to (and watch) the source material.
I may be judging Don Hardy and company a bit harshly here, but that is because such a bold topic as the Residents deserves a far, far bolder documentary. He and his team were allowed, the disc says, previously unrivaled access to the group’s archives. However, either through inability or disinclination to expand on what’s already been made available, Theory of Obscurity languishes. Its quality is sufficient for those who know nothing of the group and seek a loose frame of reference, but anyone who has had any interest in the Residents will likely already know everything the movie recounts, and more. A quote from Matt Groening in the film’s first half acts almost as a disclaimer: “Our knowledge [about the Residents] is incomplete.” Unfortunately, Hardy’s Theory of Obscurity does nothing to further this knowledge.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…fans and newbies alike will be delighted by much of Don Hardy’s documentary, which draws on an expansive archive of surreal expressions from an (alleged) quartet whose creative emphasis was as much visual as sonic from the start.”–Dennis Harvey, Variety (festival screening)
DIRECTED BY: Ulrich Seidl
FEATURING: A cast of “ordinary” Austrians
PLOT: A documentary about secret hobbies in which Austrians indulge their basements, including a man with a shrine to the Nazis, a woman who cradles creepy lifelike newborn dolls, and multiple S&M devotees.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: As we have often pointed out, due to their very nature—which requires them to be rooted in reality—documentaries have a much harder row to hoe if they aspire to weirdness. In the Basement tries to strangen things up, formally speaking, with cut-and-paste editing and awkward minimalist tableaux; it still doesn’t make it all the way to “weird,” though.
COMMENTS: In one of the opening scenes of In the Basement, a man (whom we never see again) silently watches as his pet python stalks a helpless bunny rabbit crowded into the corner of a plexiglass cage. My immediate thought was, there’s no healthy reason for him to be watching this. In the Basement is built around the idea of watching what you shouldn’t. It takes us into the private demesnes of a tuba-playing Nazi sympathizer, a woman obsessed with creepily realistic baby dolls, and a hairy man who cleans his mistress’ toilet with his tongue, among others. To add to the alienating feel, the editing seems purposeless, bouncing back and forth between the film’s subjects at random. To generate further discomfort, establishing shots are held for much longer than is necessary. The director scatters snapshot moments where the subjects stand posed stock-still and stare at the camera without expression at several points throughout the film. Sometimes these are the main characters, and other times they are people who did not make it into the film proper, like the middle aged women who stand arranged around a washing machine as it runs through a noisy rinse cycle. The carefully posed amateurs staring affectlessly at the camera from gray rooms invoke the absurdist spirit of Roy Andersson.
Rarely are the subjects asked to speak about themselves or their hobbies, with the noteworthy exception of a masochistic woman who, standing nude except for the thick ropes ritually wrapped around her, confesses the personal history that brought her into the subculture. It’s In the Basement‘s lone moment of obvious insight and humanity.
While it engenders a morbid fascination, there are some serious downsides to Basement. For a while, the documentary earns extra thrills just from the fact that you don’t know what new kink is going to be introduced next. But eventually it runs out of surprises. There aren’t enough weirdos willing to go onscreen, so director Seidl ends up filling up space with redundant S&M devotees (who probably get an extra kick of humiliation from being exposed to the public). The amount of time devoted to these six, plus the wince-inducing detail involved in their explicitly detailed torture sessions, makes you wonder if maybe Seidl should have abandoned Basement‘s ostensible thesis and just made a movie about the S&M lifestyle instead. More upsetting, however, is the revelation that some of the scenes were, basically, faked. Although Seidl’s M.O. lately has been blurring the line between fact and fiction, narrative and documentary, that technique doesn’t seem fruitful in this context. Does Basement say something about the contemporary Austrian soul, or is it just a carefully curated compendium of grotesques? Although I believe Seidl intended to make an artistic statement about social and psychological repression, in practice the movie plays more to the latter interpretation. When
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“It’s in more conventional observation and confessions to camera that the film really delivers its strange, melancholic universe.”–Lee Marshall, Screen International (contemporaneous)
On the Consolations of Life Everlasting (Limbos & Afterbreezes in the Mütter Museum)
DIRECTED BY: ,
PLOT: This brief film essay contemplates various medical misfortunes and wonders in the framework of an often unsettling visit to the Mütter Museum. Exploring conditions ranging from Fibrodysplasia Ossificus Progressiva to conjoined twin-hood, Through the Weeping Glass examines anomalous conditions, creepy medical devices, and the sometimes unnatural nature of being human.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: As documentaries go, this is an unnerving one whose subject matter is investigated with hazy-to-sharp focus, super-imposition, and eerie recreations of the backstories. However, the movie maintains a disciplined technique, providing a glimpse at the nastiness of medical phenomena through history that is easy to follow—as unpleasant as that proves to be at times.
COMMENTS: “No child ever imagines the unimaginable: that he will end up as a skeleton.” So begins our visit to Philadelphia’s museum of medical oddities. The sweet, soft-spoken narration provided by Derek Jacobi (“I, Claudius,” “Brother Cadfael”) sets things up with a twist: naturally everyone becomes a skeleton eventually, as death comes to us all. However, the seemingly mundane words quickly get sinister when the case of Harry Eastlack is explored. Harry injured himself as a child, fracturing his leg while playing with his sister. The bone healed, and then kept growing. Ultimately, his skeleton developed a further skeleton around itself, and we are informed, “in the end, [he] could only move [his] lips.”
By the beginning of the past decade, the Quay brothers had long established themselves as the wizards of stop-motion animation. One of their passions, however, has always been “exotic arcana” (so sayeth the pamphlet accompanying their recent anthology), and their piece on the Mütter Museum and its contents marks the first time the brothers ever made a movie stateside. “Weeping Glass” features few of the otherworldly flourishes that mark their main body of work—most notably altering of portraits’ eyes by giving them an ominous, forlorn sheen—but the camera technique and soundscape summon the unsettling vibe that permeates their oeuvre. Focus on objects shimmers from sharp to blurry, tracking shots are choppy and often pursued at unlikely eye levels, and an animation of sorts is provided by the super-imposition of hands when pre-16th century texts and pre-20th century medical devices are displayed.
The oddest achievement the brothers can claim with this documentary is their uncanny knack to ride on the darker side of the line separating creepy and cheesy. The jump cuts between alarming images are often accompanied by the dissonant, clanking score one would expect to find in the lazier varieties of horror movie. Though they are no doubt helped by the fact that what’s on display would be unsettling no matter how presented, the Quays still impress by forcing the viewer to realize, “oh, I know they’re just trying to make me addled. Dear Lord, it’s working.”
By the end of “Through the Weeping Glass,” you will not only learn about the tragic case of Harry Eastlack, but also catch glimpses of a man with a pillow-sized tumor, get a peak at both the Hyrtl skull collection (139 specimens, each with a brief history of the owner written thereon) and Dr. Chevalier Jackson’s collection of swallowed objects (over 2,300 pins, game pieces, and even a “Perfect Attendance” badge), and finish off with a couple exchanging their “…’til death do us part” wedding vows in the presence of the plaster cast bodies of the famed “Siamese” twins, Chang and Eng. “Through the Weeping Glass” is a disquieting piece, but the Quays’ direction and Jacobi’s nuanced voice-over inject it with a subversive sense of humor. This late example of the Pennsylvania boys’ work is very informative, highly watchable, and delightfully grotesque.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…rare is the non-fiction film that through its style, design and intent properly matches the tropes of the fictional horror flick. And perhaps this creature is so rare that only one exists: Through the Weeping Glass…”–Mike Everleth, Underground Film Journal (contemporaneous)
Nowhere Line (2015) isn’t purposefully weird, but its presentation of an Australian offshore processing center is dark and eerie enough to win our approval. If you’re a fan of rotoscoped films like Waking Life (2001), A Scanner Darkly (2006), or Waltz With Bashir (2008), this is an absolute must see!
An ex-con reflects on his past, and looks to the future as a potential contestant on the reality series Survivor. This could be a fairly straightforward documentary, but the uncomfortable depictions of poverty along with some unusual film techniques make it fit to be highlighted here.
Content Warning: This short contains strong language.
DIRECTOR: David Gregory
FEATURING: , Fairuza Balk, Edward R. Pressman, Robert Shaye, Tim Zimmermann, Rob Morrow, Marco Hofschneider, Graham Humphreys
PLOT: A documentary on the troubled production of 1996’s flop The Island of Dr. Moreau.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While there are more than a few weird stories featured in the film, a documentary about a film that ultimately did not get made is in itself not that weird anymore—there’s practically an entire genre now.
COMMENTS: The 90’s adaptation of H. G. Welles’ The Island of Dr. Moreau has the reputation of being among one of ‘the worst films ever made’. That is an overstatement; the film’s actually a pretty decent time-waster, on its own terms. However, it is not among the greatest films ever made, and certainly not among ‘s best work (though I’d watch it over Reindeer Games anytime). At times, Moreau is an entertaining, muddled batshit mess, though it wasn’t intended to be.
It was meant to be the major studio debut of Richard Stanley, who, after making Hardware and Dust Devil (two films that I believe should be List Candidates), was poised to make the ultimate version of Moreau. Instead, it became a nightmare of production which ended up with Stanley tossed off of the film and replaced with veteran director Frankenheimer—yet the nightmare continued.
For years, stories have bounced around what actually happened. Lost Soul attempts to finally set the record straight about Moreau, to give a glimpse at what Stanley originally envisioned and to present what actually happened, as well as can be established from all of the guilty parties who consented to be interviewed. It’s a fascinating “unmaking-of” documentary that’s also illuminates the age-old conflict of Art vs. Business.
While it is a good accounting of the production, it isn’t by any means the whole story: noticeably absent from the doc is any input from, or , and Stanley doesn’t quite completely come clean about his state of mind at the time… but what’s there is suitably fascinating and quite damning. Actor Rob Morrow’s account of his experience, which I believe is the first time that he’s spoken at length about the film in any setting, is one highlight.
Filmmaking has largely become demystified over the past 30 years, but after watching Lost Soul, you will wonder how anything even halfway decent ever makes it out of the Studio Process.
DISC INFO: Severin Films has handled the recent releases of Stanley’s films to home video in grand fashion (great transfers with excellent extras), so of course there’s no exception with Lost Soul. For the hardcore Stanley/H.G. Wells/Moreau fan, the 3-disc ‘House of Pain’ Edition is the one to go for. The documentary is on Blu-ray disc, along with outtakes from several of the interviews (for those who couldn’t get enough of the already dishy stuff used, check out what’s dished in what they DIDN’T use…); a gallery of concept art by artist Graham Humphries with commentary with Stanley; an audio interview with , who was intended to have a cameo in the film; an archival interview with John Frankenheimer; plus several smaller featurettes. The second disc— “The Wells Files”— is a DVD with the featurette “H.G. Wells On Film” with scholar Sylvia Hardy and another with Stanley talking about Wells’ work, and specifically on the themes in “Moreau” that attracted him. The most notable feature is a recently discovered German silent film, Insel Der Verschollenen (Island of the Lost) which appears to be the earliest film adaptation of Welles’ story (and which maintains the tradition of deviating wildly from its source material). There’s also an Easter Egg hidden on this disc… The third disc is a bonus CD-ROM, an audiobook recording of Wells’ novel “The Island of Dr. Moreau” read by Richard Stanley. If that’s too much immersion, then just go for either the 1 disc Blu-ray or DVD edition (buy), which only feature the movie & movie related extras, eschewing the bonus discs material on Wells.
The Island of Dr. Moreau script – Screenplay by Richard Stanley, Michael Herr and Walon Green
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “The creation of the H.G. Wells’ story’s third official screen incarnation was beset by disasters even more bizarre than the delirious mess of a feature finally released in 1996, with stars Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer reportedly rivaling even Mother Nature as destructive on-set forces… David Gregory’s pic can hardly help but fascinate with its mix of archival materials and surviving-collaborator testimonies.”–Dennis Harvey, Variety (contemporaneous)
Reader recommendation by Simon Hyslop
DIRECTED BY: Andrey Iskanov
FEATURING: Tetsuro Sakagami, Yukari Fujimoto, Manoush, Elena Probatova
PLOT: War prisoners are subjected to various horrifying experiments in the Japanese Imperial Army’s infamous Unit 731 facility.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Between the dreamlike cinematography, the unconventional, fractious narrative, and the bizarre attempts to blend a documentary with an arthouse film, this is definitely among the least conventional works of World War II cinema.
COMMENTS: A few short years before the outbreak of World War II, one General Shiro Ishii of the Japanese Imperial Army—a man who possessed a fatal combination of power, patriotism, intelligence and absolutely no regard for human life—oversaw the construction of a military facility in the Chinese province of Manchuria. Officially registered as a water purification plant, this facility—Unit 731, as it would come to be known—housed not only military personnel, but several thousand Chinese and Soviet prisoners, and a team of some of Japan’s top scientists. Over the next few years, these prisoners would be subjected to a series of horrifying, inhumane experiments in the name of helping the Japanese war effort. Prisoners were infected with deadly diseases, exposed to bomb blasts, and amputated and dissected without anesthetic.
And thanks to vested Cold War interests on the part of the USA, most of the perpetrators of these atrocities would walk away unpunished, and go on to enjoy prosperous careers.
This is the story that 2008’s Philosophy of a Knife—from one of modern Russia’s resident oddball directors, Andrey Iskanov—tells. Or, at least, purports to tell.
There’s a lot that needs to be said about Philosophy of a Knife, mostly because there’s so much of it. The film clocks in at over four hours; and while, admittedly, there are instances when it’s acceptable for a film to do that, I’m not convinced that Knife is one of them.
If there’s a key mistake this film makes, it’s in its genre. The film, it seems, is making a bold attempt to blend an art film with a documentary, combining stock footage, interviews and voiceover with heavily stylized reenactments of the experiments conducted at Unit 731. And while this is a debatable issue, I can’t see that blend as other than doomed to failure, since those genres are, in my opinion, irrevocably opposed. After all, any documentary worth its salt is going to try and be objective; while art, in any form—in my opinion— is inherently subjective. At least, until we’ve invented painting robots.
But even a viewer who disagrees with that particular perspective will probably agree that, as a documentary, Philosophy of a Knife‘s efforts are half-hearted at best. The voiceover segments—narrated by what sounds like a castrated Robbie Williams—cover only the most Continue reading READER RECOMMENDATION: PHILOSOPHY OF A KNIFE (2008)