Tag Archives: Documentary

CAPSULE: FAST, CHEAP AND OUT OF CONTROL (1997)

DIRECTED BY

FEATURING: Dave Hoover, Rodney Brooks, Ray Mendez, George Mendonça

PLOT: A documentary profiling an unlikely quartet of individuals: a lion tamer, a topiary master, a naked mole-rat expert, and a robot designer.

Still from Fast, Cheap and out of Control (1997)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Four mildly eccentric characters don’t qiute add up to one weird movie.

COMMENTS: You have to assume that the genesis of Fast, Cheap and Out of Control was something like the following: Errol Morris had leads on four personalities he could profile for his next documentary, but none of the potential subjects were quite quirky enough to carry an entire feature; he decided to go ahead and interview each separately and edit the footage together to highlight the connections that spontaneously arise between the men’s varied obsessions. Although clearly guided by Morris’ hand, the shape of the documentary seems to arise naturally as the four men discuss their individual passions for animal training, gardening, mole rats and automatons. Sometimes, scenes illustrating one man’s field of expertise will play while another interviewee narrates; while the mole-rat expert talks about nature’s indifference, we see a staged battle between a captive cats. Morris melts the experts’ individual interests into each other to form an intellectual batter. The robot designer reveals that when he set about to create a machine that would scramble over terrain, it turned into a relatively stable robot that quite accidentally looked like an insect. In the meantime, the mole-rat expert is fascinated by the idea that these rare mammals, who live their entire lives underground, have developed a sociobiological structure that resembles the termite. Evolution is an ever-present theme, as is craftsmanship—the animal trainer must create his art by paying careful attention to his deadly raw materials (lions and tigers), the topiary master must work with the shape of the bush to bring out the animal inside it. A large part of the movie therefore becomes about the process of creation, the interplay between the constraints imposed by the raw materials of the natural world and the shapes men impose on them, whether the product is a circus act, a mole-rat display case, a leafy giraffe, or (by implication) a documentary film. That strand is only one of many in the tapestry of Fast, Cheap and Out of Control; this is a non-obvious movie that flows along in a stream-of-consciousness way, and doesn’t tell you what to think about it. It’s a difficult experience to explain, but the melange works. The main thing that sets Morris apart from his lesser documentarian brethren is that he thinks cinematically, rather than focusing on imparting the maximum amount of information. The cinematography here (courtesy of long time Oliver Stone collaborator Robert Richardson) is vivid and varied: inventive angles, crisp colors, slo-mo segments and Super 8 film stocks supply multiple textures. Scenes from old B-movies (a serial-type adventure featuring lion tamer turned action idol Clyde Beatty) illustrate the action, along with many circus tableaux. The futurist carnival music comes courtesy of silent-movie score specialists the Alloy Orchestra.  Altogether it’s a rich concoction, one that’s much more “movielike” than standard “talking head” docs. If there’s one complaint here it’s that the topiarist is less interesting than the other three subjects. His line of work arouses fewer serious inquiries, and what speculations do come about form less of a connection with the other three. Much of his story focuses on his relationship with his deceased patron; this could conceivably have made for an interesting documentary on its own, but alongside the more abstract considerations suggested by the other panelists, it’s off to the side. Still, although it isn’t exactly weird, Morris’ unique, experimental documentary is thought provoking—and although it’s organic and seems unplanned, it’s not nearly as out-of-control as its title implies.

This film was the first feature film where Morris used his simple but ingenious invention called the “Interrotron”: a camera setup (similar to a teleprompter) that displays an image of the interviewer on a two-way lens, so that the interviewee appears to be making eye contact with the viewer when he talks.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…studiously eccentric… nothing about [the subjects] is all that strange — or fascinating.”–Owen Glieberman, Entertainment Weekly (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Buzzkill” who called it “fascinating stuff.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

GIMME SHELTER (1970): AN INTERVIEW WITH JOHN SEMPER

Gimme Shelter (1970) is a documentary film about the last ten days of the 1969 Rolling Stones tour. The film was directed by brother documentarians Albert and David Maysles. It is best known today for having captured footage of the murder of a black man by a Hells Angels security guard at the Altamont Speedway near San Francisco. Gimme Shelter recently received the Criterion treatment on DVD. This is an interview with John Semper, Jr., who worked for Albert and David Maysles while they were editing that film.

John Semper Jr’s experience with Gimme Shelter, the Maysles brothers, documentary filmmaking, the film industry, and film as art and commerce.

“What happened was in high school I knew this guy named Gregor Shapiro. In fact, we’re still friends even though he lives in Sweden these days. Somehow Gregor had a connection to the Maysles: Albert and David. I already knew who they were because I was a budding young filmmaker back in the days when nobody under twenty saw any future in being a budding young filmmaker. It was a completely different time. We were not as drenched in media as we are today. For most of my peers being in the media was not a viable career option. That’s how long ago that was, but for me it was, and I was paying a lot of attention to the documentary filmmaking that was going on.

The Maysles were unique because they had created a custom-built,16mm hand-held camera. This was cutting edge technology. They had designed this camera. I think David had designed it. It was balanced so they could have it on their shoulder for a long period of time and it would not cause them a great deal of fatigue. The idea of something hand-held that would not cause you a great deal of physical discomfort was a huge breakthrough.

The other thing about their equipment was that the camera ran silently. 16 mm cameras in those days were extraordinarily noisy and blimps that you would put on them to make them quiet were huge. You couldn’t really do documentary filmmaking without being very visible and very loud. Not only could the Maysles carry their equipment unobtrusively, without causing them physical pain, but it was silent so after a while people forgot that they were there.

They did this one documentary that got a lot of attention called Salesman [also a Criterion release] where they followed around a bible salesman in New England, following him from door to door. The fact that they could get this candid footage was unheard of. Also, the fact that you could record sound on the fly. Remember sound had to be recorded separately from pictures. There were no cameras really that recorded sound while you were recording picture. That was all very new and exciting. The footage that they got, which today we would call “reality” footage, in those days it was very much “documentary” footage. The Maysles ability to capture people in their regular lives was unrivaled and amazing

Still from Gimme Shelter (1970)This was the late 1960s. I knew the Maysles’ work because I had seen Salesman and I was heavily into watching and studying documentaries. Gregor went and worked for the Maysles during one Christmas vacation. Gregor came back to school afterwards, and he had somehow got hold of a duplicate of the footage from Gimme Shelter where the guy gets killed: the one guy that the Hells Angel is knifing, a poor black guy who is wearing a lime green suit. Gregor had this footage and he showed it to us. We were all just mesmerized that this had happened and that Gregor had the footage.

As I recall, Gregor was not as interested in film as much as I was. He had just kind of stumbled onto this job. Gregor was more interested in still photography. He turned to me and said: “I know you are really interested in film. Why don’t you come to New York with me next summer, I will introduce you to the Maysles. Let’s see if we can work there again.”

That summer Gregor and I went to New York and stayed at the Chelsea Hotel. The first night we walked in who was in the lobby, drunk out of her mind, but Janis Joplin! We were checking in and Janis Joplin comes walking Continue reading GIMME SHELTER (1970): AN INTERVIEW WITH JOHN SEMPER

CAPSULE: ROOM 237 (2012)

AKA Room 237: Being an Inquiry Into ‘The Shining’ in 9 Parts

DIRECTED BY: Rodney Ascher

FEATURING: Offscreen interviewees and archival footage of The Shining stars

PLOT: Five obsessed fans explain their intricate theories about the horror classic The Shining.

Still from Room 237 (2012)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: ‘s The Shining is a strange movie, but not half as weird as Room 237‘s obsessed fans believe it to be. This documentary is an off-the-wall must-see for dedicated fans of Kubrick’s lone horror effort, but it’s not that weird in itself; it just has some nerdy weirdo cinephiles as its subject.

COMMENTS: You shouldn’t interpret a Stanley Kubrick film the same way you would read an esoteric Alejandro Jodorowsky effort, but try telling that to Room 237‘s amateur film critics. Five obsessed fans explain their intricate gnostic theories about the horror classic, from the nearly plausible (it’s an allegory for the Holocaust) to the totally batty (it’s Stanley Kubrick’s guilt-ridden confession that he helped fake the moon landing). These commentators aren’t stupid—one of them has spent hours meticulously mapping out the impossible topography of the Overlook Hotel—but they are eager to attach abnormal importance to the movie’s most random moments. One thinks the appearance of a can of “Calumet” brand baking powder indicates that the movie is about the slaughter of American Indians; the guy who contends the movie is about the Holocaust counts 42 cars in the Overlook parking lot (Hitler began his final solution in 1942). The fact that little Danny once wears an Apollo 11 t-shirt at one point is damning evidence to the lunar landing conspiracy theorist. These people have pored over the movie frame by frame, and they are able to point out plenty of little details and continuity that the casual viewer would have missed (the way the geometric pattern on the carpet reverses itself just before Danny sees the vision of the murdered twins had to be done on purpose, to subliminally disconcert us). They are also capable of seeing things that aren’t really there: one sees a minotaur in a background poster of a man skiing, another sees Kubrick’s face airbrushed into the clouds. Sometimes they provide legitimate insights: the lone female fan uncovers legitimate labyrinth imagery suggesting connections to the story of Theseus, another ruminates about how the film evokes the eternal recurrence of evil. But they underplay these valid points in favor of the more outlandish interpretations they find more interesting. The smartest of the commentators, who seems to be some sort of historian, at least recognizes that his interpretation isn’t the only possible one, and admits it may not have been what Kubrick intended; in postmodern style, he argues that the artwork speaks for itself and its “meaning” is constructed in a dialogue between the artist and audience. This is true enough, but watching this sort of mangled thinking is disturbing, even when it’s directed at something as meaningless as the meaning of a horror movie. After all, there is nothing stopping a man who is capable of spinning out an elaborate genocidal theory based on the image on a can of baking powder in the background of a horror movie from serving on a jury where he may hold a man’s fate in his hands. Room 237′s official site includes the following strange disclaimer: “THE VIEWS AND OPINIONS EXPRESSED IN THIS DOCUMENTARY FILM ARE SOLELY THOSE OF THE COMMENTATORS IN IT AND DO NOT REFLECT THE VIEWS OF STANLEY KUBRICK OR THE SHINING FILMMAKERS.” Tell me about it.

Obviously, only those familiar with The Shining will want to tune in to Room 237. Visually, Ascher’s documentary is composed almost entirely of footage from The Shining, which is rewound, drawn upon, and altered (at one point Wendy watches herself watching herself on television in an infinite regression). Clips of other movies also illustrate the fans batty hypotheses, from just about every Kubrick movie to a peek at the minotaur from Satyricon. One of the most interesting bits is a replay of a few choice moments of synchronicity from an experimental showing of The Shining where the movie was projected backwards and forwards at the same time, superimposed on the same screen. Watching a calm Jack Nicholson interviewing for the caretaker’s job while a crazed version of his future self is hobbling through a hedge maze with an axe is an amazingly creepy sight. A British DVD release is scheduled for February 2013; no American release date has been set.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[It has] a feel as strange as it’s subject matter.”–The Sun (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: IN THE REALMS OF THE UNREAL: THE MYSTERY OF HENRY DARGER (2004)

DIRECTED BY: Jessica Yu

FEATURING: Dakota Fanning, Larry Pine

PLOT: Documentary on Henry Darger, the reclusive Chicago janitor who secretly wrote a slightly insane, 19,000 page fantasy novel about a child slave rebellion, illustrated by hundreds of incredibly detailed full size paintings.

Still from In the Realms of the Unreal: The Mystery of Henry Darger (2004)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Outsider artist supreme, a devout Catholic with an innocently fetishistic obsession for little girls, Henry Darger is a persona every weirdophile should be acquainted with. The method behind this solid and respectful documentary isn’t itself weird enough to make this a candidate for the List, but if anyone ever attempts a literal adaptation of Darger’s opus The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, I suspect it will be a shoo-in.

COMMENTS: With one exception addressed below, In the Realms of the Unreal  uses only standard documentary tools to tell the tale of Henry Darger: interviews with people who knew him, readings from primary sources (his autobiography and his 15,000 page novel), still photographs of the places and people the poor janitor knew, and most significantly the man’s own paintings. The world Darger invented inside his head, a mixture of the Bible, the American Civil War, and children’s storybooks, populated by saintly little girl warriors in pigtails and frilly dresses bearing bayonets, is so inherently fascinating that the documentarian does best to get out of its way and let it speak for itself. The few facts that are known about the recluse’s life are given to us chronologically, followed by glimpses of events in the Realms that may have been inspired by his life experiences. Darger was orphaned at a young age. The bookish boy had trouble fitting in with his peers at the orphanage, and was sent to live at a “home for feeble-minded children,” where he was forced to labor on a work farm. After several failed escape attempts he was finally successful at fleeing the farm and made his way to Chicago where, after a short Stateside stint in the army in World War I, he settled into a lifelong routine of cleaning the floors at a Catholic hospital, attending Mass three times a day, and spending his evenings in his lonely room constructing the Realms of the Unreal. In this world, the evil Glandelinians (whose soldiers dress like Confederates wearing graduation caps) fight mighty battles against the Christian armies of Abbieannia. The conflict is sparked by a slave rebellion led by the seven Vivian girls, saintly children who occasionally exhibit magical powers throughout the epic war. The children are sometimes aided by winged Blengins, mythical creatures who can appear as dragons or butterflies with the face of children, or as children with rams’ horns. Darger himself appears in the story, summoned to help the Abbieannians due to his cosmic reputation as an enemy of all who hate and oppress children. Even more fascinating than the 15,000 page narrative supplemented by detailed lists of battle casualties, generals, and lyrics to the various military anthems were the hundreds of paintings Darger used to illustrate the Realms. Incredibly detailed landscapes full of odd folk beauty were  populated by angelic little girls whose faces had been traced or copied from newspaper advertisements. Disturbingly, the children are often naked, sometimes bound, and occasionally depicted as eviscerated or choked. Even more disturbing, and the weirdest aspect of Darger’s very weird opus, is the fact that he invariably drew his naked little girls with tiny penises. Theories for this odd conception of the female body range from the symbolic to the psychosexual to the commonly held notion that Darger was simply so sexually naïve that he had no knowledge of the anatomical differences between males and females. The apparently innocent, ambiguously erotic nature of these nude tableaux endow Darger’s work with a mysterious and intriguing artistic friction. When not working on his novel or paintings, Darger obsessed about the weather, carried on conversations with himself while speaking in different voices, tried to adopt a child, and wrote angry prose railing at God when the Church turned down his adoption petition. Henry Darger, the janitor from Chicago, was a very strange and sad man whose self-imposed loneliness, religious torment, and utopian longings found a secret outlet in art. Unspoiled by formal art training or by any sense of social shame, Darger created a hermetically sealed alternate universe, a world weird in the purest and noblest sense.

Although it is a conventional treatment overall, two criticisms have been levied against Jessica Yu’s documentary. One, often raised by film critics, is that the film fails to seek out experts in psychology and art history to help give us a deeper perspective on Darger. Of course,  only a critic would complain that a movie didn’t feature enough input from critics. The other, somewhat more serious objection, offered by Darger fans, is with Yu’s decision to crudely animate certain scenes from Darger’s action-oriented war paintings. In my view, the addition of occasional movement in the battle scenes (there’s probably only a minute or two of actual animation) does no real damage to the images, but nor does it add anything. One offended fan angrily asks whether we’d accept a documentary on Picasso or Gauguin that set their masterpieces in motion. Since that idea doesn’t bother me in the slightest, I may be the wrong person to ask.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Was this simple man sick or was he genius? Yu leaves that to the viewer to decide, and in the end, that’s alright. In Darger’s apartment, the surreal became real, and a testament to the life’s work of a simple man.”–Greg Wilson, Film Threat (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: HER MASTER’S VOICE (2012)

DIRECTED BY: Nina Conti

FEATURING: Nina Conti

PLOT: Ventriloquist Nina Conti takes the dummies of her recently deceased mentor Ken Campbell to donate them to Vent Haven, a museum in Kentucky she conceives of as a “graveyard for puppets of dead ventriloquists.”

Still from Her Master's Voice (2012)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This elegy-cum-confessional disguised as a kooky documentary about ventriloquism was just unique and offbeat enough to make it onto our radar screen, but not quite bewildering enough to challenge for a spot on a list of the weirdest movies of all time.

COMMENTS: Ventriloquist’s dummies have always been a bit creepy: Nina Conti (speaking, as she so often does, through the fuzzy mouth of her main puppet Monkey) describes a freckled, arch-eyebrowed doll, one of the six dummies she inherits from her deceased mentor, as “the archetypal cliché of a horror movie ventriloquist’s mannequin.” Her Master’s Voice suggests that the people sticking their hands inside these uncanny puppets might be a bit creepy, too. After all, they’re entertainers who deliberately court schizophrenia, seeking to bring alternate personalities to life through inanimate objects. Many of the ridiculously talented puppeteers Conti interviews at the World Ventriloquist ConVENTion (groan) admit to being shy children who took to speaking through dummies in order to make antisocial, hostile or naughty observations while distancing themselves from outrageous statements. In Her Master’s Voice Conti takes that notion a step further: she speaks through the dummies Ken Campbell bequeathed her to express her grief over the loss of her mentor, and to work through her own flagging enthusiasm for the dying art form of ventriloquism (at one point, as they lie in bed together, Monkey asks her, “talking in an empty room in the middle of the night in Kentucky to an imaginary monkey—you don’t like it anymore?”) She turns on the camera and psychoanalyzes herself via Campbell’s old mannequins—a dimwitted owl, a horny bulldog, a kindly granny and a bushy eyed puppet of Ken himself—who both interrogate her and say the things that she’s too shy to say in her own voice. One night, when she’s had too much to drink, she turns on the camera and sits down with that archetypal horror movie dummy, who accuses her of conducting “psychic necrophilia” with Campbell’s memory and attacks her for turning “a purported tribute into a tart’s holiday!” With a disturbed frown, she flings the doll away. Via her psychotic conversation with the puppets, Conti makes some shocking confessions about herself and her relationship with Campbell. She seems legitimately surprised and saddened by the admissions the dummies elicit from her. This confessional technique makes for a melancholy movie, and the personal nature of the revelations give it a raw and uncomfortably voyeuristic edge, but the documentary is interspersed with silly comic performances that lighten the mood: we see Conti onstage performing her act, and she even stages the death of Monkey just to see how she would feel living without him (the results aren’t pretty). The resulting patchwork of a home movie is an odd egg, both formally and tonally, but it’s ultimately a successful experiment. It serves as a fine eulogy for her dead master, but it’s more interesting when Conti’s brutal honesty gives us a peek at the troubled artist behind the cute puppet. Given what the film tells us about Campbell’s talent for nurturing others talents, we suspect he would consider the fact that his protégé steals the spotlight from him in his eulogy film to be the best tribute he could ask for.

Her Master’s Voice was executive produced by mockumentary specialist Christopher Guest. “I don’t know if this story I want to tell you is factual because by its very nature it demands a certain addition to reality,” says Conti at the beginning of the film, but she adds “there are no lies, it all happened.” The DVD includes extended scenes that did not make it into the 64 minute film and a commentary by Conti (helped out by Monkey, naturally).

“…a personal, funny and strange doc…”–Christopher Campbell, The Documentary Channel (contemporaneous)

LET ME DIE A WOMAN (1978)

In a round table meeting with a couple of editors, I was discussing a proposed documentary (which we abandoned). As we were dialoguing, I mentioned a scene which would require green screen. One of the editors stopped me short and said: “This is a documentary. You do not do green screen shots in a documentary.” When I explained that the scene was meant to be poetic and dream-like, which did pertain to the subject at hand, my editor persisted: “You still cannot do that. That’s against all the rules of documentary filmmaking.” I ended that with: “So who made these rules?” If I had thought that argument through, I probably would have tied the editor down and shown him two documentary films, which break “THE rules.” One would be Guy Maddin‘s My Winnipeg (2007) and the other would be ‘s Let Me Die A Woman (1978).

Doris Wishman’s documentary about sex change is cinema’s closest cousin to Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda (1953). Like Wood, Wishman cannot refrain from coating the subject at hand with her own idiosyncratic sheen. So much the better, because like the Wood film, personality is the most salvageable quality of Let Me Die A Woman. Ed Wood was supposed to make a film about a sex change but he turned his opus into a delightfully desperate, personal plea for acceptance of transvestism. Narratively (ahem) Wishman’s film does not divert quite so far from the topic. Visually, now that’s a different story altogether.

Shots of monstrously thick, red shag carpet (which would look so at home on the set of Trinity Broadcast Network), a “what the hell is that doing there?” Siamese cat and the standard Wishman shots of feet scurrying across a dark red floor are among the countless surreal cut-aways. If Wishman’s wandering camera frequently provokes dumbfound amazement, here the cut-aways interrupt poor Leslie with callous abandon. Leslie methodically applies her lipstick, straps on her garter, looks directly at the camera and tells us: “Last year, I was a man!” Cue in cheesy music. Leslie is the attractive, post-op transsexual star who introduces the viewer into the world of “gender dysphoria.” She is candid, expressive, and the only genuine human in the entire film. Unfortunately, whenever Leslie begins to hook us into her personal story, Wishman swings her goddamned camera into WTF land!

Still from Let Me Die a Woman (1977)No one familiar with Wishman’s body of work would be naive enough to expect a sympathetic treatment of the subject. Pornographic actors Harry Reems and Vanessa Del Rio provide cameos, just to make sure we know it’s a freak show. Like we need the proof. Gratuitous sex scenes, the lamest drag queens ever captured on celluloid, and Dr. Leo Wollman each have their own tent on the carnival grounds. Wollman  serves as the downright creepy ringmaster, acting as if he belongs in one of those wretched Faces of Death videos. He lectures us from a hideously decorated office. It is blatantly obvious Wollman is reading off cue cards when he gives us details aplenty about the SEX CHANGE OPERATION! Whether we want the details or not is a moot point. Actual surgical footage, brought to you in all the ghastly glory of 1978 color, accompanies Wollman’s monotone narration. Where are the horror horn and fear flasher when you need them?

Flopping penises, dildos galore, and Dr. Wollman’s fingers probing a vagina are the visual highlights (!) brought to you by Madame Wishman. Do you really have to ask why  is in love with this mondo trash mutant of a film?

Regardless, Wishman does it her way, God bless her!  Next week, we will wrap up our series on the films of Doris Wishman with Nude On the Moon (1961)

THE POISONOUS IMAGE IN WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP (1999)

A note about the following essay, from the author.

Wisconsin Death Trip is a 1999 film directed by James Marsh, an oddball, morbid documentary inspired by a 1973 nonfiction book of the same title. The film is structured as a chain of anecdotes and vignettes about life in small-town Wisconsin in the late 1800’s. This was a period of depression and hardship, and the psychological toll it took on the populace is apparent: most of the anecdotes are about murder, suicide, and madness, provided with a total lack of context that makes them seem uncanny and inexplicable. The visuals are a combination of period black-and-white photographs and stylized reenactments, and all the accompanying narration is drawn from actual newspaper reports of the time.

The film is a dreamy, dissociative experience, the ramblings of a ghost walking through a funhouse of bad mojo. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend going in fresh, and then reading this essay afterward. As an analysis of the structure and subtexts of the film, this essay is intended to augment and heighten that pure experience, rather than preview it or assess it. It’s a beautiful, stark, unapologetically eccentric documentary, definitely worth a couple hours of your time. If it intrigues you as much as it did me, come on back, and hopefully you’ll get something out of the critical observations to follow.

The Poisonous Image in Wisconsin Death Trip (1999)

Still from Wisconsin Death Trip (1999)From the photographs and newspaper reports, the last decade of the 19th century was a tough time in rural Wisconsin. In the sick sunlight of a national and regional depression and a hard winter, a garden of small disasters sprung up, blossoming with incidents of suicide, murder, and delusion; this was where you could see the fragility of civil society and stoic reason, the hard ground of rationality cracking over the pressure of the uncanny. Wisconsin Death Trip–a 1999 Continue reading THE POISONOUS IMAGE IN WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP (1999)