Tag Archives: Documentary

SATURDAY SHORT: THE MAKING OF GODARD & OTHERS (2010)

In recent years, “making of” clips have been primarily about the intricate details of scenes involving a surplus of special effects. The Making of Godard & Others, however, focuses on the dreariness of being involved in a low-budget film.  And it’s fairly strange on its own…

Preview: The Making of Godard & Others from Owen on Vimeo.

CAPSULE: MACHETE MAIDENS UNLEASHED! (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Mark Hartley

FEATURING: Roger Corman, Eddie Romero, , Pete Tombs, , , ,  Marlene Clark, Judy Brown, R. Lee Ermey, Danny Peary,

PLOT: Documentary covering exploitation films made in the Philippines in the 1970s and 1980s, both by Filipinos and by American companies looking for cheap labor and exotic locations.

Still from Machete Maidens Unleashed!

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A few of the films mentioned (For Y’ur Height Only?) might be worthy of consideration for the List, but this documentary survey is a curiosity piece—and possibly a place to get ideas for your Netflix queue.

COMMENTS: There are two strands to Machete Maidens. One is the history of an enterprising but anarchic third-word film industry and the American carpetbaggers who flocked there to make cheap pictures, packed with war stories from those who were there. Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos (who loaned army helicopters to American filmmakers in the evenings after they’d spent the mornings strafing Islamic rebels) and notorious first lady Imelda (who allegedly ordered dead workers’ bodies to be left in the cement of the Manila Film Center so the project could be completed in time to host a film festival) remain in the background as villains throughout the entire epic. On the front lines, American filmmakers and actors relate stories of pistol-packing makeup men and cockroach-infested living conditions (at one point Sid Haig describes his accommodations by saying “I saw a rat carrying a kitten out the window”).

But as interesting as this backdrop might be, the main attraction is not the island’s political scenery, but the movies made there for export. These reflected the evolving shock aesthetic of the American drive-ins, not tropical politics. The scandalous profit margins of native filmmaker Eddie Romero’s “Blood Island” horror movies, with their cheap rubber-masked monsters menacing topless Filipino babes, were the proof-of-concept legendary low-budget producer Roger Corman needed to ship contract director Jack Hill off to the islands to produce his smash hit The Big Doll House.  This revolutionary sleaze introduced the world to the concept of women’s prisons as topless entertainment centers, and also to the enormous talents of burgeoning bust icon  Continue reading CAPSULE: MACHETE MAIDENS UNLEASHED! (2010)

CAPSULE: TABLOID (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Errol Morris

FEATURING: Joyce McKinney

PLOT: The strange but true story of Joyce McKinney, the former Miss Wyoming who caused a

Still from Tabloid (2010)

tabloid sensation in Britain in 1977 when she was convicted of kidnapping a Mormon missionary, tying him up, and forcing him to have sex with her for three days.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Joyce McKinney, the subject of this documentary, is as odd and eccentric a woman as you’ll find outside of an institution, but the film itself isn’t otherwise weird.

COMMENTS:  “I don’t see what a 32-year-old sex-with-manacles case has to do with cloned puppies,” opines Joyce McKinney as the third act of Tabloid dawns.  The only connection between those two disparate headlines, of course, is McKinney herself, who, if she isn’t crazy, at least attracts crazy to herself like a cloned puppy attracts fleas. Now in her sixties, the former beauty queen still has a sweet old country gal drawl and a disarming charm that makes her, in oddball documentarian Errol Morris’ revival of a long dead scandal, a Tabloid star.  After winning the title of Miss Wyoming, McKinney’s story begins in earnest when she falls in love and plans to marry a handsome young Mormon in Utah.  One day (as she tells it), her beau simply disappears without warning or notice.  She tracks him to London where he is serving his two year Mormon mission, assembles a gang of bodyguards and a freelance pilot to track him down, and leaves for England with thirteen suitcases full of disguises and surveillance gear.  The sexagenarian ex-sexpot has consistently maintained that the liaison between her and her Latter Day Saint loverboy in a cottage in Devon was not only consensual, but one of the world’s great love stories: she deprogrammed her brainwashed lover with a “honeymoon” weekend of sex and back rubs, before the Church got their hooks back into him and turned him on her.  Once she’s put on trial, archival footage and testimony by journalists involved in the case paint a picture of a woman who loves the limelight almost as much as she loves abducting sex slaves.  Things heat up even further when the press digs up startlingly juicy details from her shady past and splays them on the cover of the Daily Mirror.  Disillusioned with notoriety, she skips bail and flies back to North America disguised as a deaf-mute.  Decades later, still pining for the lost love of her life, the once-gorgeous McKinney remains an old maid and a virtual hermit, comforted only by the unconditional love of her pit bull Booger and his eight clones.  Since the victim in the case has retired to normal life and refuses to be interviewed, and her primary accomplice is dead, the story is told almost entirely from McKinney’s viewpoint.  But the lack of rebuttal testimony doesn’t make her version of events much more believable; even before she explains how she trained her dog to dial 9-1-1 using a telephone with extra-large buttons, McKinney’s not a very credible witness.  But even though you may not buy her story, you may find yourself having a harder time doubting her sincerity; she ironically muses that “sometimes you can tell yourself a lie for so long that you start to believe it.”  The remarkable thing about Tabloid is how likable and harmless McKinney appears on screen; she comes off more as a grandmotherly type reminiscing about the good old days through rose colored glasses than like a multiple felon inventing self-serving justifications for her crimes.  The tale is told almost entirely via interviewees speaking directly to the camera, although Morris assembles a few witty collages from torn newspaper clippings to fill in the extra spaces.  The issue of the British press’ exploitation of the whole salacious affair (which the dubbed the “Mormon sex in chains” case) is touched upon, but Tabloid isn’t an indictment of trashy gossip journalism: it’s a clever, polished example of it.  There’s little to the movie besides the bizarreness of the yarn itself.  It’s entertaining, but if it has a downside it’s that you may start to feel sorry for the deluded, exploited McKinney in ways she never intended you to when she seized this opportunity to (once again) tell her side of the story.

Devout Mormons will want to stay away from Tabloid, as the film takes some dry shots at the religion (including revelations about their beliefs re: the mystical powers of undergarments, and animated segments illustrating planetary dominion in the afterlife).  The inclusion of an anti-Mormon activist, who has no relationship to the McKinney case, as a talking head is one of the documentary’s few obvious missteps.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a bizarre crime tale recounted by the loopy ex-beauty queen alleged to have committed it… in Joyce McKinney, Morris has found a fittingly weird and funny muse.”–Roger Moore, Orlando Sentinel (contemporaneous)

DOCUMENTARY DOUBLE FEATURE: NIGHTMARES IN RED, WHITE AND BLUE (2009)/AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE (2010)

This post was written in contemplation of the Juxtaposition Blogathon at Pussy Goes Grrr.

In 2008 documentarian Mark Hartley scored an unanticipated film festival hit with Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!, an examination of obscure Australian exploitation movies of the 70s and 80s.  (Striking while the iron was hot, Hartley rolled out a spiritual sequel of sorts with Machete Maidens Unleashed!, which braved the even more bizarre jungle of Filipino exploitation cinema).  2009 saw another surprise critical success in Best Worst Movie, the story of the disastrous making, and triumphant cult legacy, of the ultra-ridiculous vegetarian-goblin horror movie Troll II, which managed to score an astonishing 95% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer.  Whatever the reason (maybe its the flowering of seeds planted by Quentin Tarantino), at this moment in time mainstream critics seem eager to recognize, examine, and even embrace the pleasures of schlock.  Since the last horror/exploitation doc cycle—the duo of The American Nightmare (2000) and Mau Mau Sex Sex (2001)—came about a decade ago, it appears the time is ripe for another down-home survey of the dark and shady sides of American cinema.

Still from Nightmares in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film (2009)The thesis of Nightmares in Red, White and Blue, the 2009 examination of the American horror film, is that particular social conditions and historical anxieties shape the nature of the shock genre from decade to decade.  Brian Yuzna asserts that the variety of disfigured, limbless freaks specialized in playing in the twenties were inspired by the horrors of World War I and the sights of returning veterans maimed by modern munitions.  The viewpoint that American horror is strictly linked to American angst breaks down fairly early Continue reading DOCUMENTARY DOUBLE FEATURE: NIGHTMARES IN RED, WHITE AND BLUE (2009)/AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE (2010)

SATURDAY SHORT: EPIDERMIS (2008)

Speed Levitch, who appeared in the certified weird film, Waking Life, has gained a cult following since the mid 90’s for his unconventional philosophical ideas, and his ability to articulate them.

In “Epidermis” Speed refers to the city (as he often does) as a living and self-aware object that often goes unnoticed, and unappreciated. Whether he is insightful or completely mad will have to depend on the viewer’s verdict. Either way he is, at the very least, intriguing.

Epidermis from Zac Eubank on Vimeo.

FILM FESTIVAL DOUBLE FEATURE: THE LAST CIRCUS [BALADA TRISTE DE TROMPETA] (2010)/RAINBOWS END (2010)

Your faithful correspondent has returned from the field with reports on two offbeat festival films…

Still from The Last Circus (2010)Alex de la Iglesia bolsters his already fine cult film résumé (Acción Mutante, The Day of the Beast) with this b-movie styled action/melodrama that’s also an allegory for the Spanish Civil War. The movie’s best sequence is the prologue, where the Republican army conscripts a circus troupe into emergency action (“a clown with a machete—you’ll scare the s**t out of them”!) Flash forward to 1973, when the embittered son of one of the Shanghaied carnies embarks upon a career as a “Sad Clown,” but is immediately smitten by a beautiful trapeze artist. Unfortunately for him, the acrobat Natalia is the personal property of the “Happy Clown,” a psychotic, drunken woman-beater who just happens to be great with kids. The two mountebanks’ working relationship quickly turns sour as they take turns beating the greasepaint off each other in a brutal rivalry that eventually leaves both of them mutilated and insane. Which mad harlequin will Natalia choose? The Spanish Civil War angle is simplistic and neither adds nor subtracts from the narrative, which starts as a tawdry carnival melodrama and morphs into an action movie with a high-flying, clown-mauling showdown atop a giant cross. A few Sad Clown dream sequences–he keeps seeing his dead father and archival footage of Spanish pop singer Raphael singing a vintage ballad in clownface—add nominal weirdness, but these touches aren’t pervasive enough to raise the film above the level of aggressively offbeat. Still, there are those who are going to want to check out any film where an insane jester uses lye, an iron, and some clerical vestments to improvise his own clown costume, then steals a cache of automatic weapons and walks the streets of Madrid armed to the teeth with homicidal gleam in his eye. One final note: my movie-going companion was disappointed in the lack of variety in the clown-on-clown violence; he had been hoping to see a wide variety of Bozos brutalizing each other in an all-out melee. So be forewarned—if you consider two killer clowns too few, this Circus is not for you.

THE LAST CIRCUS [Balada Triste de Trompeta] (2010). Dir. Álex de la Iglesia, Featuring Carlos Areces, Antonio de la Torre, .

Rainbows EndIf The Last Circus is edgy, Rainbows End occupies the opposite end of the offbeat spectrum—it’s whimsical. Ostensibly a documentary about six east Texas eccentrics on a road trip to California to pursue a motley assortment of dreams, it’s also one of the funniest movies yours truly has had the privilege of checking out in 2011. It’s the characters who drive the bus in this episodic feature—and in this case that bus needs a push start, leaks radiator fluid, and at times is literally held together with duct tape. Continue reading FILM FESTIVAL DOUBLE FEATURE: THE LAST CIRCUS [BALADA TRISTE DE TROMPETA] (2010)/RAINBOWS END (2010)

CAPSULE: WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS: A MAN WITHIN (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Yony Leyser

FEATURING: Peter Weller, Amiri Bakara, Jello Biafra, David Cronenberg, Allen Ginsberg (footage), Iggy Pop, Genesis P-Orridge, Patti Smith, Gus van Sant, Andy Warhol (footage), John Waters

PLOT:  A portrait of the life of the literary outlaw told through archival footage, rare home

Still from William S. Burroughs: A Man Within (2010)

movies, and interviews with friends, admirers and followers.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Its subject is weird, but despite the brief avant-garde sequences used as buffers between the praising heads, its method isn’t.

COMMENTS:  With his quick wit, cadaverous features, and patrician drawl, William S. Burroughs projected a mighty persona.  His writings were full of ironic distance, parody and outlandish stream-of-consciousness surrealism, only occasionally punctured by confessional.  The romantic myth that grew up about him—the artist tormented by guilt, addiction, and public ostracism, who strikes back at society by rejecting all forms of authority—was so powerful that it became far more influential than his actual writings.  The subtitle of this documentary—A Man Within—suggests that we may get a peek under that dapper three-piece armor Burroughs wore in public and see the real, naked man underneath.  Yony Leyser’s freshman documentary is partially successful at that task; he gives us unprecedented access to Burroughs’ home movies (showing him as an old man smoking a joint before going out to fire a shotgun) and reminiscences from those closest to him, including several former lovers.  The portrait that emerges is of a man who may have suffered as much from loneliness as from drugs and remorse; the man we see here has difficulty forming relationships with men he’s attracted to, and prefers to seek the companionship of street hustlers and boys too young and foolish to break his heart.  Topics covered, in jumbled order, include Burroughs’ upper class upbringing; his role as godfather of the Beats; his homosexuality and his refusal to join the “gay mainstream;” his lifelong relationship with heroin; his love of snakes and guns; the accidental killing of Joan Vollmer Continue reading CAPSULE: WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS: A MAN WITHIN (2010)

68. HÄXAN [HÄXAN: WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES] (1922)

AKA The Witches; Witchcraft Through the Ages

Must See

“Such were the Middle Ages, when witchcraft and the Devil’s work were sought everywhere. And that is why unusual things were believed to be true.”–Title card in Häxan

DIRECTED BY: Benjamin Christensen

FEATURING: Benjamin Christensen, Astrid Holm, Karen Winther, Maren Pedersen

PLOT: The film’s narrative segments involve the betrayals and accusations of witchcraft that destroy a small town in medieval Europe, and the monks who instigate them. Most of the film, however, consists of Christensen’s free-form discourse about the history of witchcraft and demonology.
Still from Häxan (1922)

BACKGROUND:

  • Christensen was an actor-turned-director with two feature films (The Mysterious X and Blind Justice) under his belt when he made Häxan.  He later moved to Hollywood, but he never recaptured Häxan‘s magic, and most of his subsequent films have been lost.
  • The film spent two years in pre-production as Christensen researched scholarly sources on medieval witchcraft, including the Malleus Maleficarum, a German text originally intended for use by Inquisitors.  Many of these are cited in the finished film, and a complete bibliography was handed out at the film’s premiere.
  • In the 1920s and afterward Häxan was frequently banned due to nudity, torture, and in some countries for its unflattering view of the Catholic Church.
  • Some of the footage from this film may have been reused for the delirium sequences in 1934′s Maniac (along with images from the partially lost silent Maciste in Hell).
  • In 1968, a truncated 76-minute version of Häxan was re-released for the midnight movie circuit under the title Witchcraft Through the Ages by film distributor Anthony Balch, with narration by William S. Burroughs and a jazz score.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The scenes set at the Witches’ Sabbaths are overflowing with bizarre imagery.  The most unforgettable example is probably when the witches queue up and, one after another, kiss Satan’s buttocks in a show of deference.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In making Häxan, Christensen dismissed the then-nascent rules of classical filmmaking and turned it into a sprawling, tangent-filled lecture based on real historical texts.  This already makes the film unique, but the use of ahead-of-its-time costuming and special effects in order to film a demonic panorama right out of Bosch or Bruegel, and Christensen’s irreverent sense of humor as he does it, is what makes it truly weird.

Scene from Häxan (1922)

COMMENTS: In 1922, even before the documentary had been firmly established as a Continue reading 68. HÄXAN [HÄXAN: WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES] (1922)

KING OF PLUTO (2004)

Sheila Franklin’s 2004 documentary, The King of Pluto (2004) focuses on the art of Michigan politico Mike Wrathell. From the outset, it is immediately apparent that Wrathell is a genuine oddball.  I say the film is about Wrathell’s art because it is not really about his life at all.  He and Franklin do not delve into the why of his art, what drives him, or where he came from and that’s just fine because this approach renders the film as quirky, vague, and enigmatic as Wrathell’s art.

Poster for The King of PlutoWrathell considers himself a Warhol-inspired dadaist who is obsessed with the planet Pluto.  He recollects that when he met president George W. Bush, he asked Bush to support a mission to Pluto.  Bush replied  “I’m going to send you to Pluto!”  Wrathell (in 2004) predicts the mission to Pluto will be a reality by 2006.

Wrathell’s art can be seen on film can be purchased there as well.  Wrathell’s silk-screen art, not surprisingly, often deals with Pluto, but he also covers celebrities, such as Maurren O’ Sullivan, John Travolta’s “Pluto Night Fever,” Ted Koppell as an Orwellian Micky Mouse, and Gilligan (as a Plutonian).  Wrathell also covers events and topics such as 911, images of Saturn, Venus, Neptunians, Blue Dracula, and why he prefers Martha Stewart to Barbara Walters.

Wrathell is a Republican and has run for various offices, unsuccessfully.  He tells us about buying a CIA baseball cap while he was in New York City near ground zero.  He buys it so potential terrorists will think he is CIA.  Or, they will think he is not CIA since an agent would not wear a cap reading “CIA”; or, a CIA man might buy a cap reading CIA to make us think he is not with the CIA, when in actuality he is.  Who knows?  But, on reflection Wrathell admits the cap was worth five bucks.

Still from King of Pluto (2004)He takes us to Burger King where he describes the perfect Whopper as having two tomatoes, or three, if you order extra tomato, which is what he orders.  Wrathell sits down with his Whopper and explains that it should have three tomatoes.  When he unwraps his sandwich, he discovers it to be a Chicken Whopper.  He returns the sandwich and hums, masking his displeasure, as they make him a new Whopper.  They do it right this time and the world is good again.

Back to the art.  Wrathell shows us watercolors on postcards and on lined notebook paper.  He has started a movement, he says.  It is the Ultra-Renaissance art movement, of which he is the sole member.

In the end, I am not sure who Mike Wrathell really is, but then I don’t know much about Pluto either, other than that the idea of it seems pretty cool, and that is good enough.  In the end, I would say Wrathell flies the freak flag high.  He is the kind of artist to sit down and have a couple of beers with, let him talk as you drink, and the more you drink, the better and better his talk sounds.  That is a recommendation.

A JOURNEY INTO THE MIND OF P

thomas_pynchon_a_journry_into_the_mind_of_pThomas Pynchon: A Journey into the Mind of P, directed and produced by the brothers Fosco and Donatello Dubini, is not so much a documentary as it is a homage to that legendary recluse of post modern literature, who wrote books such as “V” and “Gravity’s Rainbow.”

The film is broken down into four appropriate sections: “Paranoia,” “Disappearance,” “Alien Territories,” and “Psychomania,” and it’s wildly mixed reviews are a bit perplexing.  One would think that a film on such a non-conventional literary figure as Pynchon would at least attempt to be fairly non-conventional in approach.  The Dubini Brothers do not disappoint there.  But then, we’ve seen this type of reaction all too often.

A number of Beatles “fans” expressed outrage towards Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe.  What made the Beatles so unique and timeless was they refused to buy into their “religious base.”  Once they were elevated to near divine status, the artists’ response could easily have been to roll with what they (intentional or not) hit upon, follow the formula and keep that money machine rolling (aka: Elvis Presley).  Instead, fans never quite knew what to expect of the fab four.  The “White Album” was as certainly startling, perplexing and unexpected as “Revolver” had been.  Of course, that didn’t keep the pseudo fans from mantling unrealistic expectations on the solo Beatles’ Continue reading A JOURNEY INTO THE MIND OF P