Tag Archives: Documentary

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: HITLER: A FILM FROM GERMANY (1977)

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DIRECTED BY: Hans-Jürgen Syberberg

FEATURING: André Heller, Peter Kern, Heinz Schubert, Hellmut Lange, narrated by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg

PLOT: Hitler’s youth, rise, fall, and aftermath are all explored via inter-related vignettes, monologues, stage props, and puppets.

Still from Hitler: A Film from Germany (1977)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Syberberg’s epic is a documentary with an impossible task: capturing the full scope and legacy of the 20th-century’s most dangerous maniac. Eschewing the standard “narrated historical footage interspersed with talking heads,” the film instead aims to recreate the febrile mindset inspired by Adolf Hitler by dabbling in surrealism, cosmic imagery, mundane detail, historical cinematic allusions, and ironic counterpoint. There are also puppet facsimiles of all the Reich’s leading men.

COMMENTS: This film from Germany is, on the surface, very simple. It has no elaborate special effects. Its main set is a theater strewn with props. It uses widely available historic footage and broadcasts. It states from the start that its mission is impossible. The events leading up to Hitler’s rise, and the fallout from his catastrophic machinations, cannot be recreated in any conventional way. So Syberberg takes advantage of both his limited budget (some half-a-million dollars) and his task’s inherent difficulties to craft a reverie that fuses cosmic grandeur with the tedium of minutiae. In doing so, he has created not so much a documentary of events as a dreamscape that lands the viewer face to face with the 20th century’s greatest evil.

A ring master invites the viewer to the forthcoming spectacle, encouraging us to take part at home. Barking through a megaphone, he promises outlandish sights and sounds. Entertainment, through sketch, monologue, and marionettes, awaits. Vintage radio broadcasts blast breathtaking news of conquest and hate, while a young girl clad in a celluloid headdress wanders amidst symbolic props and across idyllic rear-projected landscapes. Academics chime in, typically directly at the camera, other times in conversation with a carved wooden Führer. Various actors play various iterations of Himmler. Hitler’s valet leads us on of his bunker and explains the Führer’s exasperating disinclination to wear the correct shoes. A likeness of Doctor Caligari presents his own side-show of esoteric relics, from the historical spear that stabbed Jesus Christ to the bottle of Hitler’s semen—not the real thing, mind you, as that has been preserved in a capsule frozen in an alpine glacier and protected by elite guards. For over seven hours, Syberberg builds a mindscape from snippets of Wagner, snatches of Goethe, and reams of autobiographical testimony from those closest to the Führer.

There is a climactic scene of sorts, involving a conversation between a scholar and the little Hitler perched upon his knee. The academic argues that, despite all Hitler’s ambitions, and with all the idiotic mistakes he made (for example, rallying against the Jews instead of co-opting them), he failed. During Hitler’s lengthy rejoinder, in which he expounds upon the reality he established even upon his death, the academic removes coat after coat from the doll, taking its garb backward further and further along Hitler’s historical sartorial path. This contrast of contemporary and future with historical delving is Syberberg’s primary tool. Despite virtually all the facts available to us—the thousands of hours of film, the unending radio transmissions, the millions of words written by observers from all sides—there is a disconnect, as if the catalyst is missing. There was a time before Hitler, there was a time after Hitler.

By the end, I was well and truly transported. Watching Hitler: a Film from Germany is, despite the bare-bones production, a transcendental experience. Each of the four acts is the length of any one standard feature film, but Syberberg had his hooks in me—so much so that I watched it all in one sitting. The art-house speeches, effective in their matter-of-fact tones and melancholy delivery; the fusion of man and doll when the Reich’s ministers expound on their greatness; the conventional drama of the scenes that still subvert with their dissonant aural cues or ironic back-projection; this all adds up to a heady experience that should be mandatory viewing for any student of history, contemporary politics, psychology, or cinema. Hitler: a Film from Germany deftly and thoroughly examines how one man’s dream of destroying the world order succeeded despite his own downfall.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“To present Hitler in multiple guises and from many perspectives, Syberberg draws on disparate stylistic sources: Wagner, Méliès, Brechtian distancing techniques, homosexual baroque, puppet theater. This eclecticism is the mark of an extremely self-conscious, erudite, avid artist, whose choice of stylistic materials (blending high art and kitsch) is not as arbitrary as it might seem. Syberberg’s film is, precisely, Surrealist in its eclecticism.” -Susan Sontag, The New York Review (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: LOVE EXPRESS: THE DISAPPEARANCE OF WALERIAN BOROWCZYK (2018)

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DIRECTED BY: Kuba Mikurda

FEATURING: , Noël Véry, , , Peter Bradshaw, Slavoj Zizek,

PLOT: A talking heads documentary about the rise and fall of Polish director Walerian Borowczyk, who started out as an enfant terrible of Surrealism but ended up stereotyped and dismissed as a pornographer.

Still from Love Express: The Disappearance of Walerian Borowczyk (2018)

COMMENTS: A Polish expatriate working in his adopted France, Walerian Borowczyk began his career as an acclaimed Surrealist animator, working in both stop-motion and traditional forms. Over two decades, he produced almost two-dozen award-winning films featuring milk-drinking wigs (The House, 1958) and blue-bleeding angels (Angel’s Games, 1964). His live action debut, 1969’s dystopian parable Goto: The Island of Love, was highly anticipated and a critical success. His career took a sharp turn with Immoral Tales (1973), an arty erotic portmanteau film which was shocking for the time, but not especially surreal. Tales was a succès de scandale, but it lost Borowczyk some critical support; that erosion accelerated greatly with his followup film, the outrageous bestiality tale The Beast [La Bête] (1975). Banned all over the world, it is here that Borowczyk’s career begins to decline. He is pigeonholed, and producers only fund him if he agrees to film overtly erotic movies. Soon, he’s paired with softcore siren Sylvia Kristel for the flop The Streetwalker (1976), and his fortunes fall further. Borowczyk does manage to make a few more interesting and ambitious films in the late 70s and 80s (such as The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Osborne, 1981) but, in the public and the industry’s eyes, he’s just a pornographer. By 1987 he has fallen so low that he’s called on to helm Emmanuelle 5. But he’s disinterested in the project, and walks off set after he’s disrespected by top-billed scream queen Monique Gabrielle (according to the assistant director who actually completed the movie, she may have slapped him). He releases one more film, the arty Love Rites, but that’s it; Borowczyk disappears as a feature filmmaker at age 64.

The paragraph above contains all the essential information you’ll learn from Love Express: The Disappearance of Walerian Borowczyk. There are a few juicy tidbits here and there, but the documentary is essentially an excuse for a parade of high profile cinephile fans—critic Peter Bradshaw, cinematographer Noël Véry, the always delightful Slavoj Zizek, and others—to say nice things about Borowczyk. Indeed, large parts of the movie are made in the YouTube-inspired “reaction video” genre, as directors Terry Gilliam and Neil Jordan watch clips from Borowoczyk films in real time (admittedly, Gilliam’s amused shock at The Beast‘s rape scene is priceless). It is interesting to see Lisbeth Hummel’s conflicted reminiscences about filming The Beast (unexpectedly, she seems more traumatized by the rose scene than the rape.) But overall, Love Express is merely an appreciation and celebration of Borowoczyk, as it pretty much was fated to be—because who’s going to dial up a Borowoczyk documentary other than someone who’s already a Borowoczyk fan? Pleasant enough, and, at a crisp 75 minutes, short enough to not outstay its welcome. Someday it will make a fine Blu-ray extra on a Borowoczyk  box set.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A patchy primer to the magnificently weird career of the 20th century’s foremost animator/auteur/pornographer, Love Express: The Disappearance of Walerian Borowczyk (Love Express. Przypadek Waleriana Borowczyka) illuminates and frustrates in roughly equal measure.”–Neil Young, Hollywood Reporter (contemporaneous)

 

CAPSULE: PSYCHOMAGIC, A HEALING ART (2019)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Alejandro Jodorowsky

PLOT: Surrealist director-cum-therapist Alejandro Jodorowsky describes his own variant of psychotherapy, which involves patients undergoing rituals such as smashing pumpkins with family member’s faces on them or recreating their own births.

Still from psychomagic, a healing art (2019)

COMMENTS: Psychomagic, A Healing Art raises three questions: 1. Is “psychomagic” a revolutionary (or even a valid) form of psychotherapy? 2. Does Psychomagic tell us something about Alejandro Jodorowsky‘s personal and artistic philosophy? And, 3. Is it worth watching?

Most people will answer the first question “probably not.” Jodorowsky takes us through just over a dozen hand-selected case studies, all apparent successes, but with no long term followups. One subject, a man who seems to be cured of his stuttering, looks like an impressive triumph—but for all we know the man is stumbling over his words again as I type this. It goes without saying that Jodorowsky’s theories haven’t been tested or peer reviewed. But Jodorowsky specifically and deliberately characterizes psychomagic is a healing art, not a healing science—and it may be closer to faith healing than to either. There’s no doubt that, among people who are already motivated to fix their emotional problems (and who don’t mind looking ridiculous), a shamanistic ritual—especially a needlessly elaborate one recommended by a trusted guru—is a promising way to invoke the placebo effect. As a discipline, though, psychomagic’s efficacy is especially limited by the fact that the school has a single practitioner, one who relies on his personal charisma more than any other tool. Only those who are already true Jodoworskians will buy that psychomagic is the therapeutic breakthrough the director wants us to believe in.

You’ll be more likely to answer the question of whether Psychomagic reveals something significant about Jodorowsky in the affirmative. In the final stage of his career, the renaissance that began with 2013’sThe Dance of Reality, Jodorowsky’s work has turned from the explicitly mystical to the explicitly autobiographical. In Psychomagic, he illustrates each case study with a similar clip or two from his own movies. When he asks a man to fasten a photograph of his father to a helium balloon and send it to the heavens, he shows a similar balloon scene from Endless Poetry; he recycles an idea from Tusk and re-purposes it as couple’s therapy.  Jodorowsky has been frank about his strained relationship with his distant, macho father, revelations which may start to color the way you look at the father-son relationship in El Topo. You may be led to ponder: have the elaborately staged, ritualistic scenes in Jodorowsky’s early movies been a form of self-therapy all along? Is his whole corpus psychomagic?

And for the final question: even though there doesn’t seem to be too much to psychomagic, is the film worth watching? For deep Jodorowsky fans, the answer is obvious (and moot). For more casual followers, it’s iffy: I’d prioritize the narrative films (skipping Tusk) first, then tackle this as a supplement if you’re fascinated by the man behind those extravagantly esoteric movies. The scenes we see in Pyschomagic often resemble sequences from a Jodorowsky movie enacted by amateurs on a low budget. For example, our stutterer dresses up like Donald Duck and rides the teacups at Euro Disney, then lets Alejandro grab his testicles to transfer manly energy, then is painted gold and sent out into the streets to recite poetry. Some of the patients’ confessions are so painfully raw (a woman whose fiance committed suicide, an octogenarian in deep depression) that they feel unpleasantly voyeuristic, and there’s also some menstrual self-portraiture to be wary of. But it wouldn’t be much of a Jodorowsky movie if there weren’t moments that made you want to look away, would it?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Thankfully, Jodo’s latest is also way too weird to be hagiographic. It’s indulgent, absurd, frustrating, and more than a little gross. It’s also idiosyncratic and funny enough, and in ways that Jodo’s fans will probably love.”–Simon Abrams, RogerEbert.com (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE WILD, WILD WORLD OF JAYNE MANSFIELD (1968)

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DIRECTED BY: Charles W. Broun Jr., Joel Holt, Arthur Knight

FEATURING: , narrated by Carolyn De Fonseca

PLOT: Jayne Mansfield narrates her visit to Rome, Paris, New York City, and Hollywood.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: This brazen cash grab (and virtual grave-robbing) flits along with an airy-but-bizarre tone of narration and titillation, before a jarring interruption in the final minutes. Laughably odd becomes wrenchingly tragic at the drop of a hat.

COMMENTS: For almost an hour and a half, we go on a guided tour of a couple of European cities and a couple of coastal American ones, before a coup-de-grace deflates the whole affair. Jayne Mansfield, dead—and nearly decapitated—in a car accident. Before this movie was even completed. So who have we been listening to? Having begun this film with no knowledge of it (and only passing knowledge of the starlet), I have to tip my hat to Carolyn De Fonseca for her dead-on characterization (please pardon that accidental pun [that one, too]) of Jayne Mansfield. Simultaneously, I have to wag my finger and tut-tut at the trio of directors who went ahead with this project.

The Wild Wild World of Jayne Mansfield claims to be a “documentary.” I took a semester about documentary film in my college days, with a focus on the reliability of documentaries and their makers. In this film, we witness Jayne Mansfield traveling around trendy European hot spots–that much can be gleaned from the footage. According to this “documentary,” Rome is (in 1968, anyway) teeming with handsome sexual harassers to a slightly greater degree than Paris is teaming with homosexuals, transvestites, and lesbians. New York City in 1968 had its share of convincing transvestites as well. And Hollywood? Like the rest of the world, it was going through a “topless women do various mundane things” craze. Everything, however, is undercut by the fact that we’re lied to from the beginning about who’s talking to us.

There was probably a respectful way to make this movie. The filmmakers sat on a pile of footage of Mansfield’s recent jaunts, and there must have been people she spoke with who could have fleshed out a real documentary. Instead, there’s a continuous rush of ditzy observations and a laser-keen focus on society’s fringe element—all set to a jaunty score at times reminiscent of Goodbye, Uncle Tom and at others, the James Bond theme.

Broun, Holt, and Knight show as much of Mansfield as they can, show as many other breasts as they can, and pepper it all with daydreams ostensibly from Mansfield (for example, her vision in the Colisseum of her dream-man gladiator). There was also a nigh-untenable degree of faux-modesty—“Mansfield” remarking in wonder at how shameless/fearless all these women/love-making couples/etc. were, and how she simply could not work up the nerve to go fully nude at a nudist colony.

But then it gets weird. There’s a crash-montage of photographs, accompanied by a rubber-burning/metal-crunching sound effects, and the tone slips into maudlin garishness. Suddenly all the mind-numbingly banal remarks (my favorite being, “Poor Caesar! Brutus was his friend!”) are brought into focus: this was a person. Who died horribly. Melodrama worthy of Guy Maddin, I’d say, coming out of the blue, and interrupting my dismissive chuckling.

Severin re-released The Wild Wild World of Jayne Mansfield on DVD and Blu-ray in 2020, with your choice of two different, equally flawed transfers, and a host of extras including a short interview with Satanist and Jayne hanger-on Anton La Vey. The tame 1966 mondo feature Wild, Weird, Wonderful Italians is also tossed in to make the bottom half of a double feature.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Once it gets to the car crash… the movie is surprisingly dark and serious in tone, clearly cashing in on the very real, and very tragic, event that took the life of its star (and, as the photos clearly document, her dog as well)…  Recommended for those with a taste for misguided vanity projects and bizarre documentary features.
” -Ian Jane, Rock! Shock! Pop!

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020 CAPSULE: TINY TIM: KING FOR A DAY (2020)

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Screening online for Canadians at 2020’s online Fantasia Film Festival

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Johan von Sydow

FEATURING: Tiny Tim,

PLOT: Johan von Sydow chronicles the improbable rise and unfortunate fall of ’60s icon Herbert Butros Khaury, aka “Tiny Tim”.

COMMENTS: Beginning and ending his career as a mere circus performer, Herbert Butros Khaury nonetheless hit it big—nay, hit it huge—as the nebulous singer and cultural icon “Tiny Tim.” Ukulele in hand and falsetto in throat, he captured the hearts of the American people for a few glorious years in the late ’60s through early ’70s. His first wedding garnered a viewership of between forty- and fifty-million people when broadcast live on “The Johnny Carson Show,” a record exceeded at the time only by the ratings for the lunar landing.

That fact and many others are courtesy of Johan von Sydow’s well-researched and rather moving documentary, Tiny Tim: King for a Day. Chronicling Herbert Khaury’s semi-tragic childhood, joyful period of success, and ending with his semi-tragic decline (both in popularity and in health), Tiny Tim is a very straight-forward film about one of the strangest popular phenomena of the 20th century. Herbert Khaury was one of those celebrities who are only ever “real” when on stage, and his private life was a cavalcade of sadness and discomfort as he tried and failed to tone himself down for mundane day-to-day activities like love, friendship, and business.

Most people know only the stage name of the man, and maybe his break-out hit “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” I knew about him primarily through his board game, “The Tiny Tim Game of Beautiful Things.” But this performer was known by all kinds of big names. Influential television producer George Schlatter, documentarian D.A. Pennebaker, Tommy James (of “and the Shondells” fame), and Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul, & Mary) all had kind words to say about this strange, wonderful man. Even famous fringe artists Jonas Mekas and Wavy Gravy chime in at length—the latter providing an hilarious anecdote about the time he and a buddy saved Khaury from an encounter with the mob.

Tiny Tim: King for a Day is a “talking heads” kind of affair, but it is made novel in a couple of ways. Most strikingly, there are animated segments depicting experiences chronicled in Khaury’s personal diary (these are narrated impressively by none other than ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, who I imagine leapt at the chance to be involved with this picture). They provide an intimate grounding of the man behind the persona. And von Sydow’s choice to avoid close-ups when recording the “talking heads” pays off handsomely, as you can see each of the commentators in their natural habitat. The contrast between executive Schattler’s organized award statues and “power desk” and Wavy Gravy’s obscenely cluttered study deftly illustrates the variety of Khaury’s friends and associates. The documentary is thorough, but short; appropriate, I feel, for a man known to the world as “Tiny Tim.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an energetic, wildly creative account of an inimitable figure who lived an almost unbelievable life.”–Christopher Schobert, The Film Stage (festival screening)

CAPSULE: SPINDRIFT’S HAUNTED WEST (2020)

DIRECTED BY: Burke Roberts

FEATURING: The members of “Spindrift”

PLOT: Four musicians record sights and sounds from their “Ghost Town Tour” in a pastiche of performances, wandering about acid-infused scenery.

Still from Spindrift's Haunted West (2020)

COMMENTS: What better way to write a movie review than while listening to that movie’s music in the background? Normally I don’t have the film playing while I write my reviews, but having reached the half-way mark in Spindrift’s Haunted West, I have figured out what’s going on and can be certain of two things.

The first thing: this isn’t really a movie. Haunted West begins in wide (wide wide) screen, its opening credits over what could be the establishing shot of a top-tier spaghetti western. Blue sky, jagged hillside, and a day-time moon lurking above. But Spindrift quickly show their hands in the opening scene: the band wanders around a derelict town while their music plays non-diegetically. Things move forward, in their meandering way, with shots from performances in historical saloons, shots from performances around campfires, and the occasional music-video-esque backdrop of gibbets, “Olde West” thoroughfares, and some neat-o pointy rock sites.

The second thing: Haunted West is the perfect thing to play on a grainy projector with dodgy speakers during your next Western-themed party. Delaware-born band leader Kirkpatrick Thomas must have spent a youth saturated in Western movies, Western television shows, and acid rock. His band’s sound veers from Prog-Western to Ballad-Western to Acid-Wibblies, with even some visits from what I can only describe as “Mariachi Luau.” The one constant is an Ennio Morricone vibe, as might be expected; Morricone was God’s gift to Spaghetti Westerns.

I often mention the length of short movies–whether it be a comment on efficient story-telling or a bafflement at how something so short could seem so long. Spindrift’s Haunted West moseys onto the screen, showcases some considerable musical talent, and then moseys away. This travelogue music video is a much better investment for your seventy-seven minutes than some movies I could mention, so pull out the Bulleit, slap on a stetson, and rock on, rock in, and rock out with Spindrift.

WHAT THE TOMBSTONE SAYS:

“Here lies George Johnson / Hanged by mistake / 1882 / He was right, we was wrong / But we strung him up & now he’s gone.”

CAPSULE: BIG RIVER MAN (2009)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: John Maringouin, Molly Lynch

FEATURING: Martin Strel, Borut Strel

PLOT: Slovenian Martin Strel is 53, overweight, and a functional alcoholic; he’s also the world’s greatest endurance swimmer, and this documentary follows his attempt to set a new world record by swimming the entire length of the Amazon River.

Still from Big River Man (2009)

COMMENTS: I’ll save you a quick trip to Wikipedia: as unlikely as it seems, Martin Strel is real. Watching Big River Man, you may assume it must be a mockumentary; it doesn’t seem possible that such a character could exist. For one thing, how can he maintain his magnificently paunchy physique while swimming ten hours a day? (Two bottles of wine per night helps, as do healthy servings of horseburgers, when he can get them). Nevertheless, the record books show that Strel, who took up endurance swimming in his forties, has swam the length of the Danube, the Mississippi, the Yangtze, and, in his crowning achievement, the world’s second-longest river, the Amazon, as chronicled here.

Unknown to most of the world outside of swimming circles, Strel is a huge celebrity in his native Slovenia, where he’s so famous that (according to Borut, his son and publicist) the cops let him drive drunk. Before taking up swimming, he was a professional gambler, and when not swimming he teaches flamenco guitar, does ads for McDonalds, acts in Slovenian action movies, and buddies around with his pal, America’s ambassador to Slovenia (who looks the other way when Martin tells Borut to steal a bag of dinner rolls). Also, should he ever give up competitive swimming, he would to have a promising career as a competitive eater. Martin is bigger than life; he tests the limits of the widescreen format.

Documentaries are tough sells as weird movies. By necessity, they are always based in reality. The best they can do is to explore an eccentric topic, and sometimes play around with the form. Big River Man definitely profiles an odd subject in Martin Strel, who is even stranger than he sounds on page. There’s a sense that he’s not all there even when we first meet him, and he only gets odder as he progresses downriver. He has to deal with the pounding Amazon sun, which forces him adopt an Elephant Man-style mask; parasites, including a fish that purportedly swims up the urethra; and, most significantly, his own deteriorating health, both physical and mental. He hires an amateur navigator, who gets infected by Martin’s insanity and assigns the swimmer a messianic status. Meanwhile, Borut tries to hold the expedition together and keep his father alive. The co-directors capture a bit of Martin’s madness with some well-crafted montages, and even include a dose of psychedelic imagery, something rarely seen in documentaries. Also of note is an eclectic soundtrack that steers away from South American music in favor of classical selections and a sprinkle of tracks from the gravelly voices of and Howlin’ Wolf. The result is a trip downriver that often feels like a real-life version of a jungle fever epic. You’ll be left to wonder: is Martin Strel an inspiration to humanity, or just a man swimming away from his demons as fast as he can?

If you can’t get enough of Martin and Borat, the Indiepix DVD includes almost a half-hour of outtakes.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Strel is one strange duck, and you can only wonder that Werner Herzog, with his fondness for captivating weirdos, didn’t get to him first.”–Walter Addiego, San Francisco Chronicle (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Rory,” who said it was “definitely worth a shout – horse-eating Slovenian alcoholic loses mind whilst trying to swim the length of the amazon. Even if it’s not weird enough it’s a must-see.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)