Tag Archives: Documentary

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.)

CAPSULE: TIME WARP: THE GREATEST CULT FILMS OF ALL TIME, VOL 3: COMEDY & CAMP (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Danny Wolf

FEATURING: Joe Dante, John Waters, Illeana Douglas, Kevin Pollak

PLOT: The final installment of a three-part survey of cult films, focusing on comedies and films with a camp sensibility. (Volume 1 is reviewed here, Volume 2 here.)

Still from Time Warp Greatest Cult Movies of All Time Vol. 3: Comedy and Camp

COMMENTS: This omnibus collection of mini-documentaries confronts its most challenging subject matter here in the third act. In the case of comedy, the ability to make audiences laugh is subjective, underappreciated, and difficult to discuss without destroying the very qualities of humor. When it comes to discussing camp, the concept itself carries with it issues of gender, sexuality, race, and power. How would the producers of the Time Warp series address these important, sometimes even incendiary topics?

The answer is: pretty much not at all. Time Warp just wants to have fun and share some rabidly adored films. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. But the fact that the filmmakers don’t even want to engage with some of these interesting topics means that the whole enterprise carries about as much weight as “VH-1’s 100 Greatest One Hit Wonders.”

There’s a pretty straightforward recipe for Time Warp’s method: play some clips from a film that took time to find its audience, get some of the movie’s participants to recount tales from the production, throw in some well-chosen clips and a little commentary from talking heads to explain why the film has a devoted following, and let simmer for 10 minutes. Then queue up another movie and do it all again. The panel of hosts clocks in barely 5 minutes of screen time, and offers virtually nothing in the way of analysis, context, or debate. So you just kind of have to trust that the producers have done their best in picking the comedies and camp-fests that best exemplify the label of “greatest cult films of all time.” Clerks? Yeah, I can see that. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls? Yes, I am totally convinced. Super Troopers? Um… sure, I guess.

That said, the list assembled here is pretty entertaining. These actors and directors are genuinely and justifiably proud of their work, and thrilled that it has managed to endure and thrive over the years. Diedrich Bader and Jim Gaffigan tell stories of having their famous lines quoted back to them. B-movie legends Erica Gavin and Mary Woronov offer gleefully unrestrained accounts of the conditions in which their movies were made. Jon Gries (whose name is misspelled in his chyron) is interviewed while holding a noisy parrot, and why not. And it’s a bittersweet surprise to see the late Fred Willard show up. Interspersed with well-chosen clips and some thoughtful commentary from critics and other professionals (gold medal to Amy Nicholson for her explanation as to why John Lazar should have become a legend), Vol. 3 makes a pretty strong case that any one of these films could easily merit its own feature-length documentary.

But it’s hard to be sure what distinguishes this from a video version of a Buzzfeed listicle. As my colleague Terri McSorley noted in reviewing Vol. 2, these selections are pretty anodyne. These 18 films are almost wholly American (only Monty Python and the Holy Grail can legitimately call itself a non-US film), largely recent (more than half are less than 30 years old), and predominantly white (actresses Shondrella Avery and Marcia McBroom and actor/director Jay Chandrasekhar help vary the palette). This roster feels like a good place to start the conversation about cult movies, but hardly the end-all be-all of the form.

Maybe I’m just jaded by the extensive efforts of this website to justify the films we crown. After all, consider the fact that Danny Peary needed three volumes to chronicle 200 films in his “Cult Movies” series, or that Scott Tobias’ New Cult Canon accumulated 130 entries over the course of five years. To spend a decent amount of time with 47 films in less than six hours is really a solid achievement. But it still feels like the format makes it impossible to do much more than pay lip service to a handful of films that have earned passionate devotion, without examining the phenomenon or delving into why these films are such good ambassadors.

I’m including the complete list of films discussed in this volume, with links to our reviews. And it’s possibly instructive to compare our attention to campy vs. funny flicks. Guess a comedy’s got to work really hard to land on our radar.

* Part of the 366 Weird Movies Canon

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Wolf has a more interview-packed chapter to finish with, securing sunnier features to study, closing on a bright note of classic endeavors that provided a sense of danger, delirium, and human insight, brought to life by talented filmmakers. Any chance to spend time with these titles is most welcome.”–Brian Orndorf, Blu-ray.com (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: TIME WARP: THE GREATEST CULT MOVIES OF ALL TIME, PART 2: HORROR AND SCI-FI (2020)

DIRECTED BY: Danny Wolf

FEATURING: , , Illeana Douglas, Kevin Pollack

PLOT: This is part 2 of a three part documentary about cult films, focusing on horror and sci-fi featuring clips and interviews with critics and those associated with the films. (Volume 1 is reviewed here.)

Malcolm McDowell in Time Warp the Greatest Cult Movies of All Time, Vol 2 - Horror and Sci-Fi

COMMENTS: Joe Dante, John Waters, Kevin Pollack and Illeana Douglas host the documentary. Dante introduces each title, while his co-hosts add commentary between clips and interviews. At a running time of 1:23:22, each film is afforded a decent amount of coverage. Director Danny Wolf and his crew pull out all the stops on assembling a parade of entertaining and relevant interviewees. There are a handful of critics included, but most of the interviews are with the cast and crew of the films.

The always entertaining shares some great Evil Dead stories. Ken Foree discusses working on both Dawn of the Dead and The Devil’s Rejects. chats about Death Race 2000. If there was a competition for Queen of Cult I think Ms. Woronov, would have to be crowned. She also graces Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and Eating Raoul, both of which will be covered in the documentary’s third part; and she appears in Night of the Comet, Terrorvision and Chopping Mall, any of which could easily make a list of cult horror films. Edwin Neal, who plays the hitchhiker in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, takes us on a tour of the old house, which is now the Grand Central Cafe. Director talks about Re-Animator (sadly, Gordon passed away in March of this year). Malcolm McDowell tells a funny story about meeting Gene Kelly. And there’s , , , archival interview footage of and ; the list goes on.

After watching this documentary I started a conversation on Twitter about cult film. I realized quickly that people had varying ideas on what exactly gives a film cult status. In my mind a cult film does not have mainstream appeal but, through word of mouth after a reasonable amount of time has passed, grows a small but ferociously dedicated audience. I don’t think that is the case any longer. Cult films have evolved simply due to the fact that everything is so easily accessible. The “reasonable amount of time” that must pass is no longer a factor. Home video wasn’t common until the early 1980s, so films remained in obscurity for years. Even with home video, there were films that were difficult or impossible to get. Social media has changed everything.

I don’t think any two people would create an identical list of their favorite cult films of all time; my own list would look quite different from this one. That said, there are two selections I must quibble over. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is without a doubt one of the greatest horror films ever made. It does buck all the rules of cultdom, though. It was successful on its release, was well-reviewed, and is probably one of the best known and most loved horror flicks of all time. Secondly, Human Centipede is the only film to make the cut that was not made in North America. Of all the amazing and unique horror films to come from other countries, they decided to include Human Centipede as one of the greatest cult horror films of all time! I actually liked the movie, but its inclusion here sincerely boggles my mind.

Still, overall this is a great list of films; I am particularly thrilled they included Liquid Sky. The absolute definition of a cult classic; a genuinely weird and one-of-a-kind flick. There is something to entertain everyone in this documentary, from the seasoned horror and sci-fi fan to the newcomer.

The complete list of titles featured:

Death Race 2000
Liquid Sky
Human Centipede
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension
The Brother from Another Planet
Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Re-Animator
Blade Runner
Night of the Living Dead
Dawn of the Dead
Evil Dead
The Devil’s Rejects
A Clockwork Orange (1971)

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Wolf also makes time for independent fare, surveying the strangeness and scrappiness of ‘The Brother from Another Planet’ and ‘Liquid Sky,’ with the latter title especially gonzo in terms of new wave immersion, limiting outside appreciation. ‘Time Warp: The Greatest Cult Films of All-Time Volume 2: Horror & Sci-Fi’ sustains the sugar rush of the previous endeavor, with Wolf once again providing a fun reminder of quirky and gruesome cinema achievements and the artists who brought them to life.”–Brian Orndorf, Blu-ray.com (contemporaneous)