Tag Archives: Documentary

366 UNDERGROUND: SPIDER MITES OF JESUS, THE DIRTWOMAN DOCUMENTARY (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Jerry Williams

FEATURING: Donnie “Dirtwoman” Corker

PLOT: Contemporaries reminisce about the life and times of Donnie Corker, a Richmond, Virginia institution and cult figure in the LGBT community.

Still from Spider Mites of Jesus: the Dirtwoman Documentary (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While Donnie Corker lived his life like a John Waters movie, Spider Mites of Jesus is your standard “talking heads” documentary.

COMMENTS: I feel like I need to have my brain hosed down. Having been accused of having an almost Victorian prudishness, perhaps I should have exercised some caution before volunteering to cover this new film, Spider Mites of Jesus: the Dirtwoman Documentary. The title stems from the subject’s mother misspeaking Donnie’s childhood diagnosis of “spinal meningitis”, and whether from this disease or other inner compunctions, Donnie Corker led a life that left a big-honkin’ (300+ pound) mark on his hometown of Richmond, Virginia. I had never heard of “Dirtwoman” until now, but judging from Williams’ film, Donnie was a well-known (and well-loved) fixture of the LGBT community in central Virginia.

Born on some mean streets in 1951, Donnie spent much of his life being big. He was a big guy with a big mouth and a big penchant for being a loud and proud cross-dresser. Facing countless problems throughout young adulthood—picked on for being mentally disabled, picked on for being gay, and even being raped at the age of 13 by a group of men—Donnie’s story is a hybrid of uplifting defiance and deeply unsettling tragedy. In his heyday, he’d proudly walk the streets looking to turn tricks, protect his neighbors by defusing tense criminal encounters, and was even relied on by the local cops as a street smart guy who kept his ear to the ground.

Spider Mites of Jesus covers all of this and a bit more through the typical “person in front of camera” method coupled with interview footage of the drag queen himself (or, “herself”; the pronoun shuffles back and forth throughout depending upon who’s talking). To flesh out “Why It Won’t Make the List”, it wasn’t all fun and games. Donnie got his moniker from an encounter with the cops when he defecated in the back seat of their car, ostensibly throwing the result at one of them (though anecdotal evidence about that last bit seems contradictory). His performances as a dancer and what-have-you could be stomach-turning for many normals. It was this notoriety that led to him to be featured in a GWAR music video, having (perhaps) been sexually involved with Dave Brockie (group founder and Richmond native). Donnie’s life ended slowly, unpleasantly, and tragically, and this documentary doesn’t shy away from the clinical ickiness involved.

But it’s all done with earnestness and love. Not everyone interviewed is terribly interesting, and some of their little stories go nowhere, but it’s cute to watch them all nonetheless. My life hasn’t changed, and I’m not too troubled I never managed to meet this far-out individual, but Spider Mites of Jesus is a pleasant reminder that it takes all sorts to make a world, and without the outcasts and weirdos, proceedings on this plane would be a damn sight more tedious. R.I.P., Donnie.

Spider Mites of Jesus: The Dirtwoman Documentary home page

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a solid documentary about an outstanding eccentric…”–Carl F. Gauze, Ink 19 (festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: DECASIA (2002)

Also see Alfred Eaker’s take on Decasia

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Uncredited documentary subjects

PLOT: Scored to a disturbing minimalist composition, a parade of early 20th century images on decayed and damaged film stock march across the screen, forming hypnotic abstract landscapes.

Still from Decasia (2002)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: We avoided the hypnotic experimental documentary subgenre on our first pass through the List of the Weirdest Movies ever made, because this peculiar corner of art films normally wed an unusual (weird) form to commonplace (not-weird) subject matter. When it comes to honoring movies as Apocrypha, however, it’s harder to argue that formally groundbreaking movies like Koyaanisqatsi—and this one—can be excluded from being considered among the strangest things the mind of man has come up with.

COMMENTS: A boxer punches an amoeba. A man in a fez prays at a mummy’s tomb, in negative image. A lone airplane flies through the sky, almost perfectly centered in a wavering iris puncturing the darkness. Nuns and schoolchildren strobe in and out of existence. The screen is filled with nothing more than a billowing cloud. Abstract patterns whir by, almost looking as if they were drawn by hand—a butterfly here, a flower petal there—and fade away to reveal a shy geisha.

Experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison scoured over what must have been thousands of hours of partially decayed stock footage to select the most wondrous and poetic images time accidentally created. A complete taxonomy of film damage is on display here. Images sometimes decay from the center outward, sometimes from the edges inward. Frequently, the film is warped so that abstract cracked lines obscure the underlying picture, but often the effects are more surprising. Individual stills might look like gibberish, but because each frame of film holds a slightly different piece of information about the whole, when the series is run through a projector, ghostly figures emerge. The visuals often resemble ‘s splatter-paint-on-the-celluloid experiments, except that the effects here have been created entirely by the natural degradation of cellulose.

Decasia‘s reliance on a minimalist classical music score obviously recalls ‘s time-lapse documentaries. But whereas Philip Glass’ work on the “Qatsi trilogy” of films was smooth and dreamy, Michael Gordon’s composition is dissonant and confrontational. Low strings create a ceaseless rhythm, while violins fall through microtonal scales in a long, slow decay. Horns enter the mix like distant alarms. Gordon specified that certain instruments in the Basel Sinfonetta be deliberately out of tune. In keeping with the theme of recycling, he used discarded car brake drums he found in a junkyard as an instrument, along with detuned pianos. His intent, he said, was to “make the orchestra sound like it was covered in cobwebs, with instruments that had been sitting for a hundred years, creaky and warped and deteriorated” The uncomfortable but still beautiful sounds divert our thoughts to the darker implications of the pictures dancing and disintegrating before our eyes. The music and the images exist in such a perfect, unconscious  symbiosis that it’s meaningless to wonder which came first.

Decasia is an authentically Surrealist documentary. The startling images have all been generated via a random process, with the interpretation up to the individual viewer. Everyone in these film clips is long dead, and soon the damaged images themselves will fade away to nothing. And yet, the experience is marvelous, not depressing.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The unexpected thing is that its dying, in this shower of black-and-white psychedelia, is quite beautiful.”–Anita Gates, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Tadd.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: CANIBA (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel

FEATURING: Issei Sagawa, Jun Sagawa

PLOT: Confessed cannibal Issei Sagawa monologues to the camera, his face often out of focus, and talks to his caretaker brother, who is revealed to be almost as deranged.

Still from Caniba (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Caniba would make a list of the most disturbing movies ever made—easily. Its subject is a weirdo par excellence—in fact, he may be the world’s strangest living monster—and the film takes an experimental, offbeat approach to depicting him. Yet everything shown here is tragically real, and the effect goes beyond “weird” into “despairing.”

COMMENTS: Issei Sagawa, an intelligent but shy Japanese man studying French in Paris, killed and ate a female classmate in 1981. He spent five years in a mental institution in France and then was deported to Japan where, due to quirks of the judicial system, he was freed. Since then he has lived a marginalized existence, making a meager living off his infamy. He is now weakened by a stroke and holed up in a dingy apartment, cared for by his brother.

Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, Harvard-based anthropologist filmmakers, chose to follow up their arthouse hit Leviathan (an uncontroversial documentary about commercial fishermen in the North Atlantic) with this perverted provocation about Sagawa. Most of the movie is out-of-focus shots of the ailing cannibal, closeups of his twisted, trembling hands or his blank face as he delivers halting, unhinged monologues (“I know I’m crazy,” he confesses). When he talks at all, he speaks as if he’s in a trance, gathering the strength to push out each phrase, about five or six words per minute, with long pauses in between. We also meet his caretaker brother Jun, who eventually reveals some shocking fetishes of his own—leading one to wonder whether there is a genetic curse on the Sagawa clan, or whether Jun was driven mad by knowledge of his brother’s crimes. Old black-and-white home movies of the two show what look like happy, normal children.  Back in the present, we have a very odd pixilated porn sequence starring Sagawa, inserted without any context, followed by a tour through the manga he drew celebrating his crime. Jun is both fascinated and disturbed by the graphic drawings of the girl’s corpse and his brother’s erection when faced with it. “I can’t stomach this anymore,” he says, but continues turning the pages. Issei, distant as always, seems embarrassed, if anything, reluctant to answer the questions his brother poses. For the final scene, they bring in a prostitute (or groupie?) dressed as a sexy nurse to read the cannibal a bedtime story about zombies, then take the invalid demon out for a wheelchair stroll around the neighborhood. The end.

I am glad someone documented these two twisted specimens of humanity with minimal editorializing, but the result is no fun whatsoever, and offers no insight to their pathologies, making it a very difficult watch on multiple levels. It’s of interest to sick thrill seekers and serious students of abnormal psychology. You should know this movie exists. God help you if you watch it. There is no guarantee it will get a commercial release. The film seems destined to remain forever underground, where it probably belongs.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A weirdo documentary…  strange and unpleasant…”–Dennis Schwartz, Ozus’ World Movie Reviews

CAPSULE: KOYAANISQATSI (1982)

Must See

“These films have never been about the effect of technology, of industry on people. It’s been that everyone: politics, education, things of the financial structure, the nation-state structure, language, the culture, religion, all of that exists within the host of technology. So it’s not the effect of, it’s that everything exists within [technology]. It’s not that we use technology, we live technology. Technology has become as ubiquitous as the air we breathe…”–director Godfrey Reggio

“I just shot anything that I thought would look good on film. Shooting bums, as well as buildings, didn’t matter. It was all the same from my standpoint. I just shot the form of things.”–director of photography Ron Fricke

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: the music of Philip Glass

PLOT: The film explores the fragile balance of humanity’s use of and interaction with the natural world and the inexorable advance of time through montage, juxtaposing time-lapse and slow-motion photography.

Still from Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Koyaanisqatsi is a landmark motion picture, creating a memorable visual language and utilizing time-honored cinematic techniques in wholly new ways. But it’s a strange sort of success: a wordless visual essay which points the finger firmly at its audience to the beat of a musical minimalist icon. An experimental film that becomes a movie lingua franca would normally be an easy call for this list. But, you see, we’re kind of running out of room…

COMMENTS: My son was an unexpectedly gracious and patient viewer of Koyaanisqatsi. Surely it would be too much to expect a pre-adolescent boy to be enthused about a movie that opens with ten minutes of canyons and clouds. But he was a game spectator, settling for his own running commentary to keep himself amused. So it was a particular thrill when we arrived at the legendary implosion of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project, leading him to blurt out a shocked “What?” followed by silence throughout the ensuing montage of destruction, and concluding with a pained, “Why would they do that?”

Director Reggio, a veteran of media campaigns to warn of the dangers of technology, couldn’t have asked for a better reaction. Given the most common translation of the film’s Hopi-language title–“life out of balance”–it’s clear that we’re supposed to be horrified by mankind’s wanton destruction of both the natural world and its own psyche. In fact, it’s a little shocking to see how angry contemporary critics were at the film’s stance: Roger Ebert called it “an invitation to knee-jerk environmentalism of the most sentimental kind” while Variety described it as “a cynical display of decadence intending to edify and anger to action, but instead alienating with its one-sidedness.” More than three decades later, continued environmental peril has placed the judgment of history strongly on the side of the movie. But Koyaanisqatsi remains an effective advocate on its own, Continue reading CAPSULE: KOYAANISQATSI (1982)

“THE KING” (2017) AND “POPE FRANCIS: A MAN OF HIS WORD” (2018)

Eugene Jarecki is an intelligent documentary filmmaker who earned his reputation with Why We Fight (2005), Reagan (2011) and The House I Live In (2012). His latest, The King, focuses on as a symbol of the profligate American dream: a xenophobic pop culture phenomenon that remains as potent a seed today in Trump’s ‘Murica as it was in 1956, perhaps even more so. The original title of Jarecki’s film was “Promised Land” and, unwisely, distributors forced a name change. Apparently it was misleading to an audience believing (and hoping) it to be a straightforward biography of the late rock star. The American box office resulted in a whimper (although it has done well overseas). That’s unfortunate, as it’s a compelling, insightful and necessary film. As a contemporary artist, Jarecki is a provocateur. Before we get into that, here’s an insight from a filmmaker who has the pulse of contemporary art, and its audience:

“I like art that challenges you and makes a lot of people angry because they don’t get it. Because they refuse to look at it properly. Rather than open their mind to the possibility of seeing something, they just resist. A lot of people think contemporary art makes them feel stupid. Because they are stupid. They’re right. If you have contempt about contemporary art, you are stupid. You can be the most uneducated person in the world and completely appreciate contemporary art, because you see the rebellion. You see that it’s trying to change things.”–

Damn right. This is ambitious, highly charged, demanding contemporary art as documentary filmmaking. While we might concede that it overreaches, isn’t that better than a spoon-fed, orthodox approach? Some critics have complained that its premise is simplistic and yet paradoxically complicated. One might argue that, given the subject, and ultimately it’s also overly simplistic to dismiss it as simplistic. A thesis simply wouldn’t do, and Jarecki’s aesthetics are grisly and lurid, akin to what Albert Goldman did so brilliantly in his infamous biography of Presley. Like Goldman, Jarecki parallels the Presley phenomenon with the decline of America; but in the era of Donald Trump, Jarecki’s drive ultimately proves even more visceral than that slice of Americana written by Goldman in 1981.

Chuck D in The King (2017)Jarecki gets behind the wheels of Presley’s 1963 Rolls Royce and takes a cross-country tour from Tupelo, Mississippi (Presley’s birthplace and childhood home) and Memphis, Tennessee (home of Graceland) to Hollywood and Vegas (the dual cities that killed him— along with the Army, Presley’s first peddler that neutered him). Along the way, Jarecki picks up commentators such as James Carville, Emmylou Harris, D.J. Fontana (Presley’s drummer), Jerry Schilling (Presley’s best friend), (a Continue reading “THE KING” (2017) AND “POPE FRANCIS: A MAN OF HIS WORD” (2018)

339. WALTZ WITH BASHIR (2008)

“I am afraid that memories suppressed could come back with a fury, which is dangerous to all human beings, not only to those who directly were participants but to people everywhere, to the world, for everyone. So, therefore, those memories that are discarded, shamed, somehow they may come back in different ways — disguised, perhaps seeking another outlet.”–Elie Wiesel

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Ari Folman

PLOT: Director Ari Folman’s old friend describes a recurring nightmare where he is accosted by 26 angry dogs, a dream that is related to his experiences in the Lebanon War of 1982. When pressed about his own recollections, Folman notices that he only has one clear memory from the war: skinny dipping in the ocean while flares fall over Beirut. He interviews other friends who served with him in an attempt to remember what happened to him in the war, but no one’s memories match his own.

Still from Waltz with Bashir (2008)

BACKGROUND:

  • The 1982 Lebanon War began when Israeli forces invaded Lebanon in an attempt to stop Palestinian terrorists who were operating across the border. The Israeli’s sided with Christian elements in Lebanon—the Phalangist party—led by the charismatic Bashir Gemayel. Gemayel was elected President of Lebanon in 1982, but was assassinated after less than a month in office. Although a member of a rival Christian political party later confessed to the assassination, members of a radical branch of the Phalangists immediately blamed Palestinians for the killing and undertook a massacre in two refugee camps, systematically killing civilians. 1)The actual number of victims is disputed; estimates range anywhere from 300 to 3000. The occupying Israeli army not only allowed the massacre to continue for two days, but shot flares at night to illuminate the streets at the Phalangists request, before ordering the paramilitary troops carrying out the massacre to disperse. An Israeli investigation found defense minister Ariel Sharon negligent for failing to protect the civilians from the Phalangists, and he was forced to resign his post over the resulting scandal. He was elected Prime Minister in 2001, however.
  • Although often mistaken for rotoscoping, the animation in Waltz with Bashir is done cutout style, aided by computers (they actually used Flash). The scenes were filmed and then recreated by animators, rather than drawing directly over the film frames as is done in rotoscoping.
  • Folman exaggerates his memory loss as a literary technique. On the film’s commentary track he explains that in reality he did not have a complete loss of memory, as depicted in the film, but he had suppressed his memories of the Sabra and Shatila incidents.
  • Waltz with Bashir was banned in Lebanon and parts of the Arab world.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There are many choices here, from the scene of the soldier dancing in the middle of a firefight from which the movie takes its name to the devastating last forty-five seconds. But Waltz with Bashir hooked us with its first (and most) surreal image: the soldier who dreams he is rescued from his troop transport by a giant naked woman who emerges from the sea.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Rabid dog revenge; backstroking giantess; Doberman porn star

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Waltz with Bashir is a perfect example of our sliding scale for weird movies. Ari Folman has made three movies that dabble in surreal imagery; the other two (Clara Hakedosha and The Congress) are inarguably weirder. But Bashir is his morally complex masterpiece, the film for which he seems destined to be remembered. Groundbreaking in form, shocking to the senses and the conscience, it portrays war from a soldier’s ground-eye view as an absurd, half-remembered dream—but one with very real consequences, which emerge from the murk of remembrance into the harsh light of reality in the brutal finale.

Original American trailer for Waltz with Bashir

COMMENTS: A young man walks out of the ocean and stares at us. Continue reading 339. WALTZ WITH BASHIR (2008)

References   [ + ]

1. The actual number of victims is disputed; estimates range anywhere from 300 to 3000.