I recently watched five documentaries online, and all of them were about characters that, in one fashion or the other, were dumb, or that featured aspects of stupidity at their essence. They were Brother’s Keeper, Somm, Aliens On The Moon: The Truth Exposed, I Am Divine, And Naked Ambition: An R-Rated Look At An X-Rated Industry.
The first of the documentaries was a 1992 film that, at its best, recaptures some of the power felt in a great documentary like Capturing The Friedmans, but mostly just bores and actively tries to manipulate the viewers into sympathizing with a schizophrenic retard who is on trial for the murder of his brother. The problem is not that one might not agree that the accused mercy killed his brother, but the way the film sympathizes with the accused to the point of leaving out any other motives; hence making the final NOT GUILTY verdict seem possibly unfair, whereas if the film had been more balanced, it would have allowed viewers to ratiocinate on the case more fairly. Hence, it becomes agitprop, not documentary. This is the fault of directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky.
This 104 minute film follows the trial of Delbert Ward, an upstate illiterate farmer who lives in squalor with his brothers: Lyman, Bill, and Roscoe in Munnsville, New York. They are town pariahs until William dies in 1990. Evidence suggests smothering, and Lyman testifies to this fact. Delbert waives his rights and signs a confession, and the case becomes a local cause celebre, that the town rallies around, after previously ostracizing the hillbillies. Delbert is charged with 2nd Degree Murder, and it seems he was forced into confessing. Yet, all the evidence points to his guilt, but the town rallies, despite this. He’s a local boy, dammit!
And then we get some obvious perjury, suborning of perjury, and so forth, until the case becomes so muddled it’s impossible to know what happened, and, frankly, the film fails to make a viewer care. This is a film that could have been an hour long PBS special, at best. It stretches well past any reasonable interest. It plays much more to the old Robert Ripley sort of gawking carny wonderment than it does to any real sense of humanity.
In the end, Delbert walks, and there is a lingering suspicion that, despite the idiocy of the prosecution, and seeming stolidity of the Ward boys, that in the end, Delbert conned everyone. What his motives might be are unknown, but that does not seem to have been a concern of the filmmakers.
The comparison with Capturing The Friedmans is an apt one, because that film clarified where this film muddled, and even if one suspects the worst in both cases, the Friedman film allowed the viewer to come to the conclusion by himself, this film does not. Therefore, while it has many pluses, the demerits outweight them, so pass on this well crafted agitprop.
The next film up for review was made 20 years later, in 2012, and follows four none too brights in their quest to become wine sommeliers. If the term is unfamiliar, it means you’re a wine expert, even though countless studies have shown that wine experts are even less able at their jobs than art experts at detecting forgeries. In short, since all taste buds are the same, there objectively CANNOT ever be a consensus on good and bad, unlike in most other human endeavors, such as art.
Somm is a film that goes on for 93 minutes and follows these four people as they try to become sommeliers by passing a Byzantine exam that has one of the highest failure rates of any known examination. The film plays out like a noxious cable tv show in cooking- one of those contest shows where the contestants are berated if their flan falls, or some such? This is exacerbated by the airheadedness of the talking heads the film employs- from the four testees to other experts to the testees’ wives and girlfriends, who seem to be filmed only to spout vapidities. They seem to be the equivalents of soccer moms or Little League moms who goad their boys into being better at all costs.
There is some nice footage and good information on the wine making process, but not nearly enough to sustain the weight of a film this length. Again, a perfect example of a filmmaker with an idea that, at best, could be a half hour show on PBS, yet stretched to film length in order to satisfy the filmmaker’s ego. As such, it doesn’t even make for a good commercial nor infomercial for the wine business.
Naturally, in the end, some of the guys fail and others pass, and one of the testees who passed immediately gets hired by a company called Krug Champagne- after all, he’s only the 197th Wine Sommelier in the world, and priesthoods have their bennies.
Director Jason Wise crafts an able film, but there simply is no substance here. A much better and fresher approach would have been to examine the pros and cons of the exam, itself, to see its own limits and flaws, but that would mean exposing the wine tasting industry to deserved scorn and ridicule. However, it would have made for a much more honest and compelling work of, presumed, journalism. Hence, like Brother’s Keeper, Somm becomes mere agitprop, and, unless agitprop has a technical virtuosity unseen before, it can almost never be recommended with a good conscience.
If the first two films failed because they were merely well wrought agitprop, the third film I viewed- an 82 minute long piece of schlock called Aliens On The Moon: The Truth Exposed, seems to have been a refugee from some terrible cable channel: The Bad Hoaxes Channel, or something akin.
Made in 2014, this piece of puerile garbage, presents a series of conspiracy minded morons talking up barely seen photos from NASA vaults and arguing in the vein of the idiots who think the moon landing was hoaxed. No, they believe we went to the moon. They simply do not buy that we were alone. They claim Apollo astronauts claimed they were being watched on the lunar surface, without evidence. They claim photos of banal geography represent radio telescopes, moon bases, and that small rocks are really human skulls, if you turn a photo upside down and look hard enough- even though the claimed skull would be the size of a fist or smaller. They apparently never heard of pareidolia- the ability for people to imbue significance into things that are not, like the so called famed Face On Mars that was just a hill in shadow with some missing pixels of information.
Or, maybe they have, and just ignore it. I’ll go with the latter in this exploitation doc. The logic employed, the twisting of obvious facts into silly suppositions, is astounding. Then we see some of the obvious hoaxes, such as film and photos- an alien girl is shown with devices across her face, one connecting to a claimed Third Eye. Yes, we go there. Yet, the footage is so clearly bullshit that to have it even used suggests that the filmmakers scorn their viewers, or just think them boobs. Naturally, despite this being on the moon, we somehow get tied up in Mars paranoia, as well, wherein the several failed spacecraft that were to go to Mars are posited as having been kyboshed by the lunar aliens.
Then, as to be expected in this sort of film, they trot out the Holy Man- the claimed expert to lend expertise to these matters- former astronaut Edgar Mitchell. Well, any quick Google search of Mitchell’s background will show that he’s still in outer space, even though his body came back down. In short, he’s a lunatic (no pun intended), and this film is a waste of his and my and your time, so avoid it. Of the three films thus viewed, this is, by a light year, the silliest and the worst.
Then there was Divine. Or, I am Divine, a 2013 documentary about the transvestite actor who gained fame in filmmaker John Waters’ films, and then branched out to gain a brief life as an underground icon by socializing with Andy Warhol and other figures of that ilk. This 90 minute film is pure hagiography and just misses being a vanity documentary by virtue of the fact that Divine has had a minor influence on American subcultures.
Divine, though, is a character. The real person is Harris Glenn Milstead, and we get recountings of his tough life as a fat homosexual growing up in 1950s Baltimore, Maryland. Sure, it was tough, but life is tough for many folks. Milstead sublimated his hurt and rage into an over the top parody of a drag queen. We get tales of his youth, his disappointments, his meeting John waters- which debunks claims they were gay lovers, as well as many other folks from Waters’ early underground films, like David Lochary (1944-77). While the tales and antics, and the assumption of Divine into a superstardom that he never achieved in real life play on, we do get a sense that he was a likable enough person. Yet, we never really get an ‘in’ to who Milstead, or just Harris, was.
The film is so focused on Divine that the character’s creator is mere afterthought. Little is paid attention to the more important aspect of Milstead’s life- how and why he became Divine, and chose to look like Totie Fields from a Bizzarro Universe. It’s as if lifting that veil will reveal that there is….nothing underneath. Divine as The Wizard of Oz?
Director Jeffrey Schwartz abnegates any responsibility to present the film as a real work of journalism, and opts for hagiography, yet this is the major flaw of the film. Divine is presented as far more important than he was, and accorded far more influence than he had. The film then deals with his early death, and actually makes pretty good use of the talking head format, for a change. Tab Hunter, Mink Stole, and Holly Woodlawn are all blast from the past names that chime in.
I Am Divine is in no way, shape, nor form, a great documentary, much less even that much of a good one, but it is enjoyable, mildly entertaining, and, despite its reaches into pure hagiography and bullshit, worth watching, if but one time. Will it give you grand insights into anything? No. But it will remove you, ever so slightly, from yourself.
Naked Ambition: An R-Rated Look At An X-Rated Industry is not, like the first two films under review, in that it is mere agitprop. It is not like the third film- a conspiracist minded piece of dog shit. It is not like the fourth film, in being a hagiography of a minor, and really forgettable figure. Instead, it is A BLATANT INFOMERCIAL about a commercial photographer’s upcoming coffee table book on the porno business. In fact, the film contains dozen sof photos FROM the book. The film is relentlessly NOT about the porno industry- its history, stars, meaning, cultural import, etc. Instead, it’s an ode to the claimed genius of the film’s and book’s creator, Michael Grecco- and his EGO.
And this goes on for 80 minutes that feel like 800. Made in 2009 Naked Ambition: An R-Rated Look At An X-Rated Industry is an MTV video. To call this a documentary is bewildering. We don’t get in depth interviews, we get posturing, because this is all set in Las Vegas, at the annual porno industry convention that culminates in their version of the Oscars (the AVN Awards). Most of the film has Grecco explaining why he finds porno so stimulating- and not for the sex but for ‘cultural’ reasons he never goes into depth on. He never looks at the negative aspects of the lifestyle- drugs, VD, etc.
In a sense, this is a welcome relief from most documentaries on the subject that repeat the utter lies of misogyny and abuse that stem from the lies Linda Lovelace told about the industry. The 21st Century porno biz is NOT what it was in the 1960s when The Mafia controlled it. Like Vegas, itself, times have changed. But this film is so vapid, so calculated in its SELL THE BOOK strategy, that a good old fashioned fire and brimstoning would have been a welcome change- at least for five or ten minutes. Grecco is also gullible. He swallows….much of the bullshit people like Rob Rotten tell him- such as getting his dick tattooed.
Grecco, though, feels that he is the center of the film, as he is, and tells us gleefully, an award winning photographer, who has photographed celebrities and whose work has been on the cover of Time magazine, and- yawn. That about sums this film up. While it is not quite as bad and dishonest as Aliens On The Moon: The Truth Exposed, it’s not that far behind. Skip this one.
These films were all pretty bad, and only I Am Divine can get a marginal viewing recommendation. But, just once. Once, or you’ll be hearing from me!
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