I recently watched five documentaries online, and all of them were predicated on some form of illusion that either the subjects or the filmmakers held. They were Requiem For The Big East; Ain’t In It For My Health: A Film About Levon Helm; Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me; Beltracchi: The Art Of Forgery; and Dinosaur 13.
Requiem For The Big East is one of the 30 For 30 film series started by ESPN and it’s not a good film nor a bad one. It’s just rote, predictable, and rather hollow. It charts the 3 plus decade rise and fall of The Big East college basketball conference, from its late 1970s mission of making urban basketball from the nation’s Atlantic and New England regions get parity with the power conferences south and west.
The 102 minute long film, from 2014, follows former coach Dave Gavitt on his mission to move the center of basketball away from those other regions and the almost overnight success that followed in the first few years when formerly afterthought schools like Georgetown, Syracuse, St, John’s, and Villanova became as synonymous with college basketball as traditional powers like UCLA, Kentucky, Duke, and North Carolina had been. The culmination was the conference’s placing of all but Syracuse (from the aforementioned quartet) into the 1985 NCAA’s basketball tournament’s Final Four.
The film, to this point, is good, and the talking head remembrances of coaches like Rick Pitino, Lou Carnesecca, John Thompson, Jim Boeheim, and Rollie Massimino, work well.
Then the film focuses on the decline half, and the film likewise tanks. We get caught in the handwringing minutia of the formerly small conference’s expansion into areas that were not urban, and whose own football programs would soon help to dismantle Gavitt’s vision. Former college stars who appear include Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin, and Ed Pinckney.
Yes, there are good moments recounted on videotape, and the highlight of the film is The Sweater Game between Georgetown and St. John’s, but that’s about it. The last moments of the league are peppered throughout the film, and a sort of nostalgia is meant to be felt, bt it’s simply not. By that time, college basketball and, indeed, all college sports, had been revealed as moneymaking machines that churned and used their players to boost their endowments so that administrators and professors could live lives of luxury for little actual work. Yet, the filmmakers act as if this is some grand revelation, and, surprisingly, the conference’s most successful program over the decades, Syracuse, is nailed as the Prime Suspect in the conference’s poor vision and ill timed decisions.
Hence, Requiem For The Big East is a tale that reveals, well, what everyone watching knew all along, and that simply doesn’t make for a good film. Add in the saccharine hagiographizing of the past and, ok, pass this particular rock, ok?
The year 2010 saw the release of a film by Jacob Hatley, titled Ain’t In It For My Health: A Film About Levon Helm, and it’s the epitome of a vanity documentary of a washed up fringe figure from an era gone by. That figure happens to be Levon Helm- most known as the titular hero of the 1971 song Levon, by Elton John. Helm was a washed up musician who would die in 2012, but rose to minor fame as the vocalist for The Band, the rock group that used to back Bob Dylan, in the 1960s, then found early 1970s fame on their own.
As per usual in such films, we get a myriad of excuses why Helm’s life, in his dotage, is so bad. He made millions of dollars, but frittered it away with drugs and sex and bad investments, unpaid royalties, a feud with bandmate Robbie Robertson (centered on money and credit, it seems), cancer, bankruptcies, and on and on. Yet, while the film shows banal shots of motel and airport life on the road, it omits many major issues more relevant to why we see the man as he is, in his final years- and I’m not talking of his failed acting career (most notably as Loretta Lynn’s daddy in the film Coal Miner’s Daughter), but rather the fact that neither The Band nor Helm were ever that good, popular, nor influential. Director Hatley may have a boner for this twisted nostalgia, but anyone with functioning ears can descry that qualitative fact.
Instead, we get endless shots of a possibly drugged up or demented Helm spouting good ol’ boy nonsense to whomever is unfortunate to be in the old coot’s vicinity. The director never gets the old fool down and drills him with questions that might get the man to grasp why he lived such a failed existence, when he could have had more. If it would not have helped Helm, personally, it certainly would have helped the film and its viewers. The wife of another bandmate- now dead, even states more than Helm does, which does much to stress how the director recapitulated his main subject’s failures.
At 86 minutes long, the film is an oddity in that it feels simultaneously like it’s missing major pieces, but given what it shows, it feels like it could have been cut by more than half into a neat little 30 minute PBS profile. The larger question, though, is of all the great personalities and musicians still alive in rock history, why the hell focus on this washed up could have been? That the answer can only be vanity documentary says too much for the swiftly degrading state of documentary filmmaking.
An even more cogent example of why documentary filmmaking has fallen from its Golden Age of 2000-2010 is the vanity documentary from 2012, called Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, which runs 113 minutes in length.
Directed by Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori, this vanity doc is even more galling than the prior one, because, at least, Levon Helm and The Band had a moderate run of success, even if they came nowhere close to the heights scaled by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, nor Led Zeppelin. The subjects of this film- the long forgotten Memphis band, called Big Star, well, they never came close to living up to their name, and never even had the talent level of Helm and his mates.
The band, whom I never heard of before seeing this film, was long forgotten for a reason- a good one: they were utterly forgettable. They were a garage band, at best, and not even a good one, at that! But don’t let that be the end of it. The filmmakers would have you believe the band was destined to dominate the 1970s if only this or that went right. Of course, trotted out are former stoner rock critics, who declaim this or that virtue, even though, when the music is heard, it’s well, clear why Big Star never mad eit. They were soft rock, ay best, at a time when that field was dominated by Bread and singers who were songwriters. Big Star did neither of those tasks well.
It’s probably why so little of the actual music is used on the soundtrack, and, instead, we get the predictable array of talking heads (most of whom are unknowns- save for future film director Cameron Crowe) who don’t know jackshit about what they speak of. We get band members Alex Chilton and Chris Bell on camera, but they add even less than the fawning fanboy critics.
The group split in 1974, but the reasons are trite if undeveloped, and then we get the laundry list of excuses as to why the group didn’t make it, save for the real one- they were not good and too generic to stand out in any meaningful way. And, despite its hopes to the contrary, neither thr film nor its makers, can really do anything to deny that obvious fact. No anecdotes, no photos and clips meant to show the import of ‘real’ artists at work, and no parade of meaningless and bad names can change it.
Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me is simply a colossal waste of time, effort, and monet, and while the garage band members may not be hurt by this film, the viewers certainly are; by a misdemeanor with intent to bore. Guilty as charged!
Beltracchi: The Art Of Forgery, a documentary from 2014, does not bore, but it’s nothing special either. The 97 minute film, directed by Arne Birkenstock , is no F For Fake, the great film on art forgery directed by Orson Welles, but it has a handful of scenes that give an insight into a master art forger’s mind.
The film tells the tale of art charlatan Wolfgang Beltracchi and his wife, Helene, who spent decades fooling idiotic art critics, and venal art collectors by making forgeries, good and bad, that became part of the ‘art is commodity’ crowd that began with the rise of Modern Art with Marcel Duchamp. And while there is no doubt Beltracchi is a phony, the film does little to explore the phonies who are art experts and dealers- men and women who don’t give a damn for aesthetics nor the idea of art as a translator of reality- a thing that can let one in to the way life really is. These are the true villains of the piece, and art forgers like Beltracchi, in a sense, expose them at their own risk, for if the buyers and sellers, galleries and museums, REALLY gave a damn about art, they would not give a damn who painted what, for they would appreciate the skill of the maker- be he declaimed Old Master, or living nobody. It’s this hypocrisy which seems to motivate Beltracchi into not trying to be his own man, but get what he can from the ruthless exploiters of creative people.
One scene shows how expertly Beltracchi removes painting from an old canvas, to paint over it with his own work, so to fool experts over the age of a painting- he even adds dirt and dust to it as an added measure. Beltracchi, who was filmed mostly after he and his wife were caught in 2010, admits to having forged over 300 paintings, with some people thinking 5-6 times as many others are still unaccounted for. The documentary is in French and German, and subtitled in English.
By the end, we see the Beltracchis’ possessions are seized, and they have to serve their prison sentences, although both get off leniently since their crimes merely showed how sick and venal the abusers of real artists are- and that goes for the action houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Even relatives of now dead painters declared forgeries genuine, and the best of the work of their dead beloveds. The biggest fool the film portrays is comedian Steve Martin, who wasted $850k on a mediocre painting, then sold it for a loss, and refused to appear on camera.
Helene, though, was just a slick as her husband, and the business brains of the operations. When questioned over the provenance of the ‘lost’ pieces of art, she claimed her grandfather had saved the works from the Nazis and never had a chance to return them to their rightful owners, whose names were forever lost.
The only moment of honesty comes from an old French woman who was swindled, who admits her fake Beltracchi was much better than many of her ‘real’ paintings, and she misses it. Would that this filmmaker took on the real frauds of art- the Abstract Expressionists and the Postmodern crowd whose frauds are legally protected, even if far more deadly to culture. Their malign motives deserve far more ignominy, as their crimes against art dwarf those of small time cons like Beltracchi and wife.
The only good solid film of the five documentaries up for review was the last one seen, also from 2014. Directed by Todd Douglas Miller, the 100 minute long film, called Dinosaur 13, is about the discovery of the 13th full skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Rex ever found, and named Sue. The folks who found her bones, in the Black Hills, were from a small archaeological company, the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, in Hill City, South Dakota, and they thought they had the permission of the property’s owner, an American Indian to whom they paid $5000. Turned out he didn’t own the property and their agreement was just a handshake affair, and not a written contract.
Well, they were wrong. First, the Federal government claimed the bones, then Native Americans, and eventually the scientists were charged with all sorts of silly crimes, the bones were given back to the government and property owner, and one of the scientists, Pete Larson, was cruelly sent to prison for 2 years, in one of the biggest miscarriages of justice one can imagine, even though only 14 of 155 counts were found guilty- 6 of them for the Institute as a whole. Larson served time with Mobster John Gotti and Oklahoma City terrorist Timothy McVeigh.
The film chronicles all of this, and the focus of the film is the trial of the scientists, which wasted millions of dollars of taxpayer money for not a reason at all. Eventually, Larson got released, and the other scientists paid their fines, but Sue was put up for auction at Sotheby’s and sold for $7.6 million, way beyond the range that South Dakota folks could muster. The winner was a Chicago museum.
But, unlike many recent documentaries, this film actually has a worthy tale to tell, and while the art in its art is not great, it is good enough that the extraordinary tale has a nice platform upon which to reach into the minds of viewers. From Sue’s 1990 discovery as the largest intact tyrannosaur ever found, to her current home, the film is fair and balanced, and heaps the right amount of scorn on the bumbling government idiots and bureaucrats.
The film has a few cameos of famed scientists- most notably the rock star of American archaeology, Robert Bakker, who points out many of the things wrong with the whole affair, even as he admits the for profit Institute employed people who were better at their jobs than he and his students were. Overall, Dinosaur 13 is a good film.
Hence, because of that fact, Dinosaur 13 is the only film that can be fully recommended for viewing.
Comments are closed for this blog post