Copyright © by Dan Schneider
I recently watched five documentaries online, and all of them featured people that could, collectively, be termed ‘losers.’ They were Stories We Tell, Who The F**k Is Arthur Fogel?, Legends Of the Knight, The Good Son, and Human Lampshade: A Holocaust Mystery.
The first of the films is easily the best of the quintet, and when I use the term ‘losers’ to describe the people within, I mean it in several ways. The ‘losers’ in this film could be said to be the people whose solipsistic lives are chronicled and fetishized over. Stories We Tell is a Canadian film from 2012, and a classic vanity documentary, wherein the film’s director, Sarah Polley- a noted Canadian actress, traces her own ancestry, following the lives of her mother, her mother’s ex-husband, a man suspected of being her father, the man who turned out to be her father, her siblings, half-siblings and extended family, and so forth.
This is not a promising start, especially when we hear an epigraph for the film, from writer Margaret Atwood. It’s not good, not particularly apt, and seems to lead one into a film that will likely produce vomit- it is a vanity documentary, after all- right?
Well, no. This is where it switches gears and becomes a meta-documentary about the making of a vanity documentary, and how it affects people. It’s about how normal, non-creative folks tell stories and try to alter narratives to their own biases and suppositions, and, as such, is an excellent little film that could have been a great one, save for its 110 minute running time, which goes about 20-30 minutes too long and bogs down in repetition.
Once Atwood’s quote is over we see a very 1960s New Wave influence hit the film, as we see the ‘scaffolding’ of the artifice of the film, ala Ingmar Bergman’s great Persona, or Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt. We then get a meta-narrative barrage where fourth walls are broken, people ask question sof director Polley, and the narrative that she seems to have wanted to be at the center of the film- her birth, origin, and life path, become meaningless to all but her. To the viewer, the comments people make on the making of the film, and her birth father’s rather selfish desire to exclude others’ points of view, is far more interesting than the gossip and discrepancies that crop up, for the discrepancies are the actual basis for what the film is really about- the whys and wherefores of vanity documentary filmmaking; except this film- either by luck or design (maybe both?)- moves beyond that, and becomes about art and what drives it.
It is not the most powerful assessment of art, but Polley seems to have laid a good foundation with this film- a starting point and query that, hopefully, is a blueprint she uses to avoid the often rote and dull documentary formulae that too often I see. The people and their petty lives are not worth detailing, save to say Polley’s mother is an off the rack bored hausfrau, who cheated on a whim; her father is a wannabe stud, her siblings are rather vacuous, and the familial hangers-on utterly generic. Yet, from this, Polley crafts an intriguing stew, one which ends with one of the best lines a documentary has ever ended with. The man who most thought was Polley’s father, but is not, is interviewed, and when informed of this by Polley, seems stunned, as we hear him seemingly about to issue a denial, only to have him state: ‘Well, we did sleep together once….’
Hopefully, though, Polley has learnt her lessons well, and will NEVER base a sequel on that!
Who The F**K Is Arthur Fogel? is a bad, bad film that tries like hell to make its titular subject seem as relevant as the lead subject of the great documentary, The Kid Stay In The Picture, but fails. And it’s more than just the fact that the film’s title asks a queation. Several documentaries of varying success have done so, but this is not really a documentary, merely a glorified 103 minute infomercial that is well made, technically. It looks great- but utterly lacks the conviction and innovation to be found in Stories We Tell.
Fogel is a Canadian music mogul, supposedly responsible for producing some of the biggest acts in the world, from David Bowie to Lady Gaga, with Madonna, U2, and others in between. The editing is ADD, the use of concert clips whirr by and nothing of consequence is said. We never know who Fogel is, why he’s important, nor does the viewer ever get to care. There is an essential hollowness that fills the screen with talking heads, famous and not, who do nothing but hagiographize a man dedicated to pap.
The film has a brief detour, midway, that could have been the seeds for a documentary worth pursuing, and that’s when we learn of the late 1990s rise and demise of Napster, which led to Itunes, and a bunch of record execs despair over the death of music made for albums. They whinge that singles are killing the industry. Even though albums dominated pop music for a mere thirty or so years of its 120 year history- just one quarter of its time! Here is where director Ron Chapman could have steered this into a film that is probing- as example, we could have learnt that albums allow a greater range of depth for music as art, or so forth; but no- we get bupkus, because Arthur Fogel is apparently a man whose only motive is squeezing money out of every last thing associated to music- from the clips of coffee at a concert to what some blogger is writing about.
Hence, the titular query is never answered, unless one feels it is with the reality the film shows- that Fogel is a human cipher with no real identity save money and its making. Is that really interesting? Not to me, no matter how slick the film is wrought. And never does it get to a single question of substance. All we see is a flood of images and all we hear is a tsunami of bad music, while the pop stars and industry insiders interviewed gush over what Fogel has done to make the concert experience so great, even as not a single detail is proffered as to how and why this has occurred. Imagine a film extolling FDR, and his decisions during The Great Depression, but not a mention of his alphabet soup programs. Seriously. There’s that wide a disconnect.
And an equal width that my lips yawned.
If the prior film was focused on a single loser, albeit hailed as a winner because of wealth, at least Arthur Fogel is real. This film’s losers all worship a dubious fictive hero. No, Legends Of The Knight, is not about King Arther, nor any of his Round Table buddies, but about Batman- the comic book superhero who runs around in his skivvies, homoerotically battling crime with underaged children at his side. Growing up, I loved the Adam West television series, and how it deflated the puerile nonsense such a medium spewed, but for nearly 30 years now- ever since Frank Miller’s graphic novel- The Dark Knight Returns- Batman has become dark and cool and referred to as a knight, even though he represents EVERYTHING a knight of the Round Table is NOT!
But, you’d never know that from this 75 minute film, which follows a laundry list of sad sacks whose lives are obsessed with the fictive Bruce Wayne and his alter-ego. Director Brett Culp seems to find adults who obsess over childish material somehow fascinating. I was a bit more embarrassed for those involved- at least when not yawning.
Made in 2013, Legends Of The Knight shows children running about in Batman costumes that have more akin with the Adam West show (easily the best iteration of Batman ever); cops stopping a guy in a Batmobile that has no state tags, then clowning around with the guy dressed as the character- to the point of asking for a photo with him, to the hullabaloo created by the time the comics creators killed off sidekick Robin, to some bizarrely inserted Holocaust footage that had no real place in such a film but- what the hell, dead Jews and grainy Holocaust footage means ‘this is a serious work of documentary journalism,’ right? Then, there’s a guy who gives a speech at West Point, urging men who will face death and crippling injuries to, you got it, be like Batman! And, to hear him tell it, he got a huge round of applause. That’s right- go die, but you’ll be like a comic book hero! Then there’s the requisite shot of a crippled girl, with muscular dystrophy, who venerates Batman, and- ugh, whatever!
Of all these and other scenes, my real question is, how were the cops able to get so clear a focus on their cop camera when stopping Batman in his Batmobile, but, when they routinely stop and harass young black men, often to the point of murdering the citizens they are to protect, the cameras never work? Just asking, mind you.
The film parades its dubious celebration of losers by ending with the banal PC bumper sticker affirmation: We are Batman!
Really- pass the barf bag, NOW!
The fourth documentary featured a real loser- Duk Koo Kim- a Korean boxer, who in the early 1980s, lost a boxing match and ended up dying from injuries sustained in the bout. It was against Ray ‘Boon Boom’ Mancini (nee Mancino), and I recall watching the actual bout on a weekend, when still in high school.
Mancini had been the son of a former boxer, Lenny ‘Boom Boom’ Mancini’- hence the film’s title: The Good Son: The Life Of Ray ‘Boom Boom’ Mancini. This 2012 film clocks in at 88 minutes in length, and chronicles Mancini’s rise and fall- well, mainly the rise, until he killed Kim in the squared circle. The film overdoes the praise of Mancini’s skill as a boxer- sure, he won a world lightweight title, later on, but he was never considered a great boxer, as a loss in his first world title bout and loss to Alexis Arguello showed. The film glosses over such as this, and, instead, focuses on Mancini’s marketability as a smaller weight boxer in the early 1980s, and his Youngstown, Ohio background, which lent him a Rocky Balboan pedigree.
Then we get background on Kim’s life- how he was willing to give up boxing to marry his future wife, and how he had a baby who grew up never knowing him, until. At film’s climax, Kim’s widow and son meet Mancini and his clan. Mancini can only babble clichés, and Kim’s son speaks broken English, so their meeting is utterly anticlimactic, if not outright superfluous. Far better is the recounting of Mancini’s life growing up and under his father’s sporting eye. The film ends with Mancini on a beach, and the sun fingering its rays poetically through clouds, but little is mentioned of how Mancini was never the same boxer after the Kim fight. In fact, afterwards, he lost his final four fights, to finish his pro career at 29 wins and 5 losses
Director Jesse James Miller was likely told not to dig too deeply, as Mancini helped produce and finance the film, hence the fact that it leans toward hagiography. Little is made of the other consequences of the death of Kim in the fight- such as the eventually shortening of most pro boxing matches from 15 to 12 to 10 rounds, or that Mancini actually went to Kim’s funeral, or that Kim’s mother and the fight’s referee, Richard Green, both killed themselves within a year of the fight- the latter due to guilt over having failed to end the fight sooner.
Thus, the film provides a few nice moments, but is utterly forgettable.
Sometimes meek forgetability is preferable to disgusting exploitation, and that’s the term that best describes Human Lampshade: A Holocaust Mystery, the sort of bad cable documentary that’s meant to titillate, even though it says nothing of any real depth. Clocking in at 45 minutes long, the 2012 film tries to claim that a lampshade found in New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina, was one of the human skin lampshades reputed to have been made at the Buchenwald death camp.
About the only information the film imparts that has any value is that this claim was never tested and was an urban legend. I’d always been taught in history classes that human lampshades, made of dead Jews and others, was true. My bad, but this film obsesses on the fact, even though it becomes clear that the lampshade is made of cow hide, not human flesh. Early tests indicated that there was some human DNA, but even that was a weak case. It was mostly NOT, yet the film’s star, Mark Jacobson- a journalist, will have none of it.
By gum, this story is only worth pursuing if the damned thing is made of dead Jews, after all! What a shameless way to conduct one’s job. Then, when back to back better DNA tests reveal that the case for the lampshade’s being made from cows, not humans, is 99.99% or more, Jacobson seems disappointed that no humans were slaughtered in the making of this artifact. Truly, the look on his face tells us all we need to know. That the actual provenance of the lampshade- from a drug and a homeless man, should have been the first clue that Jacobson was being scammed, well, damn journalism, for, as we learnt in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.’
Well, you get why Jacobson made this sleazy film., and if that doesn’t qualify him as a loser, what will? Aside from the shoddy journalism, the formulaic structure of the film, and the utter reprehensibility of Jacobson as a man and journalist, one has to wonder about the people who financed this film, and why it was aired, as is. Are people so obsessed with the World war Two nazi genocide that anything related to it, real or not, deserves a film? How about Hitler’s underwear? Himmler’s nail filings? Dead Gypsies’ jock straps? No, no, c’mon, now, suckers.
Ugh! Skip this. Just do.
Of all these films on losers, of all stripes, the only film worth a damn, and worth a repeat viewing, even, is the first one, Stories We Tell. All the rest? Take a nap, instead.
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