Reviews Of Tiny: A Story About Living Small, Jack Kerouac: King Of The Beats, Genius On Hold, Our Nixon, And The Revisionaries
I recently watched five documentaries online, and all of them were odd in some fashion- be it their point of view, their subject, or elsewise. They were Tiny: A Story About Living Small, Jack Kerouac: King Of The Beats, Genius On Hold, Our Nixon, and The Revisionaries.
The first film I watched was Tiny: A Story About Living Small. This brief (61 minutes long) 2013 documentary is one of those well intentioned Left Wing diatribes hiding behind a mantle of do gooderism and green living. Directors Merete Mueller Christopher Smith construct what is nothing more than a vanity documentary about a young couple who throw their lives away to live in a ‘tiny house.’ Of course, these have been, for decades, known as trailer homes, but leave it to the politically minded to try and transform the meaning of the term.
Trailer homes and trailer parks have been synonymous with poverty and crime and all things bad with life, in the developed world- save for the few rich folks who tool around in bus-sized vehicles. But, in this version of politicized reality, this tinty home is ‘permanent,’ well, even though it often is moved, because permanent means, well, that it’s a choice, not a dumping ground, or some such mitigation.
The film seeks to portray the couple as protagonists, and at the vanguard of a movement that, even two years ago was 4 or 5 years past its peak. The tiny home movement came about during the 2005-09 economic crisis that left repossessed homes dotting the landscape. With its passing, one feels that one is watching a historical document already- wherein tiny homes may end up being curio pieces in a museum dedicated to early millennial life, much in the way that fifty years before, folks in the early 1960s felt they would be living like the Jetsons right now. The film has many shots of natural beauty displayed, as if this outer niceness somehow compensates for the preachy and moronic silliness of the film’s protagonists.
Perhaps the best parts of the film are when other people stop by or are invited over to see what the couple has wrought, and, likely because of the camera glare, and their knowing they are being filmed, they force a smile, and pretend that they are impressed, even as their visages give away the fact that they think the couple have lost their minds.
The 61 minute running time, in one sense, is too short, because, if the film really wanted to make a political statement it could have used an extra 20 or more minutes to background the life of the couple in the real world political realities of the era. On the other hand, even at 61 minutes, this vanity documentary pushes the bounds of pointlessness a good 30 minutes or more past any semblance of rational interest.
The second film I watched, a 1985 documentary called Jack Kerouac: King Of The Beats, by its very subject matter, has long outlasted rational interest, even though it’s three decades old. Kerouac- a bad prose writer and worse ‘poet,’ has been hagiographized well past the point of rationality, because he offered nothing in his work one could even deem quality.
Checking in at 71 minutes in length, this looks and feels like the archetypal 1980s PBS documentary, in look and audio quality. Like most hagiographies, do not expect any reality in the form of critics pointing out how relentlessly bad Kerouac was. His reputation is built upon image, alone- sort of the Marlboro Man of poets in mid-20th Century America. We see much archival footage- such as Kerouac’s famed appearance with Steve Allen on the 1959 Tonight Show.
But we also see an early precursor of the dread docudrama, wherein much of the film shows an actor, as Kerouac, running- over all sorts of landscapes, muttering his bad writing in his head, and just running, as if desperately attempting to make symbolism from wan symbology. It fails, of course.
We get the expected talking heads who babble on- Allen Ginsberg, foremost among them, and the sill usage of the term Beat Generation throughout, used to try and establish the couple dozen losers who used the term as something deeper, and less derision worthy than their true moniker- The Beatniks.
While technically not a vanity documentary, like Tiny: A Story About Living Small (since that genre was a good two decades from being realized), Jack Kerouac: King Of The Beats is assuredly a fluff piece. We get nothing of their downside- their chosen poverty, their drug use, their racism, their misogyny, their alcoholism, nor even their criminal sides. Instead, we get bad jazz music layered over images of bad poetry readings, and young men dickwaving to earn their own version of ‘respect.’
The film naturally avoids the negatives and chucks up foils like William F. Buckley, then juxtaposes Kerouac’s appearance on his show with more docudrama footage of him running and mumbling his own banalities under his breath.
This film founders on such tropes, as it has nothing new to say nor anything of value to add about what was known of Jack Kerouac. Somewhere, some day, an honest documentary on the Beatniks will be made. Jack Kerouac: King Of The Beats was not that film.
A more recent film that founders is the 2013 documentary, Genius On Hold, which clocks in at 91 minutes at length. It is about the internal corruption of AT&T and the Bell network that was a telephone monopoly for most of the 20th Century. Late in the last century, I spent a few years working for the smaller, post-break up version of AT&T, doing collections, so I am well familiar with the culture of criminality that the bosses at that company perpetuated, and, in fact, because I refused to go along with many of the financial schemes and forging of documents bound for the SEC, I eventually left that job, after the leadership made my day to day work life unbearable. So, it would seem that such a film about another victim of AT&T’s corruption would find a nice niche within me.
Well, it did, on a purely emotional and visceral level, but, as a critic, I have to be above that, because you, the viewer, are not privy to my internal angsts and memories. Hence, I have to objectively and critically assess the film, and on that level, Genius On Hold fails, for a number of reasons.
The film details the life and career of an inventor named Walter L. Shaw, whose ideas for improving the phone system of the middle of last century were stolen by AT&T and its monopolistic grip. Yes, the film portrays AT&T as the bad guys, and they assuredly were, but the film is all over the place- it is scattershot in its approach, to the point that, a third of the way in one wishes the film would end. We certainly get takes on the shady practices of corporate America, but we also see that Shaw, while arguably a good inventor and bright man, was simply terrible at business, and painfully naïve. He seemed to always trust AT&T no matter how often they screwed him over, and, after a while, the viewer really loses empathy with the film’s deemed protagonist.
Worse, the film is slow paced and the narration dull- it seems straight out of a 1960s or 1970s film Auditorium presentation during recess. All in all, Genius On Hold is one of those damnable films that means well, but has no real clue as to what reality is. It thinks that its being right on the political aspect of a subject (which it arguably is) is enough to make up for the filmic flaws in presentation. One can easily pass on this pseudo-political documentary.
Of course, if pseudo-political documentaries are your thing, then why not go for the real? Go for a full bore political documentary, like Our Nixon, also from 2013, and clocking in at an hour and 24 minutes in length. Of course, calling this a pure political documentary is, itself, a stretch. In reality, it’s a political vanity documentary culled from the home movies of Nixon administration cronies H.R. ‘Bob’ Haldeman, John Erlichman, and Dwight Chapin.
Yet, the word dull is inadequate to describe how much these films fail. One would think we get juicy revelations never before aired, or, at least, Nixon spewing more bigoted nonsense, of the sort he has infamously done in other releases from his own taped archives. But, no, mostly we get shots of the trio in their own private lives- middle aged sunken chested white men lounging around in swim trunks and trying to seem cool to each other. These frat boy like vignettes- often with alcoholic drinks in hand, just show how vapid the Nixonians were. Yes, there are some rants by Nixon, and hints that he was covering up something, but there are also shots of Nixon on a beach in his swim trunks, with no audio, Is this really fascinating? If he scratched his ass on camera, are we to be moved, or gasp in revelation that the President is a mere mortal man? We know this, we knew this, we don’t need to see this in such a film.
And, knowing that the producers of this work likely had tens or hundreds of hours to sift through, one must wonder the staggering record of banality that they left out of the film. More surprisingly left out of the film are the opinions Nixon surely voiced about people like G. Gordon Liddy, Vice President Spiro Agnew, Alger Hiss, and other noted people on the Nixon Enemies List. We get very little insight into Watergate nor Nixon’s bungled handling of Vietnam, much less his criminal expansion of the war into Laos and Cambodia.
In short, there seems no real point to this film, save to say, ‘Looky here, we have home movies of the most disgraceful man to ever be President.’ Ok, but even footage of Adolf Hitler making merry and petting his dog gives no insight to his mind. Why not, at least, have a shot of Nixon on the toilet, with his pants about his ankles?
Other than a few minutes of old footage of the cronies being interviewed by the likes of Phil Donahue and Mike Wallace, there’s really nothing in this film to merit watching. Pass on it.
The sad state of documentaries in this run I recently watched is such that the best of the five films, the last one, is a mediocrity, at best. That film, The Revisionaries, from 2012, and running a brief 83 minutes, follows the yahoos at the Texas State Board of Education trying to weasel Creationism into science books. As with Our Nixon, one clearly has to sense that the yahoos are the bad guys, but, at least, this film shows us ample evidence of the craziness that propels these wackos, and the frustration of real educators in dealing with them, and the lowered standards that they wanna impose on textbook writers and publishers that will affect textbooks nationwide.
That these people do not see how they are dooming their offspring to a second rate education is a world with a growing premium placed on formal education, is partly funny and mostly sad. It’s a cultural and intellectual hara-kiri that is stupefying. People who believe in The Flintstones version of natural history- that cavemen had dinosaurs as pets, actually flex political muscle and get other cretins to nod in agreement.
But, moving beyond the monkey house humor of the idiots the film chronicles, there is really little the film offers. We see the idiots glee in mostly victories, we see the good intelligent folks grimace in mostly defeats, and we then wash, rinse, and repeat for the bilk of the film. Yes, we know there are folks who think merely repeating a falsehood long and loudly enough will make it right, but this does not make for a good film.
Perhaps the craziest moment in the film comes when the filmmakers bizarrely choose to film one of the Creationist sorts in his dental office, while he’s performing oral surgery on someone. In an otherwise dull, rote, and paint by the numbers documentary, this scene stands out as bizarre. Are we to take it they thought this was a god idea, or that the dentist would only agree to an interview at his office? I don’t know, but to see someone clearly versed in a little science, speaking so sillily is jarring.
Nonetheless, and despite that one scene’s bizarre memorability, the film founders. The Revisionaries ends bleakly, but we know, in the end, they will fail, just like the Inquisitors- a historical counterpoint that, if used, would have at least enlivened this film. Nonetheless, despite its flaws and dullness, The Revisionaries is clearly the only film in this lot even remotely worth recommending, if only for the dentist office scene.
To end, none of these films is really worth watching, but hopefully this run of futility does not reflect a coming barrenness in the documentary field, as a whole.
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