Category Archives: Documentary

Take a kiss without regret: Scotty & the Secret History of Hollywood (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 25, 2018)

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I’m stiff on my legend,
The films that I made
Forget that I’m fifty
‘Cause you just got paid

-David Bowie, from “Cracked Actor”

Marilyn Monroe once famously said “Hollywood is a place where they’ll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul. I know, because I turned down the first offer often enough and held out for the fifty cents.” Of course, she was specifically referring to the craft of acting, and the difficulty of maintaining integrity while toiling in the skin-deep recesses of the Dream Factory. Indeed, there are myriad stories of those who got off the bus in Tinseltown with stars in their eyes, determined to “make it” at any cost-only to get chewed up and spit out; dreams shattered, souls crushed.

Then you have people like Scotty Bowers, the subject of Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood. When recently discharged Marine combat veteran Bowers came to Hollywood in 1946, he had no illusions about becoming a “star” …in fact he had virtually no expectations at all. He had no acting aspirations. What he did have was a knack for fixing cars, a winning personality, and strapping good looks. He was perfectly happy to land his job working at a service station on Hollywood Boulevard.

As recounted by the now 90-something Bowers, what happened to him soon thereafter almost parallels Dirk Diggler’s journey in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights; a sort of pilgrim’s progress story for hedonists…the difference being that Bowers’ story is real.

What begins as a chance encounter at the pump with actor Walter Pidgeon, who immediately senses something “special” about Scotty and invites him over to his house for a “dip in the pool” ends up as a decades-long dip in Hollywood decadence for the affable ex-serviceman. Bowers became (to use the polite term) a “procurer to the stars”, arranging trysts for many of Hollywood’s closeted elites. He does name names; Bowers certainly shows no coyness in that department (they’re all dead now anyway, he figures).

Bowers also developed quite a rep for his own, erm, “servicing” prowess, with both men and women. Yet, there is no braggadocio on his part; this is a person so straightforward, charming, and refreshingly devoid of sexual hang-ups that by the time he matter-of-factually recalls engaging in “a three-way” with Lana Turner and Ava Gardner, you’ll find yourself thinking, “Yeah, okay. I can totally see how that could happen. Why not?”

But it’s not all about the sex and the salaciousness (OK, mostly…but not all). Some of the “secrets” divulged in the film have been public knowledge for years (in particular, anyone who has leafed through Kenneth Anger’s “Hollywood Babylon” will be shocked, shocked at a number of these revelations). And some of this ground was already covered in the excellent 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet. Still, Tyrnauer does a good job at contextualizing the historical reasons Bowers’ clients had to keep this all so hush-hush.

There is also a Grey Gardens vibe conjured up by the footage of Bowers at home with his wife. In addition to a rather obvious hoarding issue, Bowers doesn’t flinch when the odd skunk or coyote wanders into his garage to feed on the treats he leaves out for them.

There are brief glimpses into darker parts of Bowers’ psyche; there are hints of  PTSD symptoms going back to his WW2 experiences, and he speaks at one point of being molested as a child (oddly, as if sensing how it might be perceived, he goes out of his way to give it a sex-positive spin-but it’s an unconvincing coverup of denial).

But the real fun is in the dishing; and you’ll find yourself leaning forward as Bower chats and charms his way into your guilty pleasure center (you may even start to see what Walter Pidgeon saw all those years ago). Speaking for myself, I’ll never again be able to look at Bringing Up Baby or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? without certain…subtexts.

Can’t buy me love: Dark Money (***½) & Generation Wealth (**)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 4, 2018)

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If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.

-Dorothy Parker

What is this “dark money” of which “they” speak these days? You know, “them”…all those smarty-pants news anchors and political pundits and conspiracy theorists on the internet, radio and TV who bandy the term about with worried tone and furrowed brows?

According to a new documentary by Kimbery Reed helpfully entitled Dark Money, that term should be bandied about with worried tone and furrowed brow. To paraphrase Jason Robards’ wry understatement in All the President’s Men: “Nothing’s riding on this except the First Amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press and maybe the future of the country.” Oh…there is also a little matter of the continuing integrity of our elections.

Before you panic, I should clarify that there is a “New Coke” (New Koch?) element here. The implementation of “dark money” is nothing new. The concept of “buying an election” is deeply embedded in the DNA of our republic… it’s as American as apple pie. It’s just that the semantics have evolved. Terms like “graft” and “influence peddling” have been part of our lexicon for a long time (“a rose by any other name”…and all that).

Even the Father of Our Country played a little footsie under the table (some 30 years prior to the Constitution, no less). From a 2014 Washington Post article by Jamie Fuller:

When George Washington lost an election to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1755, he decided to improve outreach. Two years later, he bought about $195 worth of punch and hard cider for friends and managed to win. However, the newly elected legislature quickly passed a law prohibiting candidates from giving voters “meat, drink, entertainment or provision or…any present, gift, reward, or entertainment etc. in order to be elected.”

How quaint. The point of course is that campaign finance reform has unquestionably been there all along, as well. However, the effectiveness of such legislation is perennially…questionable. One thing’s for sure…the Founding Fathers could never have envisioned the SCOTUS’s “Citizens United” decision of 2010. Also from Fuller’s piece:

2010-In Citizens United vs. FEC, the Supreme Court held that independent expenditures by corporations and labor unions were protected by the First Amendment, which struck down BCRA provisions—building on previous campaign finance laws—banning these types of expenditures.

A few months later, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals applied the decision in Citizens United to the case Speechnow.org v. FEC. The federal judges decided arguments that unlimited independent expenditures would lead to corruption were invalid. The chief judge noted that these arguments “plainly have no merit after Citizens United.” These two cases paved the way for the creation of super PACs and the growing power of 501(c) 4s.

Man that is some byzantine postmodern influence peddling, in contrast to a couple jugs of hard cider and a set of wooden teeth. I am aware that most of Digby’s regular readers are much more politically astute than I. But for someone like me, who doesn’t know a “501(c) 4” from a petit four…you have to literally draw me a picture.

Thankfully, the “star” of Reed’s documentary, investigative journalist and founder of the online Montana Free Press John S. Adams, does just that at one point in the film. He summarizes thus: “[Backdoor corporate campaign financing via super PACs] is not the people controlling the government. It’s a government, controlled by a corporation, controlling the people.”

Reed has found two perfect framing devices for her treatise; firstly, Adams with his mission to expose the insidiousness of elections that are (“thanks” to the Citizens United ruling) bought and sold by untraceable corporate money, and secondly the state of Montana itself, posited as the “front line” in the fight to preserve fair elections nationwide.

Montana makes a fascinating case study on many levels, from its “citizen legislature” (a unique practice shared by a handful of states), to its history of campaign finance reform (e.g. the “Corrupt Practices Act of 1912”). Rich in resources, the state has a sad tradition of being exploited by special interest groups; every level of their political system is dominated by corporate interests (not unlike many Third World countries, n’est-ce pas?).

Reed takes a few side trips around the country as well, to illustrate the many tendrils of dark money interests. For example, she points to the 2010 election of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, whose victory was due in no small part to the Koch brothers-funded conservative political advocacy group Americans For Prosperity. Walker is also held up as an example of how crucial the control of state supreme courts is to dark money interests (pointing to his cronyism in appointing some of his major supporters as justices).

Admittedly, it’s all a bit of a downer. Still, Reed gives us glimmers of hope here and there. Case in point: Beginning in February 2019, right here where I live, in Seattle, the “Democracy Voucher” program will kick in. As explained on the Seattle.gov website:

In November 2015, Seattle voters passed a citizen-led initiative known as “Honest Elections Seattle” (I-122). I-122 enacted several campaign finance reforms that changed the way campaigns are typically financed for Seattle candidates.

One major reform allows the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission to distribute “Democracy Vouchers” to eligible Seattle residents. Other campaign reforms include campaign contribution limits for lobbyists and contractors.

Seattle is the first city in the nation to try this type of public campaign financing. The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission is committed to increasing transparency, accountability, and accessibility for how Seattle elections are financed.

It’s a start. But Seattle is only one city, and it’s a big country (and look who’s in charge).

If “dark money” is the antithesis of “democracy” to you, and gives you cause for concern, then this film is in your wheelhouse. Granted, if you are a political junkie Reed may be preaching to the choir, but her film is accessible enough to work for the casually engaged and/or wonky-curious voter as an easy-to-digest primer on a complex (and timely) issue.

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Greed is the lack of confidence in one’s own ability to create.

-Vanna Bonta

Here’s a stupid question: Who wants to be a millionaire? Yeah, pretty much everybody. But is a million enough? And if not, why not? Why is it always “more more more (how do you like it, how do you like it?)”. And why are people who have more than they could ever spend so goddam unhappy until they can figure out a new way to make even more?

In 2008, filmmaker and photo-journalist Lauren Greenfield set out to answer those questions. The culmination of her decade-long project is a “multi-platform” release including a museum exhibition, monograph book, and the documentary Generation Wealth. This is solely a review of the film portion of Greenfield’s triptych.

Spurred by the accelerating worldwide obsession with wealth and all that it implies, Greenfield literally goes all over the map (L.A., Monaco, Russia, China) in this sprawling study. She profiles a jarringly disparate cavalcade of subjects, from porn stars and plastic surgery addicts to convicted Wall Street swindlers; people who have gained and lost fortunes, people who live beyond their means to feed their narcissism, to people who got fucked up because they were born into wealth…pretty much the entire, erm, rich pageant.

It’s a great concept, and I understand what she was trying to do, but unfortunately, the project turns into a case of the dog finally catching the bus but not knowing what do next. Adding to the unfocused approach, and glorified reality show memes, Greenfield does a 180 and turns the camera on herself and her family.

In a tangential sense, this reminded me of one my favorite documentaries, Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March, which began as a project to retrace the Union general’s path of destruction through the South but ended up as rumination on the eternal human quest for love and validation, filtered through McElwee’s search for the perfect mate. Now, there’s one thing money can’t buy.

Nursery crimes: Three Identical Strangers (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 28, 2018)

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From whence it follows, that one thing cannot have two beginnings of existence, nor two things one beginning; it being impossible for two things of the same kind to be or exist in the same instant, in the very same place; or one or the same thing in different places.

-John Locke, from An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

It’s a well-known secret that Elvis Presley had a stillborn twin brother. As biographers have noted, Jesse Garon Presley nonetheless remained “with” Elvis until his own death 42 years later. Family and friends recounted that during times of stress or bouts of depression, it was not unusual for him to have long conversations with his “missing half.”

There is one inarguable bond between multiple birth siblings. First and foremost, there is an empirically evident biological closeness, particularly with identical siblings, who literally come from the same zygote and thereby share 100% of its genetic material.

However, once you push beyond obvious similarities like physical resemblance and shared mannerisms, you quickly enter the realm of the theoretical. For example, do some (like Elvis) have a kind of unbreakable “psychic” connection from the womb until death? Are some “pre-programmed” by nature to share the same likes, dislikes, aesthetic taste, etc.-even after they’ve left the nest and gone their separate ways to live their adult lives?

Consider the long strange trip undertaken by Robert Shafran, Edward Galland, and David Kellman, three young men who grew up in separate families within the same 100-mile radius yet were blissfully unaware up until the age of 19 that they were identical triplets.

As recalled by one of the brothers in British filmmaker Tim Wardle’s mind-blowing documentary Three Identical Strangers, it was initially a case of random chance back in 1980 that led him to discover that he had a twin brother. However, the “twins” would not be such for very long; once the media picked up on this irresistible human-interest story, it was but days before kismet put the cap on a perfect hat trick: for then there were three.

The triplets were given up at birth in 1961 by their single mother. Separated immediately, they were placed with three families through the auspices of a New York City adoption agency. While it is not unusual for the identity of the biological parents to be withheld, it was somewhat unusual in this case that (for reasons unveiled as the film unfolds) even the three sets of adoptive parents were not told that their respective adoptees had siblings.

Interestingly, the families the three were placed with were socioeconomically disparate to a fault: one blue collar, one middle class, and the other well-moneyed. Even more remarkable then that the 19-year-old triplets not only bonded so quickly but discovered that they had grown up sharing many of the same predilections; ranging from a love of wrestling, smoking Marlboro cigarettes, and even being attracted to the same type of woman.

Blessed with strapping good looks and exuding enough positive, goofy energy to power a small city whenever they were in the same room together, it’s hardly surprising that they became instant media darlings (archival footage demonstrates them working their charm offensive on Tom Brokaw, Phil Donahue and Paula Zahn).

They were not shy about cashing in on their celebrity; they moved into a N.Y.C. apartment together, eventually opened a SoHo restaurant (“Triplets”) and were feted by the likes of Madonna (who landed them a cameo in Susan Seidelman’s 1985 film Desperately Seeking Susan). Each bro found the love of his life, adding “happily married” to their collective fairy tale.

Their story could’ve (should’ve?) ended there; a perennial feel-good 6 o’clock news kicker if you ever heard one. But that would be assuming that we don’t live in a cruel, unfeeling universe that can randomly taketh away…as casually as it can randomly giveth.

Here’s where my review potentially becomes…complicated. I could tell you what happens next, but then, I’d have to kill you. And I don’t even have your address. Besides, I am a man of peace and don’t own a firearm, so it’s an ineffectual, existential threat…at best.

Here’s what l’ll do for you. If you have no plans to see this film, just go ahead and Google the story (it’s a doozey). But, if you do plan to, and you enjoy documentaries that unfold like the best riveting conspiracy thrillers do, chock full of unexpected twists and turns, I’d recommend that (like me) you go in completely “cold”. Granted, some of those deeper questions vis a vis “psychic connections” and such between identical siblings are not answered, but Wardle’s film does have a lot to say about “nature vs. nurture”, scientific ethics, celebrity culture, and the unshakable bonds of familial love.

Torn, torn, torn – Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist (**)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 14, 2018)

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punk (noun)

[mass noun] A loud, fast-moving, and aggressive form of rock music, popular in the late 1970s. ‘punk had turned pop music and its attendant culture on its head’

1.1 [count noun] An admirer or player of punk rock, typically characterized by coloured spiked hair and clothing decorated with safety pins or zips. ‘punks fought Teds on the Kings Road on Saturday afternoons’

– from The Oxford Living Dictionary

So what does ‘punk’ really mean? I suppose it depends on who you ask. Tony James of Generation X likened it to “…my childhood, the glorious, very exciting naivete of rock n’ roll.” Kurt Cobain defined it as “…musical freedom. It’s saying, doing and playing what you want.” David Byrne surmised that ‘punk’ was “…defined by an attitude rather than a musical style.” To Lester Bangs, it was “…a fundamental and age-old Utopian dream: that if you give people the license to be as outrageous as they want in absolutely any fashion they can dream up, they’ll be creative about it…and do something good besides.”

Seminal punk provocateur Malcolm McLaren explained it thus (in an interview taken from Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk) … “I was just this strange guy with this mad dream. I was trying to do with the Sex Pistols what I failed at with the New York Dolls. I was taking the nuances of Richard Hell, the faggy [sic] pop side of the New York Dolls, the politics of boredom and mashing it all together to make a statement, maybe the final statement I would ever make. And piss off this rock ‘n’ roll scene.” Well, he certainly succeeded on that last part; but he also shook up the status quo. That said…he didn’t do it alone, despite his braggadocio.

Specifically, it’s possible that Mr. McLaren would have lived a life of quiet desperation sans acclaim or notoriety, had he never crossed paths with a Vivienne Westwood. Their longtime relationship was complicated; briefly romantic and fitfully platonic at best. Ultimately, they settled for pragmatic, as it was their creative partnership that fueled the U.K. punk scene-with McLaren on the music end, and Westwood covering the fashion front. The couple co-founded “SEX” in the mid-70s, the King’s Road boutique where future members of the Sex Pistols famously hung out. This was where Westwood fully realized her knack for couture, putting her on the map as a key architect of punk fashion.

Unfortunately, this fascinating chapter of Westwood’s life is largely glossed over in Lorna Tucker’s slickly produced yet curiously uninspired documentary Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist. Granted, the feisty and still-punky Westwood appears quite reticent to reminisce on-camera about the Sex Pistols era; but frankly, that is why most people would be intrigued to see this film in the first place (that’s my theory…I could be wrong).

Westwood herself is entertaining; as is her current husband/creative partner Andreas (he’s a trip…and so spooky close to Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Bruno” character that I can’t help speculating if he was the inspiration). I did come away admiring Westwood’s dedication to various causes. However, I didn’t feel I learned much about who she really is or what makes her tick (e.g. there is very little regarding her life pre-McLaren). Still, if you’re attracted to the world of overblown couture and underfed models (I’m afraid I am not) then you might find this sketchy hagiography  more engaging.

 

SIFF 2018: Rush Hour ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 2, 2018)

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Argentinian director Luciana Kaplan profiles three working class commuters from around the globe-a single Turkish mother in Istanbul, a woman who works as a hairdresser in Mexico City, and a construction foreman in Los Angeles. As disparate as their geographical locations and cultures may be, the three have one immediately apparent thing in common: a time-sucking, soul-crushing daily commute that they must soldier through to put food on the table and a roof over their head. However, as the film unfolds, it reveals commonalities that run deeper than slogging through traffic in an existential malaise; hopes, dreams, aspirations, and shared humanity.

SIFF 2018: A Good Day for Democracy ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted at Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 2, 2018)

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I don’t need to tell you that democracy is a messy business. But when working correctly, it’s a good kind of mess (Mussolini made the trains run on time, but at what price?). Cecilia Bjork’s purely observational peek at “Almedalen Week”, an annual event held on Sweden’s isle of Gotland that corrals politicians, lobbyists, and everyday citizens into a no holds-barred, all-access setting serves as a perfect (albeit messy) microcosm of true democracy in action.

SIFF 2018: Every Act of Life ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 26, 2018)

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I’m not really a theater person (some of my best friends are…does that count?), so I confess I’ve only seen one of playwright/librettist Terrence McNally’s works (the movie version of The Ritz-which I love). That said, I found Jeff Kaufman’s doc about the writer and gay activist very enlightening. The film tells his life story, from small-town Texas roots to his inevitable trek to NYC to conquer Broadway. Fascinating archival footage, plus colorful anecdotes from the likes of Nathan Lane (one of McNally’s latter-day acting muses), Rita Moreno, Meryl Streep and Bryan Cranston, all topped off by candid reminiscences from McNally (still going strong at 79).

SIFF 2018: Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally published on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 26, 2018)

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There’s a wonderful moment of Zen in Stephen Nomura Schible’s documentary where his subject, Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, after much experimentation with various “found” sounds, finally gets the “perfect” tonality for one single note of a work in progress. “It’s strangely bright,” he observes, with the delighted face of a child on Christmas morning, “but also…melancholic.” One could say the same about Schible’s film; it’s strangely bright, but also melancholic. You could also say it is but a series of such Zen moments; a deeply reflective and meditative glimpse at the most intimate workings of the creative process. It’s also a document of Sakamoto’s quiet fortitude, as he returns to the studio after taking a hiatus to engage in anti-nuke activism and to battle his cancer. A truly remarkable film.

SIFF 2018: My Name is Not Rueben Blades ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 26, 2018)

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Abner Benaim’s intimate portrait of polymath Rueben Blades is full of surprises. For example, you wouldn’t think an accomplished singer-songwriter-musician, actor, Harvard-educated lawyer, politician and social activist would find time to geek out over his sizable comic book and memorabilia collection. “You’re the first ones to film in here. I don’t let anyone in here,” he tells the filmmakers, leading them into this sanctum sanctorum within his Chelsea, NY apartment, wistfully adding, “You’re the first and the last.” Wistful, perhaps because he is now voluntarily closing a major chapter of his life (touring and performing) to focus his energy into running for President of Panama (as one does). An inspiring film.

SIFF 2018: The People’s Republic of Desire **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 19, 2018)

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You thought America’s Got Talent was a mind-numbing celebration of mediocrity? Wait ‘til you get a load of China’s “digital celebrity universe”. Equipped with little more than a digital camera, an internet connection, and even less talent, China’s most popular online celebrities gear up for a contest in which whomever successfully begs the most money from their fans wins. A truly bizarre subculture. Fascinating subject, but this documentary becomes an endurance contest for the viewer.