Category Archives: Documentary

Don’t look down: Free Solo (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 13, 2018)

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In my 2011 review of the film Drive, I wrote:

If there is one thing I’ve learned from the movies, it’s that a man…a real man…has gotta adhere to a Code. Preferably a “warrior” code of some sort. […] Steve McQueen…there was a guy who specialized in playing characters who lived by a code; he also brought a sense of Zen cool to the screen. There were others, like Jean-Paul Belmondo, Lee Marvin, Paul Newman and Clint Eastwood.

It seemed inevitable that at some point in E. Chai Vasarhelyi’s documentary Free Solo, it would be revealed that its “star”, free-soloist climber Alex Honnold, lives by such a code.

“For [my girlfriend] the point of life is like, happiness,” the soft-spoken, seemingly unflappable Honnold confides at one juncture, “To be with people that make you feel fulfilled; to have a good time. For me, it’s all about performance. Anybody can be happy and cozy. […] Nobody achieves anything great because they are happy and cozy. It’s about being a warrior. It doesn’t matter about the cause, necessarily. This is your path and you will pursue it with excellence. You face your fear, because your goal demands it. That is the goddamned warrior spirit. I think the free-soloing mentality is pretty close to warrior culture; where you give something 100% focus, because your life depends on it.”

I’m taking his word for it. When it comes to heights…I get a nosebleed from thick socks.

It’s not that the Spock-like Honnold never experiences fear; he just processes it differently from most humans. Literally. In one scene, a bemused Honnold gets a brain MRI. The results? “You have no activation in your amygdala,” the neurologist marvels, “Things that are typically stimulating for the rest of us just aren’t doing it for you.” Hmm.

Honnold (now 33) dropped out of UC Berkeley at 19, scrapping his original plan to study engineering so he could free-climb full time. He’s become a rock star in the climbing world over the years, striving to outdo himself with each ascent. In June of 2017 Honnold went for his ultimate personal best by aiming to be the first person to do a free solo ascent of the 3,200-foot face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Vasarhelyi re-teamed with her husband, photographer/mountaineer Jimmy Chin (the couple co-directed the 2014 film Meru) to document Honnold’s meticulous preparation and the attempt itself.

The deliberate pacing of the film’s first two thirds, which gives only fitful peeks at what makes the taciturn, borderline hermetic Honnold tick, belies the genuine excitement of the final third, which rewards the viewer’s patience in spades. There are glimpses at his personal life with his devoted girlfriend, who seems to have resigned herself to accepting his eccentricities as par for the course. Well, you know what they say- “whatever works”.

You may already know whether Honnold achieved his goal; I had no clue before watching the film (I haven’t gone out of my way to follow the world of free climbing). I also purposely did not Google his name beforehand, because I figured it would ratchet up the suspense. Boy, did it ever-especially in the film’s climactic climbing sequence, which was the most harrowing, white-knuckled, yet ultimately exhilarating and life-affirming 20 minutes I’ve experienced at the movies in ages (I had a lot of activation in my amygdala).

The photography is stunning (as you would expect from a National Geographic film…they do have a rep to uphold), and the editing in that final sequence is Oscar-worthy. I watched my preview copy on a 40-inch flat screen; but I easily visualize this film as a spectacular big-screen experience. Granted, it will likely end up airing on Nat Geo Channel (with 153 commercials) but go see it at a theater if you get the opportunity.

Here come the nice: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 6, 2018)

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Oh, Mr. Rogers, you sly son-of-a-gun. As it turns out, you get to have the last laugh, even though you were not alive to defend yourself. From a 2007 Wall Street Journal piece:

Don Chance, a finance professor at Louisiana State University, says it dawned on him last spring. The semester was ending, and as usual, students were making a pilgrimage to his office, asking for the extra points needed to lift their grades to A’s.

“They felt so entitled,” he recalls, “and it just hit me. We can blame Mr. Rogers.”

Fred Rogers, the late TV icon, told several generations of children that they were “special” just for being whoever they were. He meant well, and he was a sterling role model in many ways. But what often got lost in his self-esteem-building patter was the idea that being special comes from working hard and having high expectations for yourself.

[…] Some are calling for a recalibration of the mind-sets and catch-phrases that have taken hold in recent decades. Among the expressions now being challenged:

“You’re special.” On the Yahoo Answers Web site, a discussion thread about Mr. Rogers begins with this posting: “Mr. Rogers spent years telling little creeps that he liked them just the way they were. He should have been telling them there was a lot of room for improvement. … Nice as he was, and as good as his intentions may have been, he did a disservice.”

Signs of narcissism among college students have been rising for 25 years, according to a recent study led by a San Diego State University psychologist. Obviously, Mr. Rogers alone can’t be blamed for this. But as Prof. Chance sees it, “he’s representative of a culture of excessive doting.”

And of course, it’s no secret that the Fox news crowd has been gleefully vilifying the beloved children’s television host for quite some time now; holding him accountable as a chief enabler of the “participation trophy” culture they so vociferously mock and despise.

But here’s the funny thing. Several of the more interesting tidbits I picked up about Fred Rogers in Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (currently available on PPV) were: (1) He was a lifelong registered Republican, (2) He studied to be a minister, and (3) He came from a well-moneyed family. I wonder if his fire-breathing conservative critics were aware this radical hippie commie cuck-creator was one of them!

In his affable portrait of this publicly sweet, gentle, compassionate man, Neville serves up a mélange of archival footage and present-day comments by friends, family, and colleagues to reveal (wait for it) a privately sweet, gentle, compassionate man. In other words, don’t expect revelations about drunken rages, aberrant behavior, or rap sheets (sorry to disappoint anyone who feels life’s greatest pleasure is speaking ill of the dead). That is not to deny that Rogers did have a few…eccentricities; some are mentioned, and others are implied. It goes without saying that he was an unusual and unique individual.

The bulk of the film focuses on the long-running PBS children’s show, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, which debuted in 1968. Neville demonstrates how Rogers sparked children’s imaginations with the pleasant escapism of “Neighborhood of Make-Believe”, while gently schooling them about some of life’s unfortunate realities. Right out of the gate, Rogers intuited how to address the most pervasive fears and uncertainties stoked by current events in a way that (literally) a child could understand and process (a clip showing how Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination was handled is poignant beyond words).

If anything lurked beneath Rogers’ genteel countenance, it was his surprisingly steely resolve when it came to certain matters-and you could file these under “eccentricities”. For example, there was the significance of “143” in Rogers’ personal numerology. He used that number as shorthand for “I love you” (“I” is 1 letter, “love” is 4 letters, and “you” is 3 letters). “143” was also the consistent weight he strove to maintain all his adult life; helped by diligently swimming the equivalent of 1 mile in the pool nearly every day.

That same resolve is evidenced in an extraordinary bit of footage I’d never previously seen. The Republican Nixon administration (not unlike the current one) devoted a good portion of its first year vindictively hamstringing various achievements by the previous Democratic president. Lyndon Johnson’s Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, which created and earmarked funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, was an early target.

When Congressional hearings commenced in 1969 to address the White House’s requested 50% budget cuts for CPB, Rogers appeared before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, to speak on behalf of Public Television. Armed with little more than a few notes, some song lyrics, and his unique brand of friendly persuasion, you watch in amazement as Rogers turns the (initially) comically gruff and hostile committee chairman into a puddle of mush in just under 7 minutes, prompting the senator to chuckle and quip “Looks like you’ve just earned 20 million dollars.” Straight out of a Frank Capra movie.

Granted, there is virtually nothing to shock or surprise most viewers, especially if you are one of Fred Rogers’ “kids” who spent your formative years riding Trolley Trolley (and you “entitled” so-and-sos know who you are). And yes, expect the waterworks, especially if you’re sentimental. That said, anybody with a heart should go in with a box of Kleenex on standby. I was 12 in 1968, so I was already too hip for the room back in the day…but I’ll be damned if I wasn’t peeling onions every 10 minutes or so while watching this film.

With apologies to Howard Beale, I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everyone knows things are bad. There is so much vitriol, spitefulness, division, and ill will floating on the wind that it’s an achievement to make it to bedtime without having to ingest vast quantities of pills and powders just to get through this passion play (with apologies to Joni Mitchell). I think this documentary may be what the doctor ordered, just as a reminder people like Fred Rogers once strode the Earth (and hopefully still do). I wasn’t one of your kids, Mr. Rogers, but (pardon my French) we sure as shit could use you now.

 

Through the looking glass: Fahrenheit 11/9 (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 22, 2018)

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On occasion, like any self-respecting lefty cuck, I will “hate-watch” Fox or “hate-read” Breitbart. Today Breitbart has a post entitled “MICHAEL MOORE’S 11/9 TANKS AT BOX OFFICE” (barely 24 hours after the film opened wide…but whatevs). As I skimmed through, risking a bout of vertigo from eye-rolling, this bit caught my attention:

We go to the movies to see what we cannot see at home; so, what can Moore possibly offer in a world where a Jake Tapper is topping him daily, a world where Moore’s dishonest and shameless leftism runs wild 24/7… and is just a click away?

Dismissing the predictable tribalism, the OP raises a legit concern; one I admit consumed me yesterday, even as I forked over my hard-earned $13 (and an additional $7.50 for a goddam SMALL popcorn). Now I loves me some Michael Moore, and I feel duty-bound to cover this film, which could well be our final beacon of hope in these dark, dark times.

But I fear that Trump Fatigue threatens to overtake me. In my private despair (which I labored to hide beneath a brave face, for the sake of my fellow dedicated graying Seattle libs scattered throughout the sparsely attended 3pm matinee showing) I indeed pondered what insight Moore could possibly offer at this point, in a world where anybody who still gives two shits about our Democracy is on 24-hour Trump watch…and just a click away?

Was I in for 2 hours of Trump-bashing? I would nod in agreement, while thoughtfully stroking my chin. But to what end? The credits would come up, I’d go home, turn on the news, and…he’d still be in office. That’s the bad news (he’s still in office). The good news is that Moore’s film is not necessarily all about President Donald J. Trump himself.

It’s about us. According to Moore, we all had a hand in this (consciously or not).

In my 2011 review of the documentary Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today, I wrote:

“Crimes against humanity” are still perpetrated every day-so why haven’t we had any more Nurembergs? If it can’t be caught via cell phone camera and posted five minutes later on YouTube like Saddam Hussein’s execution, so we can take a quick peek, go “Yay! Justice is served!” and then get back to our busy schedule of eating stuffed-crust pizza and watching the Superbowl, I guess we just can’t be bothered. Besides, who wants to follow some boring 11-month long trial, anyway (unless, of course, an ex-football player is involved).

Or maybe it’s just that the perpetrators have become savvier since 1945; many of those who commit crimes against humanity these days wear nice suits and have corporate expense accounts, nu? Or maybe it’s too hard to tell who the (figurative) Nazis are today, because in the current political climate, everyone and anyone, at some point, is destined to be compared to one.

Let’s dispense with this first. Yes, Michael Moore goes “there” in his latest documentary Fahrenheit 11/9…at one point in the film, he deigns to compare Trump’s America to Nazi Germany. However, he’s not engaging in merit-less trolling. Rather (as Moore slyly implies), don’t take his word for it-listen to what one of his interviewees has to say here:

“Taking [immigrant] babies away from their mother [at the U.S. border] and locking up one or the other and separating them because they did no harm to anybody…they just didn’t comply with the stupid regulations…that’s a crime against humanity in my judgement.”

OK, so that’s one man’s opinion. You would be perfectly within your rights as a healthy skeptic to counter with “and what makes this guy such an expert on what constitutes a “crime against humanity”? Unless the gentleman in question happened to be the last surviving Nuremberg trials prosecutor…which he is. 99-year-old Ben Ferencz’s appearance recalls the scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen “just happens to have” Marshall McLuhan on hand to call out an insufferable blowhard waiting in a movie line.

So how did we get here? It’s complicated. Following a brief (and painful to relive) recap of what “happened” on 11/9/16, Moore’s film accordingly speeds off in multiple directions As he has always managed to do in the past, he connects the dots and pulls it together by the end. In a nutshell, Moore’s central thesis is that Trump is a symptom, not the cause. And the “cause” here is complacency-which Moore equates with complicity.

Specific to 2016, it is the complacency of the nearly 42% of eligible American voters who sat out the election. But Moore does not lay the blame squarely on disenfranchised voters, many of whom have valid reasons to be disillusioned and fed up with politicians in general. He cites a number of examples, and he spares no one. In fact, he lays into a few sacred cows of the Left; the DNC, President Clinton, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama.

The most dangerous kind of complacency is what happened in Michigan, and enabled Governor Rick Snyder to essentially seize despotic control of the state under the guise of “emergency powers”. Moore traces the political machinations that led to the water crisis in his home town of Flint, and it’s chilling. Using comparisons with how a democratic, liberal Germany handed power to the Nazis in the 1930s, Moore envisions how easily Trump could take a page from Snyder’s playbook and implement it on a national scale.

If this is all beginning to sound dark and despairing…well, it is. However, this is Michael Moore. He knows exactly when to interject levity and hope into an otherwise sobering treatise (e.g. he drives a truck full of Flint water up to the gates of Governor Snyder’s mansion and proceeds to water his lawn with a high-pressure hose).

He reminds us that there is a grassroots movement afoot that hopefully continues to catch fire; from the nationwide teacher strikes that began in West Virginia to the blue wave of progressive candidates in this year’s midterm primaries. He spotlights the passion and determination of the student activist groups that organized in the wake of the Parkland school shootings.

If you’re a Michael Moore fan, you will not be disappointed. If you’re a Michael Moore hater, this film likely won’t change your opinion (although I am flattered that you’ve chosen this post as your daily “hate read”). The rest of you can play among yourselves; but do me (and the country, and our Democracy) one favor? Please, please vote this time.

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).