Monday, April 29, 2013

Top 10 Docs 29/04/13

Crumb: A psychological autopsy of a mind that reveals, more than in any comparable documentary, that the path to creativity is lined with monsters as well as wonders. That's before you get to the state Crumb's brothers are in. Though the material is a weave of past and present the overall effect is of a thorough linear examination of a life and the sense of compulsion that an artist might live by. After seeing this often disturbing film I solved problems I was having writing a story by drawing it as a comic.

Grey Gardens: Decaying American grandeur in flesh and marble on display as we meet a mother and daughter who might have been trapped in a Samuel Beckett sketch. At first this feels like a freak show but before you know it you are living with these strange people and you are the one rapidly becoming a frog-eyed alien. The Maysles brothers gave us some of the most inspired acts of documentary and this might well be the pinnacle.

Let There Be Light: John Huston's record of the use of hypnosis in the treatment of what is now termed post-traumatic stress disorder is quiet and observant and fascinating from go to woah. Huston had taken part in a big fake up of a US military action which he would have never lived down if it had been released. This is a kind of redemptive act. It also fuelled his extraordinary fiction about Freud and more recently, Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master. Good value, that.

Dig: Two bands, one led as a faux democracy is headed for the underbelly of the big time, the other a miasma centred around a dictatorial mental case whose diastrous caprices lead him to the brink  career suicide easily and regularly. Friends become enemies. This is a very authentic record of how bands work which serves as a hard reminder that these people that fans admire as the chroniclers of their age and agegroup are themselves just immature narcissists (ie people in their 20s). The difference is channeling that self-worship into either career drive or compulsion to create. Guess which band is better: Syd's Pink Floyd or Vanilla Fudge?

Mr Death: Fred Leuchter is an expert on and designer of termination devices for condemned prisoners is drawn into the holocaust denial movement which drops him like a hot spud the moment his findings are questioned. Leutcher's apparent absence of self awareness has not steeled him against his exploiters or does he not care as the attention is too enjoyable. He maintains his convictions well beyond their demolition and claims innocence of the knowledge of his hijacking as well as any notions of historical revisionism. It's hard to know whether to laugh or shiver when he begins to adopt the German pronunciation of his name (like Loihchter) when he had introduced himself as Fred "Loocher".

Listen to Britain: Yes, it's a propaganda piece but look how it does it: the sounds of air raid sirens, marching feet, bomber engines, a charity concert, children playing. Civilian life = wartime life. Under threat, Old Blightly is at war from Lancaster maintenance to hopscotch. I saw this film as an assessment piece in second year of university and then caught every screening I could.

Urgh! A Music War: Not an argumentative piece but still a document of transition between punk through post-punk to the coming absorption of those by the mainstream which is a kind of argument by default. So you get Gary Numan almost in cryo driving what we'd call a disability scooter, creaking through Down in the Park, the frenetic Devo making intriguing use of wireless tech, to The Police on the last leg of their journey to the top of the mainstream.

I saw this with my eldest brother and some of his friends. One of the latter kept in my ear about how unoriginal it all was and I had a rejoinder for each attempt until he gave up. I did the same thing decades later until I realised that there was no longer a useful line to be drawn between mainstream and indy and the market for revivalism as contemporary culture with no possibility of innovation was too fast set to budge through use of mere commentary. Urgh is almost a document of the last time there was innovation in pop music before it lay back down to resume its original purpose. Once upon a time....

American Boy: Martin Scorsese's extended interview with Steven Prince is rivetting from the word go as Prince responds to questions with anecdotes that reveal a great talent for storytelling. The moment he reaches the climax of his gun story looks both impromptu and utterly scripted, it is so arresting it's both impossible to tell and care if it was planned, it just feels like great cinema. Maybe that's what Marty should be doing now instead of his diluted new narrative features. He's a killer at doccos.

The Great Rock and Roll Swindle: Don't I mean The Filth and the Fury? No. While I enjoyed that and was grateful for some of the gaps it filled I was annoyed by its sentimentality a quality completely alien to Swindle which, for all the narcissism of its dramaturg, is a truer document of its times than the latter (even though Filth presents a lot more direct evidence from the late 70s). This is not the history of The Sex Pistols it's what Malcolm McLaren dined out on for the rest of his life. If you couldn't invite him to your table you could fork out for a cinema ticket (cheaper that way, anyhow). So, true story or good story? Shut up, you can have both.

One Plus One: People get this wrong. Maybe I do but I think I avoid the mistake of expecting it to turn into a documentary about the Rolling Stones. It isn't. It's an essay that says: group of successful rock stars who don't have to get out of bed when they don't want to get together and slowly fashion their new cultural H-bomb:  group of urban guerillas with nothing to lose waste their time writing dogma from cassette tapes, engaging in futile paramilitary manouvres and getting into groupies: what is wrong with this picture? The sole act of real subversion depicted is graffiti by a woman who stands outside of these schemes.

The cut with the title Sympathy for the Devil misleads the audience with that title and misunderstands its own material by playing the finished song in full at the end. Not the point.

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