Manhattan, Kansas (2006)
dir. Tara Wray
Tara Wray brings her camera and her justified grudges back to Kansas for a reunion with her manic depressive mom who’s now living in a dilapidated “retreat” house owned by a cult called The Messengers of Peace, doing repairs in lieu of rent. Mom moved to the area from their titular hometown to find the geodetic center, an “assignment” given to her by a voice from within. Wray is more like a mom to her mom than a daughter, antagonistically nagging her mom to be normal, logical, and reliable. Wray says in narration, “I’m making a movie about how messed up my mother’s life is,” concluding: “There’s something wrong about that.” The reason it doesn’t feel exploitative is because Mom is more upfront than hostile, a strong-willed person I found smart and easy to root for—if not wholly functional. Ends with a surprising follow-up! 75 minutes. The documentaries Alma (1997), Tarnation (2003), and Jacob Tierney: The Mother Project (2006) also deal with mentally ill mothers (see Documentary (A-L) and (M-Z)).
dirs. Sarah Kernochan, Howard Smith
A curly-haired four-year-old evangelist named Marjoe (as in Mary+Joseph) Gortner hit the pulpit in 1948 and made millions for his parents in the 1950s. Less popular in his teens, he dropped the brimstone and became a peacenik. This Oscar-winning documentary follows him as a twentysomething on the circuit again, using his fame to gain a hippy film crew access to the rather closed world of Pentacostalism. Though at times irreverent (e.g. when Marjoe says “Glory gee to Bezus!”), the film is not disrespectful of faith so much as it is cynical about the capitalism behind preaching. 80 minutes. Marjoe’s subsequent acting career included leads in the Bonnie and Clyde rip-off Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw and the eco-horror stinker Food of the Gods (both 1976) as well as Mausoleum (1983) and the Audrey Landers vehicle Hellhole (1985).
dir. Jeff Malmberg
This victorious underdog documentary took four years to film, on DVcam, and won 15 film festival awards. It’s about Mark Hogancamp, the survivor of a beating so vicious it caused brain damage and post-traumatic stress disorder. His rehabilitation and psychiatric therapy were cut short due to lack of funds. So, in his trailer’s backyard, he’s built and photographed an amazingly realistic doll-sized world set in WWII Belgium. His altered Barbies and action figures act out narratives of violence, justice, harmony, and sex. The centerpiece of the town is Hogancamp’s Ruined Stocking Catfight Club where, he reminds us, the catfights are staged. What’s brilliant about this documentary is Malmberg’s holding back a key piece of info until the midway point. It adds significant meaning that would have been lost if exploited right away. So don’t read anything else about it—just watch! 83 minutes and popular enough to have found its way to Blu-ray.
Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (1999)
dir. Errol Morris
Running on forty cups of coffee and six packs of cigarettes everyday, Fred Leuchter designs electric chairs, gallows, and lethal injection machines. His objective is humane death through efficient design. If no one else will address the reality of condemned persons urinating and defecating at time of death, Leuchter will. And if his career isn’t controversial enough, he’s commissioned by Holocaust-denier Ernst Zundel to prove that the gas chambers at concentration camps like Auschwitz are a myth. Holocaust history ends up feeling realer and even more disturbing when seen through an attempt to deny it. Another left-of-center documentary from the brilliant Errol Morris, it’s as grim and offensive as it is quirky and thought provoking. Try a double feature with the courtroom drama Denial (2016) in which Leuchter is mentioned in a contentious scene between Holocaust historian Deborah E. Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) and Holocaust denier David Irving (Timothy Spall).
Mommy Dead and Dearest (2017) dir. Erin Lee Carr
Forgive the title and take this true crime documentary seriously. Even in 2015, when the case first made headlines, many didn’t take it seriously. Like sideshow banners, kooky photos of mother Dee Dee Blanchard and her disabled daughter Gypsy Rose prompted ogling, allowing the brutality of Dee Dee’s murder to seem so perfectly tabloid, so backwoods Missouri. But these are real people, as the documentary makes known, real people even if with phony lives. Dee Dee projected various health conditions onto her daughter from infancy (epilepsy, leukemia, anemia, muscular dystrophy, paraplegia, hearing-vision impairment, etc.), as well as mental retardation, in effect constructing a medical history for Gypsy to conform to—keeping Gypsy home for two decades. It’s called “Munchausen syndrome by proxy,” otherwise described as “factitious disorder imposed on another,” and it’s a form of child abuse. In this case it led to over 100 hospital visits, several surgeries, and a regime of meds that created the very symptoms doctors believed they were treating. Dee Dee received loads of attention, Gypsy too in her wheelchair, with her feeding tube—the extent of mom’s control. They also received charity, including a trip to Disney and a Habitat for Humanity house. Gypsy was trapped but didn’t understand the true nature of the trap. Still, she found inspiration in Disney’s Tangled (2010), a retelling of the Rapunzel tale in which a girl who is held captive in a tower by a mother-figure ends up killing that mother-figure. And then Gypsy meets a young man online—her prince? The present-day interview with Gypsy, in prison stripes and handcuffs, feels genuine. I like her, am hopeful for her. But the interviewing journalist later reminds us that growing up isolated and constantly manipulated makes it hard to know who the real Gypsy is. Note: An HBO limited series titled The Act was released to critical acclaim in 2019, featuring brilliant performances by Joey King, who achieves an uncanny likeness of daughter Gypsy Rose Blanchard, and Patricia Arquette who avoids cartoonishness by not resembling mother Dee Dee Blanchard.
Mondo Cane (1962)
dirs. Paolo Cavara, Gualtiero Jacopetti, Franco Prosperi
As on many albums of Exotica music at the time, with each song representing a different country, Mondo Cane offers an around-the-world tour. It’s not focusing on music, though, but bizarre, often primitive customs. So massive was Cane’s success upon release that it sparked a new subgenre called either Mondo or Shockumentary. But Jacopetti and Prosperi (in the 2003 documentary Godfathers of Mondo) call it an “anti-documentary” and credit its success to “how little people knew about the world in 1962.” With Cane, they established the mondo pattern of alternating between titillating and shocking footage, case in point being a cleavage shot of a white woman on the Riviera cutting to a shot of an African tribeswoman breastfeeding a piglet. Another mondo characteristic is a score that’s synchronized with either the camera’s movement or the movement of its subject, a technique the composer (Riz Ortolani) borrowed from Disney and seems to use in a mocking way. 108 minutes. Mondo Cane II followed in 1963 and then a deluge of imitations or variations that continues until this day in various forms on the internet. Mondo Cane, by the way, means “a dog’s world.”
Mondo Elvis (1984)
dir. Tom Corboy
Tom Corboy’s made only two short documentaries that I know of: The New Believers (1990) about the New Age movement (see below) and this one about Elvis fans. Still reeling from his death seven years prior, these working-class fans are as obsessed with Elvis as the two Tiffany fans in I Think We’re Alone Now (2008). One woman’s husband divorced her over her obsession. Twin sisters claim him as their father. And a chubby impersonator, whom Elvis visited in a dream, refuses to hang up his jumpsuit. Mondo Elvis is a very rich, 28-minute slice of subculture, prompting laughs at its subjects only to complicate those laughs with moments of unexpected poignancy. I have seen the very few VHS copies available jump in price from $50 to $5000! Try YouTube.
The Moon and the Sledgehammer (1971)
dir. Philip Trevelyan
Before Grey Gardens (1975), there was this 65-minute gem about the Pages: widower Mr. Page, two sons, and two daughters. They live in total isolation—without electricity or running water—in the woods only 20 miles south of London. Sunday Times Weekly called it “a Swiss Family Robinson with tuneless pianos and broken tractors” in which the Pages “build strange machines out of scrap iron and create strange sci-fi fantasies out of a complete dislocation from the contemporary world.” It’s beautiful. DVD includes interviews with the filmmakers. To order it, go to TheMoonandtheSledgehammer. com. Double check the DVD’s region if you don’t have an all-region player.
The Most Hated Family in America (2007) dir. Geoffrey O’Connor
It’s impossible not to know about Pastor Fred Phelps whose followers—mostly his own extended family—picket a wide array of events, including funerals, with signs like God Hates Fags and Thank God For Dead Soldiers. The documentary Fall From Grace (also 2007) provides more than enough of Fred’s theology-masked psychosis. He’s such a Johnny One Note. The reverend’s daughter Shirley, one of several lawyers in the church and the manager of its day-to-day operations, is equally unshakable. In this BBC documentary and its sequel, The Most Hated Family in America: In Crisis (2011), our investigative reporter Louis Theroux manages to get closer to other members in this cult-like family. Most compelling are the family’s teens and youngest adults who’ve been on the picket line since they were 5 or 6 and have no friends outside of church. Females in particular reveal flashes of uncertainty, of human need for connection, that can be quite heartrending. The first documentary ends on such a note. As for the second, it’s four years later and several members have left the church. One daughter who left the church tells us, “Some people lose their parents to cancer or car accidents. I’ve lost mine to a cult.” Each documentary is 60 minutes.
Mule Skinner Blues (2001)
dir. Stephen Earnhart
Mule Skinner Blues accomplishes an authenticity in perspective that Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus (2003) only claims to do. Like Jesus, though, Mule Skinner Blues began with alt-country performer Jim White. Stephen Earnhart produced a Jim White music video in a small Florida town and it featured a spirited, old man named Beanie Andrew. Hoping to convince Earnhart’s film crew of all the unique talent right there in his trailer park, Beanie got his own video camera and documented his neighbors doing their thing. I like them all very much. Not only did Earnhart make this memorable low-budget documentary, his first film, it encouraged Beanie to pursue his dream of making a low-budget horror movie. Mule Skinner Blues, like Beanie’s philosophies, challenges the belief that creative output isn’t legit unless it achieves success beyond one’s own community, yet it’s true, indeed, the participants hoped for the kind of visibility this Sundance-favored film helped achieve. Earnhart even makes a music video for Miss Jeannie, an old lady country singer whose own song “DUI Blues” is simply priceless (a special feature on the DVD). Produced by Sundance and horror writer Clive Barker. If you like this, check out Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story (2003) below and Documentary (A-L) for American Movie (1999) and Jacob Young: Contributions to Different Drummer (1987-‘92).
My Mother Married Wilbur Stump (1985)
dir. Skip Sweeney
The director’s widowed mother Bernadine met 75-year-old Wilbur at a piano bar in 1972 when she was 54-years-old. Bald with a twirled mustache and wearing loud jackets, Wilbur’s alcoholic theme song was a clever bit of self-deprecation titled “Drunk with Love.” He’d been married seven times before yet not even Bernadine’s Catholic aversion to divorce could stop her from marrying him. Three years after his death, the director filmed his mother and sisters sitting around—smoking cigs, drinking coffee, and reflecting on strange ol’ Wilbur Stump. It doesn’t get much simpler or low-budget than this, of instant appeal to documentary fans who like to feel like they’re eavesdropping. 30 minutes. I found it on VHS at the public library but it’s also available for free at VideoFreeAmerica.com.
The New Believers (1990)
dir. Tom Corboy
Though it won awards at film festivals, two decades later it’s not even listed on IMDb. I found a VHS copy at a public library. It’s an exposé on the profits-driven New Age movement, specifically four very quirky purveyors of New Age goods/services. Margaret is into aromatherapy and channeling Jesus. Out and proud Neville channels dolphin spirits (pictured). Shawn deals in mail-order crystals, recommended to purify bubble baths or a pet’s water bowl. Master Ho peddles wisdom in a smoking jacket. At one point Ho attempts to confess to being from another planet and then stops abruptly, saying in a most practiced manner, “No I can’t go any further with that. They won’t let me. I tried. They cut me right off.” Yes it’s hilarious but their more ordinary backstories of oppression and shame reveal how New Ageism, like Spiritualism a hundred years before, allowed for female entrepreneurship and the rethinking of Christian notions like damnation. Corboy packs a feature-length documentary’s worth of insight into just 51 minutes. He also directed the short documentary Mondo Elvis (1984) about obsessed Elvis fans (see entry above).
Nobody’s Business (1996)
dir. Alan Berliner
Alan Berliner, a master of the personal documentary, takes on his dad Oscar whose personal mottos are “Who gives a shit?” and “It’s nobody’s business.” Questions about their Jewish roots in Poland and Russia, his parents’ divorce, his dad’s feelings about life—all are refused, resisted or, at best, answered resentfully. No wonder Berliner periodically cuts away to boxing match shots, complete with round-starting bell! Cleverly juxtaposing Oscar against interviews with family members, and incorporating montages as rhythmic as tap-dancing routines, Berliner never lets things lag. It’s the kind of father-son relationship for which there are no greeting cards. In the sparring, nonetheless, there’s a freedom to be themselves with each other. And that’s love. 60 minutes.
The Nomi Song (2004)
dir. Andrew Horn
With his intergalactic falsetto and space-age tuxedo, the German-born Klaus Nomi dedicated his opera training to New Wave performance art in NYC and became an ‘80s icon like no other. I stopped dead in my tracks the first time I heard his version of “Lightnin’ Strikes” in a record store. A lonely immigrant known for fancy desserts, Nomi was also an exhibitionist and the persona he developed was all artifice and surface, remote like Warhol. Perhaps it was the only way he could shine in a real way. He appeared on Saturday Night Live with David Bowie, toured to promote his own records, and died in 1983 of what was then called “gay cancer.” AIDS was so new and terrifying that even his friends stayed away, leaving him to die on his own. This documentary honors his memory sensitively but not too sensitively. I love the Richard Hell quote it ends on: “That is the ultimate message of the New Wave: If you amass the courage that is necessary, you can completely invent yourself. You can be your own hero.” The special features include full-length performances.
Not Your Typical Bigfoot Movie (2008)
dir. Jay Delaney
An unexpectedly poignant, even heartbreaking, verité addition to the monster-myth subgenre. It’s about two friends in Appalachian Ohio who obsessively track Bigfoot. Dallas Gilbert is a Reiki Master who claims to have been “chosen” to prove that Bigfoot exists. His psychologically unstable partner is Wayne Burton, a self-proclaimed loser who’s so bitter about his poverty that he hates everyone. Everyone except his friend Dallas, that is. The two are mocked left and right, are even called hoaxers by more established (i.e. funded) Bigfoot researchers. They seem to have nothing else in their lives, though, and so they stick with it. Friends sharing a sense of purpose seems to be the key to mental health in such an isolated and economically depressed region. Fans of documentaries like Vernon, Florida (1981, see below) or Dancing Outlaw and Alma (1991, 1999, see Documnetay A-L) should check this out. It’s haunting, ambiguous, and rich with details. 63 minutes.
Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story (2003)
dir. Jamie Meltzer
Though over 200,000 poems have been made into songs in the last century, not one has hit the charts. Meltzer’s documentary casts a loving light onto these no-hit wonders, the people who write them, and the mail-order companies that transform them into records. A song-poem by Caglar Juan Singletary (pictured) called “Non-Violent TaeKwonDo Troopers,” for example, offers the chorus: “Thank Jehovah for kung fu bicycles and Priscilla Presley.” Other writers offer titles like “Chicken Insurrection” and “Diggin’ for Ginseng.” The documentary shows that the poems are mostly written in earnest—often with themes of faith, politics, or loneliness—by people who have no choice but to get it out. Therefore the song arrangers and studio performers, though churning out a song an hour, take seriously even intentionally absurd material. This 58-minute documentary is a treasure trove of quirks, originally airing on PBS as part of the Independent Lens series. The DVD includes a very 1970s episode of America Sings that features several song-poem performances.
Overlords of the UFO (1976)
dir. G. Brook Stanford
One of the lowest budget of the low-budget alien documentaries of the 1970s. It’s a “Scientific News Documentary,” presented by Tower Films, and it contends that aliens are not from another planet but another dimension. A cheap cartoon opening sets the tone. The narrator declares with urgency, “Not one world public agency or scientific group has offered a possible solution to this most amazing mystery of all time: Who are the overlords of the UFO and why are they here at this time?” At it’s best it’s like reading the Weekly World News. If you miss Weekly World News like I do then you might get your fix for tabloid conspiracy invasion misinformation with this anti-documentary! And unlike most of the optimistic UFO/alien documentaries of the era, this one casts aliens visiting earth as apocalyptic. The complete Overlords of the UFO is currently available on YouTube and the comments section is riddled with kooks.
Party Monster: The Shockumentary (1998)
dirs. Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato
Bailey and Barbato brought us the documentaries Eyes of Tammy Faye (2000) and Inside Deep Throat (2005) plus the Party Monster adaptation (2003) starring Macaulay Culkin as king of club druggies Michael Alig and Seth Green as “celebutante” James St. James. Alig ruled the downtown club scene in NYC during the years after Warhol’s death, known for his absurd, often horror-themed couture and outlaw parties in public places like McDonald’s or the subway. He murdered a dealer named Angel—a character so undeveloped here that his death seems merely another bizarre detail—and was sentenced to 10-20 years. Despite the adaptation’s perfect casting of Diana Scarwid (grown-up daughter in Mommie Dearest) as Alig’s mom, mom’s presence is more pervasive in the docu; indeed, she is its most accessible character. Partly based on James St. James’s book Disco Bloodbath. 57 minutes. Note: Alig was released on parole in 2014.
Pie in the Sky: The Brigid Berlin Story (2000)
dirs. Shelly Dunn Fremont, Vincent Fremont
The rebellious, overweight daughter of Republican newspaper mogul Dick Berlin became her parents’ worst nightmare in the 1960s by descending, tits out, into the underground lair of The Silver Factory. Warhol’s most trusted compatriot, to know more about her is to know more about him. According to John Waters, who cast Berlin in a Serial Mom cameo, Berlin was “a huge part of Andy’s personality” and “almost like best friends, you could see that in the work.” Sometimes quite directly. For example, Berlin would record all phone calls with her verbose, indignant mother and Warhol adapted them into his play Pork. Berlin says when she first met Andy, “He was really insane, and all the people around him were insane. All the people who really worked for Andy were really kooks and Andy kooked right along with them to every ice cream parlor in town.” At the time of this documentary, Berlin is a much thinner 60-year-old obsessive-compulsive with a pug (and pug pillows, pug art, pug knickknacks) who is combating an eating disorder. She can eat a key lime pie in three minutes flat. Berlin appeared in Chelsea Girls (1966), Bad (1977) (see Comedy/Drama (A-L)), and the documentary Andy Warhol’s Factory People (2008) (see Documentary (A-L)).
Project Grizzly (1996)
dir. Peter Lynch
Troy Hurtubise spent $100,000 building a bear-proof suit called the Ursus Mark VII. Over 7 feet tall, the red/white/silver suit and helmet appear robot-like, as if designed for Lost in Space rather than wildlife study in Canada. Flown by helicopter into the heart of bear country, the suit proves too cumbersome for the uneven terrain. But Hurtubise is not defeated, compelled by a childhood memory of the bear that didn’t attack him. Aspiring to be the Jacques Cousteau of bears, Hurtubise is the kind of obsessed extrovert who makes a great documentary subject. See him test his suit by letting bikers assault him with baseball bats. Post-Grizzly, Hurtubise pursued other designs in “protection suit technology” and at one point claimed to have invented something called Angel Light aka God Light that makes walls and skin transparent. Project Grizzly, which can be thought of as ballyhoo vérité, represents the start of his eccentric career. 72 minutes.
Pumping Iron II: The Women (1985)
dir. George Butler
The opening pop song and all-babe shower scene smacks of typical sexploitation: female muscles “with a little Flashdance.” But things get more interesting as we find out more about these bodybuilding competitors. Like how the Texan competitor has a male stripper boyfriend. And how the Aussie power-lifter is masculine enough to upset the judges’ committee. The first Pumping Iron (1977) focused on Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lou Ferrigno, and other male bodybuilders of repute. None of them were threatened with disqualification on the grounds of being too muscular. For women competing in the Caesars Palace World Cup Championship, however, there’s a “femininity clause” in the guidelines. Fascinating discussions and behind-the-scenes drama ensues. George Plimpton is the emcee, with cinematography by Dyanna Taylor (Common Threads). A well-received sequel and one of the true cult classic docus of its era, Pumping Iron II is—sadly—rare and often quite expensive. For now try YouTube. 107 minutes.
The Punk Singer (2014) dir. Sini Anderson
Third wave feminism, according to Rebecca Walker, is “founded in response to a feeling on college campuses in 1992 that feminism was in some ways dead, irrelevant.” But not all women were apathetic to the empowerment of girls and women. Bikini Kill singer Kathleen Hanna is considered a leader in the third wave, helping to create the riot grrrl movement via punk music and zine culture as well as concert protocol: encouraging young women to move up front and guys who’ve dominated the scene, for once, to chill out and hang back. Hanna, a former stripper, worked a girlish persona while unblinking in her address of issues like rape, incest, exploitation, and pressures to conform. She reclaimed girlhood but with power, reconciling extremes. Bikini Kill broke up in 1997, giving way to solo project Julie Ruin (“sounds like something a girl made in her bedroom”) and then the electroclash party band Le Tigre. She dropped out of music in 2005 due to illness. Appearances by Joan Jett, Kim Gordon, Adam Horovitz, and members of Sleater-Kinney and Blatz.
The Queen of Versailles (2012)
dir. Lauren Greenfield
For his wife Jackie and their seven kids, timeshare mogul David Siegel built the largest home in the world—a modern-day palace inspired by Versailles. His empire fell in 2008, though, and the house stood unfinished. So as much as this documentary is a portrait of an uber-rich family going “riches to rags,” so to speak, it is also a study of overspending and the Great Recession. Jackie is the heartbeat of this documentary, lovable even in her apolitical denial.In her youth she worked odd jobs (like prepping corpses for the morgue) before winning Miss America and marrying up. In their lean years, however, she’s no longer a trophy wife but just another kid for David to support. He even threatens to cut her credit cards. Still, they’re never as bad off as their Filipino maid who’s not seen her own kids in years. According to a Telegraph article, “While Jackie has professed herself delighted with Queen of Versailles, and has accompanied the director to screenings of the film, David is deeply unhappy with it.” Indeed he sued for defamation. 100 minutes. Greenfield also directed Thin (2006) and kids + money (2008).
Rabbit Hash: The Center of the Universe (2004)
dir. Jude Gerard Prest
About 40 people live in and around Kentucky’s riverside town Rabbit Hash. It has no post office but its general store is the country’s oldest. In 1998 they elected a Democrat dog named Goofy to be their mayor, his campaign slogan being: “If you can’t eat it, or fuck it, then piss on it.” The down-home locals prove to be friendly, smart, and creative, perhaps more so than director Prest himself. “Truly this should have been an annoying film that made the viewer feel shallow and separate,” says a FilmMonthly.com review, “but the town isn’t simple or saccharine, it’s just nice.” Also interviewed is singer and animal activist Wynona Judd. Prest followed up his hour-long documentary with a made-for-TV comedy called Mayor Dog (2006).
Radium City (1987)
dir. Carole Langer
Glow in the dark clocks, particularly the Westclox and Luminous brands that were popular in the 1920s-1940s, can still be found in antique stores everywhere. What made them glow was radium. At the factory in Ottowa, Illinois, where these clocks were made, hundreds of young women were trained to paint the diminutive hands and numbers by twirling their radium-dipped brushes between their lips for a fine enough point. Those were naïve times and good-paying jobs for women were scarce. Within ten years women started to die of cancer. A subsequent lawsuit changed little but the company name and site, leading to more deaths. The original factory was dismantled and its radioactive debris buried all around town, leading to more deaths. No wonder Ottowa became known as Death City. Langer interviews victims’ relatives and older locals like the geiger-swinging Ken Ricci. One of the few survivors, heroically cranky Marie Rossiter, adds a needed dash of pepper to all this injustice. Langer dedicated the film to her. I first saw it on a big screen at the Big Muddy Film Festival in 1988 and taped it off the Discovery channel a few years later. Why was this masterpiece never commercially released, even on VHS? For now it’s available on YouTube. 110 minutes.
dir. Jonathan Nossiter
see combo-entry with
The Naked Civil Servant (1975)
Sasquatch Odyssey: The Hunt for Bigfoot (1999) dir. Peter von Puttkamer
This documentary brings together four veteran Bigfoot trackers—“The Four Horsemen of the Sasquatch”—who were featured repeatedly in Bigfoot documentaries in the 1970s. These are the kind of dueling experts that make any documentary worthwhile. They disagree about everything, including whether the Sasquatch is animal or human. The surly one, Rene “Let’s find the damn thing first” Dahinden, is a hoot. He even starred in a beer ad with a Bigfoot theme. A young special effects pro examines the only existing Bigfoot footage, from 1967. Also includes fun clips from Trog (1970) and The Capture of Bigfoot (1979). This documentary’s trump card is that it focuses on the believers and their beliefs instead of trying to convince us to believe. On DVD, 70 minutes.
Say Amen Somebody (1982)
dir. George T. Nierenberg
“On down through the Ages,” says Thomas Dorsey, “gospel means good news.” After his early years as Ma Rainey’s pianist, Dorsey fused the blues with religion and became the first person to publish gospel songs, his most famous being “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” At the time of this documentary he was a living legend at 83. In one scene he and his former singer-manager Sallie Martin, a tart old dame, sing to old records. Another gospel pioneer is Willie May Ford Smith whose tremendous voice is not faded at the age of 78. She not only toured but preached at a time when women were generally barred from the pulpit. In 1982 young female gospel singers like The Barrett Sisters still find the men in their lives resenting their successful careers. Also featured are The O’Neal Twins. It’s an important documentary in the scheme of music history, with great performances throughout, but it’s getting to know these people—especially Ford Smith—that makes the documentary such an enduring one.
Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus (2003)
dir. Andrew Douglas
This mondo-style tour of the Deep South is an example of quirky that I mistrust. Alt-country singer Jim White plays our host in this plotless road movie, driving handsome British director Andrew Douglas in a shitty old car that’s explained as a sort of camouflage. Right away White buys a painted concrete statue of Jesus at a junkyard. Though it’s laying down flat in car trunk when he finds it, he ties it in his own trunk so that Jesus’s head sticks out while driving down the highway. Pretenses like this compromise the documentary, as do broad claims about the South. I’m doubtful the locals would describe the places White shows us, riddled with old-time religion, as “so wrong they’re right.” A review in Variety addressed the director’s “almost-mocking stance toward his own oddball subjects. Ultimately, it feels very much like a romanticized outsider’s view of the South that willfully seeks out the culture’s strangest, most weirdo aspects for other outsiders’ gleeful delectation.” Douglas’s next film would be a remake of The Amityville Horror (2005). 82 minutes.
Secrets of the Shadow World (1999)
dir. George Kuchar
Between the 1960s and the 2000s, underground filmmaker George Kuchar made over 200 film and video shorts, sometimes with his brother Mike Kuchar. Shadow World is like three 50-minute episodes of a reality TV show. We get personal footage of George talking to his cats or visiting friends. We get comical behind-the-scenes footage of George directing his alien love story. And most importantly, inspired by the slew of monster-myth and UFO documentaries released in the 1970s, we get unpredictable footage of George investigating “the shadow world.” Kuchar says his film “spans the four corners of tolerance” to prove “it’s not all a crock of crap but a cornucopia of corned beef and cabbage plus a ton of other culinary concoctions. The secrets that you will crack in this caloric overdose will split your trousers and expand both buttocks and cosmic consciousness at the same time.” This lo-fi day-glo anti-masterpiece was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation (!) and is very hard to find. 140 minutes.
Sherman’s March (1986)
dir. Ross McElwee
The full title is Sherman’s March: A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love in the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation. Awarded a grant to document Sherman’s destructive march through the South, McElwee instead made a watershed personal documentary focusing his camera on a series of fascinating Southern women to whom he finds himself attracted. His luck in love is not good, though, and his friend Charleen (a recurring “star” in his movies) blames his ever-present camera. “This is life! Not art!” she declares, asking, “Ross, are you using that camera because you don’t want to be with us?” He later says, as the film’s narrator, “It seems I’m filming my life in order to have a life to film, like some primitive organism that somehow nourishes itself by devouring itself, growing as it diminishes.” The film balances these diary moments with very frank dialogues—as frank as they can be with one person behind a camera. From a born-again survivalist to a cow-milking linguist to an ERA-marching lawyer to the lead singer in a rock band, the women of Sherman’s March make for a multifaceted, quirky, and engaging portrait of the contemporary South. 155 minutes.
Shut Up, Little Man! An Audio Misadventure (2011)
dir. Matthew Bate
It’s the late 1980s. Peter and Ray are alcoholic roommates in San Francisco, one a queeny bitch and the other a virulent homophobe. Their rants get so loud and threatening that the two guys in the next-door apartment begin recording them surreptitiously, which fast becomes an ‘audio verité’ obsession. It now seems miraculous that primitive audio recordings could spread across the country through an “obsessive subterranean network of tape-traders,” to become a cult phenomenon. Matador Records released it on CD and the epic fights were appropriated into a variety of forms, from play to puppet show to comic book to movie (Shut Yer Dirty Little Mouth). Other pre-viral ephemera to earn cult status are Gidget Goes to Court (1988), Uncle Goddamn (2004), and Winnebago Man (2009), all included here at Quirky Cinema.
Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist (1997)
dir. Kirby Dick
To the tune of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” performance artist Bob Flanagan explains the disease he’s had since infancy: “Supermasochistic Bob has cystic fibrosis….” The condition involves excessive mucous, chronic pain, and death by 25. Having outlived his life span by 15 years, if not the mucous and pain, Flanagan became known for shock acts like nailing the head of his penis to a stepladder. His semi-butch master/lover/mother Sheree Rose co-creates much of his video installation work, which involves whipping him or forcing an outsized benwa ball into his ass. Their relationship is fascinating. She eventually films his death scene. It sounds sick and it is. But there’s a heroic sort of method to how Flanagan channels his pain into his compulsions into art-making. The director Kirby Dick also made This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006), the Oscar-nominated The Invisible War (2012), and The Hunting Ground (2015).
dir. John Landis
An IFC documentary about a slasher, as in a price slasher: a California car salesman named Michael Bennett. He’s so wound up that he says: “I’m afraid if I stop I’m gonna fucking die. That’s why I drink.” Built around the car lot’s big annual sale, the action is more nonstop than you’d expect. Bennett is almost evangelical in his appeal. What I loved, though, was Landis’s focus on the potential buyers, especially one winner of an $88 car who barely makes it home before the car dies. Great R&B soundtrack. 85 minutes. The next documentary for Landis—who brought us American Werewolf in London (1981) and Michael Jackons’s Thriller video (1983)—is Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project (2007).
Sparks (2021) dir. Edgar Wright
The iconically quirky duo Sparks—brothers Russell Mael (“the singer”) and Ron Mael (“not the singer”)—have been continually diversifying their music since the early 1970s, bending from glam and art rock to new wave and synthpop and beyond, always with clever hooks and witty lyrics. Their new documentary The Sparks Brothers premiered at the 2021 Sundance to fan glee and critical praise, directed by Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead), and leads with a good question: How can Sparks be “successful, underrated, hugely influential, and overlooked all at the same time?” Ready your gaze for vigorous montage, and there are no uninteresting pictures or clips of these two, their humor perverse and unrestrained. Their music intoxicates the talking heads, including Todd Rundgren, Beck, Giorgio Moroder, Duran Duran, Flea, and Jane Wiedlin. If its creative aspects are by now becoming conventional to rockumentary, so be it: it’s intelligent, featuring intelligent people talking eagerly about one of pop’s most intelligent bands.
Starz Inside: The Face Is Familiar (2009) dir. Kevin Burns
Kevin Burns, with many an hour of made-for-TV documentary on his resume, shines an hour’s worth of spotlight on modern character actors. William Sanderson (Blade Runner, Savage Weekend, Deadwood) says: “Literally character means peculiar. But to me character actor means they won’t win any beauty contests.” And Stephen Tobolowsky (Groundhog Day, Memento) concurs: “It’s a euphemism for you’re fat, you’re too tall, you’re too ugly to get the girl or too crazy to get the girl.” And much-loved Jane Lynch (Glee, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind) honors her biggest inspiration to be a character actor: the not-loved-enough Eileen Brennan (Private Benjamin). Others interviewed include Angela and Veronica Cartwright, Luiz Guzman, Danny Trejo, Joan Cusack, and Samuel Jackson. If you like this check out the documentary Strictly Background (2007) about movie extras.
dir. Steve James
I’m blown away and worn out every time I watch this 145-minute documentary from the director of Hoop Dreams (1994) and The Interrupters (2011). Back in the early 1980s, James served as an “Advocate Big Brother” to Stevie, a disadvantaged boy from rural Pomona in southernmost Illinois—near my hometown, actually. James returns to Pomona with a camera to find ever-shirtless Stevie still living with his grandmother and filled with rage about a childhood filled with abuse. Right away there’s a tension between the Jameses, a college-educated, middle-class couple, and Stevie’s “white trash” family. The tension doubles when, at 25-years-old, Stevie is charged with sexually molesting his 8-year-old cousin. Some difficult scenes follow about which I feel conflicted. On one hand James’s presence in the documentary seems condescending, just as his use of close-ups feels exploitative. On the other hand he’s gained access to a story with an undertow worthy of Faulkner, McCullers, or O’Connor. A story about what can become of abused lower-class boys subjected to the foster care system—invisible boys. According to a Sexual Offender Registry in 2011, Stevie was last reported homeless.
Strange Harvest aka From Beyond: Strange Harvest (1980/1983)
dir. Linda Moulton-Howe
Of all the weird, low-budget UFO documentaries from the 1970s-‘80s, this one about cattle mutilation, which I first rented from a gas station in my southern Illinois hometown, is my favorite. Could predators achieve such surgically precise cuts in the bodies of these cows? Is it some psycho pervert? A cult? Or extraterrestrials? Moulton-Howe’s investigative drive balances with a kind of reverence for the subject’s grimness. No sensationalism needed. Just a sinister minimalist score. A finale, added on for the video release in 1983, veers into less convincing footage of human UFO-abductees being hypnotized by Dr. Leo Sprinkle. Otherwise this documentary is guaranteed to creep you out. The “crime scene” photos alone, bloodless and trackless, make it worth watching. If you can find it. IMDb doesn’t list it at all. Yahoo Movies cites a 1994 date and Rottentomatoes a 60-minute length, both mistakenly referring to Moulton-Howe’s follow-up Strange Harvests [plural] about an upsurge in animal mutilations in Alabama in the early ‘90s. Try ordering both documentaries from Moulton-Howe’s expansive website Earthfiles.com.
dir. Zachary Levy
Another obsessed underdog documentary, Levy calls it “hardcore vérité.” New Jersey native Stanley Pleskun a/k/a “Stanless Steel” is known for bending steel with bare hands. And bending pennies with bare fingers. He lifts things too, like trucks. Or, with one finger, a trio of people in a cage. He’s always looking for a gimmick yet, even with his wife’s input, he can never catch a real break. It is their strained but sincere relationship that drives this documentary, even more than Stan’s stunts. Ultimately, watching this documentary is a lot like watching Stan bend a penny. There’s minimal spectacle for all Stan’s grimacing and yet, seeing it as Levy’s cameras does, one ruined cent at a time, the gesture becomes quite heroic.
Superstar in a Housedress (2004)
dir. Craig Highberger
The full title is Superstar in a Housedress: The Life and Legend of Jackie Curtis and the movie poster explains: “He was a celebrated playwright and poet. A pioneer in 1960s experimental film and theater. A Warhol superstar. He lived and performed…sometimes as a man, sometimes as a woman.” I don’t know about “celebrated” or “pioneer” but he was very much a gender-bending superstar whose most significant film is Women in Revolt (1971) (see Comedy/Drama (M-Z)). The lyrics about Jackie in Lou Reed’s “Take a Walk on the Wild Side” refer to speeding and valium and being James Dean for a day. The other Warhol superstars mentioned in that song are Holly Woodlawn, Candy Darling, and Joe Dallesandro. This low-budget Curtis homage, narrated by Lily Tomlin, is heavy on nostalgia without forgetting the body odor. See The Cockettes (Documentary A-L) for a profile of West Coast hippy queens at the time. Curtis’s death, by the way, is one of the most hilariously tragic stories you’ll ever hear.
dir. Errol Morris
Joyce McKinney made international headlines in 2008 for having her dog Booger successfully cloned by Korean scientists. The press soon after linked her to a 1977 crime referred to as “The Mormon Sex in Chains Case.” McKinney, back then a virgin sexpot from the South, pursued the man she loved all the way to England to rescue him from Mormonism. She allegedly chained him to a bed, ripped off his temple undergarments, and had sex with him against his will. After her arrest, she dominated tabloid headlines for months and her life was never the same. Errol Morris has claimed that she’s his favorite protagonist out of all his documentaries and it’s easy to see why. Her personality beams and bounds, especially for the camera, and no matter how I feel about her story I am on her side. There are YouTube videos of her speaking out against the film at festival screenings, clearly motivated by insecurity. One audience member tries to convince her that Morris’s film is a positive portrait, that the audience is rooting for her and their laughter is at the media-fueled sensationalism.
Target… Earth? (1980)
dir. Joost van Rees
Produced by Gold Key Entertainment and distributed on VHS in 1987 by United Home Video, both companies known for lowbrow fare, this schlockumentary “stars” Victor Buono as Homer the Archivist and, well, Michael Weldon describes it best: “He and some lady aliens (wearing see-through plastic suits) watch disaster footage and interviews about the end of the world. This ill-conceived documentary has been known to bewilder unprepared late-night TV viewers.”
Tarnation (2003) dir. Jonathan Caouette
Mental illness, abuse, ugly secrets—these seem to be found in every nook and cranny of Jonathan Caouette’s family history. As a kid, he didn’t play house as one might expect, instead acting out the monologues of battered wives for his cheap camera. It’s awesome. As he gets older, however, he focuses more on the erratic, bizarre behavior of his mom and his unstable grandparents. With its rapid-fire editing and overuse of music, Tarnation dazzled its Sundance audience, making 50+ best-of-year lists. I myself have liked it less each time I watched it. Its many quirks seem to serve either Caouette’s self-martyrdom or the monstrous characterization of his family. In a 2005 article “Is Documentary the New Memoir?”, sociologist Christopher Bonita points out: “When Caouette asks his mother, clearly somewhat debilitated from a recent lithium overdose, some highly painful questions, she protests: ‘We don’t need it on film.’” Nonetheless Caouette continues to badger mom and “ensnare other family members in his therapeutic exercise, despite their objections.” I’ve wanted to love this film, and maybe someday I’ll come around to it, but even then watching Tarnation is and should be difficult to negotiate. Caouette took mom on a road trip in 2011 and made the follow-up Walk Away Renee.
Tell Them Who You Are (2004)
dir. Mark Wexler
Haskell Wexler is an irritable 80-year-old in this documentary made by his son. We get a clear picture of his celebrated career as a cinematographer, winning Oscars for Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory (1976). Brilliant but aggressively opinionated, directors considered him a “pain in the ass” who wanted to control the movie. That certainly includes his son’s movie too, providing an excellent central conflict. Mark as narrator explains how his Dad suddenly didn’t want to be defined by his career, leaving Mark to ponder who Dad is if not his work? The Hollywood liberal? The ladies’ man? The car collector? The father? One hilarious scene is really the set-up for an interview. Mark tries to get Dad to position himself with the sunset behind him and Dad goes off: “Bullshit with the sun setting. This isn’t a fucking Miller beer commercial. It’s your father talking about something important to him!” He should get together with Alan Berliner’s dad from Nobody’s Business (1996) (see entry above).
Thank You & Goodnight (1991)
dir. Jan Oxenberg
A documentary about Jan Oxenberg’s dying grandma. I saw it on American Playhouse and years later was racking my brain for the name of that movie where life-sized cutouts stood in for a redheaded kid and her grandma who visit Coney Island. Oxenberg dramatizes several memories this way. There are also fantasies like a game show about familial responsibility and a tunnel to the afterlife. Clever, kitschy, and meaningful, these sequences provide needed breaks from Grandma’s suffering. The movie achieves its equilibrium largely through Oxenberg’s poetic narration and humble onscreen presence. When Oxenberg first learns her grandma is dying, she says she’s got to “figure out a way to say goodbye.” Then, later on, she’s wondering if Grandma’s life “was really rotten or did she make herself miserable?” Thank You & Goodnight captures the impulse, when coping with a loved one’s dying, to home in on meaningful details past and present, to articulate ironies, and to find some narrative logic in all the misery even if it’s not there. See Comedy/Drama (A-L) for Oxenberg’s contribution to early lesbian filmmaking A Comedy in Six Unnatural Acts (1975).
Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey (1993)
dir. Steven M. Martin
Léon Theremin, considered the Russian incarnation of Thomas Edison, was the first electronic musician. Most people associate the ethereally eerie sound of his invention, the Theremin, with sci-fi movie scores like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). In the early 1930s, though, the instrument’s debut at Carnegie Hall promised a miracle: “Music Out of the Air.” The most famous Theremin player was Clara Rockmore whose aura was as otherworldly as her instrument’s sound. There were Theremin dancers, too, and Mr. Theremin married one—an African-American woman. They were ostracized but stayed together until he was abducted by the KGB. Falsely reported as dead, he never saw his wife again. What happened? This fascinating biographical mystery ends with a reunion for the elderly friends Theremin and Rockmore. 83 minutes.
dir. Sarah Kernochan
The Egyptian myth Thoth is an ibis-headed god in charge of the universe. His feminine counterpart is Seshat, goddess of wisdom, knowledge, and writing. As for Thoth in San Francisco and NYC, however, he is an androgynous, racially ambiguous street performer in neo-Egyptian costume. He plays manic violin, sings in three voices (from a low growl to operatic heights much like Nina Hagen), and dances aggressively, either mesmerizing or confusing the crowds whose tips are his only income. Thoth won an Oscar for Best Short Documentary; three decades prior its director won an Oscar for Best Feature Documentary with Marjoe (see entry above). 40 minutes.
Tierney Gearon: The Mother Project (2006)
dirs. Peter Sutherland, Jack Youngelson
Like photographer Sally Mann, Tierney Gearon’s photographs of her children, often playing and sometimes nude, were hailed by the art world and condemned by conservatives. Indeed, she faced charges in the UK for child pornography. This documentary focuses as well on the subsequent, more challenging project of photographing her schizophrenic mother. Early on Mom cusses her out: “You’ve got your artwork and you’ve got your photography. And you’ve got your boyfriend. And you’ve got everything. You goddamn bitch!” Such moments are as fleeting as the moments of intimacy. For the most part, the project is energized by a more typical family-style bickering and the general chaos of children. It’s fascinating to see what’s going on right before certain photos are taken. The directors deal with the issue of mom-exploitation much better than Tarnation (2003). 70 minutes.
Turnabout: The Story of the Yale Puppeteers (1992)
dir. Dan Bessie
Turnabout was an unusual theater in Hollywood from 1941-1956: one end puppet show, the other end a live revue. Master puppeteer Harry Burnett made thousands of puppets, many modeled after famous people, for mini musical-comedies that proved popular with famous people. Between puppet shows, the audience turned their seats about to see the live revue—in particular Turnabout’s main attraction Elsa Lanchester. Known for her title role in The Bride of Frankenstein (1932), Lanchester sang bawdy, incisive little numbers by the troupe’s incomparable songwriter Forman Brown. And when the daughter of the theater’s African-American janitor showed promise as a vocalist, Turnabout funded her singing lessons and gave her a position in the revue. Her name was Odetta and she went on to become a legend singing folk songs. Brown and house manager Roddy Brandon, and later performer Dorothy Neuman, were Burnett’s official partners in Turnabout. All three of the men were gay and lived together as a family for over five decades. Brown is also known for publishing the first novel about homosexuality that didn’t end in suicide. It’s a thinly veiled autobiography, really, called Better Angel (1933). Fans of Turnabout include Albert Einstein, Marie Dressler, Bette Davis, and Charlie Chaplin. 1 hour; VHS only. For more on Turnabout, read my 2014 article in Polari Magazine: “Forman Brown, Elsa Lanchester, and the Turnabout Theatre.”
The 28th Instance of June 1914, 10:50 a.m. (1993)
dir. Barbara Politsch
Throughout the 1980s-‘90s, postmodern artists David McDermott and Peter McGough lived their daily lives in NYC as if it were the early 1900s. Shaving with straight razors, dressing with historical accuracy, traveling in a 1913 convertible, and infusing their neo-Edwardiana with pop art queerness. “We create our own homoerotic past,” McGough says, “and we make up our own homoerotic world where, for us, it’s considered the norm, it’s considered something pleasant.” Quentin Crisp describes them in more asexual terms as urbane and polite, not perceived as effeminate but merely eccentric. Also interviewed are Jerry Saltz, Richard Marshall, Robert Rosenbloom, and Diego Cortez. The pretentious antics of McDermott and McGough prove charming partly because of their clever paintings and partly because of their awareness of it all—their whole lives—as a time-warped performance. An effective ending montage blurs time in a sweet, strangely erotic way. Very rare, on VHS only; try a university library. 56 minutes.
Uncle Goddamn (2004)
dir. Dale Elmore
This is a compilation of home movies made by Dale Elmore featuring his uncle Robert aka Uncle Goddamn, a hardcore drunk who passes out chronically. Dale and other family members can’t resist pranking him: dispensing shaving cream into his palm and shoving black pepper up his nose, wrapping his entire head with tape, setting his crotch on fire (pictured), and spray-painting his face. When he comes to enough to realize what’s happening, he always says the same thing: “Goddamn!” The never-ending cackle behind the camera, including little kiddies, is priceless. It’s been described as “the amazing redneck torture tape” and “the Citizen Kane of white trash torture home video.” Originally distributed as an underground bootleg VHS in North Carolina, it spread around the world. It’s now available on DVD! 53 minutes.
The Up Series (1964-2012)
dirs. Michael Apted, Paul Almond
By now almost everyone knows about this ongoing series of short and then full-length documentaries produced by Granada Television. Almond’s first documentary Seven Up! introduces us to a diverse group of British seven-year-olds and interviews them about their homes, schools, and aspirations. Michael Apted charts the development of their personalities and their lives in 14 Up, 21 Up, and the rest through 56 Up, filmed every seven years. “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man” is the Jesuit motto that serves as the series’ thesis. A critic friend of mine thinks the series supports this thesis about human nature and the personality but I think the subjects stay the same and change to varying degrees. I suggest marathon-viewing if you’ve got 769 minutes to spare. UPDATE: 63 Up was released in 2019.
Vernon, Florida (1981)
dir. Errol Morris
After his debut Gates of Heaven (1978), a documentary about a pet cemetery, Morris turned his cameras on the quirky residents of Vernon, Florida: a turkey hunter, a worm farmer, a collector of swamp critters, a couple who show us their jar of “growing sand,” a bored cop, a preacher who prayed for a new van and got it, and others. Unmediated by a narrator, these small-towners have a surprisingly organic relationship with the camera. Or perhaps for them it’s like any other opportunity to tell their stories to someone new. One loquacious old fellow, addressing the bayou, is reminded of a joke that goes: “Two sailors are looking at the water and one says, ‘It’s a lot of water out there.’ And the other guys says, ‘Yeah, that’s just the top of it!’” That joke serves as a sort of thesis for Morris’s documentary. He began this project focusing on Vernon residents who’d allegedly severed a hand or foot to collect on insurance policies. It’s reported that, in the late 1950s, over two-thirds of all loss-of-limb accident claims in the U.S. came from the Florida Panhandle, earning Vernon the nickname Nub City. Mysteriously, Morris was pressured not to expose this and so he focused instead on other residents. However it came about, it’s now considered a cult classic. Newsweek calls it “A film as odd and mysterious as its subjects.” 55 minutes.
Voyeur (2017) dirs. Myles Kane, Josh Koury
With his now classic articles on Frank Sinatra and Charles Manson, and an era-defining book on sexuality in America for which he “immersed” himself in a nudist colony, famous literary journalist and sexist dandy Gay Talese has been writing down what he observes for decades. Observer or voyeur—there’s a fine line between them; so of course Talese was intrigued when Gerald Foos, an obsessively practicing voyeur and motel owner, first contacted him in the early 1980s. Foos watched 2-3,000 motel guests over the years, through specialized ceiling vents, doing a bit of masturbating, sure, but also taking notes, a book’s worth of what he calls research. “This guy is not creepy,” insists Talese: “He’s everyman.” I’m not so sure he’s not creepy, but it’s a creepy I find myself appreciating. Perhaps it’s knowing that his wife would bring him sandwiches during his long shifts at the vents. When he complains about a newspaper article making him seem like a creep, his meek but sturdy wife tells him with love, “But you are a creep.” As for being an everyman, Foos is a dab too quirky. The documentary bends deftly from the most relevant aspects of Talese’s bio to Foos’s recollections of a hot aunt he spied on as a kid; from representing the content of Talese’s book to telling the still-ongoing story in Talese’s book; from talking-head interviews to poignant verité. The latter wins me over to the aging loner Fooses, especially as the shit hits the fan (his words) with the publication of—first—Talese’s article on Foos in the New Yorker and—second—the book on Foos itself. “When you hold on to stories, things change,” insists Talese, meaning his long wait to take on Foos’s story and the rewards in doing so. The documentary can be seen as an extension of this truth, or an embodiment of it. And how strange, personally, to find myself wanting to spend more time with the chronic peeping tom than the illustrious literary figure.
Waiting for Nesara (2005)
dir. Zeb Haradon
Of all the documentaries to come out in the shadow of 9/11, from Farenheit 9/11 (2004) to Who Killed the Electric Car? (2006) to The Way We Live (2009), this one is the most peculiar. A group of excommunicated Mormons in Salt Lake City, called Open Mind Forum, tells us that Nesara (an acronym for the National Economic Stabilization and Recovery Act) is “the legal framework that will restore a constitutional government to this planet.” With the help of UFOs, Jesus will become our new President. Then we’ll be taken to another planet to live in harmony. Nesara was supposedly signed into law but Bush and his cronies (those “reptilian shape-shifters”) organized the 9/11 attacks to preempt its announcement. Convoluted conspiracy theory—and kookily so. The OMF have their meetings in a KFC and most people are like WTF? Transmute that! 77 minutes.
When the Applause Died (1990)
dir. Nick Bougas
Companion documentary to Bougas’s Death in Hollywood (1990) (see Documentary (A-L)), this one focuses on scandalous downfalls due to drugs and alcohol: Fatty Arbuckle, WC Fields, John Barrymore, Bela Lugosi, Spencer Tracy, Lenny Bruce, John Belushi. The intro blames these deaths on Hollywood excess, a fairly cliché and rather unnecessary theme Bougas should regret. Two especially interesting sections are on child stars (Our Gang’s Alfalfa and Spanky) and on comedians (Buster Keaton, Stan Laurel, Bing Crosby). Only one female is featured, Judy Garland—momma of ‘em all, perhaps, having been turned on to pill-popping by Louis B. Mayer when she was a teen. The opening graphics are super cheesy but Hollywood history is evenly handled and informative. Just as the editing is rough but the footage is mesmerizing, adding to the sense that you’ve stepped back in time to face some gritty truths. Now on DVD from SRS Cinema. For more Hollywood underbelly check out the documentary Girl 27 (2007) about a rape cover-up at MGM in 1937.
Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock? (2006)
dir. Harry Moses
How does a 73-year-old trucker and obsessive dumpster diver begin her tale of the art world? “You ain’t gonna believe this shit!” But believing is exactly what she asks us to do—believe that a painting she bought at a thrift shop for five dollars is actually a lost Jackson Pollock. Moses’s investigation alternates between Horton’s life and the art experts who dismiss her. A forensic scientist proves to be her “knight in shining armor, riding a horse called DNA.” The movie, ultimately, lets us decide for ourselves about the painting’s authenticity. As Moses said in an interview, the movie “became, really, a story about class in America. It’s a story of the art world looking down its collective nose at this woman with an eighth-grade education.”
Who Took Johnny (2013)
dirs. David Beilinson, Michael Galinsky, Suki Hawley
In 1982, before pedophile and human trafficking were terms people knew, including police, 12-year-old Johnny Gosch was kidnapped while delivering newspapers in Des Moines. One of the first missing kids on a milk carton. The police not only mishandled the case, they dug their heels in—as police do. The mom, Noreen Gosch, is an amazing central figure, dreaded as a kook by some but admired as a parent by others. Wisely perhaps, the documentary spares us the full extent of her conspiracy theory as revealed in her self-published book Why Johnny Can’t Come Home (2000); it addresses not only on pedophilia, pornography, prostitution, all of which seem validated by the documentary, but also mind control and espionage. Another central figure is abducted kid Paul Bonacci, diagnosed with multiple personality disorder. Once he’d become “damaged goods,” his abductors used him to ensnare “virgins” including Johnny Gosch. Case still unsolved. 76 minutes. From the directors of Horns and Halos (2002) and Code 33 (2005).
dir. Melody Gilbert
Some people want to change their bodies surgically to align their sex and their identity. “Born this way” in a radically different way are the people in Gilbert’s debut, all claiming a lifelong obsession with amputating a limb. Otherwise normal, arguably reasonable and rather likeable, the men included here suffer greatly from an “unrealized sense of self” and long to feel “whole” in the most ironic manner. Some of them self-inflict wounds resulting in surgical amputation, some manage to seek out agreeable doctors in other countries, and some only pretend to be an amputee by concealing the unwanted limb. The disorder is called apotemnophilia. As eFilmCritic.com attests, Gilbert “isn’t blind to the surreal humor of all this,” saying how it’s hard not to laugh when one apotemnophiliac calls his wife narrow-minded for discouraging him. But still, Gilbert “treats her subjects with respect…avoiding the obvious freak-show possibilities.” 55 minutes.
The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia (2009)
dir. Julien Nitzberg
It’s true what Mamie White says of her notorious family: The world knows who the fuck they are. Since Jacob Young’s Dancing Outlaw two decades ago (see Documentary (A-L)) her brother Jesco—last of the mountain tap-dancers—has been a cult icon. Nitzberg’s high-octane documentary focuses more on Jesco’s extended family, especially the women. Mamie rules the roost. Her daughter Mousie is fresh from jail and ready to party. Mamie’s sister Dirk, however, is ready to party because she’s facing three months in rehab. Another sister, Sue Bob, has a deep voice that I could listen to all day. Sadly the matriarch, Bertie Mae “Miracle Woman” White, passes away toward the movie’s end. Nitzberg also interviews local authorities who comment on the family’s long history of violence, drug arrests, and welfare. Highly engaging. Indeed, re-watchable.
Winnebago Man (2009)
dir. Ben Steinbauer
Thanks to YouTube and viral videos, the unlikeliest people have become famous. In the 1980s it took a lot longer for an underground video to be passed hand-to-hand until it achieved cult status. Jack Rebney a/k/a The Angriest Man In The World is an icon who spans both eras and didn’t even know until director Ben Steinbauer tracked him down. It all began with outtakes from a promotional video for Winnebago Industries. Rebney is supposed to calmly enunciate product descriptions like “multifunctional privacy bathroom configuration” yet constantly stumbles into a string of curses throbbing with resentment. For some people hearing him say the ‘F’ word is as addictive as crack. Hence his popularity. But Rebney doesn’t give a shit. “I have no relationship with ‘you tube’ or whatever the hell it is,” he says at one point, followed by complaints about Steinbauer’s car: “I don’t wanna break my goddamn leg getting out of this pile of shit!” Rebney meets some of his fans at a San Francisco screening, expecting to be only a buffoon to them. He is proven wrong. Just as Steinbauer’s documentary proves wrong an earlier assertion made by two hosts of an underground video show. Asked about viral videos, they insist that finding out about the people in them would ruin the illusion. They “don’t want the reality of it” but only to see “the buffoon…like the guy who falls and breaks his back or whatever.” Thankfully Steinbauer not only wanted the reality of it, he did us the kindness of seeking it out. Highly recommended.
The Witch of Kings Cross (2020) dir. Sonia Bible
Having directed two other quirky documentaries about obscure and fascinating women who rattled 20th century Australia, Sonia Bible turns to occult artist Rosaleen “The Witch of Kings Cross” Norton. Coming to notoriety in the 1950s as an unapolgetically bisexual neopagan rebel whose art fused surrealized spirituality and sacred sexuality (a powerful female sexuality, at that, aligned with Pan and Lilith), Norton’s debut exhibition brought on unprecedented conservative backlash. In her time, her bohemian parties were raided, she herself was arrested for so-called vagrancy and “abominable buggery,” her book was seized as pornography, and her artworks were destroyed by the government. Bible constructs her film in the manner of creative nonfiction, combining traditionally informative and artistic means of storytelling. Honestly the gothy b+w interpretive dance sequences are a bit too much, screentime-wise. If I prefer the talking heads, it’s because Norton’s now-elderly bohemian compatriots are so charming and the academics dedicated to her are both up-close and big-picture insightful. I look forward to more from this director. And with Norton I’ve been introduced to an amazing, complex feminist icon whose life and work is worth exploring now more than ever. Her last words before dying were: “I came into this world bravely and I will leave this world bravely.”
Yoo-Hoo Mrs. Goldberg (2009)
dir. Aviva Kempner
One of the mid-century’s most indelible personalities was that Jewish mother from the Bronx, Molly Goldberg—played by Gertrude Berg. When she came to her window to answer a neighbor’s “yoo-hoo,” TV viewers felt like she was looking into their homes, talking to the viewers directly (as pictured here). Kempner’s fine documentary takes us back to her origin as a Depression-era touchstone on the radio, where The Goldbergs reigned from 1929-1949. They made the transition to become TV’s first popular sitcom. Gertrude Berg created, wrote, produced and starred in, winning the first Best Actress Emmy in 1951. Her issue-oriented dramedy approach to the sitcom anticipates All in the Family and Roseanne. At one point she was the second most popular woman in the US, after Eleanor Roosevelt. She was politically liberal and fought her costar’s being blacklisted during the McCarthy era. Her grandson describes her as “coming from a long line of talkative, gregarious people, with imagination and a wanderlust about her.”
You’re Gonna Miss Me (2005)
dir. Keven McAlester
Roky Erickson’s singing style influenced Janis Joplin. Interviewees like Patti Smith, Thurston Moore, and Billy Gibbons all revere his psychedelic brand of rock, especially his first albums with the 13th Floor Elevators. After years of LSD and then three years in a high security insane asylum, he spends decades under the influence of his equally disturbed mother. You’re Gonna Miss Me covers a period of time during which Roky’s brother Sumner attempts to get Roky away from mom, on the proper meds, and in therapy. An absorbing documentary about a brilliant, broken individual, it has much in common with The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005) and parts of Crumb (1994).