Abel Raises Cain (2005)
dirs. Jeff Hockett, Jenny Abel
From the 1960s into the new millenium, Alan Abel developed the most unlikely career as a professional media prankster. Early hoaxes include a group protesting animal nudity, a school for beggars, and a Jewish grandma running for US President. With the help of his wife Jeanne, whom daughter Jenny claims is “just as crazy, dysfunctional and perverted” as her dad, he went on to exploit sensation-seeking journalists, invent preposterous characters for TV talk shows, and write-direct mockumentaries like Is There Sex After Death?—all taken seriously. In the 2000s his pranks got even bigger with an Iranian arms controversy, a million dollar lotto ruse, and a campaign to ban breastfeeding. After watching this thoroughly fun docu I realized that I may have missed my calling. Note: Alan and Jeanne Abel’s Is There Sex After Death? (1971) mocks the mondo-style documentary format and features notables like Buck Henry, Holly Woodlawn, Robert Downey, Sr., and Mink Stole as a dominatrix. One scene takes place at a colony where a group of nudists are singing “Dinah Won’t You Blow Your Horn”; it seems innocuous yet, as they sing about blowing your horn, the camera persistently frames singing faces with a penis or two in the background—a sort of cumulative effect, joke-wise, which is a good way to describe the mockumentary at large. Dated but ebullient.
Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (1992)
and Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003)
dir. Nick Broomfield
Aileen Wuornos’s “whole life was an act of self-defense,” insists The Oxford American in its Southern Documentary issue. Yet she’s also featured in books like The Most Evil Women in History. I’m not even sure she truly qualifies as a serial killer. She killed men who paid her for sex and, she claimed, turned violent. The prosecution, however, claimed that her hatred of men was the aggravating circumstance. And society was still willing to believe in the predatory lesbian stereotype, evidenced by a Village Voice article from 1992 titled “Dykes on Death Row” that addressed the “brutal press and harsher sentencing for lesbians.” What The Selling of a Serial Killer offers, however, is a look into the lives of Wuornos’s quirky yet questionable allies. One is her inexperienced, pot-smoking lawyer Steve a/k/a Dr. Legal. The other is Arlene, a born-again Christian who saw Wuornos’s picture in the newspaper and proceeded to legally adopt her (!). Broomfield, too, exploits Wuornos while rooting for her at the same time. Broomfield’s follow-up Life and Death of a Serial Killer focuses more on her demonization by the media and, years later, her false confession obviously intended to hasten her own death. In her final interview with Broomfield, she angrily sums up her own life with these bitter words: “A raped woman got executed! And was used for books and movies and shit. Ladder climbing, reelections, everything else. …Thanks a lot society for railroading my ass.” Despite the thorny contradictions in her personality, I like Aileen Wuornos…and I find Broomfield’s documentaries very re-watchable. Broomfield also directed the verité classic Chicken Ranch (1983).
dir. Ruth Leitman
Underrated and then forgotten, this documentary from the director of Lipstick & Dynamite (2004) deserves an honorary position in the scheme of cinema with personality. It’s about Alma Thorpe, an intelligent—if not always reasonable—schizophrenic nympho from Georgia who loves confessing her sexual history to the camera. Her once abusive husband James, burly and stoic, begrudges the camera at best. Their adult daughter Margie, a co-producer of the film, tours us through the family’s past issues (abuse, possible incest, psychosis) and present ones too (Alma talks to beings in “the overhead,” threatens neighbors, gets committed). In the beginning of the film, Margie regards her parents as “comical perverts” and she’s not wrong. Alma’s story of being 8-years-old and seducing her uncle in a cotton field is as shocking as it is outlandish. And when she takes a cut of frozen lamb to a court hearing, her biblical reasons make sense only to her. She tells the camera, “I wouldn’t want to live in their logical world.” As much as Margie resents her mother’s behavior, she reveres it too, chuckling with pride. She even archives answering machine messages from Alma, utilized meaningfully throughout the documentary . What’s brilliant about this film is how it captures an extreme version of the love-hate relationship that so many people experience with a parent. Tragic yet deeply humorous.
American Fabulous (1992)
dir. Reno Dakota
The full title is American Fabulous: A Portrait of Jeffrey Strouth. In the backseat of his friend’s 1957 Sedan de Ville, Strouth tells a full lifetime’s worth of anecdotes at machinegun speed. Indeed, Dakota got nine hours of Hi-8 camcorder footage, editing it down, haphazardly, to 103 minutes. A friend gave me this video as a birthday present back in 1993 and I didn’t like it. I got frustrated not knowing if Strouth was for real. What a narrow expectation for me to have of someone whose memoirs are camped-up tall tales and party-practiced improvisations. Since then I’ve come to love the documentary . Stephen Holden of the New York Times praises it as “an indelible portrait not only of Strouth, but also of a type he represents, which might be described as a tough Southern queen who takes no prisoners. Impossible in some ways, endearing in others, he emerges as a flaming creature who was well worth memorializing.” Other reviews are a veritable cocktail of comparisons to William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouack, Truman Capote, Hank Williams Sr., Spalding Gray, Tallulah Bankhead, Clifton Webb, and Flannery O’Connor. Even mainstream mag Entertainment Weekly deems the Ohio-born monologist “uncommonly entertaining and just a little frightening.” The documentary remains strictly underground, unfortunately. Rare copies of the VHS from First Run Features go for $40+.
American Movie (1999)
dir. Chris Smith
A very well-known and well-loved documentary, it won the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at Sundance and was named one of the Top 20 all-time favorite documentaries by the International Documentary Association. The central figure is thirtysomething Mark Borchardt, a newspaper delivery guy who lives with his parents and drinks a lot. That his indie filmmaking aspirations are perpetually thwarted makes all his showboating uncomfortable to witness. What redeems him are his sincerely eccentric relationships: with mom and dad, with his kids, with the cast of his ill-conceived horror movie, with his heartbreaking uncle Bill who serves as producer, and, above all, with his headbanger sidekick Mike. Janet Maslin, in her appreciative review, comments that the film “builds a surprising amount of suspense and even shock into this documentary’s gradual revelations. By the time Mr. Borchardt is seen doing a dead-end job at a cemetery and describing the worst kind of work he’s ever been faced with, the film has built up an enormous amount of empathy and hope for him.” 107 minutes. Next up for director Chris Smith are Home Movie (2001) and The Yes Men (2003).
American Scary (2006)
dir. John E. Hudgens
In the late 1950s, Universal released their old horror movies as a “shock movie package” for airing on TV. And so the kooky position of Horror Host was created. The early king and queen of horror hosts were Roland (John Zacherle) and Vampira (Maila Nurmi). Every city had its own horror host, though, with names like Ghoulardi, Crematia Mortem, Svengoolie, Doktor Goulfinger, and Cleveland’s own Ghoulardi a/k/a Ernie Anderson, father of Boogie Nights director Paul Thomas Anderson. The spastic-sarcastic mistress of the dark Elvira (played by Cassandra Peterson) became a national icon in the mid-1980s hosting Elvira’s Movie Macabre on TV, the ThrillerVideo home video series, and the Elvira’s Midnight Madness video series. At the time in southern Illinois, where I’m from, the regional Creature Feature host was named Misty Brew. She was one of many knockoff Elviras but, you know, she was our knockoff Elvira. Maybe you grew up with a Horror Host. If so, this documentary should appeal to you. The director’s next documentary is Backyard Blockbusters (2012) about the “fanfilm” genre.
Andy Warhol’s Factory People:
Inside the Sixties Silver Factory (2008)
dir. Catherine Shore
By narrowing its focus to “Factory People,” this three-part documentary reveals the hedonistic 1960s more perceptively than any other Warhol documentary . Each 50-minute episode is quickly paced, offering lots of rare footage and interviews—and it’s good at re-clarifying who people are then and now. Taylor Mead’s reflections are the docu’s wryest. My favorite interviewee, though, is Mary Woronov who plays Hanoi Hannah in Chelsea Girls (1966). She says, “I liked transvestites. I liked gay people. Because they were just nuts. They satisfied something in me that was insanely rebellious. They were not like gay people now, you know, kinda fat ‘n’ happy. They were angry. And so was I. So that’s why I stayed there at The Factory. Well, that and the drugs.” Other Factory People include Ultra Violet, Billy Name, Jonas Mekas, Bibbe Hansen, and Brigid Berlin.
Another State of Mind (1984)
dirs. Adam Small, Peter Stuart
Arguably the best of the original punkumentaries, certainly the most intelligent, it follows the California bands Youth Brigade and Social Distortion on a tour “to prove to people that punks aren’t a bunch of mindless morons that go around beating each other up. That they can do things on their own. They can do it independently. Because they believe in it and are really sincere about it.” YB’s lead singer Shawn Stern is the force behind the tour, an articulate, socially aware young man. SD’s lead singer, Mike Ness, is less idealistic but just as likable. The two bands plus roadies, eleven guys in all, repurpose a school bus and take off, finding an underground network of punks in each city they go to. Interviews with these local punks balance out the gender perspective. One of my favorite quotes, though, addresses race. A roadie named Marlon says, “If I was black and normal I’d still get fucked with, so I may as well do what I want to do and take my chances. It’s part of being a black person in this country to be fucked with. It’s part of being a punk too.” Some other parts of the documentary, originally deemed filler, now seem crucial: lessons in moshing, stage diving practice, and the cutting/dyeing/doing of hair. The straightedge movement is covered too, with Minor Threat its representative. Inevitably the tour breaks down, partly due to getting paid in rolled pennies if paid at all. Profit is something they’re against and yet, as Stern says, it’s hard to remain unified when you’re hungry. 78 minutes.
The Arbor (2010)
dir. Clio Barnard
Verbatim Theater is when actors speak the words of persons who have been interviewed. An example is The Laramie Project (adapted into a film in 2002). Here we have a documentary utilizing an even more challenging variation on this approach. “This is a true story,” we’re told up front, “filmed with actors lip-syncing to the voices of the people whose story it tells.” The story is about West Yorkshire playwright Andrea Dunbar who as a teen wrote The Arbor and Rita, Sue and Bob Too. She was also a chronic drunk and an abusive mother of three kids. The biracial daughter Lorraine suffered the most, becoming a heroine-addicted prostitute. Dunbar died at age 29. Technically and conceptually this documentaryis amazing, but it’s slow and at times confusing because the accents are thick. If you’ve got a subtitles option, use it.
dir. Peter Robinson
“The experience and behavior that gets labeled schizophrenic,” R.D. Laing asserts, “is a special strategy that a person invents in order to live in an unlivable situation.” So here we have a verité documentary about Laing’s halfway house for the mentally ill. The director Peter Robinson spent seven weeks in the Archway Community, described by Kino’s DVD synopsis as “a London row-house where the inmates literally run the asylum.” Well, kind of. Inspired by Laing’s existential psychoanalysis, therapists and patients live together with little sense of boundaries between them. This may cause viewers some confusion at first. As we watch, though, the residents and their relationships to each other become clearer—sometimes painfully so.
The Atomic Café (1982)
dirs. Jayne Loader, Kevin Rafferty, Pierce Rafferty
Loader, Rafferty and Rafferty focus on atomic culture as it emerged in the 1950s—a raw fascination with and repressed dread of atomic power. For some it’s sipping an Atomic Cocktail and dancing to “My Atomic Love for You” or “Atom Bomb Baby”…while for others it’s Red Scare hysteria and the gospel tune “Jesus Hits Like an Atom Bomb.” At first stocking a brand new fallout shelter is kind of fun…until the latest program advises that families stock up on tranquilizers too. Atomic Café has no narrator except for narrators from yesteryear’s media and juxtaposing declassified military footage against pop culture ephemera reveals how naïve people were then, ready to believe what viewers in 1982, and more so now, instantly recognize as misinformation—e.g. the famous “Duck and Cover” public service message. One hilarious quote, corresponding to the above graph, addresses “the fallacy of devoting 85% of one’s worrying capacity to an agent that constitutes only about 15% of an atomic bomb’s destroying potential.” Loader, Rafferty and Rafferty spent over five years digging through archives for Atomic Café. Richard Skorman, in his movie guide Off-Hollywood Movies, considers it “the most thoroughly researched documentary ever produced,” not to be matched until Shoah (1985) that’s hardly a joy to watch. The approach/style has been endlessly appropriated but there’s only one Atomic Café. 86 minutes.
dir. Ross McElwee
McElwee more or less pioneered the personal documentary genre, beginning in his own backyard in 1976. “When I was a child,” he says early on, “I never questioned the fact that black men were taking care of the yard while their wives were taking care of me.” McElwee quietly documents this social order, alternating between his white family and their black servants. The above quote and an old song about segregation called “Stay in Your Own Backyard,” sung by his grandmother, serve to frame what we’re shown. So McElwee needn’t judge nor draw conclusions, offering instead low-key insights that make him quite likeable. The force of his personality similarly compels his most celebrated personal documentary, the feature-length Sherman’s March (1986). Backyard is 40 minutes on VHS with Charleen (1978) or as part of The Ross McElwee DVD Collection.
Best Worst Movie (2009)
dir. Michael Paul Stephenson
Troll II (1990), originally titled Goblins, has little to do with the first Troll (1986). Made by an egomaniacal Italian director (Claudio Fragasso a/k/a Drake Floyd) and his crew, none of whom spoke English, it features vegetarian goblins that transform victims into plants. The inexperienced cast of American actors, none of whom spoke Italian, recall the horror of filming, their embarrassment when it flopped, and their dismay at its revival. This documentary’s director played Troll II’s teenage protagonist. Its lead hunk, George Hardy, is now a Patch Adams-type children’s dentist in a small town. It may not be the best “worst movie ever made” or “the Myspace generation’s Rocky Horror” but the overstatement conveys how much it’s loved by fans, many of whom were kids during its days on HBO and VHS. Jesse H. Ficks, of MidnitesForManiacs.com, points out that Troll II’s audiences had to have found it on their own and had to have been the type to watch a movie repeatedly. “It’s so interactive,” he explains. “You personalize the film and you take some sort of ownership.”
Big River Man (2009)
dir. John Maringouin
As Grizzly Man is to bears, Big River Man is to rivers. It’s about overweight 53-year-old Martin Strel who, after swimming the Mississippi, Danube, and Yangzte rivers, takes on the Amazon—3,375 miles in all, a world record for endurance swimming. He starts out swimming 50 miles daily and chugging beers at night. After 60 days he’s so insane that his crew and his son/manager don’t think of him as human anymore. He’s pulled into the boat, unable to feed himself; his instability is worsened by hypertension and a subcutaneous larvae infection in his brain (!). One crewmember worries: “He’s gonna fall through his own bunghole by the end of this trip!” Editing heightens the dramatic finish-line scene. In South America, they call him Fish Man. The soundtrack includes Tom Waits, Willie Dixon, and a good dose of Mozart. 100 minutes.
Billy the Kid (2007)
dir. Jennifer Venditti
Billy is a 15-year-old misfit coping with life in a small Maine town. Within ten seconds I was on his side. As soon as we meet his mother I’m won over all over again. The quirky filmmaker Miranda July describes this movie best by describing her reaction to Billy: “I’ve worked so hard to control all the impulses that he lets fly. …Part of me that had been so careful all week yelled, ‘No Billy! Don’t do it!’ As if he would take me down with him.” She adjusts, though, professing that “finally, there is tremendous joy in watching someone do it—dress inappropriately, play music badly, betray their passions. …By the end of the movie it seemed to me that Billy was a superhero.” Make sure to watch the special features: a short follow-up documentary and a revealing interview with Venditti.
Blank City (2010)
dir. Celine Danhier
You don’t have to love No Wave music and film, or even know about it, to love this documentary. It’s about the late ‘70s and early ‘80s in NYC, on the punk edges where you’re likely to get mugged, and the mostly young musicians, artists, and filmmakers who said no to New Wave, no to everything commercial. Films by Scott B and Beth B, Bette Gordon, Jim Jarmusch, Richard Kern, Amos Poe, Susan Seidelman, and Nick Zedd often featured known scenesters like Debbie Harry, Lydia Lunch, and Ann Magnuson. So Danhier gets double duty out of the footage. She also insightfully juxtaposes present-day interviews to heighten our understanding of what life with all its gritty idiosyncrasies was like, when poverty meant you were a DIY artist or you didn’t do it at all. What’s most admirable about Danhier’s debut film is how, according to A.O. Scott in the New York Times, “The point of Blank City is neither to celebrate the ones who made it big nor to scold the sellouts. The movie aims, rather, to evoke a moment in as much detail and with as much insight as will fit into 95 minutes. In this it succeeds beautifully.”
The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story (2009)
dirs. Gregory C. Sherman, Jeff Sherman
A documentary from Walt Disney about Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, the brothers who wrote songbooks for Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Jungle Book, Winnie the Pooh, and Charlotte’s Web. First generation Jewish immigrants, their father Al was a Tin Pan Alley songwriter (known for songs like “He’s So Unusual” that Cyndi Lauper sang on her debut album) as well as an amateur kite-maker (Poppins fans will understand the significance). Despite their shared talents and success, the brothers were far from close. Bob’s a soft-spoken stickler who never recovered from what he’d seen in WWII as the leader of the first Allied troop to enter Dachau. Dick, though given to fits of anger, is otherwise goofy and spontaneous. As a friend describes, “Bob is a little more ‘Feed the Birds’ and Dick is a little more ‘Supercalafragilistic.’” The conflicts escalate between them until Bob pulls away emotionally and professionally.
The Bridge (2006)
dir. Eric Steel
The most photographed bridge in the world, San Francisco’s Golden Gate is also the most jumped off. 24 jumpers in 2004 alone. Steel and his small team of camerapersons spent their days throughout that year filming the bridge, persistently panning for suspicious behavior that’s not so easy to discern. With walkie-talkies and cell phones, they communicated not only with each other but also with Bridge Patrol when a suicide seemed imminent. The physical distance of the footage, much like the respectful distance during interviews with friends and family of the jumpers, makes this documentary all the more a tearjerker. Gentle, solemn, and riveting, the interviews bring each jumper’s personality into focus without platitudes or judgments. This seems to disturb some viewers, alas. One viewer felt helpless watching the documentary, commenting on TheBridgeTheMovie.com’s message board, “And it makes me angry. Why would someone do that? No one should take their own life. It’s a gift.” Another commenter casts blame on the jumpers who “needed to get better people around them so they don’t feel so alone.” About one jumper’s guilt-ridden friend, a harsh commenter unfairly declares that her being interviewed in identity-concealing shadow “pretty much summed her up as a person.” And even Eric Steel is assumed to be a vulture with a camera, which the DVD’s “making of” special feature proves is not the case. Steel, by the way, served as producer for the dramas Bringing Out the Dead and Angela’s Ashes (both 1999).
Butterflies on the Scaffold (1996)
dirs. Luis Felipe Bernaza, Margaret Gilpin
Hard to find, not for everyone, low-budget, inspiring—all describe this 75-minute documentary about Cuban drag queens and the grassroots gay culture they built in the Havana suburb of La Guinera. They cut false eyelashes from carbon paper and fashion crinolines out of garbage bags, performing in cafeterias and backyards. The DIY spirit, like their sincerity-over-stardom attitude, is way cool. And there’s an urgency to their numbers—a sense of nationalism generally absent from gay pride in the US—that is quite stirring. VHS only.
Cane Toads: An Unnatural History (1988)
dir. Mark Lewis
There are all kinds of monstrosity in the subgenre known as eco-horror, from Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959) and the mutinous ants in Phase IV (1974) to the giant rabbits in Night of the Lepus (1972) and mutant Piranha (1978). Cane toads taking over Australia makes for a more complex cautionary tale, especially as documented in Mark Lewis’s cult classic. These stout and lumbering if not giant-sized toads were established in Australia in 1935 as a “biological control” agent, intended to diminish an epidemic of cane grub that threatened sugarcane crops. Thanks partly to amplexus (“the sexual clasping of amphibians”), the amorous cane toads reproduced like mad and their offspring had a very high rate of survival. For fifty years, Queenslanders have either despised the ubiquitous toads or revered them, some people even putting out cat food for them. One resident says she’s not sure she’d call them pets, exactly, “But they’re mates, as far as I’m concerned.” Her husband says admiringly, “We often see them mating right here, in front of us on the lawn.” And then there’s zoologist Michael Archer whose cat died after biting a cane toad, which has poison-producing glands. Despite the tragedy, his “eternal revenge” on cane toads renders him one of the documentary’s quirkiest characters, which is saying something. A widely beloved documentary, rich with surprising detail from start to finish. 47 minutes. Note: In 2010, Lewis made a follow-up documentary in 3D called Cane Toads: The Conquest.
Carmen Miranda: Bananas Is My Business (1995)
dir. Helena Solberg
Though Solberg has made a few other films, this is the only one that found an audience in the US—and even it now goes for up to $50 on DVD. More than a bio of beloved Hollywood icon Carmen Miranda, known for her platform shoes, fruit-piled headdress, and elaborate musical comedies, Solberg’s documentary analyzes the Americanization of a Brazilian icon. And her approach is on par with creative nonfiction, blending in touches of reenactment and fantasy as well as her own personal narrative. Solberg was a child when Carmen Miranda dominated Brazilian radio and she witnessed Miranda’s transformation from native star into the US’s own wartime symbol of international diplomacy. As her popularity waned in the postwar years, Miranda went so far as to dye her hair blonde (Copacabana) and play an Irish-American (If I’m Lucky). She died in 1955 at age 46, her body flown back to Rio de Janeiro. Regardless of negative press in Brazil over the Americanization of Carmen Miranda, half a million Brazilians attended her funeral. Solberg captures the “our Carmen” versus “their Carmen” perspective with great sensitivity and insight.
Cat Dancers (2008)
dir. Harris Fishman
Ron and Joy Holiday were dance stars in the 1950s who expanded their act to include tigers. They look like one would expect a tiger act to look like, pushing tacky as if it were classic. Even more so than the human-animal family dynamic, it’s their very genuine triangular relationship with Chuck Lizza—a partner in business and in bed—that compels this documentary. The trio lived a charmed life for years, Ron tells us, “There’s nothing that I wanted. I had the most beautiful animals. I had the two most beautiful people in the world, one male and one female. And they all left me.” A white tiger named Jupiter is too blame. I expected the eccentricity if not the riveting climax. We see it coming, of course, but it’s still a shock to the senses. Fishman and editor Alexis Spraic get real emotional resonance out of dated, often grainy footage. A promising debut, made for HBO. 75 minutes.
dirs. Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
Online romances are nothing new. Neither is online deception. The focus of this unpredictable documentary is the many veils of Facebook as experienced by one investigative young man, Nev Schulman, and his filmmaker friends (Henry and Ariel). As they record his online exchanges with a kid artist in Michigan and her 19-year-old sister, Nev falls for the sister. What seems a flippant mystery about dating, however, unfolds into a uniquely gripping tragedy involving a troubled housewife. I’m glad I didn’t know anything about it prior to watching. So it didn’t even occur to me to doubt it, as some did at first. But the housewife Angela Wesselman, a timid yet clever woman whose family life is more demanding than you can imagine, confessed to 20/20 how she manipulated the filmmakers and not the other way around. Amazing.
Chariots of the Gods (1970)
dir. Harald Reinl
A gas station that rented movies in my hometown had a rack of cheap documentaries on VHS, all in one way or another about aliens and all built on the pseudoscientific success of Chariots. It’s an era subgenre akin to the Mondo documentaries. Based on Erich von Däniken’s bestseller and nominated for an Oscar, Chariots points to alien intelligence to explain wonders like Easter Island and the Pyramids. This is called the “ancient astronauts” theory. Some of it is quite convincing yet some of it—usually the narration—is just brow-furrowing. For example: “If you multiply the height of the Pyramid of Cheops by one billion, it equals almost exactly the distance from the earth to the sun. A mere coincidence?” In Eastmancolor, a Sunn Classics release. Beware of poor quality transfers. The soundtrack by The Peter Thomas Sound Orchestra includes titles like “Wondina Came from Heaven to the Mortals Too.”
dir. Ross McElwee
The full title is Charleen or How Long Has This Been Going On? As a young woman, Charleen Swansea played muse to e.e. cummings and Ezra Pound. In 1978 she was teaching as part of North Carolina’s Poetry-in-the-Schools Program. She’s a southern eccentric, a single mom of two kids, a ponderer and a chatterbox. We see her in the classroom, giving a talk at an elderly ladies’ club meeting, visiting her father’s denture factory, and singing in her car. Financial problems force her to sell all her letters from Pound, from which she reads, reminiscing fondly. She also tries to figure out her race issues, why she feels an affinity with some black women but can’t look her black maid in the eyes. “I’m gonna figure it out!” she declares earnestly. It’s all very 1970s, especially the poetry. Charleen’s younger boyfriend is overbearing and thankfully she dumps him and the documentary ends on her heroic starting-over monologue. Charleen returns in McElwee’s personal documentaries Sherman’s March (1986), Time Indefinite (1993), Six O’Clock News (1996), and Bright Leaves (2003). 54 minutes.
Chicken Ranch (1983)
dirs. Nick Broomfield, Sandy Sissel
Surrounded by a chain link fence in Nevada, the Chicken Ranch is one of the state’s legal brothels. The women employed there stay for four-month stretches and if they leave they’re fired. Though the Chicken Ranch inspired a popular musical, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982), it is not nearly so jovial and campy. These are real people. Likeably, at times worryingly real people. My favorite of the prostitutes is the curly-haired one who holds back her sexuality and thus goes unselected by male patrons, causing tension with boss Walter. Watch for the downtime scene when she dances to “Slow Hand.” Another fascinating character is Fran the house madam who keeps peace between Walter and “the girls.” The filmmakers lived with them for twelve weeks, filming their everyday lives and earning their trust. It leads to an abrupt wallop of an ending! Sissel was the first unionized camerawoman in the US, by the way, and soundman Broomfield is best known for his documentaries on Aileen Wuornos.
Child of Rage: A Story of Abuse (1990)
dir. Gaby Monet
Here’s an obscure 30-minute documentary from HBO (not to be confused with the CBS drama of the same name) that’s currently available on YouTube. The title is trite but trust me: It’s an understatement. Extreme neglect and sexual abuse during her first two years left Beth more or less without a capacity to trust or feel guilt and she suffers from Reactive Attachment Disorder. A Southern minister and his wife then adopted Beth along with her baby brother. By age 6½, Beth is so violent—and deviously so—that she must be locked in her room at night. Juxtaposed against interviews with her adoptive parents and her therapists, Beth’s placid, carefully spoken confessions will chill you to the bone. Watch knowing that the documentary ends on a hopeful note. Beth became a nurse and published the book More Than a Thread of Hope while her adoptive mother wrote Dandelion on My Pillow, Butcher Knife Beneath; together they started a clinic for disturbed children (www.attachment.org). A TV movie was made in 1992 starring thirtysomething‘s Mel Harris and The A-Team‘s Dwight Schultz as the adoptive parents.
dirs. Angela Christlieb, Stephen Kijak
While we videophiles need not leave the house, cinephiles must attend screenings. The extreme “cinemaniacs” featured here attend 2-5 a day, forsaking all else. They are recognizable figures on the NYC scene, with its endless theaters, museums, and film festivals. More kookily obsessed than scholastic, however, they’re all perpetually single and barely getting by on disability or unemployment. I like them very much, even cranky Roberta, the “Queen of Cinemaniacs” known for her temper. She died in 2009. It’s a cheap, gritty-looking documentary but it suits the city backdrop and all that dashing to catch public transportation to get to the next screening. Their days are often scheduled down to the minute and none of them will dare walk in on a movie already started. 83 minutes.
The Cockettes (2002)
dirs. David Weissman, Bill Weber
About a gender-bent commune in San Francisco during the late 1960s and early 1970s. John Waters calls them the original hippie acid-freak drag queens. Their performance group The Cockettes—composed of men and women both gay and straight—debuted as an intermission act at a theater known for midnight movies like Waters’ Multiple Maniacs (1970). The central figure Hibiscus (pictured) looked like Jesus Christ in a headdress. He died in 1982 but haunts every second of this feel-good docu. Sylvester, the most famous Cockette, went on to fame with the disco hit “(You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real” and died in 1988. The surviving members are just as funny and interesting in present day interviews as they are in the archival footage, all of which is edited together with rhythmic panache. Offering insights into sexual anarchy, gender play, and counterculture in San Francisco versus NYC, The Cockettes should appeal to a fairly wide audience. It won the L.A. Film Critics Award for Best Documentary. Weissman and Weber also directed We Were Here (2011).
Crazy Love (2007)
dirs. Dan Klores, Fisher Stevens
It’s 1959. Promiscuous lawyer Burt falls in love with virginal beauty Linda. After a rocky relationship, due mostly to his jealousy, she breaks up with him. He then hires thugs to disfigure her and they dare to do so at her own front door. “Acid Thrower Blinds Girl,” said the front page of The New York Mirror. 14 years later, Burt is released, reconnects with Linda, and marries her—making headlines worldwide. Are they the perfect couple after all? The L.A. Times calls Crazy Love, “A fascinating portrait of two complex and damaged people forced to deal with the consequences of their actions.” Note: The couple were together until Linda died of heart failure in early 2013.
dirs. Barbara Brancaccio, Joshua Zeman
Location: Staten Island. Brancaccio and Zeman investigate an alleged serial killer referred to as Cropsey who lived, and buried at least one of his child victims, on the grounds of an abandoned mental institution. As in Lodge Kerrigan’s tense film Clean, Shaven (1993), it’s easy to assume a mentally unstable drifter is a killer of girls. In this case, his name is Rand. But the evidence against him is full of holes. The New York Times, describing Cropsey’s true-crime narrative as “leaping hither and yon like a dog chasing butterflies” yet creepy enough even in broad daylight, asks reverently: “Is Mr. Rand a real-life Cropsey, or just the unfortunate expression of our need to put a human face on our most terrifying childhood monsters?”
When Miller made this b+w documentary, which was immediately a cult classic, its subject Timothy ‘Speed’ Levitch was already a cult icon. Well he was a cult icon as much as a tour guide on a double-decker bus can be. Since 1992, the loquacious, wit-endowed Levitch had been offering a philosophical spin on NYC’s past and present that’s as manic and audacious as the city itself: “New York City is a living organism; It evolves, it devolves, it fluctuates as a living organism. So my relationship with New York City is as vitriolic as the relationship with myself and with any other human being which means that it changes every millisecond, that it’s in constant fluctuation.” A bum of sorts, sleeping on the couches of friends, Levitch preaches how we should not let conventions get in the way of our lifelong pursuit of direct experience and enlightening adventure, i.e. The Cruise. Levitch adapted his tours into essays for a book called Speedology: Speed on New York on Speed. He also had his own tour guide TV show called Up to Speed (2012). The Cruise’s director Bennett Miller went on to direct the Oscar-nominated Capote (2005).
Dancing Outlaw (1991)
dir. Jacob Young
Jesco White is a tap-dancing Elvis fanatic from Boone County, West Virginia. He calls himself the last of the mountain dancers. He lives in a trailer with his wife Norma whom he loves but frequently threatens to kill. She says he’s got three personalities: sweet Jesse, singing Elvis, and evil Jesco. The director Jacob Young concurs, admitting in an interview for IFC’s Split Screen that he was ran off the White property more than once, expecting to get shot. And yet, Young continues, “Jesco’s like a neighbor. He’s not that different. But people from the city see [Dancing Outlaw] and Jesco might as well be living on Mars. I think maybe a lot of the appeal comes from the fact that he’s kind of exotic, you know. Here’s a ‘real’ hillbilly.” Young says his main goal was to show that “there’s still some little bit of unique culture left” in an otherwise homogenous America. His film also captures a fascinating clan of beer-guzzling, glue-huffing, fast-driving partiers. Jesco’s sister says of their family, “We’re wild and crazy and can’t be stopped!” For further evidence of this, check out Julien Nitzberg’s documentary The Wild and Wonderful Whites (2009). Dancing Outlaw is 30 minutes, like its sequel:
Dancing Outlaw II: Jesco Goes to Hollywood (1994)
dir. Jacob Young
The first Dancing Outlaw became such a cult phenomenon that TV’s Roseanne invited Jesco White to do a cameo on her show. “You think there’s a lot of nuts in Boone County?” Jesco asks. “Well check out L.A.!” His ego is riding high as he says, “I love everybody the same. And everybody loves me because they like the way I walk. I give ‘em some of that Boone County rhythm.” The taping of the episode goes well except for one thing: Jesco’s jailhouse tattoos, one of which is a swastika. Tom Arnold, doubting that Jesco knows what a swastika means, gives him cash to get the offending symbol covered up. Jesco opts for three roses. Young lets a lot stand in his sequel, which is perhaps best. Young’s next documentary is the feature-length and wildly different Holy Cow Swami! (1996). Also see Jacob Young: Contributions to Different Drummer.
Death in Hollywood (1990)
dir. Nick Bougas
The original Superman shot himself. Albert Decker a/k/a Dr. Cyclops hung himself, wearing lingerie. Carole Landis overdosed. George Sanders’ suicide note read, “I am leaving because I’m bored.” Suicide, homicide, car crashes, AIDS—they’ve claimed the lives of many Hollywood stars. This documentary “exhumes and examines” stars we still hear about (Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, Bob Crain, Rock Hudson) and some who’ve been forgotten (Ramon Navarro, Gig Young, Thelma Todd, William Desmond Taylor). The death parade begins with Rebel Without a Cause (1955), a movie featuring four actors who died tragically: Nick Adams, Sal Mineo, Natalie Wood, and James Dean. Each star gets context-establishing footage and film clips, leading to their unnatural deaths. This format represents a wide array of stars in an informative, satisfying way. Bougas, known for Death Scenes (1992) and The Goddess Bunny (1994), offers up straightforward Hollywood history in the quirky guise of a tabloid experience. So it’s not as sleazy as you might think despite being distributed on DVD by SRS Cinema. Double-billed with a companion documentary When the Applause Died (1990). If you like Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon books, then these are crucial viewing.
The Decline of Western Civilization (1981) dir. Penelope Spheeris
Quintessential documentary on punk, specifically West Coast punk. Germs, Circle Jerks, Fear, Catholic Discipline, Black Flag, Alice Bag Band, and X, all are filmed live at L.A. clubs (close-up with great sound) and most are interviewed in their homes. Black Flag’s home is an old church covered in spray-paint. X’s Exene Cervenka reads from religious pamphlets taped to the wall in her band’s apartment, hiccupping the whole time. We also hang out with belligerent yet likable Darby Crash of the Germs who performs so wasted that he forgets to sing into the mike. He killed himself before Decline was released. The violence inherent to the punk scene is owed to pent-up aggression, an easy answer failing to explain all the racism and homophobia. Still, Spheeris manages to include interesting female perspectives (including three bands with female members). She next directed another punk classic Suburbia (1983). She would do a second Decline in 1988, covering The Metal Years.
Devil’s Playground (2002)
dir. Lucy Walker
Not allowed to be baptized into the church until they understand the secular ways they must give up, Amish youth at 16 are set free to explore what typical American teens get to explore: keggers, fast cars, rock’n’roll. Few Amish teens seem to explore education opportunities, alas, and 90% return to the church. Walker focuses on a handful of teens in Indiana like Faron, her primary subject, who’s a dealer in trouble with the law. That Walker gets the footage she does is impressive considering Amish people usually refuse to be photographed. According to Walker, they weren’t allowed to film any of the best scenes they witnessed. As well, her co-director of photography Daniel Kern was injured in a car accident (Faron was driving) and she had to continue filming without him. Their troubled project, thankfully, became a film of warmth and significance. Highly recommended. 77 minutes.
Divine Waters (1985) dir. Vito Zagarrio
The earliest documentary on trash cinema auteur John Waters. He’s 39 at this point and basking in the fluorescence of near-mainstream fame. So the underground leg of his career is over: starting with Midnight Movie fave Pink Flamingoes (1972) and ending in 1981 with Polyester, his biggest hit to date and the only one of his movies his parents dared to watch. Zagarrio’s teatime interview with Waters and his parents is priceless, civilized, and diplomatic even as they debate Catholicism. His pretty, well-adjusted sister is also interviewed. Divine, in a black turtleneck, speaks sedately about eating dog shit on camera. And Edith Massey at her thrift shop sings “Fever” (she died before the documentary was released). Waters says he makes “anxiety producing comedy,” meaning he wants audiences to feel anxious about what they’re laughing at. The documentary is directed by an Italian academic whose cosmopolitan accent adds a curious touch. Or maybe it’s the Japanese subtitles? My underground copy on VHS has Japanese subtitles. For some reason this must-see remains unseen in the States. Scout around for it online. 110 minutes.
Ed Gein: American Maniac (1981)
Here’s an obscure 25-minute documentary about the serial killer and necrophile who inspired Psycho (1960) and Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1972). It’s on super cheap video and relies mostly on photos (panning/zooming). The narrating director recounts Gein’s life and crimes in gruesome detail, a morbid pleasure discernable in his voice. As well, audio-taped interviews with a local sheriff and former judge confirm the evidence found in Gein’s house, including an apron made from human skin, a belt made of nipples, and six vaginas in a box. Psychiatric treatment revealed Gein to be “a frustrated transsexual.” All this in little old Plainfield, Wisconsin—population 642. There are superior documentaries on Gein yet this one, with its distinct personality and DIY approach, is an excellent choice to accompany the cult classic Deranged (1974) as it does on certain videos and DVDs.
The Elephant in the Living Room (2010)
dir. Michael Webber
Did you know there are more tigers in captivity in Texas than there are in the wild in India? In a way, that’s what this documentary is about. And yet its drama is totally unexpected, centering on big tenderhearted working-class Terry in Piketon, Ohio, an owner of two African lions named Lambert and Lacy. They’ve been in his backyard cages since 1999, when they were cubs. When Lambert escapes and stalks a nearby interstate, Tim enters the story. He’s a police officer who works with an outreach program for illegally traded and/or abandoned exotic pets. Tailing him, we learn a lot about the pathetic reality of auctioned monkeys, lost pet pythons, escaped cougars, etc. Terry gets Lambert back, declaring “If something happens to him I don’t care if I breathe tomorrow” and threatening to “go Waco” on Tim if anyone tries to take his lions from him. They manage to form an alliance, however shaky, and the story takes a turn when Lacy gives birth.
The Execution of Wanda Jean (2001)
dir. Liz Garbus
A riveting documentary about the tragic story of Wanda Jean Allen. A lower-class African-American lesbian, Allen fatally shot her lover Gloria in 1988 in Tulsa. On death row for over ten years, her dogged lawyer and prayerful “clemency team” launch an eleventh hour campaign to reduce her sentence from death to life in prison by bringing to light what the trial did not: Allen is mildly retarded and suffers brain damage. Despite convincing evidence and pleas made by the victim’s family, as well as Allen’s sincerity and endearing quirks, no stay is issued. Garbus really captures the personalities—the various relationships and their tricky dynamics—behind this tense, drawn-out process that’s so clearly stacked against Allen. Not even Jesse Jackson could sway the Oklahoma governor; in fact, Jackson was arrested at a protest. Emmy winner and two-time Oscar nominee Garbus also directed The Nazi Officer’s Wife (2003) and Bobby Fischer Against the World (2011).
Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)
Thierry Guetta owns a successful vintage clothing shop. But he’s also an obsessive loser who videotapes everything. He turns his camera on street artists like Banksy and, building on this, lands a huge exhibit space for an installation of his own flung-together work about which Banksy is disdainful. Due to Guetta’s incompetence, it’s up to Banksy to edit his tons of footage into a film. Or so is the claim. This documentary has been related to Orson Welles’ famous mockumnentary F for Fake (1973) and its veracity debated in the New York Times. “Ultimately, wondering whether Exit Through the Gift Shop is real or not may be moot,” writes Melena Ryzik. “It certainly asks real questions: about the value of authenticity, financially and aesthetically; about what it means to be a superstar in a subculture built on shunning the mainstream; about how sensibly that culture judges, and monetizes, talent.” This documentary became so popular it was sold at Target.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2000)
dirs. Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato
The directors of Party Monster (1998) and Becoming Chaz (2011) accomplish a nonjudgmental miracle with this documentary on Tammy Faye Bakker, the eyeliner-abusing Christian singer whose televangelist husband Jim started The 700 Club and PTL, built a monster resort called Heritage USA, and lost it all in 1987 after a sex scandal. By 2000, Tammy Faye was remarried and living in a modest but frilly house with her dogs and her dolls. A short-lived comeback as a talk show co-host with flamboyant Jm J. Bullock (of Too Close for Comfort fame) confirmed Tammy Faye as an icon in gay culture, partly explaining Bailey & Barbato’s interest in her (Ru Paul is our narrator, by the way.) Tammy Faye is as forthcoming and sincere as she is in denial and conflicted, making for a more complex viewing experience than you might expect. It won the Audience Award at the Newport International Film Festival and was nominated for Best Documentary at the Independent Spirit Awards. 80 minutes. In an ideal world this would be on a double-feature DVD with the TV movie Fall From Grace (1990) starring Kevin Spacey and Bernadette Peters as Jim & Tammy.
Faces of Death (1980)
dir. John Alan Schwartz
The most notorious shockumentary of all time, its death exposé begins in a morgue. Then covers tribal cannibalism. After seal clubbing, dogfights, and slaughterhouses, it’s a relief to see animals killing humans for a while. L.A. coroner Thomas Noguchi is interviewed next. Nuclear war is pondered to the song “Jesus Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.” Schwartz directed Faces and four sequels under the name Conan LeCilaine. It’s narrated by Dr. Frances B. Gross a/k/a Michael Carr whose glasses are always crooked. Bonus interviews reveal many scenes were real but supplemented with recreated close-ups. I’m told by young people that Faces still serves as a rite of passage. It was on Gorgon Video when I first saw it as a teen and I never forgot the tourists in a South Asian restaurant killing a monkey and eating its brains! Hard to believe it’s now a Special Edition Blu-ray. Netflix disappointed me when it pulled Faces and its sequels.
Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control (1997)
dir. Errol Morris
It’s like getting four Errol Morris documentaries braided into one, each honoring a man obsessed with his unusual career: a naked mole-rats specialist, a lion tamer, a topiary artist inspired by animals, and a robot designer inspired by insects. Variety speculates, “Possibly influenced by his immersions in metaphysics with Hawking [in 1991’s A Brief History of Time], the director places the diverse activities of his subjects in a cosmic context, a vantage point that encourages putting his real-life cast, human and animal, into a broader perspective and observing them much as the mole-rats are glimpsed moving frantically in their underground chambers.” The interviews are aided by Morris’s own Interrotron system that allows subjects to address Morris while looking into the camera—so we viewers feel more directly engaged. Otherwise, visually, the documentary is like a good imagist poem and it’s fused with energy by the cinematography (combining 35mm, 16mm, 8mm, video, etc.), clever editing, and a score by Alloy Orchestra. 80 minutes.
Female Misbehavior (1992)
dir. Monika Treut
Treut’s films are as playful as they are radical. Female Misbehavior combines four of her earliest short docus. First is Annie about Ellen F. Steinberg’s transformation into Annie Sprinkle, a performance artist known for combining campy explicitness and sex education. Bondage features a leather-clad female exhibitionist. Camille Paglia’s rapid-fire intellectualism is the focus of Dr. Paglia; she’s not antifeminist but argues that feminism at the time has relapsed into puritanism. Last is Max about a female-to-male (F2M) transsexual named Max. Breakthrough documentaries from an overlooked contributor to the era’s New Queer Cinema. 80 minutes.
The Filth and the Fury (2000)
dir. Julien Temple
The full title is The Filth & the Fury: A Sex Pistols Film. Temple made The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle in 1979; it charted the rise and fall of the band mostly from the p.o.v. of their manager Malcolm McLaren. McClaren, who was plugged into the music scene and proved a major influence on the development of the punk look, claims: “It’s people that I used like an artist. I manipulated—creating something called the Sex Pistols. It was my painting, my sculpture, my little artful dodgers.” It might be more accurate to say he created a stage for them in England much like a reality TV producer arranges for extreme personalities to share a given space. Temple made this documentary partly to let the band have their say in hindsight. He intercuts gigs, punk scene footage, and interviews (from then and now) with animated bits, news reports, TV clips, and b+w movie clips. The effect is an unexpected lightheartedness as we’re reminded that punk was once outrageous and even frightening, indeed a real culture-cracking moment in the latter 20th century. 108 minutes.
Finding Vivian Maier (2013)
dirs. John Maloof, Charlie Siskel
Maier was an unknown street photographer whose tens of thousands of negatives were purchased by Maloof in the late 2000s. She was also a hoarder who, in old age, kept her belongings in a storage unit, most of which Maloof saved from being thrown into dumpsters after her death in 2009. Maloof’s photo blog and Flickr post of Maier’s photos went viral, leading to an exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center—the biggest turnout for any artist the Center had ever shown. Maloof uncovers Maier’s life as a Chicago nanny from the 1950s-1990s, interviewing her employers and their children who recall with affection and dismay the incomparable Maier: intelligent, paradoxical, compulsive, mysterious, private to the point of paranoid, dark-minded, and sometimes abusive. One employer recalls how she and her husband considered taking in a foster child in addition to their own: “Viv said, ‘If you want to take care of somebody, why don’t you take care of me?’ And then she kind of laughed. But she meant it.” After conflict over newspaper hoarding, Maier had to be let go. “I really cared about Viv. And I think she cared about us. And it was just one of those things where she was a person who didn’t fit in very well…she just had those edges.” I had a very emotional response to this docu, Maier’s life as heroic as it was tragic—on par in some ways with outsider artist Henry Darger, also a Chicagoan. The bonus feature of her super 8 films is also a joy.
Gates of Heaven (1978)
dir. Errol Morris
Errol Morris.com sums up this, his debut film, as “the story of two California pet cemeteries transformed into an eccentric portrait of the American dream.” The first part of the film is about a man named Mac McClure realizing his dream of an honorary resting place for pets. If you find your attention wavering, just give it a while. It’s not so much the apparent subject that enthralls but, as you get deeper into the film, how the personalities and personal histories of the interviewees are revealed through the subject. Tangential footage that other documentary-makers would cut brings unexpected realism—and heart—to Gates of Heaven. A quirky behind-the-scenes fact: director Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man) swore to eat his own shoe if Morris managed to get Gates played in theaters and indeed he did, immortalized in Les Bank’s short documentary Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980).
dir. Monika Treut
The full title is Gendernauts: A Journey Through Shifting Identities and The Advocate describes it as “a puu-puu platter of sexual possibility.” We also praise the spotted hyena, get a peek into Club Confidential, revisit Max from Treut’s Female Misbehavior (1992), meet gender-centric artists and performers like Texas Tomboy, hear Susan Stryker discuss the cyborg as symbolic of the mutable human, and focus more than usual on F2Ms. Gendernauts marks nearly 20 years as a filmmaker for German-born Treut. Check out her fictional film My Father Is Coming (1991) with recurring star Annie Sprinkle.
Gidget Goes to Court (1988)
Not documentary but document. 19-year-old African-American Gidget Lewis, her stepfather, and large, very loud mother were involved in an auto accident in Texas. The videotape of their insurance deposition became an underground video (it was even sampled by Tomorrowpeople in a 1997 song also titled “Gidget Goes to Court”). Over the course of the proceedings, the family reaches maximum volume and total meltdown, leading to a sudden ending that will make your jaw drop. Throughout it all the stepfather wears a stocking over his head to protect his identity. Various cuts of this 48-minute deposition can be found on YouTube, surely all including the money shot.
The Goddess Bunny (1994)
dir. Nick Bougas
Born Johnnie to a polio-infected mother, Goddess Bunny lives with a metal rod in her spine and often relies on a wheelchair. Bunny first became known in an underground tap-dancing video, wearing a negligee and twirling a parasol, and later posed nude for photographers Joel-Peter Witkin (“Leda”) and Kenny Camp (“AIDS Terrorist”). She also has a bit part in Penelope Spheeris’s Hollywood Vice Squad (1986). Bougas’s very low-budget documentary seems to revere Bunny. Her lowbrow glamour and hell-or-high-water partying possess a momentum, a forward-moving energy that heightens the sense of her life as an active and fulfilling one. A catty friend comments on how “that Bunny creature” has more “raw nerve” than any regular-bodied person. By the end, Bunny will feel like a friend. A very full 85 minutes, on VHS and DVD though rare.
Goodbye Uncle Tom aka Farewell Uncle Tom aka Addio Zio Tom (1971)
dirs. Gualtiero Jacopetti, Franco Prosperi
Decades later—still shocking. Never get made now. Slowly I return to full sentences. Yes I feel bewildered and a bit dirty after watching this time machine “inquest” into slavery. It’s from the originators of Mondo documentaries a/k/a “shockumentaries,” the first being Mondo Cane (1962). They’ve traveled the globe for extreme footage and this time they travel into the past, docudrama style, to show us slavery in the antebellum South. Called “macaronis” by the Southern whites, Jacopetti & Prosperi make their disapproval of slavery known from behind the camera. So we’re to be horrified by what we see: buck slaves kept in actual stables, a male slave fisted, slaves experimented on by a racist scientist, masters impregnating slave women. They end on a note of historical comeuppance with a black radical killing a white family. Yet their filmmaking is just so elaborate in its spectacle that it all seems like a racist’s wet dream. Sleazoid Express calls it “deranged exploitation” and “one of the most insane film productions ever embarked on,” explaining how it was not filmed in the US but in Haiti: “As one watches…one grows painfully aware that the extras are debasing themselves for a bowl of rice.” To be fair, before watching you should check out the 2003 documentary Godfathers of Mondo to hear Jacopetti & Prosperi address the project. 123 minutes.
Grandma Lo-Fi: The Basement Tapes of Sigrídur Níelsdóttir (2011)
dirs. Ingibjörg Birgisdóttir, Orri Jonsson, Kristín Björk Kristjánsdóttir
At 70, though she could not read music, Sigrídur Níelsdóttir began composing songs on an electronic keyboard—mostly for loved-ones. In less than a decade she amassed a catalog of 687 songs on 59 CDs that she edited, copied, and distributed herself. Her DIY steadfastness inspired young musicians who’ve made her a cult icon in Iceland. This hour-long tribute, playfully makeshift like her music, documents her work-with-what-you-got songwriting process while also incorporating her very charming collages. She died in 2011. Try a double-feature with Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story (2003).
Grey Gardens (1975)
dirs. Albert and David Maysles
Grey Gardens is an Easthampton mansion with 27 mostly empty rooms, raccoons in the attic, and a neglected landscape. Big Edie and Little Edie are the famously reclusive mother and daughter who’ve lived there for years. It’s often noted that unusual poor people get called crazy while unusual rich people are deemed eccentric. The down and out Beales, relatives of Jackie O who dress unconventionally and like to boil up corncobs in Big Edie’s bedroom for a snack, embody both sides of the stereotype. Other daily activities include bickering, singing, reflecting on their socialite days, sunbathing, and bickering. The documentary is so beautifully shot and edited, so ‘70s yet timeless, that I found it difficult to accept the recent adaptation for HBO (difficult but not impossible thanks to solid performances).
dir. Werner Herzog
‘Bear enthusiast’ is putting it mildly. Timothy Treadwell was obsessed enough to spend 13 summers filming in Alaska’s Katmai National Park—usually just him, his tent, and a few supplies. With total sincerity he addresses the bears and the foxes: “Hi! How are you?” And: “Thanks for being my friend.” And: “I love you!” In 2003, he and his friend Amie Huguenard were attacked and killed by a bear. Herzog’s narration is often heavy-handed and unnecessary. At once point he proclaims about Treadwell: “It seems to me that this landscape in turmoil is a metaphor for his soul.” But it’s a minor irritation in an otherwise amazing documentary. Like wild animal advocate Steve Erwin, who also died doing what he loved, Treadwell was as much an awed child as he is a seasoned adventurer. 103 minutes.
dir. Diane Keaton
One interviewee prays this documentary about Heaven will touch people: “Whether there are times that are irreverent or whatever. I know it’s going to be a diverse kind of project, Lord. But I pray in Jesus’ name”—and she slips into tongues. I think her prayer is answered. More or less. The project is irreverent, it is diverse, and it is strangely touching. Keaton assembles believers and nonbelievers, most of whom she found on Hollywood Boulevard (quirky to say the least). They answer a series of questions like: Are you afraid to die? What is Heaven? What is God like? Is there sex in Heaven? Their quirkiness is matched by futuristically sparse sets and extensive montages of old movies and televangelical sermons. The final section, scored by “Auld Lang Syne,” is edited together with total affection, helping me realize how much I like all these people no matter how I feel about their religious views. Keaton’s grandmother is the sad, white-haired one in a man’s blazer who didn’t believe in Heaven and thought Hell was here on earth; she died before the film was released. Dream Academy do the title song. 80 minutes, on DVD.
Holy Ghost People (1967) dir. Peter Adair
Adair (Word Is Out) filmed a Sunday service at a Pentecostal church in West Virginia that’s known for a literal interpretation of Mark 16: “They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them.” There is no official minister so the service begins slowly. They all kneel, praying privately until each member is either convulsing or speaking in tongues. Next they regroup and join in song, uncrating rattlesnakes and copperheads, literally throwing them to each other as they sing, shout, stomp and collide. For us viewers rightly anticipating snakebite, the tension is incredible. There’s been an interesting range of responses to this documentary. Nobody “gets their freak on” like the Pentecostals, says one condescending blog-review, describing the church service as “a rave where ‘Jesus is my E.’” A very different review by a minister opens: “I obviously do not endorse all of their practices and beliefs, but despite their doctrinal errors I am posting this video because I see a humility and gentleness that the modern church could greatly benefit from.” As for anthropologist Margaret Mead, she calls Holy Ghost People one of the best ethnographic films ever made. I see in it a kind of liberty or individualism. Unguided by ministerial authority or middle-class propriety, the worshippers are free to contribute when and how they feel compelled to: joining in or splintering off, testifying or dancing wildly, handling snakes or not handling snakes.
I Think We’re Alone Now (2008)
dir. Sean Donnelly
Pop singer Tiffany was ubiquitous for a couple of years when I was a teen. I couldn’t stand her. She sang at malls and stood for conformity. That is mostly irrelevant to this docu, though. It’s about what two obsessed fans see in her. First is Jeff in his early 50s, an anti-fascist Christian with Asperger’s syndrome. His other interests include physics and secret societies. He keeps his returned letters and Tiffany’s restraining orders against him as others might their billets-doux. Second is Kelly in her 30s, an intersexed blonde with psychological problems. Other interests include running and beer. Her bond with Tiffany is more private, stemming from a coma dream. Neither has ever been in a romantic relationship and both live on government assistance. As I watched them I kept thinking of the movie Harvey (1950) in which Elwood P. Dowd’s best friend, whom only he can see, is a 6’3” tall rabbit called Harvey. Whatever relationship Jeff and Kelly have with Tiffany, only they can see. Indeed it makes the title of Tiffany’s hit “I Think We’re Alone Now” sadly ironic. Though their nonreality is uncomfortable to witness, their willpower is impressive. I love it when Jeff declares that it’s the people who are a bit cracked who let light into the world.
The Impaler (2008)
dir. W. Tray White
A self-proclaimed sanguinarian vampire and satanic dark priest, Jonathan ‘The Impaler’ Sharkey runs for Minnesota governor in 2006 on a right-wing platform. He claims he’d impale terrorists. Indeed, he buys the material for an “impaling pole” at Home Depot. On the home front he would pardon all soldiers accused of war atrocities in Iraq. And he would hire Sicilian families to wipe out drug dealers. Due to his political aspirations, his wife at the time, Julie, loses her job as a bus driver. I wanted more of her perspective as a break from his tiresome exhibitionism—and this is what I got once he gets arrested. At this point she and the kids reveal his history of abusiveness, multiple personalities, and transvestitism! 84 minutes.
It Came from Kuchar (2009)
dir. Jennifer M. Kroot
The underground films of George and Mike Kuchar were a primary influence on John Waters. He is interviewed for this documentary along with filmmakers Atom Egoyan, Guy Maddin, Larry Jordan, Wayne Wang, and Kuchar star Donna Kerness. The Bronx-born Kuchars, beguiling oddballs in youth and endearing kooks in old age, are able to finish each other’s sentences. Or so it seems as one effective montage cuts back and forth between their tales of a movie-obsessed adolescence. George made over 200 films in his life, mostly shorts like Hold Me While I’m Naked (1966) that Village Voice named one of the 100 Best Films of the 20th Century. Mike’s Sins of the Fleshapoids (1965) is considered the central film of the Kuchar movement. The documentary also covers Curt McDowell’s notorious horror-comedy-porn Thundercrack! (1975), written by and starring George Kuchar. Of the Kuchars, feminist film critic Ruby Rich says “their preadolescent approach to sexuality” is “beyond categories and rules, neither heteronormative nor homonormative.” It’s a joy to watch George making movies with his students at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he taught for decades. Look for his rare anti-masterpiece Secrets of the Shadow World (1999).
Jabberwalk a/k/a This Is America aka Mondo America (1977)
dir. Romano Vanderbes
And yet another title, in the UK, is Crazy Ridiculous American People. The trailer promises to show us “An America gone stark raving mad.” And the ending theme song, “This is America,” aptly summarizes: “It’s the crashing cars. And porno stars. Eternal life for a fee. It’s the drive-in church. The sexual search. Yet also sweet Liberty.” Not to mention: Golden Gate suicides, male strippers for lunching ladies, a clown-clad ministry, polygamists, rent-a-dungeons, cryonics, and a coed prison. In one of my favorite parts, an overeater subjected to aversion therapy is shocked every time she bites her hamburger. Another winner is the owner of a dildo factory who explains items like the Acu-Jack, a space-age masturbation machine. A very quirky ‘time capsule’ of the 1970s! Vanderbes made a sequel in 1980.
Jacob Young: Contributions to Different Drummer (1987-92)
dir. Jacob Young
Young, the West Virginian director of the Dancing Outlaw documentaries (1992, 1994), had already established himself as a homegrown filmmaker with a series of “unscripted regional films showcasing extraordinary Appalachians” that aired on Different Drummer. Collected on DVD from DancingOutlaw.com are Elmer Fike (a cranky chemical plant manager doing battle with the EPA), Frank Veltrie (who runs a fleabag hotel for the destitute), Donald Bordenkircher (the prison warden from hell), William Pierce (white supremacist author), Bernard Coffindaffer (known for erecting large crosses on hillsides all over the state), and my favorite of the bunch The Amazing Delores (singer of tavern rock masterpieces like “Rats in My Trailer” and “Stop Messin’ with My Mind”). Each documentary is half an hour. On a separate disc is an IFC documentary on Young himself, also half and hour. He’s a hero for low-budget docu-makers, as true to his subjects as Ross McElwee or Alan Berliner.
dir. Daniel Kraus
This seemingly exploitative 59-minute documentary from Troma Entertainment is about a mentally retarded 40-year-old named Jeff Towne. The tagline is “Beer! Pornos! Wrestling! Down’s Syndrome!” Similar in tone is the DVD’s special intro with Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman. It’s not lies, really—Jeff does like beer, porn and wrestling. But Kraus’s documentary is more sensitive, shot on video with a home movie kind of intimacy. Jeff lives with his adoptive mother, a 90-year-old shut-in with good intentions and a shaky grasp on reality, but he himself is well-integrated into the social life at a local mall theater where he works. Kraus, Jeff’s fellow employee, is as irreverent with Jeff as he is with his other friends, which is refreshing. At one point he comments on how it pisses him off when people are “too nice” to Jeff. That Kraus can understand Jeff’s speech and make sense of his logic is testament to their history together. A criticism of this documentary is that it focuses at times on Jeff’s sex life, from the magazines under his bed to some woman who apparently licked his balls. It’s a significant part of Jeff’s personality, though, like his love of Star Trek’s Captain Kirk. A worthwhile follow-up docu, included as a special feature, addresses the response to Jefftowne and gives us a sense of life for Jeff a few years later.
Journey into the Beyond (1977)
dir. Rolf Olsen
Perhaps the most polite shockumentary of the whole shocking genre. Our narrator John Carradine explains in the intro that Bell #1 will ring “before each highly graphic scene. Look away if you’re squeamish.” When it’s okay to look again, Bell #2 rings. This gimmick, btw, is borrowed from William Castle’s film Cannibal Girls (1973). Here we witness a peculiar blonde who jabs knitting needles through his face, a rainmaking ritual that involves cutting out a tribeswoman’s eyeball, and a few nasty “psychic surgeries,” all getting the bell. The rest explores supernatural phenomenon (exorcism, psychokinetics, levitation, ectoplasm-drenched séances) with a naïve, feel-good kind of hucksterism typical of the 1970s. Rolf Olsen is a German director whose films include Das Go-Go-Girl vom Blow Up (1969) and the cult shockumentary Shocking Asia (1976).
Just, Melvin: Just Evil (2000)
dir. James Ronald Whitney
I love docus about extremely dysfunctional families. This one may be the most twisted one I’ve seen. It’s about Melvin Just who molested his eight daughters for years and killed a social worker threatening to expose him. Even when Whitney, his grandson, confronts him as an old man in this docu, he denies it all. His 10 daughters and stepdaughters, however, recollect his perversions explicitly, at times with a crass sense of humor that may baffle some viewers. Just when I thought it couldn’t get more shocking, I was shocked anew. Whitney’s mom Ann seems more middle-class than her sisters but she’s no more stable emotionally, having attempted suicide repeatedly throughout his childhood. That’s one reason he’s compelled to make this docu, as catharsis for his mom and aunts more so than himself. Though it won several awards, Roger Ebert declared it one of the best documentaries he’d ever seen, and it aired on HBO, it is now impossible to find. Catch in YouTube before it gets pulled. Make sure to watch throughout the credits for glimpses of Melvin’s rather hilarious funeral. 74 minutes. Next for Whitney is his 9/11 documentary Telling Nicholas (2002) that one an Emmy.
Keep the River on Your Right:
A Modern Cannibal Tale (2000)
dirs. David Shapiro, Laurie Gwen Shapiro
“Tobias Schneebaum, a New York writer, artist and explorer who in the 1950’s lived among cannibals in the remote Amazon jungle and, by his own account, sampled their traditional cuisine.” So begins Schneebaum’s 2005 obituary in the NY Times. The above subtitle is similarly overblown. Viewers, however, are prompted to rethink our motives for seeing this documentary as soon as it begins. The Shapiros show us footage of a Schneebaum lecture and an audience member asking him, “How do people taste?” He answers with controlled impatience, “I don’t know. It was never one of the things I lingered on in my mind.” This documentary is about much more than a bite of human flesh under duress. It’s a fragile 76-year-old man’s return expedition to the places (Papua and New Guinea Peru) he once ventured to and the people (the Asmat and Harakmbut tribes) he once lived among. The reunion with his male lover Aipit is especially tender. Writer Allan Garganus says, “The miracle of strangers’ kindness constitutes the center of Schneebaum’s books.” I think that could be said of this documentary as well.
The Killing of America (1980)
dir. Sheldon Renan
Before Bowling for Columbine, as the DVD tagline reminds us, came this 90-minute documentary on the rise of violence since the 1960s. It was produced for an extreme Japanese market and never released in the US, though now it can be ordered online. To understand how we became such a violent nation, the docu looks back to the Vietnam era and Civil Rights Movement. Then we shift to snipers, including the Texas University massacre, with its nearly 50 victims, as well as the case of a San Diego teenager who shoots elementary school kids because “Mondays are so boring.” (The latter case inspired the Boomtown Rats song “I don’t like Mondays.”) Then it’s mad saviors Manson and Jim Jones. Lastly it’s serial killers. Anticipating scores of docus to come, Renan profiles the likes of Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Kenneth Bianchi, Lawrence Bittaker, and Angelo Buono. Most fascinating of all is Ed Kemper who, as every review notes, threw darts at his mother’s severed head. There are, as well, other cases that don’t fit these categories. One involves a seemingly ordinary business owner wiring a sawed-off shotgun to the head of the banker who denied him a loan (pictured above). He marches his hostage around for three days in front of media while ranting against the system. Though looking at violence is the point of this documentary , which tends to repeat its violent footage in slow-mo, it is overall too thought-provoking to be just another ‘mondo’ film. As WiderScreenings.com says, “The Killing of America marks the beginning of apocalypse-culture fandom, confronting the awful reality of human pathology in a world where the belief in God is madness.”
Legend of Leigh Bowery (2002)
dir. Charles Atlas
Picture a towering figure dressed head to foot in black latex, one foot exaggeratedly clubbed. Picture the same figure in polka dots, or sequins. Or naked with fake muff and Nazi helmet. Born to religious parents in the small industrial town of Sunshine, Leigh Bowery left Australia for London to become a queer icon like no other. Described as asexually humanoid, this Grande Dame of the club scene fused radical fashion design and shocking performance art. He constantly recreated himself for himself, developing a “poisonous” fashion sensibility only he could get away with. Or endure, for that matter, as his outfits were painful and often suffocating. Boy George notes in the documentary that Bowery didn’t want other people to wear his clothes. In the early 90s, Lucien Freud painted Bowery in the nude several times, reinforcing Bowery’s perception of himself as modern art incarnate. He also had a major club hit with Minty titled “Useless Man.” Atlas’s documentary about this radical nonconformist is great fun and very re-watchable. 60 minutes with over an hour of extra footage.
Let Me Die a Woman a/k/a Man Into Woman (1978)
dir. Doris Wishman
After nearly two decades making nudie films and sexploitation features, not to mention two Annie Sprinkle porns, Doris Wishman released this documentary on sex reassignment. A doctor specializing in the surgery, Dr. Leo Wollman, describes transsexuals as victims of “a monstrous biological joke” and declares the procedure a “radical reversal of biological destiny.” He shows us the naked details of male and female transsexuals, concluding with an up-close fingering of a newly constructed vagina. Chuck Kleinhans writes in the book Sleaze Artists: “The film is striking for its ironic contrast of the on-screen expert’s good intentions and the exploitation tactics of shock, cheap sensationalism, freakishness, and prurient voyeurism.” Dramatizations include a pre-op trannie severing her penis with a chisel and a post-op trannie having sex too soon after her operation. There’s also a show-and-tell with the instruments a post-op tranny needs to keep her vagina healthy. One dildo has a French tickler ring and is attached to a gun (!) that when triggered causes a “hot fluid emission.” Sleazoid Express kicked off their very first issue with this anti-classic, saying they felt obligated to do so “since no one else would record its existence, review it, or even admit to having seen it.” Make sure you get the uncut Transgendered Edition. Seriously, that’s what it’s called. Talk about transploitation! 78 minutes.
Lipstick & Dynamite (2004)
dir. Ruth Leitman
Female wrestling started in carnivals, shifting to auditoriums (and professional status) around 1940. The earliest generations of pro female wrestlers include Gladys ‘Killem’ Gillem, The Fabulous Moolah, The Great Mae Young, Ida May Martinez, and Ella Waldek. There’s lots of fun footage, including Moolah on To Tell the Truth and in the ring with Cyndi Lauper. As in her dysfunctional family documentary Alma (1999), Leitman gets excellent interview footage of working-class women whose forceful personalities and wild stories more than compensate for the documentary’s loose structure. Orlando Weekly said, “That octogenarians can be so full of antagonistic joie de vivre is one of the giddiest revelations of Leitman’s film.” The full title is Lipstick & Dynamite, Piss & Vinegar: The First Ladies of Wrestling. 83 minutes.
Little Castles (1997)
dir. Skizz Cyzyk
An amusing, insightful, and sadly rare 30-minute documentary about Baltimore’s formstone craze. Whole blocks of row houses, all over the city, have been done over in formstone. In my own row house basement apartment in Baltimore, the very walls were formstone—painted white. Described as “cement-based faux stone” and “the distinctively Baltimorean mock stone surface,” its popularity with working-class homeowners was enormous in the decade following WWII, transforming humble abodes into little castles. To John Waters its falseness is obvious, “like a movie set,” and architectural preservationists abhor it, but the documentary affirms the working-class loyalty to its practical and aesthetic qualities. Cyzyk also directed the full-length documentary Freaks in Love (2011).
Louie Bluie (1985)
dir. Terry Zwigoff
Zwigoff, nearly ten years before his breakout documentary Crumb, made this 75-minute documentary about another legendary character Howard ‘Louie Bluie’ Armstrong. Born in 1909, Armstrong became a pioneer in country blues, a master storyteller, raunchy poet, visual artist, and calligrapher. Hear him perform with other old-time string band musicians and catch glimpses of his X-rated scrapbooks. On DVD from Criterion. Leah Mahan made a follow-up documentary about him in 2002 for P.O.V., about his marriage to artist Barbara Ward, and he died a year later. There’s an annual Louie Bluie Music & Arts Festival in Tennessee.
Love Letter to Edie (1975)
dir. Robert Maier
Another qualifier for Saint Of The Quirky is dear Edith Massey. She was in her mid-50s when John Waters cast her as the Egg Lady in Pink Flamingos (1972) and Aunt Ida in Female Trouble (1974). It was during the latter, for which Maier did sound, that he made this 14-minute gem. Massey stars in hilarious reenactments of her youth, first as an abused orphan and later as a ‘b-girl.’ She met Waters while working at Pete’s Hotel Bar in Baltimore. He says in an interview that he was immediately drawn to her because she had so much personality: “In a year she had the bar crowded with young people. She’s one of the kindest people and kind of unaffected by it all.” There’s also footage of Massey in her thrift shop, called Edith’s Shopping Bag. Two more roles secured her cult status: Queen Carlotta in Desperate Living (1977) and Cuddles in Polyester (1981). She toured with a punk band called Edie & The Eggs, died at the height of popularity in 1984, and appeared posthumously in the full-length documentary Divine Waters (1985). Love Letter is very expensive, on VHS only. Mink Stole and Pat Moran appear in the reenactments.