“THE KING” (2017) AND “POPE FRANCIS: A MAN OF HIS WORD” (2018)

Eugene Jarecki is an intelligent documentary filmmaker who earned his reputation with Why We Fight(2005), Reagan(2011) and The House I Live In(2012). His latest, The King, focuses on as a symbol of the profligate American dream: a xenophobic pop culture phenomenon that remains as potent a seed today in Trump’s ‘Murica as it was in 1956, perhaps even more so. The original title of Jarecki’s film was “Promised Land” and, unwisely, distributors forced a name change. Apparently it was misleading to an audience believing (and hoping) it to be a straightforward biography of the late rock star. The American box office resulted in a whimper (although it has done well overseas). That’s unfortunate, as it’s a compelling, insightful and necessary film. As a contemporary artist, Jarecki is a provocateur. Before we get into that, here’s an insight from a filmmaker who has the pulse of contemporary art, and its audience:

“I like art that challenges you and makes a lot of people angry because they don’t get it. Because they refuse to look at it properly. Rather than open their mind to the possibility of seeing something, they just resist. A lot of people think contemporary art makes them feel stupid. Because they are stupid. They’re right. If you have contempt about contemporary art, you are stupid. You can be the most uneducated person in the world and completely appreciate contemporary art, because you see the rebellion. You see that it’s trying to change things.”–

Damn right. This is ambitious, highly charged, demanding contemporary art as documentary filmmaking. While we might concede that it overreaches, isn’t that better than a spoon-fed, orthodox approach? Some critics have complained that its premise is simplistic and yet paradoxically complicated. One might argue that, given the subject, and ultimately it’s also overly simplistic to dismiss it as simplistic. A thesis simply wouldn’t do, and Jarecki’s aesthetics are grisly and lurid, akin to what Albert Goldman did so brilliantly in his infamous biography of Presley. Like Goldman, Jarecki parallels the Presley phenomenon with the decline of America; but in the era of Donald Trump, Jarecki’s drive ultimately proves even more visceral than that slice of Americana written by Goldman in 1981.

Jarecki gets behind the wheels of Presley’s 1963 Rolls Royce and takes a cross-country tour from Tupelo, Mississippi (Presley’s birthplace and childhood home) and Memphis, Tennessee (home of Graceland) to Hollywood and Vegas (the dual cities that killed him— along with the Army, Presley’s first peddler that neutered him). Along the way, Jarecki picks up commentators such as James Carville, Emmylou Harris, D.J. Fontana (Presley’s drummer), Jerry Schilling (Presley’s best friend), (a certified Elvis fan and the film’s producer), Alec Baldwin, Mike Meyers (startlingly lucid), Ashton Kutcher (the most misplaced), and church folk. The last viewpoint is important, because they’re the very same evangelicals that sacrificed their ethics to vote for Trump (and other morally bankrupt characters, e.g. Roy Moore) to secure their white bread system. We can, of course, succumb to condescending platitudes that the low-informed are easy targets; but it was underestimating their numbers that secured Trump’s ‘Murica.

Yes, The King is devastatingly political. It damn well should be, because we can’t accept the (borrowed) excuse of  someone like the WWII-era Berlin Philharmonic conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler, who feebly spin-doctored sitting on his hands with the justification of avoiding politics. Rather, he avoided an ethical backbone. Jarecki’s politicizing of American culture is justified because now, more than ever—in an age where some restaurants require a college degree and 3-4 years experience to get into management—we elected a blatantly misogynistic, racially pandering, trash TV host, with no previous governing experience, to the highest office in the land. We did so in adulation of his (inherited, not earned) money and pop celebrity status. When Jarecki paints a connection between the fat Elvis of casino excess dying on a toilet to the fat blowhard and pornstar-lubbin’ casino baron, in way over his head, retreating to the golf course, it’s done so with the subtlety of a Batman KAPOW!

The composer Gustav Mahler once said, “A symphony, like the world, should contain everything.” That is the inherent, authentic spirituality of Jarecki’s The King. Admittedly, by encompassing everything, it occasionally gets away from the filmmaker, but there is also a refreshingly idiosyncratic sprawling quality that renders it unforgettable.

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ORSON WELLES’ F FOR FAKE (1973)

In hindsight, F For Fake (1973) might be seen as inevitable. In an interview with Jean Clay from almost a decade before the film’s release, Welles warned: “If you try to probe, I’ll lie to you.” Admitting that most what he says is fabricated, Welles astutely advised: “Destroy all biographies. Only art can explain the life of a man.”

Yet, there is something of a gimmick even in that statement. It was through the medium of radio that Welles delivered his first hurrah of trickery, at the ripe old age of 23 on October 30, 1938. The reaction to Welles’ sharply directed radio dramatization of  H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” is impossible to fathom now; in the era before internet, cable, and television, Welles broadcast of a faked Martian invasion of New Jersey caused a nationwide panic. Believing it was the end of the world as we know it, the masses rioted and looted. In the resulting exodus, traffic was jammed in neighboring cities. Hundreds—if not thousands—died. Those of weak hearts dropped dead. The rivers beneath bridges were flowing with the bodies of suicides. Orson Welles immediately became a household name.

Only, those reports were predominantly fake as well. The station did not have a sizable audience. Few were actually listening to the broadcast, let alone fooled by it. There were a scant number of purported deaths, with the highest estimates ranging from five to twenty. However, that was enough for Welles and company to shrewdly feed the press until it escalated into a glorious myth. Thank God we’ve evolved past that now… well, until a certain political faker last year spewed, without a shred of evidence, “I saw thousands of Muslims [replacing Martians] cheering in New Jersey on 911” and his sycophants went “ooh” and “ahh” to the cheap parlor trick.

Unlike politicians, Welles called himself out in F For Fake, as he did thirty-five years prior when he manufactured a public apology for the unintentional catastrophe caused by manufactured Martians. To the world at large, Welles’ apology only confirmed the epic scale of that 1938 disaster.

Although Welles was nearly fired from RKO over the radio broadcast, such trickery deserved a reward. Welles eventually got it when the studio gave him carte blanche for the production of Citizen Kane(1941). If you haven’t heard of it, it’s this little movie about a newspaper magnate and charlatan that caused an epic backlash, but a few critics seemed to like it somewhat.

Like that infamous Martian debacle, a baroque cult grew around  F For Fake and for years, but with poor distribution, it was more discussed than seen. Fortunately, the 2005 Criterion Collection release remedied that. Welles himself guides us through an innovative and entertaining mirrored labyrinth of forgeries. Despite the hearty laugh and kaleidoscopic mischief, like all of Welles, there is an inherent sense of loneliness peeking through the facade.

Of course, documentaries (Welles referred to F for Fake as a theatrical essay) are supposed to be factual. Who but Welles would render the medium as surrealistic taffy, focusing on a trilogy of frauds, including himself?  With a wave of his thick magician’s hand, Welles breathlessly narrates the viewer through 90 minutes of punchily paced, whirlwind intercutting and briskly edited farce. The editing process, however, was anything but brisk, taking an entire year. It shows. In one compelling sequence, Welles, a painter himself, compares film editing to painting, paralleling composition in the two mediums.

Welles’ oeuvre belongs to that category of complexities that require repeated viewing. This, his last completed film, is no exception. It’s as cheeky and mosaic a swan song as could be hoped for from American cinema’s ace oversized sorcerer.

While The Lady from Shanghai (1947) is famous for its climatic hall of mirrors sequence, F For Fake is more mirror than celluloid. Picasso once said that all art, regardless of subject matter, is self-portrait. Welles, whose own self-portraits are among his most successful canvases, confirms this by assuring us that he is not much different from Elmyr de Hory, a true Paganini of the palette and one of the world’s most foremost talented art forgers who replicated Manet, Renoir, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Picasso, Modigliani, Chagall, and Matisse with startling ease. So successful a forger was Elmyr that when he committed suicide just three years after being featured in F for Fake(French authorities had just successfully secured permission to extradite him), many initially assumed that he had faked his death.

Elmyr’s biographer Clifford Irving was far more infamous for his forged “authorized” autobiography of billionaire . Irving had claimed that Hughes, admiring his Elmyr biography “Fake!” agreed to a series of interviews. After McGraw-Hill paid him a six figure advance, Irving never expected recluse Hughes to publicly denounce the book, but the aviator did just that in 1972, which resulted in the forger serving over a year in prison. For those of us old enough to remember, it was the biggest hoax of the decade. Welles is impressed enough to award Irving the coveted number one faker honor (Elmyr comes in second) introducing him as: “The author of ‘Fake!,’ a book about a faker who was himself a faker and the author of a fake to end all fakes.” Welles proudly concludes that Irving “must have been cooking it up when we were filming him. If you can buy the notion that Irving turned to forgery before he turned to Elmyr, then I guess you can keep right on through the looking glass and believe that his book about Elmyr is a pack of lies. ‘Fake!’ is a fake and Elmyr himself is a fake faker.”

In the selfie portion of the film, Welles brags how he lied his way into his first acting gig at the age of 16 when he told Dublin casting directors that he was a famous star in New York and, somehow, got them to believe him. What he says next could be a summation for the director of Citizen Kane who failed to top himself with his follow-up films: “I began at the top and have been working my way down ever since. If acting is an art, cooking up a bogus Broadway career was a fine case of art forgery.” Of course, there is also… Mars: “In my past, there aren’t any Picassos. No, my next flight into fakery was by flying saucer.”

Oddly, that flight is brief, and after an even quicker traversal through the life of mystery man Hughes and his litany of doubles, Welles utilizes his longtime mistress Oja Kodar (whose father was an also an art forger) as eroticized bait for Pablo Picasso, who solicits a series of portraits. It’s an unexpected and extended sequence… that is entirely faked.

Perhaps sensing that F For Fake might be his epithet, Welles dons cape and glove, waxes about mortality and art, and leaves us a film with one final mystery: rumor has it that most of the footage was actually directed  by Francois Reichenbach.

*reprinted from 366 Weird Movies

A JOURNEY INTO THE MIND OF P

Thomas Pynchon: A Journey into the Mind of P, directed and produced by the brothers Fosco and Donatello Dubini, is not so much a documentary as it is a homage to that legendary recluse of post modern literature, who wrote books such as “V” and “Gravity’s Rainbow.”

The film is broken down into four appropriate sections: “Paranoia,” “Disappearance,” “Alien Territories,” and “Psychomania,” and its wildly mixed reviews are a bit perplexing.  One would think that a film on such a non-conventional literary figure as Pynchon would at least attempt to be fairly non-conventional in approach.  The Dubini Brothers do not disappoint there. But then, we’ve seen this type of reaction all too often.

A number of Beatles “fans” expressed outrage towards Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe.  What made the Beatles so unique and timeless was they refused to buy into their “religious base.”  Once they were elevated to near divine status, the artists’ response could easily have been to roll with what they (intentional or not) hit upon, follow the formula and keep that money machine rolling (aka: Elvis Presley).  Instead, fans never quite knew what to expect of the fab four.  The “White Album” was as certainly startling, perplexing and unexpected as “Revolver” had been.  Of course, that didn’t keep the pseudo fans from mantling unrealistic expectations on the solo Beatles’ career or from ostracizing any and all experimentation in their gods’ name (Across the Universe).

Pseudo fans from the church of Kubrick did the same thing when that usurper Steven Spielberg dared to take on A.I., possibly the most sublime and exquisite film of the last ten years or more.  The resulting film was actually quite true to Kubrick’s vision and even improved on it.  A.I. also revitalized the art and career of Steven Spielberg.

Pynchon, that vastly complex enigmatic myth, 20th century literature’s wandering saint, modernism’s yeti, has also declined much advocated canonization.  Thankfully, this film was made by true, dyed in the wool fans, not mere gold star wearing members of the Pynchon church/fan club.

Like Pynchon himself, the film is amusing, surreal, perplexing, anarchic, wry, self-mocking, speculative, subversive for the sake of being subversive, and ambiguous. One thing is for certain; A Journey into the Mind of P is hardly orthodox biography.

The bizarre score by The Residents (which surprisingly fits), impersonators, archival news footage, idiosncratic interpretations of 60’s rock, obsessive fans and literary critics are just part of this strange brew that make up the film (and literary critic George Plimpton provides the most memorable quote in the film: “He’s the sort of guy who could turn out an almanac in a week.”)

Wisely, the filmmakers do not try to decipher Pynchon’s work and instead, craft a film, inspired by Pynchon’s work.  There is even an Indiana Jones like hot pursuit of the the author, with Pynchon finally being captured on camera for the first time in 40 years (sound to good to be true?  It probabaly is).

Revealing more in regards to Pynchon’s biography, work, life details, would be the expected thing to do, so in the spirit of the film itself, ….

PIERRE BOULEZ AND THE LUCERNE FESTIVAL ACADEMY: INHERITING THE FUTURE OF MUSIC

This two hour plus dvd of the 85 year old Boulez at the Lucerne Festival Academy is well filled. Documentary footage of master classes, rehearsals and spoken intros from Boulez are mixed with performance footage of Debussy’s cubist “Jeux,” Boulez’ own “Notations,” and “Repons,” (we desperately need a film of the full performance) Stravinsky’s “Rite,” Stockhausen’s ‘Gruppen,” and a student composition. This serves as an excellent primary introduction to Boulez the teacher and Boulez the communicator. He clearly and rightfully has the intense respect of his students, whom he (sometimes humorously) interacts with, giving lie to the silly myth that he is merely a stuffed-shirt academic. The students at Lucerne are, indeed, inheriting a lifetime’s worth of aesthetic dedication.

The filmmakers follow Boulez’ cue, structuring the film itself with commendable lucidity and professional visuals. It helps tremendously that the Lucerne summer festival provides beautiful location footage. Although Boulez remains an ambiguous personality, he is devoted to what he loves and, in his advanced years, he remains remarkably active in order to ensure the survival of contemporary music. Only the most jaded viewer will be unimpressed. Equally valuable is some of Boulez’ recollections on peers such as Bruno Maderna.

A delightful and valuable example of music on film that is not only an apt homage to an unquestionably great composer, conductor, and teacher, but also a homage to the younger musicians following the lead of the veteran avant-gardist. Boulez seems in no hurry to slow down and we can only hope that he will have many active years ahead of him.

*review from 2012.  Pierre Boulez died, at the age of 90, in January 2016. This was one of the final filmed documents of his work.

ELVIS (1979) & THIS IS ELVIS (1981)

Elvis (1979 Dir . John Carpenter)THIS IS ELVIS (1981)

The life of Elvis Presley is the perfect American grand guignol tale that has never really been captured on film. John Carpenter’s Elvis (1979) has finally been released in its full three hour European theatrical version. Some consider it to still be the best film on the subject of Elvis.

Elvis Presely in concert 1950s

Elvis Presley was undoubtedly a phenomenon. He was as poor white trash as poor white trash can get, growing up in a predominantly black Pentecostal church. Many African-Americans have accused him of stealing their music. Actually, it’s all he knew, and he treated it with reverence. Accusations of racism are certainly factual, but only from an off-color perspective. Like Sammy Davis, Jr., Elvis had an intense self-loathing for his own blackness.

Elvis Presley 1956Elvis Presely and Colonel Tom Parker

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RELIGULOUS (2008)

RELIGULOUS poster

When Bill Maher’s Religulous (2008) premiered, it predictably opened to mixed reviews. Narrated by Maher and directed by Larry Charles, Religulous is a scathing criticism on what the filmmakers see as inherent ignorance and immorality within religion.

ISLAMIC MILITANTS

Critic Brian Orndoff wrote:

Most of the ammo is reserved for Christianity. Instead of confrontations that shatter myths and raise consciousness, Religulous goes for cheap laughs, manipulating footage to make the participants resemble complete boobs. Maher has the sense to pump the brakes around Islam, treading carefully. Salient points are made about this furiously hot-potato faith, but Maher is noticeably outgunned, challenging the history of Islamic bloodshed from behind the comfort of news clips and sheepish concessions. The way the Middle East rumbles these days, how could anyone blame him?

SALEM WITCH TRIALS

Indeed, the first third of Religulous concentrates solely on Christianity. However, Maher, who wrote the film, was raised as an American Catholic, though with a Jewish heritage. Often, writing is most effective when it focuses on what one knows, and Maher seems to know Christianity. Yet, what he primarily depicts is a particular variety of fundamentalist Christianity. While polls vary in regards to the percentages of American “liturgical” Christians in contrast to “fundamentalist” Christians, few would argue that the latter comprise the bulk of stereotypes of the faith. Continue reading

CUBAN STORY (1959) AND CUBAN REBEL GIRLS (1959)

Cuban Rebel Girls poster

In the late 1950s movie star Errol Flynn owned a movie theater in Havana.  Not the beautifully chiseled Flynn from The Adventures of Robin Hood, but a fat 50 year old has-been, yellowed with cirrhosis, eaten up with syphilis and dodging numerous creditors, including the IRS, with his latest teen age girlfriend: fourteen year old Beverly Aadland. Flynn, probably feeling his self-fulfilled hour (which predictably came shortly after) wanted to sow his macho oats one last time in the thick of the Cuban revolution (clearly, he wasn’t up to it).

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Flynn, with Producer Victor Pahlen, made this pseudo-documentary about Flynn’s meeting Castro, although this meeting is only seen in photographs.

Errol Flynn with Castro

The film proclaims Flynn a sympathizer with Castro’s Batista Regime (paradoxically, he was also posthumously charged with being a fascist sympathizer during WWII).  Most likely, this was a feeble effort, on the part of Pahlen and Flynn, to cash in on being in the right place at the right time.

Cuban Rebel Girls lobby card

Cuban Story [AKA The Truth About Fidel Castro Revolution] was only screened once, in Moscow, and disappeared until Pahlen’s daughter released it the early 2000s. This utterly bizarre film begins with Flynn drunkenly narrating (more like a strained slur), from a cheap office, something about “freedom fighters.”  Flynn, with long cigarette hanging from his mouth, picks up a globe to show viewers “‘where Cuba is” and then throws the globe off camera. It can be heard bouncing off the wall.  The remaining film narration (credited to Flynn, although it clearly is not) is frequently incoherent, pro-Castro, and pro-terrorist. Continue reading

Karajan, Or, Beauty As I See It: Ambitious, compelling, beautifully complex, and commendably close

KARAJAN OR BEAUTY AS I SEE IT

Robert Dornhelm’s film Beauty As I See It is a compelling, ambitious documentary on the life and career of the late conductor Herbert Von Karajan, who, more than any other musician of the twentieth century, made an obsessive, downright bizarre fetish of surface beauty in musical interpretation.

KARAJAN PERFECT HAIR

A billion words have probably been written about Karajan, from the adulation of Richard Osborne, who surprisingly wrote the fairly well balanced biography, “Karajan, a Life in Music,” to Norman Lebrecht, author of the intentionally provocative “The Maestro Myth” who sometimes likens Karajan to Lucifer himself. 2009 was the centenary of Karajan’s birth and, predictably, the Berlin celebration garnered intense praise and intense criticism.

KARAJAN CONDUCTING

Karajan (who died in 1989) left far more audio recordings and filmed performances than any other conductor in history. His last series of films, for Sony, were produced, edited, and directed by himself, sparing no expense. Karajan is often lit from below, like a descending deity. This was the conductor’s final valentine to himself.

HERBERT VON KARAJAN Continue reading

A LUCID & ENTHUSIASTIC HOMAGE TO A GREAT ARTIST

“Oh, I hate that man. He left his wife and children, was cruel to Van Gogh, and bedded down all those Tahitian girls. I just cannot look at his paintings.” This is a simple-minded, uninformed, dull, and predictable comment that I have little patience or tolerance for, and I have heard it countless times whenever I list Paul Gauguin among the painters I identify with aesthetically. Several films have been made about about Gauguin, yet none of them have caught his essence, at least until this documentary by Waldemar Januszczak. It is not a perfect film, but Gauguin is vividly present in it.

Donald Sutherland starred as Gauguin in the 1986 film Oviri, directed by Henning Carlson. In that film, the banker Gauguin and his wife, Matte, are on a Sunday horse and carriage ride with his co-workers and their wives. The financiers engage in shop talk while Gauguin broods. Finally, the frustrated painter taps the carriage driver on the shoulder and tells him to stop. Gauguin looks at his wife and peers and says, “You are my jailers.” With that, he jumps out of the carriage and walks off to find his paradise. A nice story but one that is a total fiction, buying into the painter’s mythology.

In actuality, Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), contrary to the repeated myths, was not a millionaire banker. He was a successful stock broker. He did not quit his job. The stock market crashed and he lost his job. Gauguin, who had been a “Sunday” painter for years, felt that this was reason enough to pursue painting full time, something he had been longing to do. It was with this that his wife left him. Gauguin did not desert his wife and five children. His wife rejected him after he lost his income as a stockbroker.

Art critic Waldemar Januszczak attempts to set the record straight. “What’s to like about this man?,” Januszczak asks. “First of all, there is the art, which needs no defense. Gauguin painted some of the world’s most alluring woman and put them into several of the world’s most gorgeous pictures, but what I really like about him is that he did it for big and noble reasons.” And then, most aptly, he says, “There is always more to a Gauguin than meets the eye.” Januszczak covers those “big and noble reasons,” but falls a little short in the “more than meets the eye” comment (more on that later).

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An Aptly Titled Boulezian Primer

This two hour plus dvd of the 85 year old Boulez at the Lucerne Festival Academy is well filled. Documentary footage of master classes, rehearsals and spoken intros from Boulez are mixed with performance footage of Debussy’s cubist “Jeux,” Boulez’ own “Notations,”and “Repons,” (we desperately need a film of the full performance) , Stravinsky’s “Rite,”Stockhausen’s ‘Gruppen,”and a student composition. This serves as an excellent primary introduction to Boulez the teacher and Boulez the communicator. He clearly and rightfully has the intense respect of his students, whom he (sometimes humorously) interacts with, giving lie to the silly myth that he is merely a stuffed-shirt academic. The students at Lucerne are, indeed, inheriting a lifetime’s worth of aesthetic dedication.

The filmmakers follow Boulez’ cue, structuring the film itself with commendable lucidity and professional visuals. It helps tremendously that the Lucerne summer festival provides beautiful location footage. Although Boulez remains an ambiguous personality, he is devoted to what he loves and, in his advanced years, he remains remarkably active in order to ensure the survival of contemporary music. Only the most jaded viewer will be unimpressed. Equally valuable is some of Boulez’ recollections on peers such as Bruno Madera.

A delightful and valuable example of music on film that is not only an apt homage to an unquestionably great composer, conductor, and teacher, but also a homage to the younger musicians following the lead of the veteran avant-gardist. Boulez seems in no hurry to slow down and we can only hope that he will have many active years ahead of him