Grey Gardens Trio

I approached the HBO movie Grey Gardens with trepidation, since I loved the documentary by the Maysles and was unsure how they’d approach the material. It invites camp, but I always saw the Beales as sympathetic figures, and thankfully the movie does too. It doesn’t let the ladies off the hook for their eccentricity either, and this pair of shut-ins are colorful enough before the novelty of their relation to Jackie Kennedy is discovered.

Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore

If you don’t know the story, “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” were mother and daughter living on an estate in the Hamptons called Grey Gardens. The mother and father became estranged, and after he died she lived at the estate on a meager trust; she had become agoraphobic, though it is never called such. She’d hold parties at the house, and send little Edie on errands once no one would deliver. Little Edie envied her socialite cousins the Bouviers, such as Jacqueline, and dreamt of an acting, or dancing and singing career. She pursued it in New York City, but it never came to pass.
She suffered from alopecia, and took to wearing headwraps to hide her hair loss. Once Jackie became the First Lady, the paparazzi descended and eventually discovered the Beales, living in a decrepit old house full of cats and raccoons. Jackie paid to have the house cleaned of garbage and repaired, but two documentarians, Albert and David Maysles of Gimme Shelter fame, came to document these eccentric characters. I was introduced to the documentary by my friend Emma, and when it was released by Criterion. For years it was a camp classic; diva nerds loved that Jackie O had such tawdry relatives, and Little Edie was a bizarre counterpoint to Jacqueline’s classy demeanor. This was the ramshackle shed behind Camelot where the embarrassing relations lived.

The real Edies

Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange play the Beales, and we flash back to their better days, to see the slow descent into reclusion. Little Edie was always an extrovert and unreserved; we see her audition before a producer while he’s at a business luncheon. And slowly, her chances to break free of her mother disappear, and she becomes trapped in Grey Gardens. Jessica Lange is fantastic as the reclusive Big Edie, who goes from a boisterous party thrower to a bedridden cat lady once her paramours cannot tolerate one more wrinkle.

The two actresses are both fantastic; they had the Maysles documentary and another made from the outtakes, The Beales of Grey Gardens, to study and they are perfect. Drew Barrymore has the more difficult job, as Little Edie is practically unbelievable as a person. You really ought to rent the 1975 Grey Gardens to check her out. Her story eventually gets a happy ending, but only after a long imprisonment under her mother’s thrall. I highly recommend the HBO movie whether you’ve seen the documentaries or not; if you’ve seen it already, hunt down the originals to see just how good the performances are.

the misery of a caged bird not allowed to sing

I revisited the Maysles documentary it made me wonder how much it influenced Errol Morris when he made Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida; they share the “give ’em enough rope” method of Grey Gardens, where the camera seems to fade away, like a fly on the wall. It’s common now, but leaving the camera around until the subjects became comfortable, and vulnerable, was a far cry from the father of the documentary’s nearly staged scenes- such as the basking shark hunt in Man of Aran.
Instead we get the slow realization of the bars on Little Edie’s cage, the poison from her mother’s mouth. A faded rose whose thorns encircled her daughter, keeping her from growing taller or brighter than herself. It’s depressing, but just as powerful as any Oscar-winning drama. The second film, The Beales of Grey Gardens, released in 2006 from remaining footage, is lighter in tone and less oppressive. It makes for an entertaining film in itself, but I’d definitely watch the original first. If it starts to depress you, remember that Little Edie eventually got her own dance revue and lived the rest of her life in Florida on her own, after her mother’s passing.

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Encounters at the End of the World

Werner Herzog is one of my favorite film makers. This may seem like damning with faint praise, but when he makes a documentary, it’s like a Bruce Springsteen song. He just sort of starts talking about what he’s up to, and at first you smirk, but soon you’re tapping your foot and involved in it, and not surprised when it’s a theme song for a movie or an inauguration.
Encounters at the End of the World is like that. Herzog visits Antarctica, well, because he wants to. He is adamant that he won’t be making another movie about damn penguins, and he concentrates on what interests him. First it’s the dreamers, wanderers and adventurers who people MacMurdo Research Station. John Carpenter wasn’t that far off with the quirky characters in The Thing, mind you. There’s a strange, homey atmosphere in the lonely places of the world, and we meet a woman who’s been all over the world, in dangerous places, and here she entertains her comrades by contorting herself so she can be placed in a duffel bag. We meet those brave souls who’ll dive among leopard seals under ice sheets to film the gorgeous formations or collect microscopic organisms, and the scientists who catalog the new species, and seek the origins of life on Earth.
He comments on how banal exploration has become, and we briefly meet a man who holds Guinness World Records for traveling in somersaults, on pogo sticks, and so on. He’s going to Antarctica to skip across it, or something. The point is that we’ve not only mapped the world, but hacky-sacked across it. But at MacMurdo, the spirit of Shackleton is still alive, and you see respect and perhaps envy for men such as him, who braved a new world, in their lives.
But perhaps to Herzog’s chagrin, the most arresting image is in fact, of a penguin who may have read Hemingway’s story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” As the little explore stares out over the ice, we know that his journey may only be caused by a fault in his little brain, but who’s to say our own desires to conquer the unknown are so different? The footage is beautiful, and Herzog has once again made a masterful documentary. Get it on Blu-Ray, the DVD is a bit soft.

Religulous

I’m not the biggest fan of Bill Maher now that he seems to concentrate on politics, but he’s always been a sharp and witty comedian. Now he sets his sights on religion with Religulous, taking the cue from Richard Dawkins to stop being apologetic for atheism and say what you really believe. There are reasons that you don’t talk politics or religion in bars, and this documentary sets out to be offensive, but I didn’t find it as strident as I expected. It’s actually very funny and only gets to be a bit much at the end when he tries to put a message on it.

The movie doesn’t purport or try to be fair; directed by Larry Charles (Borat), it intercuts the interviewee’s words with silly images, clips from hilariously bad religious educational films, soundbites and info-taters. It’s sort of like when Bugs Bunny stands next to someone holding an image of a screw, and a baseball. Screwball. Get it? But it still works, because he chooses his targets wisely. He goes after Jews for Jesus, strict Mormons, pagans, Scientologists, Bible-literalist evangelical Christians, ultra-Orthodox Jews, a man who claims to be the second coming of Christ, and some Fundamentalist Muslims. He doesn’t let anyone off the hook.

Going to the Holy Land with a film crew and asking about religion was already done in this year’s decent Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?, and Morgan Spurlock got kicked out by his Saudi keepers, and chased out by Orthodox Jews threatening violence. Maher doesn’t manage to top that, in fact he walks out on a rabbi so tolerant that he attended Iranian Holocaust denial conferences. In fact, Maher was so angry he barely let the guy talk, so I couldn’t decide whether he was stupid, crazy, or an apologist. That was distressing, seeing Maher lose his cool. But otherwise he’s pretty in control and doesn’t get too snarky when asking people why they believe what they believe.

If you’re on the internet or watch Stephen Colbert or South Park, you know some of the secret and trademarked tenets of the Church of Scientology, and just how crazy they are. I won’t go into it here, because I don’t want to be attacked by lawyers, strangled with cans attached by string called e-meters, or pelted with enormous tomes of L. Ron Hubbard’s space opera sagas. Go to Operation Clambake at http://www.xenu.net if you’re curious. Maher spouts their teachings at the Speaker’s Corner in London’s Hyde Park , where nuts have shouted their imprecations for over a century.

What’s his point? When someone laughs at the idea of aliens nuking our souls in volcanos, he says “yeah, but Jonah living in the whale, that’s perfectly sane.” When he’s talking to the Bible literalists this comes out. “No, it was a very big fish.” Oh, that makes more sense. He speaks to the man who plays Jesus at a Christian theme park- who seems like a nice enough fellow, even as the Romans whip him for the entertainment of the Christians this time around- but he can’t put into words why he believes what he believes, and that’s some of the point. He goes to the Creation museum to see dioramas of the Flintstones, where kids can play with pet dinosaurs.



These are easy targets. Some are valid and scary. Do I want a politician who believes the Rapture will come in our lifetimes, and Armageddon will be soon fought on the fields of Megiddo? I’d prefer if he tried to stave that off. Maher even goes to Megiddo. Looks like a strip mine. Let’s hope it stays untouched. It’s not all fun and games- he goes to where film maker Theo Van Gogh was murdered for speaking out against fundamentalist Muslims. He speaks with rapper Propa-Gandhi, who looks like a nice hipster doofus, but sings about destroying the West. He gets a friendly Muslim to sneak him into the Temple on the Mount where Jews are not allowed. The guy looks very nervous.
If you’re not religious, this is very funny– but sometimes Maher’s pretty strident, and he’s obviously not trying to convert anybody. He may go for easy targets but he’s even-handed, going at it with rabbis and a company that sells products to help observant Jews try to trick their way around violating the sanctity of the Sabbath, by not really dialing the phone. He even goes for the obvious joke about how this is lawyering with God. He gets kicked out by the Vatican and the Mormons. He speaks with Satanists and even pot worshipers. For atheists it’s very entertaining and reassuring, and it’s a good record of the current state of religions all over the world in 2008 from the eyes of an unbeliever with a sense of humor. But there are no revelations here, either.

3.5 atheists in foxholes out of 5

Standard Operating Procedure

Rachel Getting Married may not be the best film of the year, but I have a feeling it may be the most unfairly overlooked of the year. Another movie that will be unfairly overlooked is Errol Morris’s latest feature- Standard Operating Procedureabout Abu Ghraib. It’s something no one wants to hear about anymore, and we just want to get out of Iraq, but this movie documents the ultimate disgrace of the Bush administration, which dragged the U.S.’s reputation through the mud with policies which, like shit, ran downhill and become standard practice.
In a year when Frost/Nixon is being lauded for depicting an interviewer’s uncanny ability to get a man to confess against his better judgment, Errol Morris has done it for real. This is the second time- in The Fog of War he got Vietnam War number-cruncher Robert McNamara to say if he was on the losing side, he’d be prosecuted as a war criminal; this time around he’s got the M.P.’s responsible for the Abu Ghraib photographs admitting the indefensible on camera. Lynndie England, infamously giving the thumbs-up to a prisoner naked on a leash, is here; she was in love with Staff Sgt. Charles Graner, currently in military prison. He wasn’t allowed to be interviewed, but is the highest ranking man prosecuted for the torture.

Lynndie then

As we listen to Lynndie and the rest, we see the Stanford prison experiment in action. The pressure to “get Saddam Hussein” at all costs- who was later captured without torturing the info out of anybody- was the instigator from above. But no one above the rank of Graner was ever prosecuted. Brigadier General Janis Karpinski was demoted, and is here defending her claims of being scapegoated. We learn of prisoners beaten to death, bodies kept on ice. The fear the guards felt during their tour is evident, and while it is never put forth as an excuse, it is just one more stressor toward the dehumanization of the prisoners.

Lynndie now

Those of highest rank were smart enough to never order this behavior in so many words, but some M.P.’s make it clear that they wish they’d disobeyed and been court-martialed. Others remain defiant, angry that they did time for “a photograph.” Like the photos themselves, the movie is not always what we want to see. Like Frost/Nixon, it is a record of a shameful besmirching of the American reputation and a record of heinous crimes a democratic society cannot tolerate. Maybe in 35 years someone will dramatize it, and someone will win an Oscar. Right now it may be the best documentary of the year, but Man on Wire– which while an excellent record of a happier time, and the most pleasant memory of the World Trade Center imaginable- will probably cinch it. Abu Ghraib is not something we want to look back upon, but we should. Lest we forget.

The Wrestler for real – Beyond the Mat

Jake “the Snake” Roberts. Anyone who watched wrestling remembers him- he didn’t just have a bag with a snake in it, he had charisma. If you loved The Wrestler, you owe it to yourself to dig up Beyond the Mat and watch Jake the Snake, with his crack addiction and estranged relationship with his daughter, which obviously was some inspiration for Rourke’s excellent performance.
Roberts is shown working smalltown gigs, getting high, getting confronted by his wounded daughter and continually fucking up, yet beneath it he’s sharp enough to be introspective, and eloquently discuss his own problems. About crack: “Speeds me up so fast I forget about my past. I don’t have to be responsible.” About his children: “I said I’d never treat my kids like my father treated me, and I look back 20 years and I did the exact same thing.” He was known for being one of the most psychologically sharp performers with the crowd, and then he disappeared into obscurity.
Counterpoint to Jake is Mick Foley, aka “Mankind,” a sort of circus geek hero in a Texas Chainsaw Massacre costume who takes falls and beatings that look deadly, yet seems to have a normal family relationship. Though I think it was insane if his kids were really watching him wrestle when The Rock was bashing his head in with a chair. Kids can’t understand that shit. But maybe it was clever editing- while it’s a solid documentary, you do wonder if everything is what it seems sometimes. After all, it’s wrestling- it’s a dangerous, strenuous performance, but it is a performance.

While it doesn’t delve too deep into wrestling’s inner secrets about heels, faces, and “kayfabe” carnie chicanery, and some of it is a definite puff piece, you get a look at what these performers endure, and how shabbily they are often treated. So what’s kayfabe? Well, it’s carnie talk, probably fractured pig latin for fake, ake-fay, the theater part of the performance. The long feuds, wrestlers who turn from good guys (faces) to bad guys (heels) and turn on their friends, bringing the “cheap heat” or angering the crowd by trash talking to them.
You actually get a bit more background in The Wrestler, when you see the Ram and his opponents laying out a thin plot before they go into the ring. For example, The Rock appears but never breaks character. He’s the heel against Mankind, who does some stunts that are pretty damn impressive. There’s a cage fight where he ends up on top of the cage, what looks like 15 feet above the ring, and falls through, onto his back. There’s only so much you can do to break your fall, and this wasn’t a mattress he landed on. Even if it was planned, it was risky. Barbed wire around the ring, and other extreme props- much like the staple gun from The Wrestler– make you wonder how far they go to entertain the crowd.
Vince McMahon himself not only appears as the CEO, interviewing a young wrestler who can vomit on cue and wants to perform as Puke, but ends up in the ring himself. Since he angered a lot of the fans with his decisions, why not make them pay to see him get beat up? It was a brilliant bit of showmanship, the ultimate con. But he was really getting stomped, even if it was pulled. You’ve got to give him credit for that. That’s the heart of professional wrestling, playing to the crowd, putting on an acrobatic show of battle, and making it look good. And it takes a terrible physical toll, as you can imagine.

There’s a lot more to this documentary- director Barry Blaustein, who writes a lot of Eddie Murphy movies like The Nutty Professor- begins with his love of pro wrestling, and we get many small interviews and profiles of people from Jesse Ventura to Chyna, who they mention got her chin shaved to look more feminine. If you read Something Awful’s review of her porn debut, the chin is just the beginning. You also get to see some young wrestlers trying to get a break, but the only older one you see is Jake the Snake- which is telling. Either they got out, and want to be remembered in their prime, or they’re just not around anymore.
Someday they’ll be treated like running backs, but for now they’ll suffer for our entertainment until like Randy the Ram, they’re just broken down pieces of meat. Some can retire, or move to acting- where doing your own stunts is much less risky- but not everyone is so lucky. For every Mick Foley and Dwayne Johnson, there’s a half-dozen Jake the Snakes, working the ring until they can’t anymore.

Man on Wire

Nowadays any jackass with a dozen grand can climb Everest; we can take bets on whether they make it down, but they can get a shady guide company to drag them up there. But in 1974, shortly after the towers of the World Trade Center went up, a man strung a tightrope between them and put on a highwire act for downtown New York. His name was Philippe Petit, a Parisian stereotype in black tights and beret, who liked to ride his unicycle around the City of Lights, and lived only to be a high-wire tightrope artist. When he saw photos in a magazine of the Towers’ design, he immediately knew that he must walk the wire, between them.

Called “the artistic crime of the century,” Man on Wire documents this fantastic accomplishment. I’d seen a short piece on it so I’d seen the same photos of the act they use here, and the impact was diminished for me. But it’s a wonderful film played out like a document of a heist, which it was- they had to smuggle nearly a ton of equipment up there, and there were plenty of engineering problems to solve before he could do it. It’s an amazing act of a kind that gets scoffed at today- now, people base-jumping off skyscrapers and such are seen as possible terrorists and threats to our morning commute, instead of artists trying to give us something cool to see for a change. We have to settle for Christof painting shit pink, with corporate sponsorship.


The movie itself is quite well done, but with no footage of the act in existence, much is left to the imagination. The photos give you an idea, and they re-enact quite a bit of the classic heist. Everything from tiptoeing behind a guard, and turning as he turned, like in a cartoon or Marx Brothers act, to bluffing their way past guards using workman’s uniforms. There’s actual footage of their planning and practice, which helps. Petit set up a ,mock wire at shoulder height in a field between two trees, measuring the exact distances and using similar guy wires to steady the rig. To mimic the possibility of the buildings bending in the wind, his compatriots pulled the wires and shook them.

How to get a wire 200 feet across? Too far to throw. They smuggled up a bow and arrow and shot it across. They invented a conical spool so the mono line wouldn’t snag, something eventually used in bowfishing. They got an inside man so they could ship things that would be too suspicious to smuggle in. All this leads up to the fantastic feat of walking the wire between the now iconic Twin Towers; a tiny speck in black leotards seemingly suspended in thin air, 1350 feet up. I’d been to the top of the Towers, and looking down was quite a thrill. If you’ve seen the towers up close, you know they weren’t just blocks of metal but had beveled edges along the top, which made it hard for Petit to find purchase for his wire.

I would have loved to see it. It was a foggy day and no footage exists; only some amazing photos of a man engaged in a seemingly lackadaisical and definitely daring feat between two engineering marvels. To show that humanity can reach for the sky in other ways than with monuments to our financial might, and that there will always be new Everests. It’s a document of a bygone era, and a feat that can never be repeated. Maybe someone will try the Petronus Towers someday, but they’ll probably get shot. Petit himself wanted to tightrope walk the Grand Canyon, but that fell through; now he’s considering the moai of Easter Island. He’s 60 years old and still an imp, and his joy of life suffuses this excellent documentary.

4.5 baguettes out of 5

The King of Kong – A Fistful of Quarters and Chasing Ghosts – Beyond the Arcade

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters was the sleeper documentary of 2007, and it remains a hilarious and engaging story about who holds the championship score in Donkey Kong. While some of accused the director of chicanery to make a better story, it remains as entertaining as hell. I watched it again with Milky the other day, and now we’re planing a pilgrimage to The Funspot, up in New Hampshire.

Steve Wiebe, the challenger.

Listening to the old champs talk about the golden age of arcade games in the ’80s made me wax nostalgic. I always liked the vector games- the line drawn ones- such as Tempest, the classic Star Wars, Asteroids, and so on. Dig Dug, a ridiculous game with a guy in a spacesuit digging in gardens and fighting dragons and pookas- who looked like tomatoes with Velma glasses on- using an air pump to explode them, was another favorite. I was too impatient for Frogger and Donkey Kong, which take a bit of strategy- you can’t just charge forward.

It’s on like Donkey Kong, in this excellent documentary.

The basic story involves Billy Mitchell- the mullet-sporting record holder of Donkey Kong since the ’80s, and Steve Weibe, a challenger who bought a Donkey Kong cabinet and practiced in his garage. He submits a tape of breaking 1 million points to Twin Galaxies, the home of the 1982 Video Game Championship and the recognized repository of authenticated high scores, and causes enormous controversy due to what I like to call fandom drama. The score is validated by Robert Mruczek, a guy who watches high score videos for much of his life, and the battle begins. Billy Mitchell is no longer the King of Kong.
Immediately he begins damage control. 3 guys go to Steve Wiebe’s house when he’s not home, and ask to see the arcade game, to verify it. Steve’s wife says they have to wait for him to come home, and she goes to work- so they ask her mother, and get to see the machine without Steve present. For sabotage? Who knows? They find a box linked to a man called Mr. Awesome, and the drama explodes. See, Steve’s Donkey Kong board died and he got a new one from Roy Schildt- a guy who likes to be called Mr. Awesome – a Missile Command top player who has a rivalry with Billy Mitchell, and apparently a restraining order against him. This taints Steve’s score, and brings his honesty into question.

Not doctored.

So Steve travels to a neutral zone- The Fun Spot in New Hampshire, and publicly beats Billy Mitchell’s score, though not topping one million. Billy’s fanboys are present, most notably the annoying as hell Brian Kuh- and they try to psych him out. But he still succeeds, getting a kill screen and a record score in front of witnesses. The glove has been thrown.

Brian Kuh, who comes off as Billy’s lackey.

Billy Mitchell- the former kid video game star- now runs a couple of chicken wing joints in Florida. Immaculately styled hair, full beard, black jeans and a dress shirt with an American flag tie- make him hard to miss. He’s the kind of guy you immediately peg as douche, full of childlike bravado and self-promotion. The film does play a little fast and loose to make Steve an underdog and Billy a has-been who won’t defend his title in public, but certain things are undeniable- Billy’s tape has suspicious “tracking problems” that got overlooked by the judges. In fact, the judge retired after the debacle.

If you watch the documentary Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade, you get some more insight into these bizarre characters. It’s not that entertaining by itself, but if The King of Kong leaves you wondering about these guys, this has a lot more footage. For example, in KoK, we see some images
of Mr. Awesome’s bodybuilding days and his “how to pick up girls” videos. In Chasing Ghosts, you get a lot more detail, so much you’ll be averting your eyes. Trust me. It verges on “things you can’t unsee.” King of Kong may be a bit creative but all documentaries have agendas, and it makes for an incredibly entertaining look at an obsessive subculture.

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