Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, April 29, 2016

Bangers n' Mash 87: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Part 2

Hey, the Bangers n' Mash Show is back with the second half of our Buffy the Vampire Slayer retrospective! This episode is devoted to the last three seasons of the series. (Plus a few other things.) Since those seasons are far more divisive then the four that proceeded, this episode of the podcast is full of far more bickering and yelling then usual. JD and I can't agree on anything! Anyway, listen to it. Happy end of April.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

MEMORIES: Video Rental Stores

There’s no item of movie nerd nostalgia whose loss has been bemoaned more then the video rental store. I’m not the first to write about them and I certainly won’t be the last. Whole documentaries have been made on the subject. Some are so devoted to the video store that they’ve even sought to re-create it. Yet the fact remains. Despite a few stubborn hold-outs, the video store is more-or-less extincted. They are places of the past. For many film fanatics, the video rental store is where their obsession began. Whether it be big chains or weirdo mom-and-pop places, they were temples of knowledge for burgeoning cinema fans. Here are some of my memories of the local video stores that shaped my interest in movies.

That last aspect is worth emphasizing. Once upon a time, I didn’t have the huge movie collection I do now. When I was young, we only had a few VHS tapes to our name. Though tapes weren’t as expensive as they were when the technology was new, they still weren’t something my family could afford to buy all the time. The video store democratized home media. Instead of buying a tape, which brand new were still in the twenty-to-thirty range, you could instead rent one for a few bucks. A proper video store also had a huge back catalog. In the days before the internet, we had to rely on video stores for our film viewing experiences. If your local rental places didn’t have it, odds are good you didn’t see it. But the best stores had many obscure films available for rent, as many of them rarely sold their tapes.

Growing up, my family was fairly poor. My mom had to work all week just to be able to afford two luxuries for us kids. On Fridays, we would rent a movie or two from the video store and then get a Happy Meal from McDonalds. Our video store of choice was Top 20 Video. Located within walking distance of my home, Top 20 was the center piece of a strip mall in town. Top 20 wasn’t one of those rental stores where the tapes were on shelves. Instead, you grabbed the box of your desired movie and walked up to the front desk. There, a clerk would retrieve the movie from a library in the back. I remember Top 20 used to have two-for-five-dollars deals, that I constantly took advantage of. I also recall that a friend of my mom’s worked there, who would often greet us.

Top 20 is a place I spent a lot of time as a kid and many stray details remain in my brain. Naturally, I spent a lot of time in the children’s section, which was right by the door. I repeatedly rented a series of VHS tape collecting Halloween-themed episodes of Disney cartoons. I kept coming back to these tapes not so much for the cartoons but for the spooky “Grim Grinning Ghost” sing-a-long that started each one. I also remember some scoundrel placed “Return of the Living Dead 2” in the kids’ section, where, as far as I know, it stay until Top 20 closed.

Top 20 had a lay-out similar to most video stores. The older tapes, segregated by genre, stood in cubicles along the right side wall. To the left, was a sprawling wall of new releases. In the center of the hallway where the video game rentals and a small play castle, both places I spent a lot of time. The horror section was by the front desk. At that age, I was far too timid to actually venture there. Truthfully, while walking up to the desk, I often looked away from that cubicle, so I wouldn’t be spooked by some creepy box art. Despite that, I was endlessly intrigued and would often sneak shy glances. “Terror in the Swamp” is a random tape I can recall seeing. Top 20 also kept posters for the appropriate genres on the walls above each section. I can definitely recall the poster for “Warlock” resting above the horror section for years and years.

Of course, Top 20 was far from the only video store in our local area. For that matter, at varying points in time, there were three or four others. On the main street of my small town, there was a two story brick building. I can only remember going into that business once. My dad claimed relatives of his ran the place and once, out of curiosity, we both checked it out. The tapes were kept on metal racks tightly packed next to each other. That place also had the kids’ section right next to the horror section, which meant the grinning monster face of the “Critters” poster stared me down while I browsed “Power Rangers” VHS tapes. That video place wasn’t around long and went out of business years ago. The building is still there, as a place that sells fireworks three months out of the year.

A bit of a further drive from home was Video Invasion. Video Invasion was also part of a strip mall but a larger one, that included an Italian restaurant and an auto-repair shop. As I recall it, Video Invasion was a huge, warehouse style store. Shelves ran the length of the building. Hanging above the horror section was a small promotional item for one of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” movies, showing Freddy’s claw slashing through the movie’s title. (At least, I think it was for a Freddy movie…) Aside from that, I don’t remember Video Invasion very well. It’s possible I was only actually inside the place once. More then the business itself, I remember the store’s mascot – a cartoony space man holding a ray gun – on the sign outside and on the membership card. Video Invasion lasted a little longer then Top 20 did but went out of business around the same time.

Despite the video rental business being considered a dead end, weirdly, a new store opened in my home town not long after those previously mention places shut down. Video Den may be a small, locally owned chain as there’s at least one other store with that name around here. When Video Den first opened up, it was the first time I had actually been inside a real video store in years. DVD was still not the default technology. At first, they had an extremely good VHS archive. More then once, I enjoyed just browsing through the back room where all the older titles were kept. Of course, VHS was soon entirely obsolete and Video Den sold off their archive. Disappointingly, it soon became clear that the people who owned the store weren’t huge movie fans. This put me in an unexpected situation. Every time I visited my mom’s home town, I had a chance to step inside a video store. Yet unpleasant proprietors meant I didn’t venture inside Video Den as often as I could. A brief look at their Facebook page shows that they’re closing down at the end of next month. Now I feel guilty for not shopping there more often.

For years, when traditional video stores were only a dying breed instead of totally extinct, a specific business was widely despised by weirdo movie fans. Blockbuster Video was criticized for its puritanical censorship clauses, apathetic teenage employees, and tendency to drive weirder ma-and-pop video places out of business. Yet, when the smaller businesses closed up, Blockbuster hung on. In an odd way, the disliked chain became the only way for movie fans to re-experience the unique high gained from the video store experience. We had a Blockbuster but it was in the closest city, meaning there were many closer video stores when I was younger. As a kid, I can remember going into Blockbuster once or twice. I recall thinking their video game selection was slightly better, back when Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo were still the top consoles. My most pertinent memory of Blockbuster occurred when I was much older and involves an ex-girlfriend. After getting dinner at a near-by sushi joint, in the dead of winter, we zipped into Blockbuster to browse and get warm.

Like a lot of movie nerds, I eventually found employment at a video store. When I was a penniless college student, I took a brief job at that same Blockbuster. Mostly so I could have some cash to my name. All things considered, it was a fairly painless experience. It was the easiest job interview I've ever had. After telling the manager I was a huge film buff who organized my own extensive collection for fun, I was hired. I can only recall two evenings we had biggish crowds. My co-workers were all very relaxed. Customers were only occasionally rude. My favorite memories of that place were when shoppers asked for recommendations, which I was always enthusiastic to give. The manager could be bitchy and the pay was pathetic but I do not besmirch my brief time at Blockbuster Video.  

And the time was brief. When I got the job at Blockbuster, I knew I was chaining my boat to a sinking industry. I was there a little over a year when the news came down from on high that the store was closing. At the time, I was bummed out less because I was loosing a job and more because it meant one less video store in the world. It wasn’t the first time a video store had closed its doors. Top 20 Video shut down several years prior. A huge liquidation sale followed. Top 20 was filled front to back with tapes and DVDs. Apparently, this wasn’t just a liquidation for Top 20 but for many other video stores in the area. At that sale, I acquired a few tapes of oddball titles that have never gotten DVD releases. Things like “Junior,” “Splatter” and “Horrible Horror.” As much fun as I had digging through piles of old movies, it was bittersweet. Top 20 was a part of my childhood and now it was gone.

Video stores are now gone. Holdouts like Video Den are the exception, not the rule. Of course, the likes of Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu made the video store obsolete. While digging through the uncertain libraries of local shops, you never knew if they had what you were looking for. You can find almost everything on the internet. Like literature lovers bemoaning the rise of the E-book, there was something tactile about the video store experience. Greeting the workers, running your fingers through the shelves, and seeing the individual charms of the various stores were all part of the fun. As a kid, the video store was a place of escapism and discovery. Looking stuff up on Netflix isn’t the same.

As we head towards a future where most movies are watched via on-line streaming, I have concerns of my own. The central question has already shifted. No longer do prospective movie watchers ask “Will they have what I want to see?” Now the answer is “What’s streaming?” Do you really trust Netflix that much?  The choice is taken out of the customer’s hand. That makes me uncomfortable. How will future movie fans discover the obscure films that ignite their passions? Until every film ever made is available through streaming service – so, you know, never – cinephiles will mourn the death of the video store. Its equal parts nostalgia and concerns for the future that forces us to hold onto those memories.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Bangers n' Mash 86: Buffy the Vampire Slayer Part 1

I was going to open this entry with a small rant apologizing for why this latest episode of the Bangers n' Mash Show took so long to release but, you know, it's 2:17AM on the East Coast I don't feel like it.

A few thousand years ago, a fan asked us to do an episode about "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." We're finally fulfilling that wish. Because this is seven seasons of television, we're covering the topic over the course of two episodes. In the first episode, we discuss the original movie and seasons one through four. Hopefully the second part won't take as long to edit and release.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

NO ENCORES: Mystery Men (1999)

1. Mystery Men (1999)
Director: Kinka Usher

Welcome to a new reoccurring feature at Film Thoughts! I’ve been writing my Director Report Cards for eight years now. The series has evolved into long, ridiculously detailed reviews of every feature film in a director’s career. Yet what about filmmakers that have only made one feature? This is the purpose of No Encores. To examine why a filmmaker stumbled after only one movie. To see if sometimes maligned or overlooked films have positive qualities of their own. For such a project, I knew “Mystery Men” would have to be my first choice. It’s a film I’ve seen countless times over the years, quote almost daily, and have always had an inordinate affection for. It’s the only directorial credit of commercial maker Kinka Usher.

Champion City is a bustling metropolis defended by Captain Amazing, a corporate sponsored superhero decked out with high-tech weapons and gear. Yet Amazing’s done too good of a job of fighting crime and has left himself without any worthy adversary. Searching for a challenging fight, he frees his archenemy, master criminal Casanova Frankenstein. Frankenstein is smarter then Amazing and quickly captures him. Because “Mystery Men” isn’t about Captain Amazing. Instead, a team of wannabe superheroes with questionable abilities – ranging from boundless rage, mastery of silverware and shovels, and super-charged flatulence – have to save the day. That is, if they can stop bickering first.

Listen, “Mystery Men” is not a great movie. It’s too long, at over two hours. It has just as many gags that fall flat as ones that succeed. Some of its secondary characters are overly obnoxious or ridiculous. I’m not blind to the film’s flaws. Having said that, “Mystery Men” is a film I’ve come to love. The movie has a free-wheeling sense of absurdity that suits it well. It’s a silly premise that the film exploits for maximum silliness. As a comic book nerd, I also appreciate the enthusiasm and fun the script has thinking up unconventional superheroes. It’s not that the Blue Raja or the Bowler have useless powers. They just aren’t the typical powers. The film’s slant on the superhero genre is clever, fresh, and subversive. Captain Amazing is corporately sponsored but ultimately a selfish blowhard. The Mystery Men are totally independent oddballs and prove more virtuous then the city’s biggest hero. That’s a moral I can get behind too.

Of course, the real reason I love “Mystery Men” is its talented, diverse cast and highly quotable dialogue. Ben Stiller has said not nice things about the film, despite also starring in such duds as “Little Fockers” and that shitty “Heartbreak Kid” remake. However he felt about the film, Stiller is consistently hilarious. Mr. Furious is a character designed to play towards Stiller’s strength. Of all the Mystery Men, his talent set is the least practical. His “boundless rage” is intentionally fabricated. However, Mr. Furious’s gimmick forces him to respond to normal events with exaggerated, goofy anger. Such as his boss yelling at him to “junk” an armored vehicle, the mock-angry way he apologizes to his friends, and his incredibly awkward attempts to ask out a cute waitress. When that gimmick falls apart in the film’s last act – when Roy realizes how dumb his superpower is – the film reveals some of its best moments. The rest of the Mystery Men's attempts to enrage Mr. Furious produce some unforgettable one-liners. “You dress in the manner of a male prostitute!” And so on.

Stiller is funny but my favorite of the ensemble cast is unassuming William H. Macy. Macy is the Shoveler, whose gift – he shovels and shovels well – at least has some practical combat application. He’s also a devoted family man. His wife not-so-subtly attempts to discourage his crime fighting. Her passive-aggressive reaction to his superheroics provides some of “Mystery Men’s” funniest moment. “If someone vomits in my pool, I’m leaving you” is funny. Macy’s deadpan response – “That’s fair” – is a line I quote all the friggin’ time. Macy’s earthly everyman qualities allows him to be the straight man to the film’s many cut-ups. When the character bust loose with a funny line of his own, such as his rousing speech centered around an egg salad sandwich, it produces even more laughs.

The third corner of the central trio is Hank Azaria’s Blue Raja. The master of silverware, which most decidedly doesn’t include knives, the Raja is neither Indian nor features any blue in his costume. Azaria, and the character, puts on a painfully fake British accent for the character. With most any other performer, this would be an irritating quirk. Azaria, however, has been doing funny voices for most of his career. Moreover, the Blue Raja’s character arc is one of the most knowing in the film. He lives with his weirdly mousy mother, played by Louise Lasser, who mistakes her son’s superhero hobby for pot smoking. When he’s with his mom, the Raja drops his accent, revealing himself as a deeply insecure nerd. This makes Azaria something like the audience surrogate, someone with more enthusiasm then skill, desperately struggling to prove himself in a chaotic world. Also, Azaria manages to make a whole series of goofy fork puns consistently amusing.

Janeane Garofalo has not found many films that truly utilize her particular comedic stylings. As the Bowler, she frequently has a chance to trot out her dry wit and deadpan delivery. Lines that aren’t funny on their face – “As have I!” “Crazy chicken world…” – becomes hilarious in her mouth. The character also has a fantastic gimmick. Her central power, of a bowling ball possessed by the spirit of her deceased father, is certainly the most visually interesting of all the character’s abilities. What really makes this funny is that she carries on conversations with the bowling ball. We can’t hear what the hostile spirit of Carmine the Bowler says, meaning Garofalo’s irritated answers become bemused nonsequiturs. There’s also some classic culture clash humor here, as the father is clearly not as progressive as his daughter. This is best displayed when Garofalo braces against her dad’s apparent homophobia, the value of male parents, and an agreement concerning grad school.

I’ve already mentioned that “Mystery Men” is packed start-to-finish with hilarious lines of dialogue. Every major character gets a memorable line or two. However, many of the film’s funniest lines come from Wes Studi. A veteran character actor of considerable range, Studi plays the Sphinx, the terribly mysterious mentor to the Mystery Men. Aside from one sequence where he cuts some guns in half with his mind, the Sphinx’s primary ability is to throw out baffling, circular aphorisms. Studi delivers each of these lines with not only a straight face but utmost seriousness. Whether he’s ordering others to balance tack hammers on their heads or lash out like a drum-playing octopus, Studi barks each absurd line with a hilarious self-assurdness. The entire training sequence also generates some of the film’s biggest laughs, such as the team’s inability to believe in the powers of their teammates.

“Mystery Men” has a pretty large cast for a goofy comedy. Not every one of the performers get to shine. Paul Reubens happily embraces his slimy side as the Spleen. The character is one long fart joke, by design. This is not the most clever gag in the script, even if Reubens does his best to get some humor out of the part. Kel Mitchell, perhaps better known as one half of “Kenan and Kel,” plays the Invisible Boy. Only able to become invisible when no one is looking, Kel’s power becomes useful exactly once throughout the film. Mitchell’s gets some funny lines, such as dryly describing a situation to his apathetic father or listing off more absurd superheroes, but he’s somewhat lost among everything else happening in the movie.

Who is opposing our quirky batches of heroes? Among a cast full of comedy veterans is Academy Award winning thespian Geoffrey Rush. Playing the awesomely named Casanova Frankenstein, Rush sports an intentionally goofy German accent. Rush brings some hilarious quirks to the part that are all his own, such as his snake-ish hisses or bizarre proclamation. Also floating around the supporting cast is Tom Waits as Dr. Heller, an inventor of non-lethal weaponry. Waits’ own eccentricities are well suited to to the absurd universe of “Mystery Men.” His gravelly voice adds extra hilarity to lines about canned tornadoes or blame throwers. Also, I have to mention Greg Kinner as Captain Amazing, who is a perfectly hatable conceited assholes.

Truthfully, as much as I’ve discussed how much “Mystery Men” amuses me, I’ve only scratched the surface. The film is fulled of goofy, small gags. Such as the number of even sillier superheroes that appear at the try-outs. Among them are Dane Cook as the Waffler – maybe the funniest thing he’s ever done – and Doug Jones as Pencil Head. Or how about the peculiar set of criminal gangs that Casanova Frankenstein unites? Such as the Disco Boys, lead by a hilarious Eddie Izzard? Izzard gets some phenomenal lines of his own, declaring disco alive and his protection from the god of hair care. Also among Frankenstein’s troops are a gang of college fratboys (appropriately led by Michael Bay), a bizarre gang of Asian gangsters, and women warriors in color-coded dresses.  Or, shit, how about the Herkiner Battle Jitney, the endlessly amusing name of the team’s battle vehicle? I don’t know if anyone else finds this stuff as funny but “Mystery Men’s” particular brand of silliness really appeals to me.

You certainly can’t say the film’s budget isn’t up there on the screen. Aside from the fantastic cast, the film also has some fantastic production design. Champion City is another sci-fi metropolis inspired by the cities of “Blade Runner.” The architecture is crowded, industrial, and multi-ethnic. Casanova Frankenstein’s mansion is fitted with bizarre architecture. His master weapon – known as the Frackulator – twist the people and world around him into a bizarre, warped vision. When this weapon is activated, it proves surprisingly disturbing. Watching someone turned inside out and twisted around into nightmarish approximations of the human form is pretty dark for a silly comedy like this. Yet it’s another layer to “Mystery Men’s” odd appeal.

It’s not too difficult to surmise why Kinka Usher has never directed another film after “Mystery Men.” The film was a costly flop, grossing back less then half its 68 million dollar budget. The reviews were not especially kind. Stiller isn’t the only cast member to express disgust over the film, as Artie Lang has also openly hated on the flick. Moreover, apparently Usher found the shoot difficult. The various egos of the large cast collided and Usher, after working primarily in commercials, found a big budget movie uncomfortable. Despite all of this, “Mystery Men” has found a cult following. This is mostly thanks to the inventive gags, loaded cast, and unforgettable one-liners. Considering we live in a film world now dominated by superhero movies, a subversive spoof like “Mystery Men” was even somewhat ahead of its time. It’s a film I’ve watched many times before and will doubtlessly watch many more times. [9/10]

Monday, April 18, 2016

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: Suburban Commando (1991)

I have never watched a professional wrestling match in my life. I’m going to make either myself or my parents sound like elitist scum here but it’s the truth. My mom discouraged me from watching pro-wrestling, considering sports entertainment trashy, stupid and overly low brow. Despite having never laid eyes on a WWF or WCW match, many of my friends have been into wrestling. So I picked up on some stuff. Among them was an admiration for Hulk Hogan. He wasn't just famous once for saying racist stuff on sex tapes. He was, by my measure, the most popular grappler of the early nineties, especially among kids. This popularity was pushed with many toys, a Saturday morning cartoon show, a baffling pasta venture, and a couple of really stupid movies. “Suburban Commando” is one such film, a vehicle for Mr. Terry Bolleo and his golden locks, aimed at the kiddy market. It’s a garbage movie. So why do I own it?

Shep Ramsey is some sort of intergalactic mercenary, an alien super soldier who seeks out villains when they need killin’. His latest enemy is General Suitor, some bad guy who has kidnapped the president of an alien planet. After that mission goes pear-shaped, Ramsey’s space ship runs out of fuel. He has to land on Earth and lay low for a while, should any of his traceable equipment attract further alien menaces. Shep rents an apartment in the home of Charlie Wilcox, a frustrated family man. Naturally, Shep befriends the human family which becomes important when bad guys from outer space, among them General Suitor, track him down.

“Suburban Commando” is a comedy for kids. This is a nice way of saying that its humor is not especially sophisticated. As soon as the Hulkster arrives on Earth, a pattern emerges. A redneck will lock his dog inside a truck on a hot day. Neighborhood kids will be loud. A little girl will cry about her cat being a tree. A mime will exist. Being a space commando, Hogan will respond to these issues in oversized manners. The film returns to this gag repeatedly. Hulk beats up that mime, like, three times. “Suburban Commando” doesn’t have many other comedic ideas. Some of the jokes – such as a pair of tough guys being mistaken for gay or a secretary repeatedly pulling out a gun – are probably inappropriate for the target audiences. Maybe it’s actually a good thing the film sticks to such a simplistic ideas. When “Suburban Commando” strays outside this template, we get gags like Hogan mistaking an “After Burner” arcade game for an actual space ship or the blonde wrestler tripping on a skateboard.

Hulk Hogan’s skills as an actor are pretty limited. He’s okay at grunting in an annoyed manner but he can’t even crack lame one-liners with conviction. Perhaps realizing that its pro-wrestler star could barely carry the movie, “Suburban Commando” has a way overqualified supporting cast. Christopher Lloyd plays Charlie Wilcox while Shelly Duvall plays his wife. Lloyd’s character arc is very simple. The character is pushed around at work by his asshole boss. Weirdly, the film illustrates this struggle by having Charlie pause every morning when people race through a stoplight. Naturally, befriending a space commando gives Wilcox the courage to confront his boss. Lloyd is too much of a professional to be embarrassed by a shitty script. Even when putting on some space armor, flying through the air, and playing second fiddle to a pro-wrestler. Duvall, meanwhile, is wasted in a nothing part.

Did “Suburban Commando” make me laugh at all? Yeah, a little bit. One gag concludes with a cat being tossed through the air. That was sort of funny. Maybe the funniest moment in the film – and it’s a tiny moment – has a big bad alien bounty hunter speaking with a little boy’s voice. As a PG action movie, “Suburban Commando” works slightly better. The opening action sequence, where the Hulkster blasts his way through a space ship, is mildly diverting. The star stacks up a surprisingly high body count for a kid’s movie. At the end, General Suitor returns and reveals himself to be a vaguely Predator-looking monster. That make-up was sort of neat. I even kind of like the battle armor Hogan wears in the film. Even if it does look like laser tag armor.

Why Do I Own This?: I wish I had a good answer to that question. I own “Suburban Commando” on a cheap double feature disc that I think I got out of the dump bin at Best Buy. I rented the film a couple of times as a kid. I figured a smidgen of nostalgia was worth a five dollar price tag. Some times you watch something from your childhood and it holds up alright. Sometimes, you watch something you haven’t seen since you were a kid and come to the conclusion that kids are very easily amused. What’s the second movie on that DVD? “Mr. Nanny.” Even I’m not shameless enough to review that fucking thing. I mean, at least this movie has got some space aliens and laser guns and shit in it… [4/10]

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Director Report Card: Errol Morris (2013)

11. The Unknown Known

One of the purposes of Director Report Cards is finding the reoccurring themes and trademarks of different filmmakers. This, sometimes, has me finding patterns that maybe don’t exist. Let me propose the following: In the new millennia, Errol Morris made a thematic trilogy about war and its effect. This cycle began with “The Fog of War,” continued with “Standard Operating Procedure,” and concluded with 2013’s “The Unknown Known.” (This is assuming Morris doesn’t make another movie about war, ruining my little pet theory here.) In many ways, “The Unknown Known” is a companion piece to “The Fog of War.” In both, Morris interviews a Secretary of Defense. But the War in Iraq was a very different conflict then the Vietnam War and Donald Rumsfield is a very different man then Robert McNamara. Thus, the resulting films are totally different beasts

“The Unknown Known” is focused on Donald Rumsfield, the controversial Secretary of Defense during the Nixon, Ford, and – most pointedly – the George W. Bush years. In between reading some of the countless memos Rumsfield wrote during his tenure, Errol Morris attempts to get some answer out of the contentious historical figure. Rumsfield, however, does not cooperate smoothly.

From its title on down, “The Unknown Known” is fascinated with Rumsfield's circular figures of speech. The film begins with an excerpt from its title lending speech, where Rumsfield laid out one of his clear philosophy in an especially contrived manner. Rumsfield talks like that often. Just as frequently, he interlaces weirdly folksy figures of speech into serious conversations. Eccentric characters often pop up in Morris’ films. I wish I could say the director brought that out of a former Secretary of Defense. Instead, Rumsfield genuinely is a kind of weird guy. The film often shows archive footage of Rumsfield’s notorious press conferences. Here, it becomes even more clear how Rumsfield’s slightly obnoxious, oddly compelling personality made him the face of the Iraq War.

Comparisons between “The Fog of War” and “The Unknown Known” are inevitable. Robert McNamara gave a thoughtful, intimate interview that exposed his humanity and had him talking frankly about war. Rumsfield, on the other hand, might as well be one of the unknowns of the title. He smiles, in a fake, extended way. As if he’s disguising his true thoughts or feelings. He often dispel the probing questions. Rumsfield is all business. The only time ol’ Don ever gives us a glimpse at his inner humanity is during a brief discussion about his wife. He cries later but they’re tears of joy and don’t seem entirely sincere. Unlike McNamara, Rumsfield never discusses the frank horrors of war. He’s not willing to admit that the Iraq War was a mess, that the U.S. government acted wrongly, that he ever made any mistakes. Rumsfield is evasive and closed-off.

Which does not make “The Unknown Known” the most revealing of interviews. Instead, Morris had to build the film around Rumsfield’s unwillingness to discuss his mistakes. Usually, Errol Morris doesn’t insert himself into his own films much. In his earliest movies, he was entirely silent. As his career advanced, occasionally Morris would let himself ask a question on camera. In “The Unknown Known,” Morris can often been heard asking queries. This is a natural result of Rumsfield being so damn shifty. As Rumsfield delivers another answer without truly answering the question, Morris often shouts back in a bemused manner. When asked about the missing Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, Rumsfield sticks to his story. When asked about torture being used on detainees and suspects, he denies all knowledge. Sometimes, Rumsfield even outright lies, ignoring documents he signed himself. Despite his best efforts, Errol can’t get much out of this guy.

A particular note of interest is Donald Rumsfield’s obsessive note taking. The topic recurs throughout the film. Early on, he refers to the “snowflakes,” the little white slips of paper that he wrote memos on. An early shot shows the slips falling from the sky, visibly illustrating how many of the damn things Rumsfield produced. He makes frequent references to speaking notes into a handheld tape recorder. Donald’s outside image is precise. His habit of writing everything down, of constantly sending people his thoughts and ideas, supports this. Richard Nixon’s habit of recording everything is brought up at one point. Rumsfield’s constant note-writing does not seem like a dissimilar habit.

As a biography, Rumsfield’s unwillingness to open up forces Morris to stick totally to his professional career. His rise through the ranks during the Nixon administration are briefly summarized. This time frame ends with a recording of Nixon and Henry Kissenger making it clear that neither care much for Rumsfield on a personal level. During his time under Gerard Ford, Rumsfield gives an interesting anecdote about Ford hitting his head in an elevator. Later that same day, Ford was almost assassinated, which made the bruise on his forehead seem a lot less important. His response to the so-called “Halloween Massacre” is interesting, as he braces against such a negative phrase. He speaks of his exit from the government after Carter’s election in equally brief terms.

Morris actually works backwards, touching upon Rumsfield’s work during the War on Terror earlier in the film. His description of being inside the Pentagon on September 11th, 2001 aren’t exactly visceral. Even while talking about intense, violent situation, Rumsfield holds back and re-steers the conversation. His thoughts on Saddam Hussein seem strangely manufactured. Even while talking to him during a diplomatic meeting in the eighties, Rumsfield talks about the dictator being evil. Of course, Saddam was a bad guy. But Rumsfield’s answer is rehearsed, planned. When directly quizzed about Iraq, Abu Gharbi, or Weapons of Mass Destruction, he deflects more. All the while, he smiles and chuckles, never getting at the truth.

Returning from “Standard Operating Procedure,” Danny Elfman’s contributes another score. The music features far more of Elfman’s trademarks. He makes heavy use of willowy choirs, whimsical strings and mournful oboes. Yet the music still feels like it belongs to a Errol Morris movie, focusing just as much on building piano cords and repeating melodies. At times, the soundtrack is oddly up-beat, matching Rumsfield’s misleading exterior. Elfman, of course, lets the music go to darker places, when the subject of terrorism and torture come up. There’s a mysterious quality to the music that doesn’t sacrifice the beauty of the melodies. It suits the film extremely well and is a pretty good piece of music by itself.

“The Unknown Known” is frustrating but how could it be any other way? Those expecting a similar interview to “The Fog of War” will definitely be disappointed. Instead, “The Unknown Known” becomes an examination of obfuscation. It’s as much about a deceptive and contentious historical figure rewriting events to suit his needs as it is about the Iraq War. Errol Morris asks reasonable questions and Donald Rumsfield, more often then not, gives confusing, double-speak-and-mixed-metaphor filled answers. Combined with Morris’ sharp visuals and Elfman’s solid score, “The Unknown Known” remains a compelling film. Look into Rumsfield’s eyes, watch him lie, and try to figure out how much of anything he says is true. [Grade: B]

Errol Morris has been trying to get another narrative film made for some time. "Freezing People is Easy," a promising sounding comedy about cryonics meant to star Paul Rudd and Christopher Walken, nearly came together before disappearing. More recently, Morris was attached to direct "Holland, Michigan," a true crime based thriller starring Bryan Cranston. This too has yet to roll into active production. I'd really love to see either of these movies. It's still obvious to me that Morris has a great narrative film inside him. Hopefully, such a project will get made that day. Until then, Morris has been keeping busy with short documentary films for ESPN. I imagine another documentary feature will materialize in time. I look forward to whatever that movie may be.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Director Report Card: Errol Morris (2010)

10. Tabloid

To say that Errol Morris only makes two types of documentaries is diminishing to his skills as a filmmaker. However, Morris’ movies can generally be separated into two categories. The first of which is his important, political and historical work. “The Thin Blue Line” got a wrongfully accused man out of prison. “The Fog of War” and “Standard Operating Procedure” shed light on the controversies of the Vietnam and Iraq Wars. The other category is intimate interviews with quirky, unique individuals about unusual topics. “Gates of Heaven,” “Vernon, Florida,” and “Fast, Cheap & Out of Control” are examples. “Tabloid” fits snugly inside the second style. While both types of film are often great, I’ll admit a preference to the second type. “Tabloid” may even be my favorite of all of Errol Morris’ films.

Some time in the late seventies, a former beauty pageant queen from the American south named Joyce McKinney became romantically obsessed with Kirk Anderson, a Mormon missionary. McKinney claims the two were in love. After Anderson left for the U.K. on a religious mission – without telling McKinney – she organized a group of people to help her travel the world and find the man of her dreams. After locating him, Joyce kidnapped Kirk, took him to a secluded cottage in the country side, and tied him to a bed. How consensual the following sex was is debated. After Kirk was freed and Joyce was put on trial, a media circus erupted. The British tabloids made McKinney a minor celebrity. Yet Joyce’s bizarre story was only beginning.

That “Tabloid” is the first movie made about McKinney’s stranger-than-fiction story is surprising. The tale presented in “Tabloid” is so perfectly unusual, spinning in multiple unexpected directions with a fascinating figure at its center. As one of the tabloid reporters explain in the film, the story has everything: Sex, religion, intrigue, bondage, kidnapping. The story even had a catchy name: “The Case of the Manacled Mormon!” No wonder Joyce sold so many papers. Yet the best part of “Tabloid” is how the story gets weirder and weirder the longer it goes on. Joyce’s true nature, what really happened in that cottage, what she did on the way to prison, how the media handled it, and even her post-scandal life back in America is unpredictable and compelling. This is exactly the kind of subject that deserves a film.

Errol Morris has interviewed some colorful characters over his films. Award winning astrophysicists, death chamber designers, lion tamers, and deep south eccentrics have all told their stories in front of his cameras. Yet few of them compare to Joyce McKinney. McKinney’s distinctive accent and odd figures of speech make her immediately memorable. Undeniably, she tells her story through self-interested rose colored glasses. She describes the Church of Latter-Day Saints as a cult. When discussing her boyfriend’s time with the Mormon church, she describes him as brain-washed and robotic, talking about a Kirk #1 and Kirk #2. She frames her romance with Kirk in fairy tale terms, with everyone else – from Kirk’s parents, the Mormon Church, and the media – keeping them apart. According to her own telling, Joyce’s adventure includes extreme violence, magical spirits, elaborate disguises, and contraband hidden inside her bodily cavities. (All of this is aside from the time she kidnapped and raped a guy.) In other words, Joyce McKinney is fucking nuts. Like many crazy people, she’s fascinating to watch.

Yet Joyce’s version of events is not the only one told in “Tabloid.” Morris interviews the pilot that flew a plane across the Atlantic. According to this man, Joyce greeted him in a see-through top without a bra. Later, the same guy describes visiting a nude beach with Joyce, freely admitting that the former beauty queen – a shapely blonde – would be desired by any heterosexual male. Joyce presents herself as a virgin, a fairy tale princess totally pure in her motivations. Other anecdotes suggest Joyce was willing to use her physical beauty to get her way. Later, we learn Joyce worked as a call-girl, an on-demand dominatrix and massage therapist who performed oral sex on her clients. (Even this account points out that Joyce never had vaginal intercourse with the men.) Joyce outright denies these allegations, claiming the people who told these stories were liars and fraudsters. But they certainly explain how she funded her cross-Atlantic adventure.

The nature of the truth has been a reoccurring feature in Errol Morris’ movies: The facts of the murder case in “The Thin Blue Line,” the different perceptions of the abuse in “Standard Operating Procedure,” Fred Leuchter’s view of the truth in “Mr. Death.” In “Tabloid,” this theme manifest in the conflicting stories told about Joyce. Is Joyce, as she claims, a virtuous warrior of love? An advantageous seductress? A literal sex worker? At one point in the story, two rival British tabloids ran opposing sides of the story. One presented Joyce as the Madonna. The other presented her as the whore. As one of the film’s interview subjects points out, the truth likely lies somewhere between these two extremes. The viewer coming to their own conclusions is part of the fun of “Tabloid,” a mystery without a solution, that anybody can be caught up in.

Whatever your opinion of the Church of Latter-Day Saints is, you have to admit that some of the Church’s theology is… Eccentric. Joyce describes some of these beliefs while Morris digs up old footage from LDS educational films. About how Jesus was a polygamist, how God lives on a planet in the center of the universe, how black people were cursed by the Lord. Inevitably, the magic underwear comes up. Joyce claims she and Kirk burned his together. A former Mormon and an expert on the church is also interviewed. He back-ups the statement that the Church’s stance on sex is conservative, to say the least. That young Mormons are encouraged to become missionaries. He also shares an amusing anecdote, about Joyce McKinney becoming a Mormon bogey-woman, a succubus that could abduct young Mormons and steal away their precious virginity. If nothing else, the Church’s involvement adds another unusual element to this bizarre story.

Naturally, such a salacious true story caught the attention of the tabloids. In the U.K., the tabloids are notorious for focusing on sleazy, sexual stories. Which helps explain why Joyce became such a figure of fascination. Joyce, unsurprising given her attitudes, describes the tabloids as smutty and degrading. She talks about paparazzi doggedly pursuing her. Even once she’s back in America, Joyce claims people tracked her down. Yet her minor celebrity status earned Joyce some perks. It got her into a movie premiere, where she out shined star Joan Collins. While inside clubs, she got to meet Keith Moon, John Travolta, and the Bee Gees. She received adoring fan mail, from young men who would’ve been happy to been chained up by her. While the fame was fun at first, Joyce’s paranoid fantasies has the tabloid press becoming another one of her enemies. Considering we live in a world where internet viral videos can make nobodies somebodies, this side of “Tabloid” remains pertinent.

Joyce seemed to disappear from the public’s eye after interest in the story died down. She secluded herself from public life. This is illustrated with some home movies, where Joyce’s deranged narration accompanies footage of her parent’s house. Yet “Tabloid” takes another unexpected turn in the last act. McKinney tells an unlikely story of a vet sabotaging her pitbull’s medication, which caused him to go crazy and violently maw her. (It’s unlikely that Joyce could’ve survived the extreme wounds she describes.) Another pet of her’s, a stray named Booger, saved her life. Booger becomes the second love of Joyce’s life, being her companion in her later years. When Booger died of cancer, Joyce set out on another global adventure to rescue her love. The journey led her to Seoul, Korea, where Booger became the first commercially cloned dog. What could’ve been a sweet story is slanted by Joyce’s continued eccentric behavior. She repeats the name “Booger” like a mantra, which quickly becomes hilarious. She mentions God promising her that her dog will return to her. That Booger’s spirit visibly followed her on the plane ride. If you wrote this stuff, it would be described as over-the-top.

Morris’ film follows the visual cues of the tabloid, printing black-on-white headlines, grainy photographs, presenting his interviews inside a television, and emphasizing the salacious words used in the film. Joyce McKinney’s strange life and stranger personality followed “Tabloid” even after the film was finished. After the movie's release, McKinney sued Morris for defamation. She claimed the film portrayed her as a crazy rapist. Even though her actions would obviously be described as rape by any modern definition. As for “crazy?” Well, just watch the movie. (Since then, McKinney has also been connected with a bizarre burglary case.) “Tabloid” is hilarious, enthralling, and endlessly re-watchable. Who would’ve thought that a Wyoming beauty queen would provide Errol Morris with his most unusual interview? [Grade: A]

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Director Report Card: Errol Morris (2008)

9. Standard Operating Procedure

The history books will judge America harshly for the Iraq War. Whether you believe we should’ve started it, or if the war hasn’t even really ended, are topics beyond the reach of this blog. Among the many controversies concerning that conflict was the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. The images of the prisoners – nude, standing on boxes, piled atop each other, mocked by a female soldier with short hair – came to represent to many the betrayal America inflicted on its own people and the world. Errol Morris making a film about this event, interviewing those involved, provided an oppretunity to get another perspective on history.

As “Standard Operating Procedure” opens, the abuse at Abu Ghraib has been going on for quite some time. Some of the prisoners are insurgents, terrorists, and soldiers. Others are normal people. Many of them are treated the same way. The men are stripped nude, tortured and humiliated on a regular basis. At some point, the men and women involved in these daily routines begin to take photographs of the disgraced prisoners. These photographs are what made this event in history notorious.

Errol Morris’ intimate interviewing style is well suited to this subject. Allowing the people in and around those famous photographs to talk, telling their sides of the story, give us important insight into how and why this happened. The interview subjects make it abundantly clear that Abu Ghraib was bad when they arrived. One soldier reports seeing an interrogator forcing a man to crawl across the floor in the nude. The prisoners that aren’t nude are forced to wear women’s underwear. When tied up, said underwear is shoved over their heads. Some of the interview subjects report asking about this behavior. Each time, they are told this is how the interrogations work. Yet out of all the people interviewed, only one left the prison when he saw the horrible way the prisoners were being treated. In other words, everyone was just following orders.

However, none of the employees at Abu Ghraib ever take personal responsibility for what happened there. When someone admits to doing something awful – including torture, humiliation, and even murder in two separate scenarios – they never blame themselves. Instead, all involved are all too willing to pass the buck to someone else. A commanding officer goaded them into this. When one of the wardens is questioned about the smile she gave in a photograph with a dead body, she says she always smiles in a photo, no matter what. There’s two ways to look at this. Either the environment at Abu Ghraib was so toxic, that nobody questioned what they were doing. Or everyone is trying to save face after the fact. Only Sabrina Harman seems honest about how responsible she is for what happened.

Morris’ film is not about Abu Ghraib in general or even the abuse that happened there. Instead, it’s specifically about those famous photographs. More than once, Morris has the present parties discuss when the photographs were taken. They’ll look directly at one of the infamous pictures, point out who is who and what is happening. Morris is determined to get the story behind those photographs, to figure out the context of everything happening inside them. A man designated to the case after the fact explains how three cameras took most of the photos. The specific brand names are pointed out. In a brilliant illustration, we see how he laid out a timeline, determining when the different photos were taken. Yet not all of the notorious pictures are what they appear to be. The aforementioned female solider with the short hair, who was on all the news programs, points out that another woman was in several of the photographs with her. The other person was cropped out, effectively making another person the face of the scandal. Morris is interested in how photographs both illuminate and hide the truth.

For the first time since “The Thin Blue Line,” Morris makes extended use of recreations. The purpose of these sequences are clear: To impose upon the audience how ugly and brutal these events were. Early in the movie, we’re struck with the image of a helicopter exploding right over the viewer’s head. An especially vivid recreation puts us in a jail cell, with a prisoner being attacked by large Iraqi ants. These sequences are frequently narrated by readings from Sabrina Harman’s letters to her wife. Morris takes us inside the wet bags held over the waterboarding victims. He shows us the dead body of the murdered prisoner dragged around his cell. The recreations do not take the place of the frank confessions. Instead, they supplement them, adding to the verisimilitude of the film.

“Standard Operating Procedure” features all the photographs we’ve seen countless times on the news and internet. However, in the film, the pictures are uncensored. We see the men in the nude, degraded and abused. They climb atop each other, stand flat against the walls with their penises in their hands, or are handcuffed at awkward angles by their captors. No detail is spared. The ugliness of what happened is directly, honestly shown to us. As visceral as the recreations in the film are, simply showing the documents that exist do the most to confront us with what happened.

The most incensed of all the interviews in “Standard Operating Procedure” is a government official ordered to oversee what happened at Abu Ghraib. She discusses being denied access or, in one case, outright being told to destroy evidence. Another interview discuss how indifferent the workers at the prison were to the suffering around them. At one point, he describes two soldiers making out a few feet away from a bound prisoners. Yet even these aren’t the most damning moments in “Standard Operating Procedure.” Near the end, the man instructed to inspect the photographs grades each one on whether or not they show abuse. Forcing nude prisoners to climb across the floor, pile atop each other, or masturbate?: Torture. Threatening someone with electrocution, forcing them to stand atop a box for hours, handcuffing them to a bed and shoving underwear over their faces?: Not torture. The worst part is none of this extreme behavior got information that could’ve helped people. Saddam Husein was captured more by luck then anything else. The cruel things that happen are the fault of individual people but also of a system that does nothing to punish corruption.

Both Philip Glass and Caleb Sampson, Morris’ regular composers, passed on “Standard Operating Procedure.” Instead, Danny Elfman composed the music for the film. Perhaps it’s not terribly shocking that Elfman’s music sounds a bit more like Glass than his usual style. There are no jaunty tubas in this movie.  Instead, the main themes makes heavy use of building strings and horns, punctuated by lonely piano keys. The music is oddly touching while maintaining a foreboding edge in the margins. That foreboding aspect better characterized most of the rest of the score, adding a sad and sinister edge to the film. The darkest moments in the film – an anecdote about a dog mauling a prisoner – is highlighted with harsh noise on the soundtrack. It’s not one of Elfman’s classic scores but fits the film, helping to make it more powerful.

After exploring the complexity of decisions made in war in “The Fog of War,” “Standard Operating Procedure” focuses in on a specific example of collateral damage linked to military conflicts. It’s a revealing film, examining the atmosphere that makes torture and cruelty possible. Moreover, the first person testimonials shed light on history, giving us insight into events that might seem far off and distant. Considering the U.S. military is still in the Middle East and “enhanced interrogation techniques” are still a source of controversial, “Standard Operating Procedure” remains relevant in a turbulent world. [Grade: A-]

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Director Report Card: Errol Morris (2003)

8. The Fog of War
Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara

In 2004, Errol Morris finally won the Academy Award for Best Documentary. It had been a long time coming. Considering what the filmmaker had done to change the genre, considering how beloved and respected so many of his films are, it really should have happened much sooner. That “The Fog of War” would be the Morris film to finally win the award isn’t surprising. It’s a serious political work, a long form interview with Robert McNamara, a controversial historic figure. The film is both probing and personal, providing insight into history from a man who molded it.

“The Fog of War” is structured around eleven lessons former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara has learned over his long career. The interview cycles through his time in World War II, his post-war career as a successful executive at Ford Motors, before focusing primarily on his time as Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War. As McNamara explains his points, Morris cuts in with historical recordings and questions of his own.

“The Fog of War” may be the most complex film about war ever made. I don’t mean its construction or technique. Too often, war is reduced to action movie theatrics or simple stories of good vs. bad. Even films that claim to approach how difficult a subject bloody conflicts are reduce wars to tragedies, with little more complexity. “The Fog of War” addresses how difficult decisions are made all the time during a conflict. How men in command have to send people to their death and how those men aren’t always certain of their own choices. By going behind the scenes of Vietnam, Errol Morris has revealed that nothing about war is easy or clean.

This is clear early on. “The Fog of War” begins with the earliest part of McNamara’s career in the military. He describes his quick ascent through the ranks, quickly achieving a reputation as a strategist and a Whiz Kid. Most bracing, McNamara discusses his own fixed feelings concerning what the American military did during the Pacific campaign. When discussing the fire bombing of Japan, he compares the destruction and lives lost to similarly sized American cities. To hammer the point home, Morris flashes the numbers on-screen. McNamara out-right questions the brutality of these tactics before admitting that himself and his colleagues would’ve been persecuted as war criminals if America hadn’t won the war. Not only does Morris illustrate the cost of war, he also shows how open and frank this interview will be.

The frankness of these early interviews cast a new shadow over the standard biographical aspect of the documentary. The courtship of his wife and the birth of his children are topics that come up. This segues into his time as President of Ford Motors. McNamara applied the same tactics he used in war to the car company, helping to raise Ford’s profit. Oddly, even during this time, McNamara places great value on human life. The fatality of the car accident, the design flaws that caused them, are skimmed over. A hypnotic sequences recreate a moment when McNamara and his co-workers dropped artificial skulls down a staircase, to test the affect of an impact on them. When McNamara was offered the position of Secretary of Defense, he actually took a pay cut from what he was making at Ford.

These scenes and more make it clear that one of Morris’ goal is to humanize Robert McNamara, the great architect of Vietnam. This is best illustrated during his memories about President Kennedy’s death. McNamara mentions an incident where he visited the president’s cemetery site. The reminiscence concludes with McNamara breaking down in tears. It’s clear that McNamara’s time as Secretary of Defense wasn’t just a job for him. The sudden, violent loss of Kennedy was a wound felt by everyone in the country. McNamara is made into more than just a stale voice of authority.

A pivotal moment in “The Fog of War” happens early on. From off-camera, we hear Errol Morris asks McNamara about Vietnam. The former Secretary of Defense changes the subject, turning the conversation towards his time at Ford first. Eventually, the interview subject has to bring up Vietnam. Over and over again, McNamara expresses regret over what happened during that conflict. He mentions a misunderstanding before the war, involving a ship that was believed to have been sunk by Vietnamese forces. (It wasn’t.) Over and over again, he bemoans the amount of lives lost during the war. He regrets his own involvement, actively admitting that the best decisions weren’t made.

Maybe hindsight is everything. Morris often contrasts McNamara’s current interview with archive’s recordings from the time. Sometimes, the former Secretary’s words seem to line up. More than once, President Lyndon Johnson can be heard discussing a more aggressive intermission in Vietnam, while McNamara stresses that enough lives have already been lost. Other times, the conversations recorded thirty years prior betray McNamara’s current statements. Sometimes, he immediately agrees with the President’s words. Other times, he suggest more men on the ground, more soldiers tossed into the fray. Morris is not incriminating McNamara or calling him a hypocrite. Instead, he’s showing that time and recognition can make all the difference.

For the third time, Philip Glass provides the music to one of Errol Morris’ film. Musically, the soundtrack to “The Fog of War” is not as exciting or novel as the music for “The Thin Blue Line” or “A Brief History of Time.” Glass leans very heavily on his beloved repetition. Sometimes, the constantly repeating strings or piano keys start to swallow one another, any melodic beauty lost. However, occasionally a more picturesque bit of music emerges, such as a singularly played flute or a burst of percussion. Isolated from the film, Glass’ “Fog of War” score does not make a huge impression. However, when paired with Morris’ images, the music becomes inseparable from the film’s success.

Robert S. McNamara is human, like all of us, with a complex personality, who has made mistakes and regrets them. By giving us a peak into a divisive historical figure’s head, Errol Morris provides a face – and perhaps a soul – to history. Moreover, “The Fog of War” makes it clear that nobody makes it out clean in a war. That, when human lives are at stake, no decision is made lightly. The audiences are put in the place of the decision makers, left to wonder if they would make similar choices in the same situation. If history would judge them fairly. While “The Fog of War” is not my favorite of Errol Morris’ films, it is undoubtedly one of his most important. [Grade: A]

Monday, April 11, 2016

Director Report Card: Errol Morris (1999)

7. Mr. Death
The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.

The long hiatus that followed between “A Brief History of Time” and “Fast, Cheap & Out of Control” didn’t immediately repeat itself. Within a year, Errol Morris was working on a new project. Back in the eighties, Morris nearly made a movie about a character named “Dr. Death.” In the late nineties, the documentarian made a film called “Mr. Death.” The new film would continue the revival of interest in Morris as a filmmaker, winning yet more rave reviews and positive attention.

Fred A. Leuchter Jr. began his career as an engineer. The son of a corrections officer, Leuchter was struck by how cruel execution by electric chair was. Despite a lack of formal training as an expert in capital punishment, Leuchter would quickly become a much sought technician for machines designed to kill people. Through his work with gas chambers, Leuchter would follow down an unexpected path. When Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel was put on trial for publishing hate speech, Leuchter was chosen to testify on Zundel’s behalf. A lack of knowledge of the Holocaust, history, or how poison gas dissipates didn’t stop Leuchter from proclaiming that the Holocaust never happened.

“Mr. Death” seems to begin as a documentary about a quirky subject discussing his unusual career, not dissimilar to “Fast, Cheap & Out of Control.” Obviously, somebody has to design the electric chairs, gas chambers, and gallows. Yet you don’t often think about who that person must be. Fred Leuchter cuts the figure of someone deeply lacking in self-awareness. He’s designing machines that kill people. Yet he constantly discusses how he’s watching out for the comfort of the condemned. While discussing a lethal injection machine, he mentions how the intended should be seated in a comfy, upright chair while watching TV or listening to music. He does realize these people are going to die, doesn’t he? Why would the government pay for the comfort of someone who is going to be dead soon, anyway? How far does basic humanity extend? Leuchter discusses the morbid details of burning flesh, leaking urine and oozing corpses with a matter-of-fact quality. He grasps the seriousness of what he did without understanding many of the smaller aspects.

Leuchter comes off as eccentric and his work is macabre, to say the least. Yet he seems relatively harmless at first. However, Morris is hinting at the darker days to come from the film’s opening minutes. Leuchter is introduced standing in a dark room, lightning dancing over his head. Morris cuts between the direct interviews and black-and-white footage of old prisons and airplanes. When talking about the dying moments of the soon-to-be executed, Morris takes the perspective of the doomed, showing the plain ceiling of the execution room. It sets up a sinister tone while the dark shots of Leuchter clarifies what the filmmaker thinks of his subject.

“Mr. Death” takes a serious turn about a half-hour in, after the conclusion of the first act. Leuchter’s alliance with the Holocaust denial crowd is slowly revealed. During the first half of the film, Fred went on about how he didn’t have any expertise in engineering implements of death, much less chemistry. Despite this, or more likely because of it, holocaust deniers (who sickeningly described themselves as “revisionist historians”) tapped Leuchter as their expert. There’s video footage of Leuchter stumbling through Auschwitz, climbing into holes, chiseling at walls. In voice-over, we hear Fred’s ex-wife bitterly describe the trip, which she spent in a cold car. Leuchter insists there’s no sign of poison gas on the camp walls… Which ignores the chemical fragility of Zyklone B. Not to mention the mountains of other evidence, of photographs, videos, paperwork, letters, and countless eye-witness testimonials.

Without being precisely about holocaust denial, “Mr. Death” gives us insight into the mindset of believers. Ernst Zundel, the man Leuchter was called on to defend, is interviewed. Outside evidence makes it clear that Zundel is a hardcore Neo-Nazi. Within the film, he presents himself as a proud German, determined to clear his country of a crime he believes didn’t happen. One of Zundel’s publisher, who would publish Leuchter’s statement, literally seems to believe that there’s more evidence to suggest the holocaust didn’t happen then evidence that suggest it did. I frequently assume that all Holocaust deniers are hardened anti-Semites, who just pretend the Holocaust didn’t happen in order to further justify their hatred of Jewish people. “Mr. Death” presents something far more frightening: These people are serious. Their denial of history and fact is sincere.

But what about Fred A. Leuchter? Is he an anti-Semite? Leuchter makes repeated statements about how he has no ill will towards Jews. His interviews seem to suggest that he isn’t blatantly hateful. I don’t believe Leuchter is knowingly a bigot. Instead, he’s an egotistic fool. He’s a man stunningly lacking in self-awareness. He admits his own lack of knowledge in this field and yet he refuses to acknowledge that he might be wrong. Through this lens, “Mr. Death” becomes a film about the power of ignorance. Fred A. Leuchter doesn’t intentionally do evil. That doesn’t change it from being evil.

Errol Morris’ initial cut of “Mr. Death” was already shorter then the still brief ninety minute run time of the current version. At first, the film was only composed of interviews with Leuchter. Test audiences felt the film didn’t properly condemn Leuchter or his beliefs. Morris – who is Jewish, by the way – felt holocaust denial was obviously ridiculous and repugnant and assumed audiences felt the same. Afterwards, Morris included new interviews of people pointing out the obvious holes in Leuchter’s science: Namely, his ignorance of the mountains of other evidence or his clueless handling of his mission.

Yet even with these interviews, “Mr. Death” takes an impressive third turn. Leuchter’s holocaust denial obviously destroyed his career and left his personal life in tatters. No prisons would buy his designs. His wife left him. The only work he could get was speaking engagements at Neo-Nazi rallies, which is hardly something anyone would want on their resume. He is a sad, bitter, broken man with zero opportunists. Most of “Mr. Death” shows how foolish his beliefs are. In its final minutes, the film manages to make us feel sorry for him. Does a man deserve to have his life destroyed because of his beliefs? Does being wrong – perhaps even evil – mean someone doesn’t deserve to have a happy life? These are some of the questions “Mr. Death” has the viewer asking.

Coupled with Caleb Sampson’s equally sinister and quirky score, “Mr. Death” is one of Errol Morris’ most underrated films. It didn’t receive the praise and awards many of the filmmaker’s other pictures did. You don’t hear about it as often as his more beloved documentaries. Don’t let this dissuade you from checking it out. “Mr. Death” revolves around a man who is, in his own way, a fascinating figure. Like Morris’ best work, it uses a simple set-up to prompt complex questions in the audience. [Grade: A-]

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Director Report Card: Errol Morris (1997)

6. Fast, Cheap & Out of Control

I’m not sure why but, after “A Brief History of Time,” Errol Morris didn’t make another movie for five years. It was his longest hiatus since the seven year dearth between “Vernon, Florida” and “The Thin Blue Line.” I suspect the documentary-maker’s problem with finding funding can probably explain the gap. Either way, “Fast, Cheap & Out of Control” would usher in a new creative period for Morris. He would be busy for many years to follow, creating new films, shorts, and even a critically acclaimed television series. In many ways, “Fast, Cheap & Out of Control” is the model for Morris’ “First Person” TV show.

“Fast, Cheap & Out of Control” concerns itself with four eccentrics, each interviewed in Morris’ trademark fashion of intimate conversation and kinetic direction. Dave Hoover is a lion tamer, who has pursued the job out of a childhood love of Clyde Beatty’s jungle adventure serials. George Mendonca is a veteran topiary designer, spending most of his adult life cutting bushes and trees into specific animal shapes. Raymond A. Mendez is a zoologist who has a special affinity with the naked mole rat, photographing the animal and designing specialized pens for the creatures. Rodney Brooks, meanwhile, is a robotics technician, determined to design machines that are as human-like as possible.

What do these desperate individuals have in common? Morris’ editing often has the interviews overlapping. Footage of Hoover training lions sometimes play under Mendonca describing his method of cleaving creatures out of foliage, a parallel being drawn between the different types of animals. Mendez’ describing the behavior of naked mole rats sometimes meets Brooks’ footage of scurrying robots. The inverse happens as well, insect-like robots and naked mole rats beginning to seem similar. Morris’ thesis seems to be the places passion leads us. Each interviewee pursues their eccentric goals because of their love of the subject. Sometimes, their passion for these unusual objects pushes into obsession. It’s not impossible to follow a line from the obsessive turkey hunter of “Vernon, Florida” to the eccentrics on display here. However, Morris’ approach is more positive this time. These guys are doing what they love. Moreover, each of the men’s interests deal with how the natural world and the world of man interacts.

Of all the guys Morris converses with in “Fast, Cheap & Out of Control,” Raymond A. Mendez and his love of the naked mole rat is probably my favorite. His interest in the bizarre rodents began with his hope that a mammal that acts like an insect existed. The mole rats are just that. They leave in ant-like colonies and have a similar social structures. A queen births countless new mole rats every day, while workers and soldiers populate the underground tunnels. Mendez’ passion for the squirmy mole rats has him designing a specific habitat for them. He describes finding the right material for the enclosure, how to hold the mole rats, and the creature’s unusual toilet habits. Through his discussion of the species, an odd philosophy emerges. In the wild, the rats would be eaten by predators or stomped by elephants. In captivity, they’re given longer lives. Mendez seems to suggest that creating a civilized society and sympathy are linked. Also, he delivers a really cute anecdote about keeping a few mole rats as pets.

Rodney Brooks lends the film its title. Brooks’ insect-like robots line up directly with Mendez’ insect-like mole rats. Brooks begins the conversation by pointing out that real life animals don’t operate perfectly. Ants fall down, wobble, and stumble. Thus, scientists should strive to emulate these aspects in their robots. Perfection isn’t natural. This philosophy extends to Brooks’ approach to sending robots into space. Don’t send one expensive robot. Send a thousand inexpensive ones. Equally fascinating is Brooks’ thoughts on how robots work. A machine doesn’t have thoughts and yet it sometimes function intuitively anyway. Brooks seems keen to align the chaos of the natural world with the perfected world of engineering, finding the most success in a happy middle ground.

Dave Hoover’s interest in lion taming began with Clyde Beatty’s adventure serials which he happily describes as “corny.” This passion was egged on by a childhood priest, who smartly figured the world needs lion tamers as much as it needs anything else. Hoover takes a fairly casual approach to the animals he works with. Or rather, a casual approach to what they could do to him. Hoover describes an incident where a lion dragged him through a cage, nearly bit his hand off, and another event where a lion nearly escaped. Despite the lions being able to tear his head off, Hoover still bonds with them. He describes his favorite lion, John John, as an ornery but lovable creature. Through the specific ways the lions are trained, Hoover presents another way mankind and the natural world balance each other. Hoover also describes his profession as a dying breed with his current apprentice being the only one to stick with the job. (Considering the lions look emaciated, old, and sick, I doubt most people would mourn the passing of the lion tamer.)

The least obviously interesting of Morris’ subjects is George Mendonca. Topiary carving is not an art form that can be properly conveyed through interviews. Mendonca also gives the driest of the interviews. Despite a robot engineer and a zoologist being in the film, the topiary artist is the most technical person interviewed. He describes how a topiary must constantly be maintained. An inspiring moment concerns a topiary being destroyed in a storm. Mendonca simply started again, which is all he could do. He’s set in his ways, preferring a pair of hedge clippers over anything else. He also admits his own age, how he probably won’t live long enough to see another complex topiary grow to fruition.

With “Fast, Cheap & Out of Control,” Errol Morris makes extensive use of stock footage. While ants and insectoid robots are being discussed, footage from “The Deadly Mantis” and “Them!” are inserted. As Hoover goes on about how Clyde Beatty’s films inspired him, Morris shows a considerable amount of footage from the serial, “Darkest Africa.” Morris even tosses in footage from “GoBots,” “Gigantor,” and “Bobby’s World” for less well-defined reasons. While these images definitely connect with the movie’s subject, sometimes it feels like Morris is padding out the run time with this footage. If you cut out the stock footage, “Fast, Cheap & Out of Control” would run considerably shorter and little of value would be lost. If Morris had utilized his trademark reenactments a little more, “Fast, Cheap & Out of Control” would probably be better off. Even those sequence, such as a long moment devoted to circus performers, seem to drag on.

“Fast, Cheap & Out of Control” would be Morris first collaboration with composer Caleb Sampson, taking over for Philip Glass. Sampson’s music could be compared to Glass. While he doesn’t pile it on the way Glass does, Sampson’s soundtrack does feature some repetition and building strings. However, Sampson’s work is quirkier then either of Glass’ previous scores. The music can be soaring, powerful, and meaningful. Just as often, Sampson replicates the calliope of a circus, to underscore the specific scenes in such a setting. As always, the music is the secret glue that holds Morris’ films together. For a film that’s already slightly disconnected, Sampson’s graceful soundtrack becomes essential to maintaining the spiritual continuity between scenes.

Directly after “Fast, Cheap & Out of Control,” Errol Morris would begin work on “First Person.” A television show that ran for two seasons on Bravo – back when Bravo was a classy cable network instead of another trashy reality show station – the show essentially brought Morris’ style to television. In many ways, his sixth feature is a test run for the series. Both tout the use of Interrotron, Morris’ patented style of having an interview subject look directly into the audience’s eyes. “First Person” would also focus on individual’s telling their stories, often detailing their private passions. In this way, “Fast, Cheap & Out of Control” is a bit like four episodes of “First Person” cut together. While not Morris’ most seamless film, “Fast, Cheap and Out of Control” is another impressive effort from the documentary's most interesting filmmaker. [Grade: B]