Reviews Of Scott Walker: 30 Century Man; Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey; Transcendent Man; Limelight; And Lenny Bruce: Without Tears

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/2/12


  I recently watched a run of five biographical documentaries on Netflix streaming video that were about, well, assorted wacky folks in the arts and sciences. The five films were Scott Walker: 30 Century Man; Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey; Transcendent Man; Limelight; and Lenny Bruce: Without Tears.




  The first of the films I watched was Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, a 2006 film on the music of singer Scott Engel, whose professional name is Scott Walker, due to his initial claim to fame as part of the 1960s pop trio, The Walker Brothers- musicians not named Walker who were not brothers, who hit the big time in Europe but were forgotten in America. After the breakup of that group, Engel ventured out onto a solo career, producing ‘experimental music’ over the last few decades that has descended into noise and spoken word, more than crooning. In fact, with age, Engel’s art has gotten worse with each infrequent release, even though he is idolized by a plenum of rock music talking heads that litter the 95 minute long film: David Bowie (who produced the film, Sting, Brian Eno, and Ute Lemper, among others).

  Film director Stephen Kijak’s film is to be commended for never descending into minutia on Engel’s life. In fact, virtually nothing, after the initial information on Engle’s youth, is mentioned of his private life. This is refreshing, for it lifts the film well above any claims of being a vanity documentary. The negative is that Engel’s ‘art’ is simply not good. Yes, he had a deep, powerful bass voice, and it was put to great effect in the early recordings. But, listening to his latest efforts, not only are his lyrics bad (Jim Morrison, Walker is not, even as some talking heads bizarrely link him to T.S. Eliot, Samuel Beckett, and James Joyce)- in a jumbled sense, but they border on PC and the ‘music,’ such as it is, is random and found noise, not harmonies and melodies. To top it off, Engel’s voice is a dim echo of its former glory, often descending into what seems like a parody of some local 1960s television station’s late night horror film show host’s attempt at singing to a bad B film.

  Initially, the film plays out like a mockumentary, but the infusion of vintage television clips dashes that surmise. What is not dashed is the reality of how limited the ‘art’ of Engel’s music. Great art does art well. Visionary art pushes boundaries, as well. But, to push the boundaries back, the artist has to stay anchored to the extremes, at least of the art form. In the case of music, this means non-banal lyrics, damning predictable percussion, varying melodies and other such extensions. Simply going off into a corner and wailing, or grunting, is not an extension of music nor singing, as arts. Of course, that is hyperbole, but Walker’s latest efforts smack of a phenomenon known in the arts- that of the spent artist realizing he’ll never duplicate his earlier successes, so he just preens and deranges, then hides behind the veneer of his earlier success, as a ‘genius,’ or the like (and it’s no shock to know Engel worships the Beatniks). Engel simply never expands the boundaries of music- pop nor otherwise, even as talking heads damn many of the progressive rock acts of the 1970s that went far beyond Walker’s experimentalism: Yes, King Crimson, and others.

  Scott Walker: 30 Century Man (the title taken from an Engel song) is a well wrought and exquisitely structured film on an ultimately interesting subject, but that subject is not Engel nor music nor art, but the peregrinations of the spent artist in search of that golden nipple needed to nurse him into senescence’s uneasy drool. Now, if only director Kijack can find an artist and subject worthy of his talents, the film will be a landmark in the genre.




  While not a landmark in documentary filmmaking, Steven M. Martin’s 1993 documentary, Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, is almost the documentary Kijack’s is, as it has a far worthier subject- electronic musical pioneer and inventor Leon Theremin, but a bit more scattershot execution, cinematically. The 83 minute long film mixes traditional biography of Theremin’s life, his loves (marrying a black ballet dancer in the 1930s), his political persecution in the Stalin era Soviet Union, details on the history, construction, and musical influence of the theremin, and a summary of it all.

  The film features interviews with Todd Rungren, Robert Moog, who discourses on Theremin’s role in electronic music, his own influential career, and has a number of lesser known talking heads, and one transcendently silly interview with a literally batshit insane Brian Wilson (of The Beach Boys fame), who speaks wanderingly of how he got the idea to use the theremin for his hit song Good Vibrations. Archival footage and audio only clips of theremin music, as well as clips from many films- including 1940s A films like Spellbound and The Lost Weekend, and 1950s B and sci fi films, like It Came From Outer Space and The Day The Earth Stood Still, testify to the influence of the film.

  However, the film’s star is not Leon Theremin, but his younger protégé, the great theremin player, Clara Rockmore. And when I state that this woman was great, I mean it. Her handling of the theremin dwarfs all the other players. This virtuoso could literally make the instrument, which could range from producing eerie to barely tolerable sounds, into an instrument of, well, to beg the cliché, genius. In Rockmore’s air divining fingers, the theremin could sound like the most virtuoso female singing voice ever recorded. Her talent level, on this instrument, is so staggeringly far above any of the other onscreen players that it is akin to watching humans and a cvreature from another species do the same task.

  Additionally, this film, unlike the first, is much more dependent upon the technical aspects to cohere it into a narrative and artistic whole. Aside from director Martin, kudos must go out to cinematographer Robert Stone and, especially editor Robert Greenwald. Rare is the film where the editor plays a larger role than the cinematographer, but this is one of those films. By the end of the film, we get to see the long awaited reunion of Theremin and Rockmore- who long feared Theremin was dead, after he was kidnapped in 1938 and forcibly returned to the Soviet Union. The film deserved its many honors at film festivals.



  The same claim cannot be made for Barry Ptolemy’s 2009 film, Transcendent Man; a profile of inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil. This 83 minute film clearly tries to hagiographize its main subject, and the film is a slick, fabulously shot and edited film, but, like Stephen Kijack’s Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, Transcendent Man lacks a man at the center to justify its technical polish.

  Kurzweil is one of those wannabe prophets of technology that, in their own deluded way, sickly mirror religious prophets in their doom and/or wonder. In Kurzweil’s case, his vision of tomorrow is all wonder, but a wonder based on information with no ability to process it. In short, Kurzweil is glaringly void of wisdom (after all, sans trials, intellect cannot advance). He bases this on what he claims (as well his acolytes) to be his near flawless prediction history. Being naturally wary of such claims, it took a less than 60 second Google search to find out that Kurzweil’s predictive abilities were far less than perfect, and often so nebulous that one wonders if he secretly made much of his fortune as a carnival seer. Yes, he does solidly in technological predictions, but rather abysmally on softer predictions involving society and things human centered.

  Yes, Kurzweil has invented many useful gadgets, but none of this qualifies him to speak with any authority on any subjects outside his narrow purview. However, Kurzweil is a multimillionaire, which in America means he is a ‘genius’ of the highest order, even if his mind is almost painfully Functionary as it flails about in its own idees fixe. In one of the film’s grand moments of irony, the hypochondriacal Kurzweil discourses about how he once had diabetes, and, through a regimen of taking over 200 pills a day, he has successfully ‘reprogrammed’ his body into being a lean and healthy machine. Then we hear that the man suffered a heart attack, due to a faulty heart valve, during filming. Does this chasten the man? No. In fact, we get an even deeper delve into what can only be fairly described as the man’s obsessive compulsion for his life’s work- and that is somehow cybernetically resurrecting his father, who died when Kurzweil was young. Now, one might think such a revelation would add a patina of pathos to the film. It does not, for Kurzweil is just so stupid in his pursuit (as example, to get the most accurate simulacrum of daddy he has saved decades old receipts and financial notations from his father, as if these will, when worked into some magical future algorithm, have any bearing on making a HAL 9000 of his old man). Lunacy unfettered. Instead of praise for Kurzweil, the film actually engenders pity for his delusive pursuit.

  Balancing out the man’s all too rosy optimism is a panel of gloomy counterparts who revel in their own sci fi fantasies and clichés of the bleak cyberpunk future that awaits us, replete with Terminators, human bondage, cyborgs, ultimate wars between AI true believers and fanatical Luddites, etc. It’s all quite laughable, for predictions of the future almost always get some things right and most wrong. As example, in the 1960s of my youth, the 21st Century was to be a Jetsons-like propelled time of flying cars with no idea of the Internet. What these wannabe Nostradami miss is that, in twenty or ten thousand years, people will still be people (bitching of taxes or bad bosses or life’s general futility), cybernetically enhanced or not, and technology has always served human needs, and adapted to them, not supplanted them, nor made us adapt to them. Like the two prior films, this one features stellar technical work by cinematographer Shawn Dufraine and editor Meg Decker, as well as one of the better film scores of his hit and miss career by Philip Glass.

  Naturally, Kurzweil’s claim to fame rests on his idea of The Singularity- the time wherein humans and machines merge, thus allowing immortality to be achieved. Kurzweil claims this will occur before mid-century. One of the few non-extremist talking heads- a medical doctor, William B. Hurlbut, finds the claim absurd, given how little we currently know of the human genome, body, and, especially, the brain. Other than Kurzweil, the oddest of the talking heads is AI researcher Hugo de Garis. This man is so condescending in his views (which are of the gloomy sort) that, while warning of his future hell of billion slaughtered, in what he calls the impeding Artilect War, actually feels he needs to explain that Artilect is a portmanteau of the words artificial and intellect.

  At the center of all these would be pundits’ predictions is a reality that they assiduously think that, by not mentioning, will be avoided, and that is The Law Of Unintended Consequences. A minor example: the rise of digital information, in the 1980s, was hailed with the claim of being a green technology that would virtually eliminate paper copies of information, thereby saving reckless deforestation. Instead, the near ubiquity of personal computers has seen a mind-boggling increase in paper production and consumption for information, as private citizens and business print up emails and documents as backups for the digital information. More paper is consumed than ever before. Likewise, instead of a Robopocalypse engulfing Mankind over the fate of artificial life, expect massive lawsuits as AIs seek legal recognition as persons, as well as the right for humans and AIs (full robots or cyborgs) to intermarry- a distant echo of former interracial marriage fights, and current homosexual marriage rights battles. I predicted that some years back in a novel of mine.

  Nonetheless, Kurzweil is an oddly fascinating subject for a film- the ever scared little man wasting his brief time alive on chimeras that are best left for a later time, even if not for the adulatory reasons director Ptolemy intones in virtually every scene of Transcendent Man, for, far from being transcendent, Kurzweil comes off as an emotionally arrested naïf, tilting at a Quixotic future he is wholly unprepared to wean himself from.




  Unweaned Grown Men might be a good subtitle for the 2011 documentary, Limelight, directed by Billy Corben, which chronicles the rise and fall of New York’s 1980s and 1990s night club impresario, Peter Gatien, a media whore, replete with a sinister looking eye patch, who turned burnt out buildings in New York into premier attractions for the city’s youth and drug (especially Ecstasy) laden youth. The film, co-produced by Gatien’s daughter, is decidedly pro-Gatien, and with good cause. Yes, he was a drug fiend, and a rightfully convicted tax cheat. But he was not guilty of running a drug racket, and the evidence the film gives, even from many of the DEA’s star witnesses, proves this.

  As someone whose early adulthood was spent in Manhattan at night, I was familiar with the rave scenes, and knew to avoid it for the very reasons the film promulgates. There are the usual over the top clichés, wherein the talking heads of the film proclaim the rave scene as making a youth culture for the world, but, in reality, techno and electronica music died on the vine, and hip hop (the watered down version of hardcore rap) is not exactly known as a progenitor of culture. And if Moby is the best the film can do, in regards to talking heads, you know you’re in trouble.

  But, the film shines as a police procedural, even if, at 102 minutes at length it often feels like a bloated A&E special on the 1980s. Gatien, deported after being cleared of criminal charges, and nailed on tax charges (ironically just like 1920s Chicago kingpin Al Capone), is not hagiographized, but the film could have done a much better job of fleshing out his personal issues. Likely, given his daughter’s role as co-producer, this was a taboo subject for the cameras.

  Corben’s film is slick and polished, but its lead subject is just not that interesting. Yes, it is fascinating to hear about how routinely the justice system is abused, and why- so that middle class malcontents can feel smugly superior in the little moralities, but, after such gas deflations, what is really left? There are the usual bevy of talking heads (including former New York Mayor Ed Koch), but little of relevance is put forth, outside of the recounting of Gatien’s case. Archival video and film footage fill in the rest, but the lesson to be culled is that the pre-9/11 New York was, for all its glory on cleaning up crime under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, still a cesspool of corruption, only this time of the institutionalized variety. One hopes that Corben returns to this subject in a later film.




  If Peter Gatien was a vapid figure on which to base a well produced documentary it’s a shame that an important cultural figure like comedian Lenny Bruce is the subject of such a badly made documentary as Fred Baker’s 1972 black and white mishmash, Lenny Bruce: Without Tears. At a mere 70 minutes running time, the film derails mainly because of its era’s technological inefficiencies, but also because of its creator’s utter lack of vision. A teenager, at home, with a good video camera and software, could produce a better made film in under an hour, nowadays.

  This film, however, is an unsynched nightmare that, somehow, through its selection of Bruce monologues and bits (even when tossed together with random scenes unrelated to the material, still works. But because of Bruce (aka Leonard Schneider- no relation), not Baker. And this is because Bruce was not only a brilliant comedian- influencing comedians as diverse as George Carlin, Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy, and Howard Stern, but an important advocate of free speech, who was doomed to an early death, via drugs, because of a) his own lifestyle and b) the relentless harassment and blacklisting of him by local authorities who would, literally, have him arrested by police the moment he uttered a four letter word on stage.

  But, if one believes that Bruce appreciation is reserved only for the lower depth of society, as a sort of prelude to the rock stylings of Jim Morrison, one would be wrong, for the film provides talking heads as diverse as Paul Krassner, Mort Sahl, Kenneth Tynan, Jean Shepherd, Nat Hentoff and Malcolm Muggeridge, as well as footage from Steve Allen’s The Tonight Show, which first exposed Bruce to a national audience. Yes, the bits from television are tame, compared to the audio bits taped from live performances, but even amongst the censorship, Bruce’s darting and ferocious wit and satiric nature shine through.

  But, near the end of the film, one sees a ravaged Bruce, only 40 at his death in 1966, look like a man twenty to twenty-five years older. If Peter Gatien thinks he had it rough with America’s little moralities, he only need sit through Baker’s film to see how easily he got off, in comparison. So, if Lenny Bruce: Without Tears can be recommended on any level, it is as a tribute to Bruce’s brilliance despite Baker’s film’s flaws, so many and manifest.




  Of the films under review, only Lenny Bruce: Without Tears fails, and this despite having the most important subject. The best of the films, and easily so, Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, had the second most important subject, and the three remaining films- Scott Walker: 30 Century Man; Transcendent Man; and Limelight are films that showcase documentary talents that simply need to find the right subject for their talents, as a loony singer, loonier death-obsessed inventor, and drug-addled night club owner simply bear no long term relevance, and people watching these films in a few decades will wonder why these films, as slick as they are, were made, and why, at least one of these directors did not pick a better subject, like the aforementioned Mr. Schneider?


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Salon website.]


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