Film Reviews Of
Buskers: For Love Or Money; The Antics Roadshow; Strictly
Background, And Card Subject To Change
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 9/6/13
I recently reviewed four documentary films dealing with the lower end of the entertainment business. They were Buskers: For Love Or Money; The Antics Roadshow; Strictly Background, and Card Subject To Change.
The first of the four films under review was released in 2008, and follows the street art of busking. Busking is a catch all term for street performance, which can include mime, acrobatics, sleight of hand, and daredeviltry, among many other talents. Buskers: For Love Or Money is an hour long look at this phenomenon, and follows many performers. In a sense, it is a glossing over of a subject that could have used more of an in depth exploration. On the positive side, the film dwelt little on the miserable lives these performers lead. One of the buskers sums up their predicament best. He states that, in America, busking is considered a form of panhandling, whereas in Europe it is considered an art form, and after the performance, many Europeans not only tip the performer, but offer them food and lodging. It’s a good analogy, but, in reality, the film shows that both extremes have validity.
While there are a handful of genuinely talented people shown doing their thing, the majority are, indeed, just lazy good for nothings who want to coast through life and bitch of its unfairness. To be fair, not all are, and some have even made money and smart real estate investments. The most well known busker seen and interviewed is mime Robert Shields, who tells how he was considered a bum until he became a star in the 1970s, with his wife Lorene Yarnell. So it goes.
The film was directed by Mad Chad Taylor, himself a busker known as a Venice Beach chainsaw juggler. Overall, the film is solid, but not deep. We get a few interesting thoughts, but mostly just jawing. The fact is that even high artists are usually clueless as to the deeper elements of life and art, so to expect more from buskers is wishful thinking. The film does have a nice polish, as in a tv documentary sense, but really is a string of observations. Not bad, but nor particularly good, either. In a sense, it was similar to Confessions Of A Superhero, which followed folks who dress up on LA streets and panhandle for photos taken with them, save that Confessions was more in depth and followed a smaller group of subjects.
While Buskers: For Love Or Money is well made, it lacks a center, instead relying on dubious nostra, such as, ‘You don’t choose to be a busker, it chooses you.’ As a documentary film, this weighs the project down, but, as a travelogue of buskers in different cities all over the world, it does succeed, if just barely.
2011’s The Antics Roadshow is a BBC television series documentary that, at 48 minutes, is even choppier and less interesting than the first film reviewed. That said, this film, made by the graffiti artist Banksy, who proffered the bad debut film, Exit Through The Gift Shop, is a bit better. Its name is a take off on the American PBS television series, The Antiques Roadshow, wherein people bring in their junk to be evaluated by appraisers and see if they have an undiscovered treasure. Usually, they do not. Such is the case with this film, which is no treasure, nor undiscovered. Basically, the film is a glorification of hoaxers and Jackass level idiocy. On the one hand, the film will glorify The Yes Men, a duo of hoaxers who show up corporate America. The film shows a 2004 television interview one of The Yes men did with the BBC, wherein he portrayed a Dow Chemical spokesman who took financial responsibility for the Bhopal disaster in 1984, wherein Union Carbide, by then acquired by Dow, caused a massive ecological disaster that killed thousands and made Bhopal the chemical equivalent of Chernobyl.
This stunt ended up causing Dow to lose billions in stock value, but can be defended on ethical grounds as the perpetrators trying to force corporate criminals to do right. No such defense can be offered for a Belgian man, Noel Godin, who has made a career of shoving custard pies in the face of celebrities and political and financial titans. This is not to say pieing a smug ass like Bill Gates is not worthwhile, to a degree, but that Banksy does not seem to get that there is a substantive and ethical difference between petty assault and real activism. The pie nut, in fact, seems to really believe that his actions have real effect in the world. In this manner, Banksy, like all shock artists, is just selling a product, as there is no deeper meaning in his film. Act like an ass and get your Warholian 15 minutes in the limelight. Worse is how the film depicts a poor man who fell at a museum and broke three Ching Dynasty vases, only to have a SWAT team come and arrest him. Yet, instead of seeing the injustice in such an overreaction, to Banksy and the film, it’s played as just another punking moment. Probably the silliest conflation the film makes is of a case wherein a British man, George Davis, convicted of armed robbery, was set free 18 months into a 20 year sentence, because a graffiti artist pal of his tagged the claim, ‘George Davis is innocent ok,’ all over England. The man is released and the film notes, almost in afterthought, that Davis later went on to commit more armed robberies.
So much for Banksy’s depth and understanding of life, much less film.
The best of the four films under review was the first to hit theaters,
2007’s Strictly Background, which follows the lives of ten Hollywood
extras, who have chosen to live in poverty and rejection for a chance to have
even a part of their body appear in the worst Hollywood films being released.
They are: Terry Bolo, Geoffrey Gould, Cecilia Hartfeld,
Louis McCarten, Jay Michaels, Cary Mizobe, Tafan Nieves, Mark Nobel, John
Richards and Marvin Rouillard. A casting agent, Jeff Olan, also gets lengthy
scenes in this 83 minute film that also evokes Confessions
Of A Superhero, although much more favorably than Buskers: For Love
Director Jason Connell shows the good and bad in these individuals- from their casual lies to their desperation. Louis McCarten, a fat, Coke bottle glassed extra, lives in a friend’s garage, and cannot even afford to return home for his mother’s funeral. Another, the diminutive Tafan Nieves, considers suicide and eventually leaves the biz, only to later return, all the while insecure over his own looks and sexual orientation. The film states that 90% of wannabe extras leave the biz inside of a year, and it’s easy to see why, as these folks literally beg for work by spec’ing film and tv production sites. They endure hours of boredom at casting calls, and then have to avoid unscrupulous agents. But. Most telling of all is how many of them dream to one day join the extras union, but do not do so because of steep fees and the fact that higher wages mean less job opportunities. As likeable as most of the extras are, there is also the reality that these are life’s losers. I state that not in the pejorative sense that they have any personal failings, just that they have literally NOT succeeded at anything else. A few claim to have had careers in other fields, and this may be so, but most seem eternally waiting for that Lana Turner like discovery.
The film is also the best made of al the films, and Connell wisely, and helpfully employs a gimmick to allow viewers to see the extras in the roles in which they appear: a scene in color is made black and white, save for the extra, so that we see them. Often it’s merely a body part or a blurry image we can barely reckon as the extra we then see talking. Nonetheless, it’s a good technique to evince these folks’ small slice of immortality, and Strictly Background is a very good little documentary.
Another good documentary, albeit not as good as Strictly background, is Tim Disbrow’s 86 minute long 2011 documentary Card Subject To Change, on life in the minor leagues of the sport. Given numerous documentaries on pro wrestling in the last 15 years, starting with the underrated Beyond The Mat, and the glut of material produced by the WWE, as well as the great little film from Darren Aronofsky, The Wrestler, Card Subject To Change offers little new on the subject, although it is quite technically well made.
The film’s stalest parts come in the interviews with the wrestlers themselves. We have the up and comers, like Trent Acid, who eventually gets jailed for drug dealing, then overdoses, and Rhett Titus, who is now a star in the Ring Of Honor league. We have wrestlers on the way down- former big names like Kevin Sullivan and Kamala the Ugandan Giant, who’s really an American blues singer. We have female wrestlers, like old timer Sherri Martel (who, like Trent Acid, died during the film’s being made- the film was shot over possibly a six to eight year time frame), and young gun Lacey Von Erich, a bodacious blonde bombshell, from the famed wrestling clan of her surname, who is already out of the business. None of them illuminate viewers who know nothing of the racket.
The same is not true for the small time promoter, and former wrestler, the film profiles, and gives the largest role to: Johnny Falco. If this film had been made fifty years ago, Falco would have been portrayed as a small time hood. Nowadays, the Mob doesn’t even bother with the industry: it’s too sewn up by the McMahon dynasty of the WWE. Still, Falco and his ilk eke out a living by giving fans of the game what they want- cheap and up close seats to see former legends and rising stars.
A host of legendary wrestlers and others appear- from Superstar Billy Graham, cautioning on the evils of steroid doping, to Jim Cornette, on the behind the scenes aspects of the biz, to Terry Funk, who can barely recall a thing (and has clearly deteriorated from his days during Beyond The Mat), to Percy Pringle- a wrestling manager better known as Paul Bearer in the WWE, who barely speaks, save to Kamala, to Dylan Summers, the infamous Necro Butcher- an indy legend who really does get hurt in the most bizarre hardcore matchups.
The best moment in the film comes at a summer outdoor show in Norwich, Connecticut, where Falco’s show bombs. Expecting four hundred people, they get a fraction of that and lose money. Falco shrugs off the loss, as well a $50 table broken during one match, and a bad midget match, and focuses on the positive. What else can he do? His league- the NWS (National Wrestling Superstars)- is his life. The best moments come in a few scenes where he basically foretells the way Trent Acid’s life can, and likely will, go. His exasperation son phone calls to bookers is quite affecting. If the film had focused more on Falco’s day to day dilemmas dealing with these uppers and downers, the film would have had a better narrative spine, instead of indulging in the typical talking head format. Nonetheless, overall, Card Subject To Change is worth watching.
Clearly, the best film of the four is Strictly Background. It appeals to all viewers, and is the most technically and narratively well made and cohesive of the films. The other three all have charms in varying degrees, but are all acquired tastes. This survey of Low Biz was interesting, but, ultimately, the winner is….well, just look above, will ya?
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Salon website.]
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