Film Reviews Of
These Amazing Shadows: The Movies That Make America; Great Directors;
Two In The Wave, The Hollywood Complex; And Mr. Warmth: The Don
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/11/14
I recently watched, over Netflix streaming, over a two day period, five documentary films dealing with film and show biz life. The films were These Amazing Shadows: The Movies That Make America; Great Directors; Two In The Wave, The Hollywood Complex; and Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project.
The first film watched was made in 2011, and titled These Amazing Shadows: The Movies That Make America. Coming in at 88 minute sin length, this documentary purported to be on the film restoration process of the National Film Registry. Instead, it was a glorified infomercial on the raison díetre and auspices of the NFR, with very little on how films are restored. It focuses on nothing really, as it quickly glides over assorted film clips with minimal input into why the films so preserved are preserved. And, even though it spends a great deal of time patting itself on the back over how diverse the assortment of 25 films a year it preserves are it gives next to nothing in terms of showing why or how the arguments for the films it preserves are gotten to. There is no dialectic- deep, philosophic, nor even petty and vain, on film. Instead, a bunch of banal talking heads, from NFR apparatchiks to hack film critics like Mick LaSalle, prattle and preen in pseudo-intellectualities.
Then there are folks like Christopher Nolan, John Waters, Rob Reiner, Debbie Reynolds, Tim Roth, and George Takei, who say little of any real depth. And while the choices for films preserved for any real merit are debatable, few question the undoubtedly poor and dubious choices made annually- from Hollywood schlock to home movies of the Japanese internment camps to movie theater commercials to questionable Ďhomeí movies and documentaries. If one is going to spend time preserving this lot, and then do a film on the preservation, the least the film viewer is owed is an explanation. But none comes forth in directors Paul Marianoís and Kurt Nortonís well meaning, but utterly pointless, infomercial masquing as a documentary film.
Given all the real questions that surround art, and film, and given that there is even a Motion Picture Academy Of Arts And Sciences (although how filmmaking can be a science is one of those mysteriously unanswered life questions), that all the viewer gets is a bloated Oscar Awards Show montage about how important such and such film is to so and soís existence, is a real comedown. Yes, some nice anecdotes are catalogued- such as Rob Reiner claiming to have been the man who rescued It's A Wonderful Life from oblivion, but for every such moment the film proffers, it also extends another 15 minutes of tiresomeness into the already ennui laden existence of its viewers, rather than talking of copyright and legal issues. All in all, this is a film made to justify the NFRís staying in the next yearís budget, not for enlightening its viewers. Skip it.
If the first film of these five was a pointless exercise, the second film, 2009ís Great Directors, is an exercise in sadism by first time filmmaker Angela Ismailos. This is a vanity documentary at its core, and the only question of mild interest is who is Ismailos, and how did she get such access to a bevy of second rate, washed up, and minor film directors, not GREAT DIRECTORS? The list of so-called greats is not even hit and miss, but miss and miss by a galaxy: Bernardo Bertolucci, Catherine Breillat, Liliana Cavani, Stephen Frears, Todd Haynes, Richard Linklater, Ken Loach, David Lynch, John Sayles, and Agnes Varda. Of the bunch, arguments for greatness might be advanced for Bertolucci, Loach, and Sayles, with Sayles likely the best.
That said, Ismailos does absolutely nothing with her opportunity, asks puerile questions, lets the interviewees off when they state absurdities (Breillatís inanely trite claim that art is truth gets no grilling), inserts herself into her film far too much, with no justification save ego, and gives absolutely no balance nor depth to her probes of subjects that few will know, only reinforces the query of how this rank amateur, on all levels, got sit downs with these filmmakers.
Other than that, the film just drags on, making its 86 minute length seem thrice as long, with a bevy of film clips that seems utterly anomic in its selection. There is no focus on important nor great parts of the films shown, nor is there any exegesis, from Ismailos nor her subjects, onto why their films, or the clips, have any import. The film seems to have been a project undertaken for the express purpose of Ismailosís being able to booster her own career off the backs of others, and itís interesting the number of filmmakers whose own careers have stalled or simply fallen into disrepair. Not a one has had a relevant nor critically not financially successful film in a number of years. Thus one feels the seduction of appearing in a film and labeled as a director worthy of greatness, was the reason these people with no logical nor apparent connection- outside of the fact they all make films, were chosen, for the titular reason is clearly a come on, not sincere.
The bulk of Great Directors feels as if it was really a bunch of deleted scenes from some longer, more in depth, and better film, but that film is one we are doomed to never glimpse. What we are left with are the detritus of an idea unfulfilled. Donít just skip this film, run from it.
2010ís Two In The Wave (Deux De La Vague), a 92 minute long snoozefest from director Emmanuel Laurent, amazingly undershoots Great Directors as a film. To be fair, it is a technically better shot, edited, and produced film, but its subject matter is so vain, so passť, and so silly, that one wonders how anyone claiming to be a lover of cinema could stomach it. Its crux is the ending of the friendship between the two biggest name hack film directors of the French New Wave of films in the 1960s: Jean-Luc Godard, perhaps the worst critically commended director of all time, and Francois Trufaut, possibly the dullest big name film director of all time.
The film details the well known facts of these two charlatansí lives: their ascension into prominence as bad film critics for the Cahiers Du Cinema film rag of the 1950s, their divergent upbringings, their film debuts: Truffautís 1959 potential-laden The 400 Blows, which never produced a follow up film of any worth, and Godardís 1960 atrocity, Breathless. The commentary on both films is predictable, shallow, and obvious, but the actual documentary spends little time on the breakup of the two menís friendship, and this might be the best thing about Two In the Wave- it glosses over the petty squabble which started over Godardís basically being an insecure asshole who was jealous over Truffautís minor Ďperceivedí growth as a man and artist, while Godard remained mired in his dimwitted communism. And thankfully, we get this idiocy glossed over. But, that leaves the viewer with the question: why make a film about an incident that is so silly and petty, by two ultimately overrated artists, then ignore it?
Like Great Directors, it is questions and films like these that leave any sane critic asking why the hell films like this are essayed, since they so manifestly are the works of small egos and smaller talents. What one is left with, in both films, but especially in Two In The Wave, is a bad subject matter, an amateurish framing device- in an actress hired to pretend she is living in the New Waveís heyday and cutting out articles for saving in a scrapbook, hagiography of bad artistry, and fluff. This film would be wrongheaded if it attempted to give exegesis on why either filmmaker was great, substantively or technically, but at least there would be an impetus for the film. There is nothing like that to be found here.
Worse, it does not impel the viewer to even find such reasons themselves, for Two In The Wave is an anomic solipsism, whose idiocies are repeated ad nauseam, as if mere repetition will add truth to them. Oddly, given that its two main subjects were that also, the film doesnít even benefit from that unwitting synchronicity. Donít skip this film, donít run from it, burn it!
After three bad films in a row, the fourth film viewed seemed like a masterpiece by comparison, even though it was merely a paint by numbers exercise in cable television level mediocre documentary filmmaking. The film in question was 2011ís The Hollywood Complex, and 84 minute long film that follows the lives of wannabe child actors who stay at a housing complex in Los Angeles, the Oakwood Apartments, during Hollywoodís pilot season, from January to May.
Directed by Dylan Nelson and Dan Sturman, this film has the greatest potential for providing a real public service for its viewers, but instead becomes a mildly engaging peer into the lives of vapid children who donít want to act, but just want to be famous and make lots of money, and their even more pathetic parents, who grub off their childrenís lives for vicarious sustenance of their own shriveled senses of self.
One telling scene involves a former child actress and minor film star named Tami Erin, who nearly a quarter century ago starred in an infamous Hollywood bomb, The New Adventures Of Pippi Longstocking, and now is selling her services to children on how to become a famous movie star like she is. The unspoken joke, and likely why this washed up actress is given screen time, is that her delusions should serve as a warning to parents of any depth on what they do NOT want their children to end up as. On the positive side, the film does show some scam talent agents, whose representation is contingent upon buying photographs from people they are in business or bed with, and there are a few former child stars who provide the requisite talking head horror stories about not only what happens to most of the kids who fail to reach their dreams and goals, but what horrors lay in store for the literal handful, each year, that do meet with some success.
But, by filmís end, one sees that the next yearís crop of deluded wannabes is more than willing to fill the void left by those parents and children who wisely decide that the life of leisure and glamour is not for them. One thirteen year old girl, from Colorado, decides not to return for another season of hell, and she clearly is better off for it, and one can see in her the potential for being a well balanced and beautiful young lady. Another girl, two years younger, and void of any real talent, save for a Madonna like ability to whore herself to the highest bidder, is back with her trailer park mom, changes her hair color, loses weight, and even changes her perfectly fine and normal name to the abysmal Presley Cash, only to still, as of this writing, be wallowing in obscurity.
The Hollywood Complex is not a bad film, but also not a good film. It is definitely a missed opportunity, though.
Ok, letís indulge the clichť- I saved the best for last. Well, no, I did not choose it, it just happened that way, although the 2007 HBO documentary, Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project, a 90 minute lovefest, by filmmaker John Landis, to the sardonic comedian supreme, is an enjoyable experience, and a good overview of the life and career of a stand up comic whose import in the history of that craft is often overlooked.
While Mr. Warmth is not filmically in a league with Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work, it treads over similar ground. The reason the Rickles film suffers, in comparison to the Rivers film, is that we never see behind the veil that Rickles and his people put up. This is not to say that we need to see Rickles breaking down in angsty agony over some drama of the day, but that we never get a single real revelation as to what makes the man tick, we never hear a single anecdote of any depth which reveals that Rickles is a person and not just an industry. The Rivers film gives us these moments- it shows Riversí good and bad sides. It shows her weak and malevolent, petty and vain. Rickles, by contrast, is a charlatan, but, unlike Truffaut and Godard, in the best sense of the term. He really is Mr. Warmth, and the acidic putdowns are the act. There seems to be no real skeletons in the closet, save for Ricklesí and other comediansí preference for the Mob run Las Vegas to the corporate town it now is.
But, that would be ok if we got an insight into what powers Ricklesí comedy. We donít. Yes, we get some piss in the pants funny moments, ranging over a 60 year career, but we never get that trip behind the curtain, so we never quite know if Rickles really is the Wizard of Oz or not. On the plus side is a bevy of clips from television and film appearances by Rickles, including a famed appearance by Tonight Show host Johnny Carson, on Ricklesí 1970s sitcom CPO Sharkey, wherein Carson assails Rickles for, the prior night, having destroyed Carsonís cigaret case. While many famed talking heads appear, there are some unexpected ones, like Robert De Niro, Sidney Poitier, Sarah Silverman, Clint Eastwood, and Ricklesí best friend, Bob Newhart, who is seen in home movies, as he and his wife, and Rickles and his wife, vacation together around the world, with great frequency.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Salon website.]
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