Reviews Of The Sweetest Sound, The Workshop, London In The Raw, Journey To Planet X, And Evacuate Earth
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/23/15
I recently watched five of the silliest documentaries I have ever see, streaming them on Netflix. They were The Sweetest Sound, The Workshop, London In The Raw, Journey To Planet X, and Evacuate Earth.
The first film I watched was The Sweetest Sound, 56 minutes long, and directed by Alan Berliner, a noted documentarian, in 2001, who has tried to push boundaries in his medium- or so claim the reviews surrounding his works. This film does no such thing, as it is a short, silly film wherein Berliner muses on people who share his own first and last names (or, in some cases, variants like Allen or Alain).
In a sense, it is blatantly trying to reach for the same vibe that the great documentary film series, The Up Series, does, yet it fails. Berliner first muses on the names he’s given to anonymous folks he’s found in old home movies he’s used in prior films, then we see him head off to societies dedicated to a name, like Linda, Bob, Fred, or the Jim Smith convention. These little bits could have been mused over in a voiceover containing the long outdated screen captures of turn of the century website designs. The questions are of the innocuously vacuous sort that people who are not too deep will think are deep, like, who am I? and what’s my purpose?
Berliner feels his name defines him, then traces the origins of his names. This is mildly interesting and diverting, as is a digression with his crotchety dad, Oscar Berliner, who seems to be unique in name, and who refuses to let his family members be juniors or numbered copies.
Then we get what the film has built to- the meeting of Alan Berliner and his nominal doppelgangers, at his home, for dinner- a dozen other Berliners, for he believes that by meeting them he can exorcise his own insecurities. Of course, an intelligent viewer, looking at how cynically crafted the film is to this point, realizes Berliner has no real insecurities, but it’s a good enough faux reason to justify his time and effort to the other Berliners.
Since most of them are Jewish, we get the requisite reachbacks to the Holocaust, then the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C, and so forth. In the end, the film ends with the director gloating over the fact that, despite his liking meeting his name sharers, he beat them out to the .com domain name for their name.
Overall, the film was just, well, silly. There was no real reason for it, and, aside from the tracking down of the other Berliners, and the meeting, all the rest of the film could have been reduced to ten minutes, with the rest of the film taken up on some of the possibly deeper moments between Berliners. Either the director did not grasp this was the true center of the film- not his faux neuroses, and is a bad director, or none of the Berliners said anything worth making a film over.
So, while not a bad film, it is, generally, a waste of an hour of your life.
If the prior film was silly and wasteful, the second documentary I screened was an abomination- a film whose attempts at depth made Alan Berliner’s film seem like the wisdom from the Library Of Alexandria/
Jamie Morgan’s 2007, 91 minute long The Workshop is not just silly, but bad filmmaking, bad philosophy, badly shot and edited, badly produced, pointless, and even promotes the worst and most wasteful views on what human beings are and should be. Morgan decides to find himself by attending a ten day ‘workshop’ at a commune, outside of San Francisco. This is already beyond cliché and into farce, especially considering the film was made in 2007- four decades after The Summer Of Love.
I mention this because the workshop is hippy heaven- people who go nude, indulge in pornography, extramarital sex, and all such things, and do so while spouting nonsensical nostra that seem to be a cross between Alan Watt and Rod McKuen. It’s as if we are watching the sort of thing only described in the great Louis Malle film, My Dinner With Andre. The leader of this commune (or, more honestly, cult) is a man named Paul Lowe. The con is that the first meeting of the people will be totally nude. Naturally, most of the people Lowe invites are on the youngish side, and fairly attractive, with a surprising numbe rof them (including Morgan) being British. How this occurs in northern California lends more of an air of untruth to an already truth challenged film. The people are told to ‘be honest’ and ‘exorcise demons,’ which naturally results in horn dogs having their gonads exercised, instead.
Lowe believes that aliens walk amongst humans, and this is only one of his wacky beliefs, abd far more innocuous than his ‘free love in the age of AIDS’ mantra. That the people at the workshop fall for this sub-infomercial pitch bullshit, and PAY handsomely to fall for it, is galling, as is Morgan’s utterly uncritical eye at all this. Instead of a searing expose we get a sill and dangerous commercial for Paul Lowe’s nonsense. WE get a reality show level sense of ‘truth,’ such as various jealousies and romantic triangles ‘explored,’ but not a scintilla of depth nor real human contact.
Morgan is also a lousy filmmaker, as the visuals are often muddy and out of focus, and there is no attempt at a narrative thread. Yes, one could dismiss this pernicious little film as just a bunch of self-centered yuppies getting scammed my a New Age charlatan, and enjoy it at that level, but the sheer incompetence of Morgan’s filmic technique renders even that minor pleasure untenable.
Don’t waste a second on this garbage.
London In The Raw is a much better look at a time and place, as it is
a British documentary from 1966. Running 77 minutes, and shot in color and black
and white, it attempts to take a look at the same Mod London scene portrayed in
such great period films as Roman Polanski’s Repulsion
and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup,
but sans the depth.
That this documentary uses so many clearly staged scenes is
disappointing, as it could have been a deep look at the time and place. Instead,
while we do get a sense of London as growing in a multicultural sense, we mostly
see how vain and shallow the people the film focuses on are, unlike those
Londoners seen in The Up Series.
Directed by Arnold Miller and Norman Cohen, and narrated by David Gell, London In The Raw is severely anachronistic, but not in the good sense, where it invokes laughter over the folly of how people used to be, with a few decades’ worth of hindsight, and very little of it is raw, in any way implied by that word. Maybe this was cutting edge then, in the midst of the mentioned Profumo sex scandal, but now we see just vainglorious fools: Beatniks with berets, bad jazz singers, already out of step with the rock movement, insecure women getting their facial hair needled clean, men getting hair seemingly implanted onto bald spots (or would that be into?), and one scene where the narrator states, as a fat woman gets her body jiggled by a belted machine, ‘There isn’t a woman living who wouldn’t sacrifice health for appearance.’ Really? Even in the enlightened 60s? We also get short excursions into the illegal use of drugs, with the requisite finger wagging, and the whole film seems to teeter almost on parody, as if a rejected piece from This Was The Week That Was or Monty Python’s Flying Circus, or even The Benny Hill Show.
But, while this film is more competently shot, directed, and edited, than the first two films, like them, there simply seems to be no reason for it- not then, and not this half century or more on. We never get a single character we can identify with, we get no real insights into this or that club, this or that venue, this or that fad, and instead are treated to a travelogue of London of the era, however superficial, and done so to the point that, had this film been made a coupe of decades later it might be seen as a rightful precursor to the infomercial boom that occurred on television in the 1980s.
Overall, the film is competent but innocuous- and, at the very least, a meager benison to the vomit inducing film I watched before it.
Fastforwarding almost 50 years, to the next documentary I watched- Journey To Planet X- and the word competent simply cannot be used- not for the exterior film that is named, nor for the same named interior film that this documentary chronicles, which is a sort of sci fi companion to the interior film in a film chronicled in 1999’s American Movie, about bad B horror filmmakers.
Amazingly, the two B sci fi filmmakers of this film are even more incompetent than the idiots in American Movie, who most suspected were upping their stupidity on purpose. This 77 minute long film, made in 2012, follows supposed ‘scientists’ Troy Bernier and Eric D. Swain, as they attempt to make their sci fi ‘epic,’ replete with blue screen, bad actors, atrocious models, and special effects that make Plan 9 From Outer Space- made decades earlier, seem proficient. That these two guys, in the Internet Age, can make effects so horrendous, leads one to suspect that they are making their film so bad simply because they are incapable of being as personally stupid as the American Movie morons.
Based in Florida, this pair is supported by friends and family, and so deluded that, by film’s end, when they premiere the film, and pass out comments cards to the audience, they get nothing but sarcastic remarks about how ‘funny’ their ‘drama’ was, and the two guys still try to find a positive in their overwhelm of failure.
Apparently, the filmmakers of the extra-diegetic documentary on the interior sci fi film, directors Myles Kane and Josh Koury, who directed a Harry Potter fan film called We Are Wizards, found this duo’s schlock interesting (or maybe the duo?) and decided to do a documentary on them and their work, when another rof their films was submitted to the Brooklyn Underground Film Festival. What they found so interesting is never shown nor explained, and the only thing that keeps this film about a film out of the dread ‘vanity documentary’ category of film is the fact that the sci fi incompetents did not direct this film about their own failed efforts. It’s that ho hum and dull.
We get the requisite ten second insights from random Z level actors, about how wonderful and fun this all is, and so forth, but, aside from that off the rack sort of filmmaking, there’s nothing more. Not once does anyone say nor do a thing that is a bit odd or unexpected, much less deep.
Films like this are the visual equivalents of bad self-published books online. Yes, there will and are writers and documentarians out there of talent and value. I and my wife are two of them, and know several others, but these filmmakers, both pairs, are not in that lot. Yes, one might claim, they provide fodder for streaming services like Netflix and others, but so what?
Really, so what?
The final film I streamed to watch, was, of all things, a National Geographic ‘pseudo-documentary’ from 2012, as well. It runs 88 minutes and is called Evacuate Earth. Yes, it is a sci fi speculation about a rogue neutron star heading toward the solar system, and mankind having a decade or more to build a space ark and head out to find another habitable planet.
That this was produced with real money for a reputable organization like National Geographic is a shame, because the film’s scripted and acted parts are not much better than those in the prior sci fi abomination, Journey To Planet X, and the effects, while better, are not even up to the level of many fan based films online, despite having a clearly higher budget.
But, what’s worst of all, about this film is the utter pseudo-science
is portrays, from the destructive path of a neutron star- as if it would go in a
straight line from Saturn to earth, and as if its passing would inevitably
destroy everything it encounters. Given that this neutron star would be only ten
miles wide, and have the mass of the sun, the likelihood is that it would wholly
miss the outer planets, as well as the inner ones, and just sail by the sun and
keep on its unmerry way. The solar system is so huge that if the sun were a
basketball, Saturn (destroyed along with the earth- which ends up as a ring
system around the neutron star) would be a ping pong ball almost three football
fields away from the sun, and going in a circular orbit. The earth would be a
pebble almost 90 feet away, and the planets never line up in a straight line,
and when they come close, it’s only for a few days every few thousand years. A
small neutron star would take years to get from Saturn to earth and, well,
again- no science in this documentary! Instead, we get an updated version of the
classic sci fi film When Worlds Collide.
Very little time is spent on the actual science of building a space ark, and named scientist talking heads provide no relief, just head shakes at the inanity they are forced to discuss. Some seem to take it seriously, while others find it whimsical. When they saw the final product they likely all hung their heads in shame.
I just sighed. Of the five films I witnessed, this was the biggest letdown expectations-wise, even if it was not as bad and vile as Jamie Morgan’s The Workshop. Regardless, it’s another utterly silly and wasteful film, Skip it.
Of the five films watched, the only one I might marginally recommend viewing, and this only if held at gunpoint, is the first, The Sweetest Sound. But, lacking an imminent death threat, skip that, as well. Ah, to reclaim these hours; perchance to- well, you know what I mean.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Salon website.]
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