Reviews Of The Next Space Race, Marilyn In Manhattan, Gore Vidal: The United States Of Amnesia, Mortified Nation, And Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/19/15


  I recently watched five of the oddest documentaries I have ever see, streaming them on Netflix. They were The Next Space Race, Marilyn In Manhattan, Gore Vidal: The United States Of Amnesia, Mortified Nation, and Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie.




  The first film I watched was an oddity, titled The Next Space Race, that was only 22 minutes in length, and played more like an old time auditorium film shown in a Junior High School during recess. It was apparently made my Bloomberg TV- the media wing of former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, and so unprofessionally made that I had to actually Google about to find any actual information on the film’s making. This included who the host and narrator of the film was- an attractive and affable enough young woman named Rachel Crane.

  The 2014 film could have been an infomercial, for Crane never pushes the boundaries and asks real questions of any depth. It follows the next space race of commercial interests taking over the stairway to the stars that previously had been the preserve of governments alone. There were some inaccuracies in terms of the history of manned space flight, as well as a few questionable scientific claims. And the sense was that this is a film best suited for cable television networks who need to provide their weekly quota of ‘educational’ content.

  Clichés abound, and we get no real insight into the three competing spacecrafts and companies in this race, save for this: SpaceX has a ship called Dragon, and can take 7 people into space with enough room in its capsule for 2 years worth of provisions; Boeing’s craft is the CST-100, and has the most ex-NASA folks on the payroll, and its ship can hold 5 folks, and eventually 7, but its weldless design may be strongest; and the Sierra Nevada Corp’s Dream Chaser can also hold 7, but is not a capsule, but more like a mini-space shuttle, or SUV for space.

  Because of its infomercial like character, the film and hostess never questions the safety and efficacy of the corporate model of putting things in space, where profit, ultimately, will have to trump safety. Given the record of corporate screwups when merely contracted by governments to build such equipment, when left to their own devices, will companies care even less? Likely, but that is the sort of journalism that this fluff piece doesn’t even raise, much less explicitly address.

  On the plus side, the ‘doc’ is very short, it is professionally well done, from a technical standpoint, if not a journalistic one, and the hostess is much more engaging than many similar persons employed in such series. But, a pretty face cannot hide a hollow soul.




  Speaking of hollow souls, there is the patron saint of all things shallow in America today, and that is the iconic Marilyn Monroe, the subject of a 2012 fluff doc on her stay in New York City in the mid-1950s, after she formed her own production company upon her rise to stardom. Never a Monroe fan- as I’ve, y’know, actually SEEN her films and how badly she acted, sung, danced, and did everything, such a film would need to have been good, and the brief (46 minutes long) Marilyn In Manhattan is not that.

  It is simply another in an unending string of hagiographies convinced that this vapid, shallow bimbo was some sort of, if not genius- as often claimed, smarter than average businesswoman, and one simply need watch the film to see how the evidence presented actually disputes the claims of the many talking heads that proffer such claims. If one has ever watched a documentary on Monroe from many a PBS show, or some cable outfit like A&E or The History Channel or Biography, you know the sort of tripe embodied in this film which, most likely, started airing on one of those outfits, as it does not seem a theatrical release.

  The film mainly focuses on Monroe after her divorce from New York Yankee baseball legend, Joe DiMaggio, and on her settling in to marriage with playwright Arthur Miller, as she also stayed with Lee Strasberg’s family, joined The Actors Studio, then began her slow decline to death. But she was happy, we’re told, and was ‘fascinated’ by snow and bare trees, and other banalities of life which, somehow, miraculously become more because they are being commented upon by Monroe sycophants in an attempt to make even her farts seem to smell like an orchard. Yes, she started her own production company- the first American woman to do so since Mary Pickford, we’re told, except that we soon find out it was the idea of a friend of hers, photographer Milton Greene, whom she soon kicked to the curb because of Miller’s jealousy.

  Seriously, this is the acme of the film’s drama. Naturally, no one could stop Monroe’s decline, and talking heads like actor Ben Gazzara quip on non-Monroe things that are mentioned merely to try and make her seem mor eimportant via the vaguest association: i.e.- without Monroe, would Strasberg’s Actors Studio have been what it was? Oh my!


  These, and other debunkable legends, like Monroe helping Ella Fitzgerald sing in whites only clubs (untrue, as Fitzgerald had been doing such long before Monroe was even a legal adult), make Marilyn In Manhattan an ill wrought and ill researched waste of time.




  Gore Vidal: The United States Of Amnesia is a film, by director Nicholas Wrathall, almost twice the length of Marilyn In Manhattan (it comes in at 90 minutes), but iy, too, is pure hagiography.

  Before his death in 2012, Vidal was one of the top dilettantes in America- a man called a novelist, but whose works were, at best, historical soap operas (Myra Breckinridge), and whose well wrought but unoriginal essays and political thoughts made him the arts world equivalent to Noam Chomsky in the sciences- a smart guy whose stupidity resonated more deeply when out of his own element. This 2013 film closes with Vidal claiming he doesn’t give a damn about his legacy, personally or elsewise, even as it opens, a few years earlier, with Vidal looking over his own tombstone, replete with a carved date of his year of birth (1925) and his being hyper-aware of what other celebrities will be buried near his own grave. It is seriously one of the most bizarre moments of either outrageous deceit, or unwitting irony, ever capture don film because, in every single appearance of Vidal’s that I witnessed, in any medium, he was always sensitive to how he was portrayed- be it in political feuds with William F. Buckley or the Bushes, or in personal feuds with fellow writers like Norman Mailer.

  The film clearly sympathizes with Vidal and his points of view, even when the images shown conflict with the things the man claims. The producers never call the man on them, and seems content to let a parade of talking heads- Christopher Hitchens, Tim Robbins, Jay Parini (his executor and noted doggrerelist), Mikhail Gorbachev, David Mamet, Dick Cavett, and others- simply prattle. We also see his Zeligian side, as photographs of all the people he knew and who visited him, from Presidents to artists, are shown, as are the famed run-ins with Buckley and Mailer, but we get nothing more. His political ambitions (a failed California Senate run) are glossed over, and then we hit 9/11 and we get his Far Left preachments over how the dead deserved what they got because they are Americans, as Vidal seemingly cannot distinguish between the mostly working slobs that died in the Twin Towers and the Imperialists who ran and run the country. They are all just ‘them,’ a detail uncommented upon, but which makes Vidal no better than the terrorists nor the Imperialists he loathes. Also glossed over is Vidal’s homosexuality and lifelong flings with underaged boys, as well as his support for sex between majors and minors. Ho-hum- business as usual for a hagiography.

  All in all, a film well worth skipping.




  But, in comparison to another documentary from 2013, called Mortified Nation, directed by Michael Mayer, which clocks in at 83 minutes in length, the film on Gore Vidal is a masterpiece in every way. Apparently, there are people so desperate for a second of micro-fame that they are willing to shame themselves at an open mic that is broadcast on cable television, and the subject of their ‘fame’ is that they are reading excerpts from their old childhood and teen diaries.

  Having spent decades in the arts, and gone to a few thousand spoken word events myself, I have been prepared for the gesticulations of doggerelists for many years, but this is something different: not even bad stand up comedy, and not even bad fiction being read.

  No, this is crap spewed either from real diaries, or claims so outrageous that they have to be made up ‘entries’ designed to allow the people that read them to ‘get noticed’ by the producers of the open mic, tv show, and film. The show is called Mortified, and that any fool would waste time or money to attend such a show is amazing, for just when one thinks the lowest common denominator of America cannot get any lower, it limos right under expectations. And, as if the lame and made up faux diary entries are not bad enough in their generic repetition, we get to see photos of people at their teenaged worst. This works for maybe the first two or, to be kind, maybe three people who humiliate and prostitute themselves. By the time you get past that yawns are starting to infect one’s being, as if an alien presence designed to destroy one’s intellect.

  These people are not mortified, of course, so the whole title of the assorted enterprises are misleading. Egoistic Nation would be a better title, or Desperation Nation. In fact, even more so than The Next Space Race, this ‘film’ is just a gloried infomercial about the tv series. But, as bad as the actual taped spoken word portions of the film are, even worse are the ‘behind the scenes’ scenes we see of the people who, post-humiliation, are seen in their real lives, and how utterly wretched and useless they are (big surprise, huh?). The rest of the film is padded out with the requisite talking heads (mostly psychologists and young-adult novelists) who say nothing of depth, and themselves seem merely to be appearing to advance their own careers. This film isn’t even at the level of most earnest but ill wrought vanity documentaries. Instead, it’s a cynical exercise in ego-based consumerism.




  If cynical ego-based consumerism is your thing, though, then Mortified Nation is not your cup of Mort, and you might prefer Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie, released in 2012,clocking in at 90 minutes long, and detailing the life and meteoric rise and fall of Right Wing talk show host Morton Downey, Jr’s political show in the late 1980s.

  I was in early youth when Downey’s show hit, and within a month of it’s 1987 debut, he was one of the biggest names on television, his shows eclipsing the ratings of daytime talk titans Oprah Winfrey and Phil Donahue. Even as his show spawned the 1990s rise of trash television pioneered by Winfrey. Geraldo Rivera, Sally Jessy Raphael, Jerry Springer, Maury Povich and their ilk would have been nothing without Downey, whose own image followed on the heels of 1960s Right Wing icon, Joe Pyne.

  The film follows Downey’s life as the son of his famed Irish tenor father, Morton Downey, Sr., whom he loathed, Jr’s own aborted singing career, his homo-erotic lifestyle in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as his show’s meteoric rise, and quick downfall, in 1989, less than two years on the air, when a series of violent events spawned by his show, and his own hoaxed attack on himself via supposed Neo-Nazis (an ironic ripoff of the Tawana Brawley rape hoax, which Downey lambasted regularly), brought an end to his domain.

  The show was aired from WOR, Channel 9, in Secaucus, New Jersey, and was produced by an Emmy Award winning tv interviewer himself, Bill Boggs (whose show was nothing like Downey’s), and the show had more in common with professional wrestling than discourse. After the cancellation, done (according to a Downey friend) by Downey to gain sympathy from his girlfriend (later, wife) so she wouldn’t leave him, Downey floundered, and later died slowly of lung cancer in 2001, just months before 9/11.

  Short shrift is made of Downey’s dying crusade against Big Tobacco, and too much time is devoted to Downey’s sexual antics, and the legions of leering and adoringly sadistic fans of his who grew up to become- nebbishes, such as the film’s three producers and directors: Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller, and Jeremy Newberger. Talking heads, in the film, include noted Guardian Angels fraud Curtis Sliwa, political commentator Pat Buchanan, lawyers Gloria Allred and Alan Dershowitz, comedian Chris Elliott, and talk show host Richard Bey- all people who have dubious cultural pedigrees. Downey, himself, was a fraud, in that he wasn’t even a Junior, as his real first name was Sean, while his father’s was John!

  Still, of the five films, this is the best, and only because it’s mildly entertaining.




  In summation, these odd films are not worth anyone’s time, but, if one had some time to kill, while needing, say, a high colonic, then Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie is the way to go. Barring such constipation, however, choose sleep.


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

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