Reviews Of Tiny: A Story About Living Small, Jack Kerouac: King Of The Beats, Genius On Hold, Our Nixon, And The Revisionaries
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/8/15
I recently watched five documentaries online, and all of them were odd in
some fashion- be it their point of view, their subject, or elsewise. They were Tiny:
A Story About Living Small, Jack Kerouac: King Of The Beats, Genius On
Hold, Our Nixon, and The Revisionaries.
The first film I watched was Tiny: A Story About Living Small. This brief (61 minutes long) 2013 documentary is one of those well intentioned Left Wing diatribes hiding behind a mantle of do gooderism and green living. Directors Merete Mueller Christopher Smith construct what is nothing more than a vanity documentary about a young couple who throw their lives away to live in a ‘tiny house.’ Of course, these have been, for decades, known as trailer homes, but leave it to the politically minded to try and transform the meaning of the term.
The second film I watched, a 1985 documentary called Jack Kerouac: King Of The Beats, by its very subject matter, has long outlasted rational interest, even though it’s three decades old. Kerouac- a bad prose writer and worse ‘poet,’ has been hagiographized well past the point of rationality, because he offered nothing in his work one could even deem quality.
Checking in at 71 minutes in length, this looks and feels like the archetypal 1980s PBS documentary, in look and audio quality. Like most hagiographies, do not expect any reality in the form of critics pointing out how relentlessly bad Kerouac was. His reputation is built upon image, alone- sort of the Marlboro Man of poets in mid-20th Century America. We see much archival footage- such as Kerouac’s famed appearance with Steve Allen on the 1959 Tonight Show.
But we also see an early precursor of the dread docudrama, wherein much of the film shows an actor, as Kerouac, running- over all sorts of landscapes, muttering his bad writing in his head, and just running, as if desperately attempting to make symbolism from wan symbology. It fails, of course.
We get the expected talking heads who babble on- Allen Ginsberg, foremost among them, and the sill usage of the term Beat Generation throughout, used to try and establish the couple dozen losers who used the term as something deeper, and less derision worthy than their true moniker- The Beatniks.
A more recent film that founders is the 2013 documentary, Genius On
Hold, which clocks in at 91 minutes at length. It is about the internal
corruption of AT&T and the Bell network that was a telephone monopoly for
most of the 20th Century. Late in the last century, I spent a few
years working for the smaller, post-break up version of AT&T, doing
collections, so I am well familiar with the culture of criminality that the
bosses at that company perpetuated, and, in fact, because I refused to go along
with many of the financial schemes and forging of documents bound for the SEC, I
eventually left that job, after the leadership made my day to day work life
unbearable. So, it would seem that such a film about another victim of
AT&T’s corruption would find a nice niche within me.
Well, it did, on a purely emotional and visceral level, but, as a critic,
I have to be above that, because you, the viewer, are not privy to my internal
angsts and memories. Hence, I have to objectively and critically assess the
film, and on that level, Genius On Hold fails, for a number of reasons.
The film details the life and career of an inventor named Walter L. Shaw, whose ideas for improving the phone system of the middle of last century were stolen by AT&T and its monopolistic grip. Yes, the film portrays AT&T as the bad guys, and they assuredly were, but the film is all over the place- it is scattershot in its approach, to the point that, a third of the way in one wishes the film would end. We certainly get takes on the shady practices of corporate America, but we also see that Shaw, while arguably a good inventor and bright man, was simply terrible at business, and painfully naïve. He seemed to always trust AT&T no matter how often they screwed him over, and, after a while, the viewer really loses empathy with the film’s deemed protagonist.
Worse, the film is slow paced and the narration dull- it seems straight out of a 1960s or 1970s film Auditorium presentation during recess. All in all, Genius On Hold is one of those damnable films that means well, but has no real clue as to what reality is. It thinks that its being right on the political aspect of a subject (which it arguably is) is enough to make up for the filmic flaws in presentation. One can easily pass on this pseudo-political documentary.
The sad state of documentaries in this run I recently watched is such
that the best of the five films, the last one, is a mediocrity, at best. That
film, The Revisionaries, from 2012, and running a brief 83 minutes,
follows the yahoos at the Texas State Board of Education trying to weasel
Creationism into science books. As with Our Nixon, one clearly has to sense that
the yahoos are the bad guys, but, at least, this film shows us ample evidence of
the craziness that propels these wackos, and the frustration of real educators
in dealing with them, and the lowered standards that they wanna impose on
textbook writers and publishers that will affect textbooks nationwide.
That these people do not see how they are dooming their offspring to a
second rate education is a world with a growing premium placed on formal
education, is partly funny and mostly sad. It’s a cultural and intellectual
hara-kiri that is stupefying. People who believe in The Flintstones
version of natural history- that cavemen had dinosaurs as pets, actually flex
political muscle and get other cretins to nod in agreement.
Nonetheless, and despite that one scene’s bizarre memorability, the
film founders. The Revisionaries ends bleakly, but we know, in the end,
they will fail, just like the Inquisitors- a historical counterpoint that, if
used, would have at least enlivened this film. Nonetheless, despite its flaws
and dullness, The Revisionaries is clearly the only film in this lot even
remotely worth recommending, if only for the dentist office scene.
To end, none of these films is really worth watching, but hopefully this run of futility does not reflect a coming barrenness in the documentary field, as a whole.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Our Salon website.]
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