Reviews Of A League of Ordinary Gentlemen, When Jews Were Funny, 180 Degrees South, Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, and Chariots Of The Gods
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 7/7/16
I recently watched five documentaries online, and all of them were on people who were odd or who led odd lives, of one sort or another. They were A League of Ordinary Gentlemen, When Jews Were Funny, 180 Degrees South, Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, and Chariots Of The Gods.
The first film was a documentary on the fall of pro bowling from the
American landscape and the vain attempts to resurrect it. The film is A
League of Ordinary Gentlemen. Directed by Christopher and Alex Browne in 2004, and running just over an hour and a
half, it follows four pro bowlers after the demise of network television
coverage of the sport, by ABC and reporter Chris Schenkel, in 1997 through an
early 21st Century attempt to rebrand the sport as sexy on ESPN,
replete with WWE like tactics.
The bowlers are Wayne Webb, an over the hill middle aged man; Pete Weber- the #2 bowler in the world; world champion Walter Ray Williams Jr., and odd man out Chris Barnes- a newby. All four struggle with keeping the PBA (Professional Bowlers Association) afloat, and the film conveys this quite well, along with the near half century tradition of pro bowling, starting in the 1960s when top bowlers like Pete Weberís dad, Dick Weber, and Earl Anthony, could gross as much of more than athletes from pro baseball and football.
The film follows the bowlers and the leagueís revitalization plans
giving a slice of Americana that one would expect from such a film- folks who
love to laugh at bowling to people who 24/7 it as if a religion. The pro
bowlers, themselves, mirror many of their fans. Webb is a former champion turned
lifeís loser. While not as extreme a fall, it reminds me of the chronicles of
the downfalls of many a pro wrestler after the limelight and money left them
behind. Pete Weber is the self styled bad boy of the tour, seemingly gripped by
beating his opponents, as well his Hall Of Fame fatherís accomplishments.
Williams seems to be the most balanced of the bunch, and almost seems like a
machine, the Bobby Fischer of modern 21st Century bowling. Then
thereís the naÔve Barnes, whoís already saddled himself with a wife and
kids, and has no real options but to bowl and hope the sport makes a comeback.
That said, the film never tackles the question of whether it even is a
sport, sinc eold men can compete with men in their 20s. Yes, itís more a sport
than car racing or poker, or even billiards, but still, the guts of many
competitors is a giveaway.
Nonetheless, A League of Ordinary Gentlemen informs,
entertains, and is a generally inoffensive way to spend an hour or so.
When Jews Were Funny is not a good way to kill time, though, and not because it is Anti-Semitic nor because it mines long tapped out veins of humor, but because itís just a mish-mash of interviews with aging Borscht Belt comics intermixed with classic moments from long gone American television, when stand up comedy mattered and commanded prime time visibility, and was not relegated to the ghettos of cable television specials. The differences between the old clips and the new interviews is both stark and indicative of the filmís flaws.
Director Alan Zweig is utterly adrift in what seems like hours of material squeezed down into an anomic 90 minute film about, well, Jews, who are comics. And thatís about is. Yes, some of the Jews are funnier than others (David Steinberg over Howie Mandel), and some Jews are shells of their former selves (Jack Carter). But, there is little point to any of this. And what a waste of one time talent: Gilbert Gottfried, Rodney Dangerfield, Eugene Mirman, Marc Maron, Bob Einstein, Andy Kindler, Shelley Berman, Alan King, Judy Gold, Elon Gold, Jackie Mason, Norm Crosby, Henny Youngman, David Brenner, Shecky Greene, Mark Breslin, Cory Kahaney, Harrison Greenbaum, Simon Rakoff, Lisa Lambert, Larry Josephson, and Michael Wex appear but donít have a clue as to most of what they are asked. And Zweig is, at different times, far too deferential and at other times annoying, feeling a need to out-Jew the Jews, retell their schticky jokes, and so on, which results in no in depth probes into comedy and Judaic life. A few zingers are hurled, but thatís it. The film is otherwise utterly pointless, and itís a shame because thereís a ton of bygone wisdom and talent he could mine.
Some of the comics are mystified while others wanna sock Zweig. Jack Carter, one of the top comics of the 3rd quarter of last century, seems utterly puzzled as to what he is even being grilled about. And then the director seems compelled to try to out-Jew the Jews heís interviewing, by clarifying ethnic remarks or retelling anecdotes to ĎJew them up.í The usually stolid Howie Mandel, of all people, has to explain to Zweig that Jews are still funny, they just donít need to evoke Yiddish accents to do so, like they did 50 years ago. A lesser name notes that stand up comedy is to Jews what jazz is to blacks- a way to socially be acceptable and display their talents in outlet for their frustrations with modern and American life
But, the film fails in many other ways, most notably in the fact is that its titular premise is neither explained nor expounded upon, and, in fact, undermined by at least a third of the people interviewed- a list longer than mine above. When Jews Were Funny wants to be deep and hip and mine the past while being meta, and it fails at all of these. It is an aimless mish-mash and a nothing that uses itself to promote nothing more, and it all starts with the director. Donít bother wasting time nor money on this unoriginal and, at times, appalling film.
Anomy also reigns in the next documentary I viewed, a 2010 film about an adventurer headed to Patagonia who seems to want to scale a legendary peak called Corcorado, and recreate a journey taken by his hero, decades earlier- the man who founded the Patagonia outdoor gear company. This 86 minute film, called 180 Degrees South, is about as aimless and pointless as When Jews Were Funny, save that it also serves as a de facto infomercial for the Patagonia outdoor gear company, as we learn of its founderís life, and the director, Chris Malloy, is a former company employee.
The adventurer is one Jeff Johnson, who sails to Patagonia, only to have his boat get wrecked. He leaves behind most of his crew, and takes up with a woman who will warm him all the way to Patagonia. Of course, one suspects much of the Ďdrama; is manufactured because how desperate can one be when one has a film crew detailing oneís life? We then learn more of the Patagonia founder, Yvon Chouinard, and his antipodal adventures as a Southern Hemispheric counterpart to Alaska legend Dick Proenneke.
Yet, despite this, we get very little of the actual land of Patagonia. Even the name evokes one of the last great places on earth where manly adventures can be had, yet most of the cinematography of the Southern Seas is as dull as a day trip on Long Island Sound, and the mountain shots are as uninspiring as the Poconos on a postcard. Damn, this is Patagonia, people!
The film never decides if it wants to be an Into The Void type adventure, or a lesser Lite knockoff, an ecology film, or a work of corporate agitprop. Hell, there are times itís just a Whitmanian Song Of Jeff Johnson.
Who? That is the fundamental mystery of this dull little film: who are folks like Johnson and where do they come from? How do they fund their lavish lifestyles and poor manís heroics? But, of course, a film like this is content with simple minded nostra. This is not a work of art so much as an egoistic journey that is crafted with images borrowed from another culture that the filmmaker seeks to glorify against the banality of Americana. Except that he makes Patagonia as banal as suburbia.
Can you say fail? Epic fail? Poor Patagonia: never has it been made to seem so pointless.
The next odd documentary is nominally a Werner Herzog joint, an 86 minute
long film, made in 2010 called Happy People: A Year In The Taiga. Well,
let me clarify. This is a Herzog produced and narrated film that was cobbled
together from a Russian tv show filmed by Dmitry Vasyukov. At 94 minutes the film seems longer and follows the
lives of a Siberian town and its trappers.
There is an unintended irony to the filmís title as the people are
mostly miserable. They are backwards, drunkards, and no amount of invocation of
the Noble Savage ideal will change that reality. We follow a small cast of
characters, as well as some native Siberian tribes, and misery abounds. The
people can only be reached by riverboat in the summer, and helicopter at other
times. In a sense, they are living a century behind the times. When spring
mosquitoes bite, they have to make birch bark tar to avoid disease. They own
snowmobiles, but their dogs have to run 100 miles behind the trappers, who
return for New Yearís and Russian Christmas on January 6th.
Nature conspires against the people, and unknown criminals ransack their
cabins when natures is not screwing them. Throughout the film, Herzogís
narrations are almost always at odds with what we see. Herzog did not step a
foot in Siberia, but his descriptions make it seem as if he did. This is the
filmís fatal weakness, and makes one wonder if Herzog simply cobbled this film
together for a quick payday because it is one of the most non-Herzogian Herzog
The town this all takes place in is almost smack dab in the center of Russia and on the Arctic Circle. It is called Bakhta, on the Yenisei River. It has 300 residents, and it follows two men, mostly, Gennady Soloviev- the ignorant who thinks heís wiser than he is, and a distant relative of Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky: Mikhail Tarkovsky, a more well balanced sort.
In this film, and some of his more recent documentary work, Herzog seem sless able to focus on the deeper parts of life he so intuitively and greatly explored in earlier non-fiction films. But, now it seems like Herzog is content to just go therough the motions, and churn out poor films for money or causes he believes in. Art alone is no longer his motivation, and itís a sad thing to witness, as he has given in to the darker demons of his nature.
That stated, itís not a bad film. Itís just not good, either, and given Herzogís involvement, thatís a damned thing.
Perhaps the best of the five documentaries under review is the terrible kitsch classic, 1970ís Chariots Of The Gods, based upon the 1960s bestseller of the same name by Erich Von Daniken. I first saw it in the early 1970s, in an American release version, In Search Of Ancient Astronauts, narrated by a slumming Rod Serling, of The Twilight Zone fame. That version of the film served as a de facto television pilot for the Leonard Nimoy series In Search OfÖ.
The original 92 minute long film, by German director Harald Reinl was nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar but itís a joke. The film is terrible, so terrible that itís actually quite funny, sort of the Plan 9 From Outer Space of documentary filmmaking. Utterly banal and easily explicable ancient monuments get drafted into a thesis that ancient humans were morons who lacked imagination, drive, and culture. If they drew a person seeming to fly it had to be a depiction of something real, and not a fantasy because, well, human imagination only began after Columbus discovered America, donít you know?
The film stock was poor, the scoring bad, the cinematography murky and the narration filled with hyperbole so ridiculous it still brings a smile to my face, the way a con man carny could be redeemed for his larceny by the very gall of his chicanery. In Danikenís world, ancient societies in the Middle east, Central America, and Asia (as well as a few other places like Easter Island) were all incapable of basic engineering feats. Stylized carvings are clearly of spacemen in suits. Easter Islandís monumentsí similarity to those on the Chilean coast are because both peoplesí were apprentices to gods, and not because Easter Islanders were migrants from South America, and so forth. The famed Nazca Lines, recently and grossly defaced by Greenpeace, are obviously and undoubtedly ancient landing strips for a since disintegrated airport, although why vehicles capable of interstellar flight would need to land like airplanes is never breached. That almost all religions and myths have beings from the sky is seen as prima facie evidence of that reality, rather than a human longing to look upwards.
And then the film plays coy. It never declaims any of this, even as it says there can be little doubt, or no alternative, and so forth. The film is a hodgepodge of crapola, and what would now be called found footage. There are few expert witnesses, and no modern talking heads, so thank God for small favors. Yes, Daniken is and was a fraud, and so is the film, but nigh a half century on, itís also an indelible part of the vanished Flower Power counterculture.
My favorite claim is when a shot of Palomar Observatory is juxtaposed with a shot of a much smaller Mayan Temple, and the claim is made that they clearly are exactly alike, hence the temple MUST be an observatory; EXCEPT that the templeís hole in its roof is clearly from decay, and there was an additional tower that still partially sticks upright, and the temple is less than half the size of Palomar, and has no telescope! But, they clearly are one and the same- hilarious!
Nonetheless, the film, as bad as it is, serves as a valuable piece of history (pop history, to be sure)- something none of its claims can make.
In sum, the only one of these bad to mediocre films I can really recommend is Chariots Of The Gods, but with the proviso that it be seen as a kitsch gem, not a real documentary.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Our Salon website.]
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