D.O.A.: A Rite of Passage (1981)

D.O.A.: A Rite of Passage (1981) movie poster

director Lech Kowalski
viewed: 09/08/2018

“Where Were You In ’77?” was the musical question and title of a 1985 Sex Pistols (bootleg) live record. And I’ll quote my old friend Var in his response to someone verbally asking that question mid-Eighties: “Right behind you in live for Star Wars!”

This is one of the powers of documentary. You weren’t there (most likely), but someone with a movie camera was.  In this case, the someone with a camera was Lech Kowalski and the result is D.O.A.: A Rite of Passage.

As selective as the sequences and the mishmash of the editing, for all eternity now we have a glimpse into the heyday of U.K. punk and the disastrous U.S. tour of the Sex Pistols in 1978.

It’s not just the bands. There are fascinating sights and sounds of the audience members, in particular the Atlanta, Georgia crowd making what they can and will of imported punk rock. This even includes an anti-smut crusader.

There’s also a solid gold performance by Poly Styrene and X-ray Spex. The Dead Boys, Generation X, and Sham 69.

Cinema is our one transport to such scenes.

Three Identical Strangers (2018)

Three Identical Strangers (2018) movie poster

director Tim Wardle
viewed: 07/08/2018 at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema – New Mission, SF, CA

Some true life stories are just inherently compelling. As a documentary film maker, if you luck onto such a tale, you almost can’t go wrong.

The real story that drives Three Identical Strangers is pretty freaking wild and only gets more so, the deeper it dives and wears on.

In New York State, in 1981, 19 year old Robert Shafran discovers his doppelganger in  Eddy Galland. They turn out to be identical twins, separated at birth. When this hits the press, David Kellman realizes that he, too, is a doppelganger, and actually a triplet. They become the toast of New York City and are celebrated on every TV show around the country at the time. They go into business together, opening a steakhouse, Triplets, in Manhattan.

But the story of how they became separated, by a Jewish adoption agency and an important psychologist crafting a secret experiment, deepens into a mystery.

I’d read a moderately informative review, so I don’t know how much it matters if you know the twists and turns Three Identical Strangers takes, but it is a bit of an emotional rollercoaster and absolutely a stunner of a tale.

Tim Wardle structures the film well, and while I don’t know that he adds a lot beyond the interviews, reenactments, and old footage, it’s still a very worthwhile documentary.

Being Different (1981)

Being Different (1981) movie poster

director Harry Rasky
viewed: 05/08/2018

Being Different is a quasi-Exploitation documentary about “human oddities” or “freaks.” Director Harry Rasky mixes titillation with a more humanistic approach, interviewing his cast of characters, allowing them to tell their own stories of lives of difference.

By 1981 a lot of the classic freak shows had stopped touring, and yet, many notable stars of the scene were still available to interview. As cultural mores were changing, and as the freak show was falling away into the past, the beginnings of interest in this disappearing world were stirring. Perhaps this started with Daniel P. Mannix’s 1976 book Freaks: We Who Are Not As Others, but Being Different also winds up being a nice document.

The most famous fellow detailed here is doubtlessly Billy Barty, who was leading the way with his Little People of America at the time. But we also have Johann Petursson (the world’s tallest man), Dolly Reagan (the human doll), Siamese twins Ronnie and Donnie Galyon, Sandra Elaine Allen (the world’s tallest woman), and the “World’s Strangest Couple,” Percilla “The Monkey Girl” and Emmett “The Alligator Skin Boy” Bejano.  Rasky even employs a classic barker to introduce some of the folks in the lively patter that drew the curious into the tents.

This was a timely re-watch for me, having just finished re-reading Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love. I’m kind of in the mental milieu.

Tales of the Grim Sleeper (2014)

Tales of the Grim Sleeper (2014) movie poster

director Nick Broomfield
viewed: 04/01/2018

I swore I would never watch another Nick Broomfield documentary after witnessing the atrocity of Kurt & Courtney (1998). But there’s a reason they say “Never say never.”

Broomfield’s films about Aileen Wournos were actually quite thoughtful and provocative, a sympathetic background and reality of the notorious female serial killer.

In 2016, Lonnie David Franklin Jr., dubbed “the Grim Sleeper” by the media, was convicted of several murders is South Central Los Angeles.  In Tales of the Grim Sleeper, Broomfield doesn’t get to know Franklin as he did Wournos, but rather gets to know Frankin’s friends and the world in which he stalked and murdered for over three decades.

Broomfield, always present in his films, goes to Franklin’s neighborhood, asking to speak to those who knew him. And this is to his credit. The reason that Franklin got away with untold numbers of murders for so long was because his prey were poor and black, not even considered significant enough for the LAPD.

He speaks with Margaret Prescod, an eloquent local activist, who had been petitioning and trying to get action taken throughout the entire span of Franklin’s thirty year span of death, is an excellent voice here. Broomfield also speaks to  Franklin’s good friends, who at the beginning of the film are still disputing his guilt and defending his qualities. The tale of the Grim Sleeper is one about black community of Los Angeles, the loss of jobs and industry, the introduction of crack cocaine, the inherent racism that built the world in which Franklin lived and operated.

Franklin was only “caught”, his crimes only finally truly assessed, as a result of DNA technology and journalism from the LA Weekly that realized that a single individual had been killing so many women, not through active investigation.

Broomfield’s style of film-making is typically annoying, but here it winds up working. Everyone in the film and on the streets is aware of him for his race, a constant reminder that he is an outsider, suspect of police affiliation or other untrusted background. It’s not a world that he inherently understands (at one point someone calls him a “peckerwood” and he thinks it’s a term of endearment).

But he goes in to the community and he talks to the people. He learns about South Central and Lonnie Franklin, Jr. from the people who lived through it all, the people whose voices are not usually recorded for history or perspective. And it gives this film more weight and value than I had anticipated.

Revival of Evil (1980)

Revival of Evil (1980) screenshot

director Brian Barkley
viewed: 02/21/2018

“Disrobe and prepare to fill the font of ecstasy.”

Almost every line in Revival of Evil, this satanic panic exploitation documentary, is pure gold. The version I watched was oddly updated with more modern images of evil rock bands who didn’t exist when this film was made.

“You have good karma and bad karma. If you did something good in a prior life then this will come back to you in this life. If you did something evil then this will come back to you in this life. For instance, when the Romans were persecuting the Christians, when it came back in full the Romans were no were no longer Romans, they became Jewish and the Christians became the Germans and in that respect the Romans became persecuted in a brand new era for something they had done a long time ago.”

People are crazy. Crazy is timeless.

The Cult of JT LeRoy (2014)

The Cult of JT LeRoy (2014) movie poster
director  Marjorie Sturm
viewed: 01/30/2018

After watching Author: The JT LeRoy Story, my initial thought was that Laura Albert, the actual author behind J.T. LeRoy, might have earned less scorn if she’s never convinced her sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop, to pose as a human avatar for her fictive creation. If she hadn’t done that, the whole celebrity thing would have been much more limited, the notoriety less, and many fewer people impacted. Some, like her therapist, might have even understood her use of a fictional self for her psychology and art.

However, Marjorie Sturm’s The Cult of JT LeRoy obliterates that. From Albert’s earliest publication and outreach to authors and fans, emotional manipulation and exploitation for financial gain were already serious trademarks. She just hadn’t upped her game to the higher echelons of pop celebrity.

The film follows depositions from a lawsuit that came about from the optioning of a screenplay from LeRoy’s first novel, Sarah. The scheme was neither simply one of mental health or artistic creation, but of opportunism and financial gain.

It’s interesting that Sturm was invited into the LeRoy circle as a local documentary filmmaker who worked with at risk kids in San Francisco’s Tenderloin (LeRoy’s supposed milieu), only to be rebuked after one of the crew approached Knoop in character in the Mission District following a photo shoot.

This was Sturm’s in-road to the world, and though her film doesn’t have all the illicitly recorded celebrity voices, she interviews a lot of people who had earlier interaction with LeRoy and the journalist who ultimately exposed the fraud.

No single picture really tells this whole story. But I think you can’t just watch  Author: The JT LeRoy Story without watching The Cult of JT LeRoy and think you’ve got the whole narrative. Or vice versa. Or perhaps without even more material. Or ever.

Author: The JT LeRoy Story (2016)

Author: The JT LeRoy Story (2016) movie poster

director Jeff Feuerzeig
viewed: 01/28/2018

I can’t recall now how aware I was if J.T. LeRoy before his unmasking in 2005. I might have missed out on the whole thing we’re it not a local story and so highly emblazoned in San Francisco media. As the story played out, I didn’t really get it, figuring the literary hoax just some flash in a pan nearby.

Truth may be stranger than fiction, but when so complexly interwoven, it gets stranger still.

Author: The J.T. LeRoy Story seeks to set the matter straight,…from the perspective of Laura Albert, the 40-something year old woman who was writing as a gender-fluid teen from the meanest of streets. Turns out that Albert, a victim of abuse herself, developed LeRoy as a character she used in therapy over the phone, calling in an at risk youth hotline. Her therapist turned LeRoy onto writing, then helped them get published. Albert approached writers like Denis Cooper and others as LeRoy (always by phone) and developed significant relationships with them, those suspecting they were helping a troubled, talented youth who had AIDS and was doing what he had to in order to survive.

Literary success and celebrity recognition transformed something arguably therapeutic into something much more of a fraud. Albert employed her 19 year old sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop, to dress in a wig and sunglasses and to “be” LeRoy in real life.

It was a gateway to fame and celebrity that sucked them all in and makes for one of the strangest scenarios you can imagine.

This version is Albert’s and portrays a damaged artist who sort of accidentally got caught up in a fraud, pulling in her family and duping the literary world, the film world, and the music world in Warholian scheme.

While it’s easy to see Albert’s side of things here, one of the most bizarre aspects of Author is the amazing amount of recorded dialogues that supplement and depict this story, spanning over a decade. Apparently Albert recorded virtually every conversation she ever had and most of the people had no idea they were being recorded. This sure adds to the movie but it’s so insanely dubious, further underscoring how much everyone who touched LeRoy’s world was being manipulated and used. And why most of them felt such acrimony for them afterwards.

I’ve fallen into a real rabbit hole here, and rabbit hole it is. An alternate documentary The Cult of J.T. LeRoy is apparently more incisive. Knoop went on and wrote a memoir of her experiences which is now being turned into a movie with Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern. Everyone at the heart of the thing is getting their own versioning of the story.

It just goes on.

Dream Deceivers (1992)

Dream Deceivers (1992) DVD cover

director David Van Taylor
viewed: 01/22/2018

They loved Judas Priest.

Then one night in 1985 in Reno, NV, after drinking beer and smoking pot, they made a suicide pact. Ray Belknap, 18, took a rifle, put it under his chin, and killed himself. James Vance, 20, almost immediately, took up the gun, put it to his chin, and pulled the trigger too. We see documentary footage of the crime scene, their bodies near the playground equipment they had been hanging out on.

Only Vance didn’t manage to kill himself. By a stroke of either great or maybe horrible luck, he was saved by the doctors at a local hospital. His face exists as masses of flesh, a mouth that cannot really close, and though hidden by bandages most of the time, a massive crater in his skull at the top of his head.

Though apparently after many surgeries and recoveries he became a born again Christian and blamed the music for his actions, on camera he speaks of his love for Judas Priest and how much their music meant to him and his friend. His life, captured at the time, must have been horrific: terribly disfigured, his best friend gone, surrounded by family who have little grasp of his inner life.

His mother, a temple of denial, thinks his survival is her very own miracle. She very much believes that heavy metal led the two to suicide. She describes how Vance has to feed himself, with only two teeth and a forefinger, mashing food into his mouth. He won’t eat in anyone’s presence.

Vance and Belknap were like any number of kids with whom I, or perhaps anybody, went to high school. Their lives, beset with depression, abuse, were quiet tragedies, maybe unknown to friends until the trial and publicity. Vance’s stepfather relates on camera how he punched James in the face when he heard he smoked pot. He tells this story proudly, how James said he’d never smoke pot again after that. James Vance never knew who his biological father even was.

Of course, it was music that led them to suicide.

The 1990 trial, absurd as it sounds today, was par for the course in the late 1980’s, the heyday of the “Satanic Panic”. Rob Halford and the other members of Judas Priest take the trial very seriously, defending their work, denying the ridiculous claims of subliminal messages, offering sympathy that seems utterly sincere.

Produced locally for PBS at KNPB, David Van Taylor’s 1992 documentary Dream Deceivers: The Story Behind James Vance vs. Judas Priest is an astonishing film. It’s heartbreaking. It’s also amazingly cogent, capturing the events and time and place on the ground with a keenness and acuity that usually only time and distance gives one.

James Vance died in late 1988 from a drug overdose.

The Ark of Noah (1975)

The Ark of Noah (1975) movie poster

director Bart La Rue
viewed: 01/16/2018

Bartell La Rue, voice actor, was apparently also a visionary Christian type as well. Before making the cult Christian horror flick Satan War and landing forever in cult obscurity, he sank a lot of money into his own personal search for Noah’s ark on Mt. Ararat in Turkey.

The first 2/3 of his 1975 documentary The Ark of Noah is a dubiously fact checked smattering of research, history, myth and legend, narrated in his deep, professional narrator voice, full of all-knowing import. It would be interesting to pore over it with an actual historian to know how much is true and how much is nonsense. I’m far from a Biblical scholar so I won’t speculate.

The final third turns intently self-reflective detailing La Rue’s attempts to film on Mt Ararat while stymied by the Turkish government due largely to the war with Greece. He speaks of himself in the third person and documents their failures and ineptitude, trying to find evidence of the ark.

He was ahead of the Evangelical game, truth-seeking his Christian beliefs a bit ahead of others. Only two years later, In Search of Noah’s Ark, another documentary affair, would wind up being the 6th most grossing $ picture of 1977 (per Wikipedia).

I’m kind of fascinated by La Rue, since watching Satan War, especially since he stopped working in film after that if IMDb can be trusted.

Weird stuff.

Theory of Obscurity: A Film About the Residents (2015)

Theory of Obscurity: A Film About the Residents (2015) movie poster

director Don Hardy Jr.
viewed: 12/16/2017

Winston Churchill is said to have described Russia as “…a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma…” and maybe that’s an apt approach to what or whom The Residents are. Theory of Obscurity is a documentary that delves into their history, output, and following while keeping their particular riddle still wrapped in semi-anonymity.

I’m supposing how much you can deduce and know here may well have to do with how much you know about the band/art collective coming into the film.

I’ve had friends who were pretty serious fans over the years, so though my experience is more through contact highs than direct interface, I’ve always had an appreciation for the mysterious entity.

Though they originated in Baton Rouge, LA, they didn’t fully germinate until landing in the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 1970’s. Their avant-garde strategies share some elements of other interesting radical art groups, but are at the same time vastly different. Not fully classifiable, their records and video art fit in well with the then burgeoning punk, post-punk, and new wave aesthetics, all while been far more rigorously non-commercial.

One thing for sure, it’s lit a fire under me to get a chance to see them when they perform in San Francisco next April.