My Career as a Jerk (2012)

My Career as a Jerk (2012) movie poster

director David Markey
viewed: 08/14/2017

This Circle Jerks documentary works mostly as an oral history of the band, interviewing, not exclusively but almost, members of the band for their recollections. It starts out with a lot of old bad video with muddled sound from the band’s heyday in the earliest of the 1980’s. So much so, it seems like it’s going to be quite a slog.

But interestingly, the rest of the story unfolds, and while it’s far from a masterful work or even necessarily compelling, the tale of this band tells something different from what one might of thunk.

As well known as the Circle Jerks were for their name and skanker cartoon dude, they had one pretty great album, Group Sex (1980). They were a big hit in LA at the time, a minor supergroup made up of ex-members of Redd Kross and Black Flag. But personnel changes shifted things on a near constant basis. While singer Keith Morris and guitarist Greg Hetson were ever-present, the rhythm section went through a series of transitions that were more significant than in some groups.

As the 80’s wore on, the band put out less and less important records while Hetson had his other foot in Bad Religion (an apparent point of contention). They re-formed in the 90’s and cashed in on a major label deal in the wake of Green Day in what looked like a point of embarrassment. They also regrouped to cash in on playing some large venue gigs in the 2000’s.

The upshot is that the real hardcore punk scene didn’t make anybody any money. Even the more legendary bands, notable names like the Circle Jerks were just getting by, and though they had more fame and notoriety, that didn’t add up to much at the end of the day. And when “punk broke” in the 1990’s, they were just another group on the sidelines of the scene getting turned to capital.

More than anything, I’m glad to have learned how the nerdy guy from Repo Man (1984), Zander Schloss, wound up playing bass for the band. That always seemed kind of weird. Though he also seems like a cool guy in reality.

David Lynch: The Art Life (2016)

David Lynch: The Art Life (2016) movie poster

directors Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes, Olivia Neergaard-Holm
viewed: 07/30/2017

David Lynch is enjoying a moment again. This current moment is around the new season of Twin Peaks, a welcome respite in these fraught and psychotic times in America.

David Lynch: The Art Life isn’t really the documentary for this moment, necessarily. It does spend its time with the then 70 year old Renaissance man, as he works on paintings and other art pieces, entertaining his toddler daughter Lula. He recounts his childhood and relationship with his family and his concepts of art, through his school days and into Philadelphia, the onset of his interest in cinema. It culminates with the production of Eraserhead (1977).

Images of many of his artworks fill the screen, more often than not undescribed in title or time period. It’s just his own oral history. While it’s interesting, especially for someone who is interested in Lynch, it feels like an installment, not a whole. Maybe more interesting than Lynch (2007), maybe not.

Chained Girls (1965)

Chained Girls (1965) movie poster

director Joseph P. Mawra
viewed: 07/08/2017

Let me tell you, you could queer theory the hell out of Chained Girls. It’s almost a thesis project in itself, just packed with not just stereotypes of the day but leering while offering social commentary on the ways of lesbians in the world.

In the right company, this could be a laugh-riot. In other company, it’s about as offensive as you can imagine. For my money, it’s better to laugh than to cry.

This tidbit comes from Joseph P. Mawra, who (as the somethingweird.com site will tell you) also made White Slaves of Chinatown and Olga’s House of Shame (both 1964). As well from producer George Weiss, producer of Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda (1953) among many other Exploitation titles.

An amazing artifact, in its own way.

Future Shock! The Story of 2000AD (2014)

Future Shock! The Story of 2000AD (2014) movie poster

director Paul Goodwin
viewed: 07/04/2017

I experienced 2000AD sort of second hand. I got turned onto the Judge Dredd comics that were reprinted in the US in the early 1980’s and knew vaguely of the weekly British comic in which they originally appeared. I did at the time manage to land a single issue of 2000AD itself, but really had no sense of perspective or knowledge of the background of the publication.

So I was pretty stoked to see a documentary about it.

Sadly, it’s not a particularly great documentary.

Essentially an oral history as told by a litany of folks from the many decades and phases of the publication, it’s both insider-y and somewhat self-defined. It’s also a tad scattershot in focus and narrative.

Still, the tale of its origin, its eventual sapping by the DC Comics imprint Vertigo in the late 1980’s and 1990’s, and its near death around the turn of the century have interest for those interested in the subject.

Kind of a disappointment. At least I finally know how to pronounce Brian Bolland properly.

Danny Says (2015)

Danny Says (2015) movie poster

director Brendan Toller
viewed: 06/25/2017

Of the many music documentaries of late, I enjoyed Danny Says the most. Production-wise, it’s not dissimilar to Gimme Danger (2016), using interviews, old photos, old video, and even animation, but something about it, and maybe it’s Danny Fields himself (who does appear in the Stooges documentary, as Iggy Pop appears here).  The stories are almost entirely Danny’s, coming from his own recollections, of one of the most incredible life/career in late 20th century music.

To tell his story would sound like braggadocio if it weren’t all true. Starting out by publishing the interview that started the end for the Beatles to signing the Doors, the Stooges, the MC5, and the Ramones, and so so so so SO much more.

The rebellious nature of gay culture absolutely gave a place for punk to arise and thrive. It can’t be better stated than by John Cameron Mitchell, who says that Danny Fields was “Handmaiden to the gods, midwife to some of the most important people in music.” Fields’s taste in music wound up redefining music, without playing a note himself.

Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk (2017)

 Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk (2017) movie poster

director Corbett Redford
viewed: 06/10/2017 at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema – New Mission, SF, CA

I went to Gilman Street in spring of 1987, only a couple of months after it had opened. The show I caught was typically eclectic and in retrospect pretty awesome (Frightwig, the Didjits, the Dwarves, & Primus), though none of the bands that would become known as Gilman bands. I was 17.

My scene was in Gainesville, FL and my tangential link to Gilman and the East Bay was inspired by Gilman and its scene and led me to booking Operation Ivy and Crimpshrine when they toured in 1988. Eventually I moved permanently to California and Gilman was a continual pull, one of the only all ages venues of its day, plus its great price and atmosphere. I also eventually moved to San Francisco, and for the first year I lived in the city, I worked for MaximumRocknRoll and could call Tim Yohannon a friend.

So, Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk is populated by a number of people that I’ve known, some I still know, and tells a story from the inside of the Bay Area punk scene with which I have a lot of personal connection and familiarity and is also why I dragged my kids to sit through a 2 1/2 hour documentary on a Saturday afternoon.

Produced by Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day, it’s a long-winded love letter to the heart of his punk birthing (and many others). The film is without a doubt overlong, but really tries to tell as full a story as possible, starting with Berkeley in the 1960’s, tracing the first waves of punk in San Francisco and the world, second waves of punk and all the early East Bay bands all before it gets to the founding of Gilman Street and all the bands and stories that emanated from it.

Since Billie Joe produced it, it’s got good production values and features Iggy Pop as narrator (though has Iggy ever been to Gilman?) Aaron Cometbus lurks around the film, silently lettering the chapter titles.

Some notables are notable in their absence. Controversies around the commercialization of punk and what happened to the Gilman scene in the 1990’s are addressed. It’s always seemed to me that Jesse Michaels caught a real sense of what was coming when he and Tim broke up Operation Ivy, the band that almost broke punk into the mainstream (their inherent popularity outgrew their comfort level before that chance ever reared its head.)

I actually took my son to Gilman for his first concert about a year and half ago, the first time I’d been there in 20 years. Physically it’s still the same, and it’s still populated by a lot of teenagers and young people (there were a couple old fogies like myself there). It is a cool place, and it’s truly amazing that it’s survived as long as it has in its being.

Gimme Danger (2016)

Gimme Danger (2016) movie poster

director Jim Jarmusch
viewed: 04/17/2017

When one of your favorite directors makes a documentary about one of your favorite bands, that is pretty much a cinematic slam dunk, right?

Unfortunately, Jim Jarmusch’s Stooges documentary Gimme Danger isn’t the great construct that it might have been. On the plus side, you’ve got Iggy Pop reminiscing widely on the birth, life, and death of the Stooges, as well as some input from other members, managers, and family. Certainly worthwhile for a fan.

But the style of the documentary isn’t great, hardly signature Jarmusch, not that he’s known for documentaries. It’s nice that it covers the period of reunion for the band, especially since the deaths of the Asheton brothers since. In fact, it might have been interesting to spend more time on the brothers’ lives between the break-up and reunion. It certainly seems like stories are there.

I have this thing I think about writing about something you love versus something that you have more critical distance from: it’s harder. Not that this is a love poem, but it feels like the story might have been more interestingly crafted with some critical distance.

As a document, it’s cool enough. It surely demonstrates that when you are too far ahead of your time for commercial success in your day, hopefully you’ll live long enough to have your cool recognized by the masses.

One More Time with Feeling (2016)

One More Time with Feeling (2016) movie poster

director Andrew Dominik
viewed: 04/03/2017

A study in contrasts: 2014’s 20,000 Days on Earth and 2016’s One More Time with Feeling. Both films are documentaries about Nick Cave recording an album. In 20,000 Days on Earth it is his 2013 album “Push the Sky Away”; in One More Time with Feeling it’s the 2016 album “Skeleton Tree”. The first is in color, the latter in black-and-white and 3-D.

The real difference is what happened between these two pictures, the death of Cave’s son Arthur in a fall from a cliff at the age of 15.

Cave is a different man, one who was always absorbed of darkness, but now leavened in loss and trauma. We see Cave’s wife, the beautiful Susie Bick and Arthur’s handsome twin, Earl appears briefly. Cave himself has deeply shaken by what has happened to Arthur, and while director Andrew Dominik engages Cave in conversation, the tragedy itself isn’t something that he wants to directly articulate.

Nick Cave and collaborator Warren Ellis scored Dominik’s remarkable 2007 Western, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It’s hard to know if this created an affinity between them, allowing access to the grieving process, the therapeutic return to work and art, but it’s conceivable.

These two films exist wrapped around Arthur’s death, the first by happenstance, this one by choice.

O.J.: Made in America (2016)

O.J.: Made in America (2016) movie poster

director Ezra Edelman
viewed: 3/26/2017-04/01/2017

Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America is a serious magnum opus, and Edelman expands the view around O.J. Simpson and the infamous murder and even more infamous trial placing the story concretely in Los Angeles and in the complex context of race and racism in America.

For those of us who lived through much of this story, we all have our own perceptions and memories of the star athlete turned actor and that insane trial. It’s very telling to revisit this material through Edelman’s lens, expanding the view, by covering the California into which Simpson was born and by the many commentators who add their own experience and context to it all. There is so much going on here, and Edelman actively engages in the complexity of Simpson the man, Simpson the incredibly popular star and his image in the eyes of whites and blacks, refracting his own lightness and darkness from different vantages.

There is too much to dig into here, so I won’t try. I thought this film was excellent, well-crafted, deeply interesting and edifying, leaving me so much to consider and contemplate.

Those crime scene photos. Unbelievably gruesome.

There are multiple tragedies herein. And as the bizarre final segment of the film (parsed into 5 episodes for television) unfolds, a justice is meted out, but is meted out in a further cruel truth. Simpson is in prison now, perhaps for life, but not for his most heinous crime, his punishment a vengeful racist righting of wrongs, wronging only further.

Mind-blowing.

Shoah (1985)

Shoah (1985) movie poster

director Claude Lanzmann
viewed: 03/18/2017-03/25/2017

In the latter 20th century, if there was one thing that seemed rather universally regarded was that World War II was fought against an enemy that was incredibly, absolutely and terribly bad. Nazi Germany offered a clarity of an evil that one and all could recognize as “evil”, that the war was fought against an enemy as black-and-white as morality could achieve. That later wars were increasingly moral quagmires that could not by any means be reduced to good versus evil, right and wrong, WWII and Nazi Germany was something certain and awful, horrendous nearly beyond comprehension.

The 21st century and in particular the most recent years has brought a shocking open rise in stark racism and even a resurgence in Nazism. Certainly factions persisted that supported white supremacy and other repugnant beliefs but they remained submerged or simply existed as a small fringe of people. With the rise of candidate Trump, the racists have been emboldened and are making themselves known and I can’t help but to be continually shocked by this.

I try not to be reductive in my thinking, and I know that even in Nazi Germany there were more complex stories played out behind the monstrosity of the Third Reich. But Adolph Hitler, Hermann Göring, Reinhard Heydrich, and the mind trust behind “The Final Solution” still fall into the most abject and clear demarcation of inhumanity as known in history.

It is from this place of thinking that I decided to watch Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 document, Shoah.

This is, in essence, why Shoah was made. Testament, testimony, perhaps most embodied in Filip Müller, who survived Auschwitz in part to tell of those who perished there. The idea of remembrance and commitment to never allowing something of this nature to happen ever again, nor to forget those that died.

There is so much in the film’s nearly 10 hours, so much to process.

It’s interesting that it’s 30-40 years post-war that Lanzmann catches these people. And it’s good that he did to record their stories and testimonies because most, if not all of them are now dead. As WWII recedes further and further into the past, like any event, those who actually lived through it, bore witness to these things, will eventually pass on as well and the opportunity for recording oral history will be gone.

I was most struck by two things in particular. One, the filming of the sites of the death camps in their then present day situation. Such contrast to the events that happened in those places, now monuments or ruins in the sedate Polish countryside. Haunting when infused with the telling of the mass murders that took place there.

And secondly, the overwhelming fact of the Final Solution itself. This idea to exterminate an entire race of people (and others also considered undesirable) itself is almost mechanical in its conception. That industrialized process was employed to eradicate human beings follows almost logically. And in reality was frighteningly efficient. To consider the thinking that led to all this is to try to consider and understand a stark form of madness.

Whatever comes of our present time, it is of value to arm oneself with knowledge and information, facts. Our remembrance is continued remembrance to deny the deniers, those that look to obfuscate truth and spread lies as facts. To remember to what heinous and horrific degree the logic of hate and xenophobia can become. That genocide is real.