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.

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.

Ashes and Diamonds (1958)

Ashes and Diamonds (1958) movie poster

director  Andrzej Wajda
viewed: 01/22/2018

Ashes and Diamonds has been on my personal watchlist for a long, long time. But weirdly, after finally watching it, I was struck that I had indeed seen it before, probably when I was living in England in the mid-90’s, on a tiny little telly. It was when I was first getting introduced to the broader reaches and general canon of World Cinema.

Still, it strikes me as odd that I’d totally forgotten that I’d seen a film considered one of the greats of Polish cinema.

It was a couple of scenes, late in the film, dramatic shots of the hotel lobby, streaming with light from an open door, the climactic explosion of the fireworks at the moment of murder, and the final sequence of death and dancing.

Like a dream memory, long forgotten and re-awoken. Weird.

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.

Attraction (1969)

Attraction (1969) movie poster

director Tinto Brass
viewed: 12/03/2017

The 1960’s and early 1970’s were radical times, in the world, and in the cinema. “Avant-garde” may have been a recycled term to describe a lot of what was coming out influenced by the French New Wave and further radicalization, but challenging times made for challenging films, and particularly, films that challenged cinema, meaning, and all things status quo.

Though Tinto Brass is often described as avant-garde, as is his 1969 film Attraction, I found myself questioning its rigor.

Anita Sanders is a young woman about town (the town being London), and the film is arguably all her perspective, her looking (voyeurism and desire) and interior images from her mind and impressions. It’s about sex and sexuality, sure, but also Vietnam, advertising, art, race, violence, all to the decidedly psychedelic groove of Freedom (the band).

For my money, the success level of Attraction‘s avant-garde-ness is moderate. I’m thinking of other films of the era that I’ve seen that were more radical and challengeing. Take a lot of Godard, but more specifically Věra Chytilová’s Daisies (1966), Jaromil Jireš’s Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970), Dušan Makavejev’s W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism (1971), and to some extent as well, Marco Ferreri’s Dillinger Is Dead (1969).

I don’t know. I’ll see how it sits. It’s cool but not too cool.

Oasis of the Zombies (1982)

Oasis of the Zombies (1982) movie poster

director  Jesús Franco
viewed: 11/27/2017

I sincerely prefer the living dead Nazis of cinema to actual living Nazis in the world today. But enough about me.

Oasis of the Zombies has a lot of actors, big props, and explosions in the battle sequence.  Jesús Franco must have had a decent budget on this.

Franco never seems too invested in FX or make-up design so it’s not surprising his zombie movies tend to phone that shit in.

Though slow and not a little dull, Oasis of the Zombies does get sporadically atmospheric once finally rolling.

And yes, it is probably four or five times better than Jean Rollin’s Zombie Lake (1981).

Le Frisson des Vampires (1971)

Le Frisson des Vampires (1971) movie poster

director Jean Rollin
viewed: 10/16/2017

The Shiver of the Vampires is perhaps the most completely realized vision of Jean Rollin. In my opinion, that is.

Of his early films, Le viol du vampire (1968), La vampire nue (1970),  Requiem pour un vampire (1971) (all vampires, all the time), it’s as lush a production as he ever seemed to land, and also features another gorgeous Art Deco throwback movie poster, even nicer than La vampire nue.

On the surface, what’s really new? Naked vampires with sapphic leanings, elegant ruins inhabited, death and deathlessness, longing and desire. But at the same time it does differ. The soundtrack by Groupe Acanthus is certainly a-typical and kind of groovy. But that’s not it.

Rollin employs Bava-esque colored lighting , evoking a cheap but effective surrealism. The appearances of Isolde (Dominique), the vampire queen, first from a clock, then exploding from wall hangings, and (less effectively) dropping into a fireplace call to mind Jean Cocteau and the gorgeous simple effects in La Belle et la Bête (1946).

The story is the subversion of the heterosexual , or traditional married relationship. A freshly married man and wife arrive at the wife’s cousin’s castle only to find them dead. Well, dead and undead. Two mysterious nubile servants quietly run the show. But the wife is seduced away from her virginity as well as her husband’s grasp.

Rollin’s depictions of lesbian relationships is less purely exploitative and scopophilic. The women of his films escape their patriarchal worlds and find freedom and beauty in love between themselves. He’s nowhere as clear in his attitude toward male homosexuality, but maybe he’s frowns on all masculinity.

Ultimately, the heroes of the story are “the Renfields”, the unnamed lesbian servants, who overthrow not only the patriarchy at the end but overthrow the entire bourgeoisie.

I’ve watched Rollin’s vampire quartet over a four year span, in no particular order, so I would like to re-watch as a group sometime to better have a collective impression of the ideas and attitudes.

I do think this the best of the four, though I like them all.