Back Row Thoughts – What’s Up, Docs?

It should come as no surprise that I like documentaries. I’ve reviewed quite a few on here already, and I obsessed over the challenge of seeing all 15 short-listed feature docs before the Oscar nominations even came out (I fell one short – sonofabitch!). I concede that I don’t know much about the craft or artistic style of documentary filmmaking, however, and tend to look at them as independent pieces of entertainment, like I would any other film, except that I’m adding the caveat of either making a convincing case for your subject, or at least sparking debate and dialogue.

That’s not to say that there aren’t great one-sided documentaries. There are a ton of them, particularly when it comes to issues or people for which there really is only one side. I don’t ever want to see a film about how Jeffrey Dahmer was secretly a great cook, for example. And sometimes you get movies – particularly from gonzo types like Michael Moore – that are meant to be intrusive and provocative when the opposing viewpoint is essentially indefensible. This is where movies like Bowling for Columbine and Sicko do so well. No matter your feelings on guns and healthcare, to pretend there isn’t a problem is simply ignorant, if not outright hateful, and dangerous. When even Fox News can admit that Moore is on to something when he asks why we’re the only first world country without universal healthcare, you know you’re on to something.

So yeah, I love these films. However, sometimes they can be hard to track down, as I learned earlier this year. Most documentaries aren’t released in mainstream, commercial theatres. Many aren’t even released in theatres at all apart from very limited runs for awards eligibility. TV, streaming services, and DVD are oftentimes the best outlets. As such, I figured I’d spend today’s column exploring a few documentaries that won’t be at your local cinema, but are available if you’re willing to explore other avenues. In three of the four cases below, the films were released this year, and are thus graded and included in this year’s film tally.

Ex Libris: The New York Public Library

This is the one I missed. The one short-listed doc for the Oscars I couldn’t track down was this profile of one of the oldest and largest continually-operating public libraries in the world. It was released briefly in theatres last September, and long gone before the short list came out. Once it did, it was only given a few one-day-only screenings at libraries across the country. There were a couple in Los Angeles, and while I followed the film on Facebook to get updates, I always seemed to find out a week too late that I had a chance to see it. I wanted to see it so bad, as this is the 42nd documentary from one of the masters of the form, Frederick Wiseman.

Well, I got it on DVD a few weeks ago… and it put me to sleep. Sadly, Wiseman’s film is an endless slog (over three and a half hours!) of rotating sequences. First you get a presentation done at the library, usually a speech or lecture with some prominent minds (there are some genuinely interesting bits from Richard Dawkins and Elvis Costello), and then you get fly-on-the-wall looks at the day-to-day operations of the library.

That’s it. For three. And. A. Half. Fucking. Hours.

There are no interviews, no insights into the history of the library, no case made for its vitality or necessity to the New York City community. It’s just 10-15 minutes of a presentation, then 10-15 minutes of someone asking the desk clerk something, or people on phones reserving reference books, or executive meetings, or some other visual sedative. Lather, rinse, repeat, for 3.5 hours.

I’m glad I saw it, as it completes the set from last year. It was a thorn in my side that I had only seen 14 of the 15 documentaries on the list, and I’m happy that I’ve finished the job. But goddam! If you have the constitution that I lacked (I could still hear everything in a lucid dream state after I nodded off), it’s available on DVD right now. But man, this was an ordeal. Never has a nap felt so laborious.

Grade: C-

Andre the Giant

Now begins a trio of docs produced and aired on HBO. If you don’t have HBO, steal your friend’s HBOGo/HBO Now password and get on it, because there’s some really special stuff here, and even the subpar has merit.

I fully admit that one of the stupider things I enjoyed as a kid was pro wrestling. As the WWE (back then the WWF, before the Pandas had their day in court) took off, I was a prime target audience, a dumb young boy under 10 who didn’t understand that it was all fake. I had tons of favorites: Hulk Hogan (duh!), Ultimate Warrior, Macho Man Randy Savage, Rowdy Roddy Piper, the list goes on. But above them all, my absolute idol was Andre the Giant.

I liked that he was huge. I liked that he eschewed the flashy costumes in favor of a single strap black one-piece. I liked that his voice was so deep that even in his somewhat broken English (being that he was French), he sounded like something out of a fairy tale. But most of all – save for his heel turn storyline in Wrestlemania III – I liked that he was a “gentle giant,” seemingly the nicest guy in all of wrestling. He was like a big, cuddly teddy bear who would protect the crowd from the “bad guy” wrestlers like Jake “The Snake” Roberts or Sgt. Slaughter. When he died, it was the first major celebrity death that I can remember. My mother even excused me from watching the evening news that day, in case it made me too sad.

The HBO documentary doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already kind of know about the man, but it’s still an interesting look at one of the oddest celebrity stories in modern history. Learning about this boy from a rural French farm who started to grow too big as a teenager trading in his traditional life for that of an attraction and entertainer (he played soccer in school before even attempting wrestling) is fascinating in and of itself. But what the doc adds to the proceedings is that it spends much more time on Andre the man, rather than Andre the wrestler. There are token interviews with Hogan and Vince “I’m Gonna Restart My Failed Football League and Force Players to Stand” McMahon about his wrestling career, and who Andre was in the ring versus in the locker room, but the fun is in the interviews with friends, former co-stars (go watch Princess Bride right fucking now if you haven’t already), and even his adopted American family, as he missed his more provincial life (fuck you, Belle!) and actually bought a house in North Carolina just so he could live with a small-town family when he wasn’t on the road.

There’s also some wonderful, heartfelt looks at his personal life. He knew his gigantism was going to be fatal, and considered himself lucky to make it to 40. He had a daughter I never knew about, whom he intentionally kept out of his life to avoid exposing her to his tumultuous lifestyle, and to prevent too much attachment, given his fatalistic approach to life. Do I agree with the decision? Certainly not, but the film at least makes me understand it, and it serves as a nice, serious contrast to the more jovial side of his life, particularly his famous drinking habits.

Grade: B+

I Am Evidence

Mariska Hargitay (of Law & Order: SVU) produces and occasionally appears in a film that is devastating because it tells of several miscarriages of justice that we all know about, but rarely address. Across America, right at this moment, there are something in the range of 400,000 rape kits that have not been tested for the purposes of identifying an alleged assailant.

It’s literally insult to injury, as women who have undergone one of the most traumatic experiences of life have their assault compounded by an intrusive collection of DNA evidence placed in a kit. And in way too many cases, that kit is then left to languish in a storage facility, never to be touched again.

There are several cases shown in the film demonstrating this logistical travesty. Victims are told by police that the backlog is so long that they’ll never get around to testing their kit, which essentially means their attacker goes free. A lack of a comprehensive database for the evidence leaves serial rapists free to attack across state lines, knowing they won’t be tracked down. The statute of limitations runs out. Sometimes the kits aren’t stored properly, so the evidence is tainted and unusable. It’s horrendous.

And sadly, it all comes down to the unavoidable question, which is, do we just not care because they’re women? Are we going to bog ourselves down with the same excuses about not believing victims, or worse, blaming them? And even when a kit is tested (the most inspirational part of the film is the women joining forces to get the funding in local areas like Cleveland and Los Angeles to get the backlog cleared), sometimes it’s not enough to convict, as at least one poor woman got her day in court, and her attacker was acquitted despite the DNA evidence.

Rape is about the most serious crime the average person can commit, and it’s an outrage when every effort is not made to exact proper justice. Case in point, I live in California, where yesterday we had our statewide primary elections. In northern California, an additional ballot measure was one to recall the judge who sentenced Stanford Swim Team rapist Brock Turner to just six months. Over 60% of voters took his job away.

It’s hard work to test the kits and get everything on track, but it’s not impossible, and relatively speaking, it’s not that expensive. It costs roughly $1,000 on average to test a kit, a cost that’s in many cases initially put on the victim, which is disgusting in itself. There are about 400,000 untested kits in this country, so the total cost to test everything is somewhere in the neighborhood of $400,000,000. Let’s even give the benefit of the doubt and round up to $500,000,000. Half a billion dollars. That’s it. That’s all it costs to find justice and peace of mind for hundreds of thousands of women (and men) in this country.

Our political powers gave themselves and their wealthy donors a trillion dollars in tax cuts last year. Priorities, people.

Grade: B

A Dangerous Son

This is my least favorite of the three HBO films, mostly because there’s an inherent sexism in the presentation. The title alone hints at it. The film focuses on four mothers across the country – one in Los Angeles, another in suburban Washington, one in Texas, and another in Aurora, Colorado. Each of them has a son with severe emotional problems and mental instabilities. The boys lash out, become detached, and sometimes they’re outright violent.

The central conceit of the film is that there aren’t enough mental health facilities in this country to handle the number of mentally ill children in this country. And that’s a salient issue worth exploring and discussing, but for the most part, we don’t get that. Instead, we get highly disturbing images of the extent of the boys’ madness, particularly 11-year-old Ethan, who beats his sister and cusses out his mother (the film opens with him being led away by his mother, supposedly from a gentleman friend’s house, with the man calling after them that she can’t bring her kids around anymore).

The core illustration of the problem is the lack of beds at therapy homes and the prohibitive cost of maintaining them. A young boy named William from Colorado, who is on the autism spectrum (he has physical ticks in addition to his emotional distress) is eventually sent to a home after being on a waiting list for over a year, only to return after 10 months because his parents (divorced, though still the only case in the film that has an active father in the picture) can no longer afford the treatments, even though the doctors feel he needs at least a year, if not more. Poor Ethan gets one of only three beds in the entire state of Washington, and is released after the maximum stay of six months.

This is a public health issue that needs exploring, and a government issue that needs to be addressed at the local, state, and federal levels. But really, that’s not what this film is about. It’s about the moms, and how little boys can be hellions. It’s no surprise the film was released just in time for Mother’s Day.

You see, if the film’s presentation is to be believed, only boys have violent mental illnesses. No girls are portrayed to have these issues. Both William and Ethan have perfectly well-behaved sisters who are scared of them, and much is made about how dealing with the boys isn’t fair to the girls. The mothers are saints, who are simply doing the best with their monster sons. There are interviews with a woman who went viral after Sandy Hook, writing a blog stating that she is just like Adam Lanza’s mother, in that her son also has these issues, and she wonders if she’s raising a future mass murderer. She even tries to empathize with Lanza’s real mother (his first victim on the day of his 2012 rampage), wondering if she was actually a really good mom who just didn’t notice the signs.

All I can think is, NO, SHE WAS A BAD MOTHER! You know how I know? Because if she didn’t see the signs that her son was crazy, then she wasn’t paying close enough attention (never mind the myriad stories in the wake of the attack that say she abused Adam). If she did notice and did nothing about it, then she’s even worse. Oh yeah, and of course there’s the fact that her house was filled with military-grade assault rifles. If your kid is mentally unstable, I don’t give a shit about your Second Amendment rights, get rid of the fucking guns! Do SOMETHING! She didn’t, and she paid the price, along with two dozen innocent children and teachers.

That said, there are still some compelling moments. Peppered throughout the film are interviews with Creigh Deeds, a state legislator in Virginia. He narrates the story of his son, Gus, who was for a long time a sweet, athletic, charming, creative young man. But as tragedies go, you know what’s next. Deeds’ story shows the gradual change in Gus, to the point that in his 20s his behavior was unrecognizable, and Gus stabbed his father before killing himself. Deeds was lucky to survive, and has since admitted his own faults as a parent in not getting his son the help he needed until it was too late (he tried to have his son committed the night before he was stabbed), and now he’s working to change the health system so the problem can be addressed. Unlike Lanza’s mother, we at least show him talking about how he could have done more, and working to correct the mistakes to prevent future tragedies.

There’s also a devastatingly beautiful moment with Ethan. For most of the film he’s an absolute nightmare. He yells, screams, swears at his mom, hits her, pulls her hair, and threatens to kill his family. When he’s in the therapy home, he seems to improve, and there’s a heartbreaking moment where he talks with the producer (who’s off camera), and asks if he can still get into Heaven if he’s not always a good person, or if it’s already too late for him. As horrid as he is throughout the rest of the film (including hitting his mother again less than six hours after he gets back home, to the point where the crew has to stop filming to assist her), I just wanted to hug him in that moment.

It’s moments like that which could have made this film so much more compelling. Make the case that these kids truly aren’t bad, just messed up, though still inherently good and loving. They’re not sociopaths, despite the repeated edits to news footage of Sandy Hook, Columbine, and the Aurora Theater shootings. They’re damaged. They’re scared. And most of all, they want to be better. That’s a movie I’d see over and over again, and advocate wholeheartedly. Instead, we got pure but exhausted mothers dealing with terrible boys who will likely grow up to be killers. Happy Mother’s Day!

Grade: C+

More reviews are coming soon, including later this weekend, when I’ll be seeing the most anticipated documentary of the year. I will probably bring tissues.

Join the conversation in the credits below! What’s your favorite documentary? What issues would you like to see covered in a film? Have you ever had Michael Moore stick a camera in your face? Let me know!

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