Many documentaries that look interesting nonetheless often seem skippable to me when they’re playing in theaters. The ones I want to see I tell myself I’ll catch up with at home. I almost never do. It’s enough for me to know there’s a documentary out there about weird fungi or Creem magazine or any number of other things. I know I could see these movies if I wanted to, were I seized with the desire to observe, from my couch, beekeeping in Macedonia, Russian computer hacking, or Myanmar’s most prominent fascist Buddhist priest.
Documentaries like that have replaced books and magazines for a lot of people. Many of their subjects would be better read about than seen. Documentaries can only cram in so much between the clever opening and end credits and the other animated sections that replace scenes the filmmakers either couldn’t shoot themselves or couldn’t find any archival material on. Sometimes when I’m watching documentaries like that, I fast-forward them at 2x and turn on the subtitles. While speed-reading and speed-watching, I often think: this would be interesting to read more about. I’m like Hollywood in reverse. I want those movies turned into magazine articles, maybe even books.
Of course, the best documentaries go beyond all that and exist in the realms of the visionary or the minutely detailed and exhaustive, where both intense concentration and a kind of dream state are necessary and rewarded. The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu was over three hours long, but I wouldn’t have missed it in a theater. A brightly colored miniature like Agnès Varda’s Du côté de la côte is paradoxically best seen on a big screen in the dark. There are many documentaries between those modes, and I have been slighting them for too long. So in the last few weeks, with movie theaters in New York still closed because of the pandemic, I decided to concentrate on documentaries, and to see all the ones from this year that I’d wanted to see but that I had, in my mind, saved for home viewing. It was becoming too schizophrenic to save things to see at home when I was always already at home.
Jesse Moss makes finely observed, patient documentaries about self-deluded American conmen and dreamers. Naturally this leads him into politics. His latest film, Boys State, which he’s made with Amanda McBaine, his producing partner and spouse, focuses on five high school students attending the annual Boys State model legislature in Austin, Texas.
This American Legion-sponsored event, which is held in each state, not just Texas, brings together sixteen hundred high school juniors for a week, then arbitrarily divides them into two parties. (There is also a Girls State, held separately.) The boys chosen to attend then pass bills in their mock legislature, build platforms, campaign, and hold elections, with candidates competing for various offices. The most important is governor, so Moss follows three candidates for that office, two of them, Rob and Eddy, handsome lightweights, the third, Steve, a driven Mexican American kid with ideals.
The campaign managers from each party—future Machiavellis on the cusp of good and evil—are as important here as the gubernatorial candidates. One, Ben, is a conservative Reagan-worshipper who lost his legs and part of an arm to meningitis as a child. The other, René, is a queer Black transplant from Chicago who, at Boys State, finds himself in conflict with approximately 1,550 white conservative teens, his new peers. With straight faces, so to speak, this group proclaims that their “masculinity will not be infringed.” Other policy ideas of theirs include relocating all Priuses to Oklahoma “because we hate them” and making the official pronunciation of the letter w “dubya,” because “double-yoo” is too hard to say. Proudly held pro-gun and anti-abortion dogma underpins their worldview.
Looking through Moss’s microscope at these boys as they compete for office, it is easy to see how men like Mitch McConnell, Tom Cotton, Rick Perry, and even Pete Buttigieg rise to the top in American politics. Harder to understand is where a Bernie Sanders comes from, much less an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Steve, an impassioned speaker and an outsider, wins the respect of his party through his sincerity and commitment. The other side, however, has found Eddy, a kid with an even better head of hair than Steve, who says his abs are his best feature.
Someday, when their hair is thinner, these kids will be running the country. In this Primary Jr., which is just as fascinating and absorbing as the 1960 cinema-verité original (even if the stakes are lower), Moss presents our future leaders as both the dreamers of dreams and, unfortunately, the makers of racist memes. One party posts one on Instagram—a hasty, no-budget version of a grown-up campaign ad. They get called out for it, but we learn that taking the shot was worth it.
Taghi Amirani, an Iranian-British documentary filmmaker, enlisted the help of Walter Murch, the man who invented sound design and edited Apocalypse Now, to make Coup 53. It’s an exhaustive, riveting exegesis of the joint MI6-CIA operation that in 1953 overthrew the democratically elected prime minister of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddegh, and installed the Shah as leader.
Right after I saw it, Coup 53 was pulled from release because big-name British TV journalists are deciding whether they should sue Amirani and Murch. They claim secrets revealed in the film, which were withheld from broadcast on the BBC in 1985, were not withheld because of them, even though they had the interview transcript of the key British spy who plotted the coup and an on-screen interview with the CIA man who aided him. It was not their fault these interviews were not included in a TV documentary they were making, but nor was it the British government’s fault, these journalists claim.
Whoever’s fault it was, they say Amirani and Murch shouldn’t make them look bad. Their concerns about being shown in an unflattering light regarding editing choices someone—not they!—made thirty-five years ago are more important than the truth. This is a new kind of double censorship. The British government, unlike the United States, has still not admitted it orchestrated the coup in Iran. Americans, it seems, are proud of their malfeasance; the British are a little embarrassed by it, even the British journalists who made a TV series called End of Empire.
The first half hour of Coup 53 seems a tad ponderous as Amirani tells his own story and the story of his research. We see shots of him opening file folders and peering up at buildings. Then, through the transcript of the interview suppressed by ITV Granada, which made the film, we learn about Norman Darbyshire, the British spy who led the coup. Amirani hires Ralph Fiennes to sit in a room in the Savoy Hotel and play Darbyshire, delivering his lines from this transcript. Annoyed the CIA has taken too much credit for his work, Darbyshire lays out the entire operation in smooth, full sentences, like a John le Carré novel. He doesn’t quite come in from the cold, but it’s some kind of comfort to learn that British spies really did talk like that as they went around the world overthrowing democracies for oil companies.
Winston Churchill described Iranian oil as “a prize from fairyland beyond our wildest dreams.” The British in Iran were extracting oil from the country and paying back to the Iranian people only 16 percent of profits after taxes—taxes they paid to themselves, since British Petroleum was then a subsidiary of the Crown. When Iran had had enough and expropriated the oil industry, the British were outraged. They appealed to the United Nations in New York, the International Court in the Hague, and the Truman administration in Washington, losing in each, on all counts.
Truman was on Mosaddegh’s side. A Brit from the coup interviewed in the film says it was because “Americans like to talk to a man who has charisma,” inadvertently implying something about the British at the time. Churchill waited for Eisenhower to be elected, then convinced the new administration that Mosaddegh was a pro-Soviet threat, and the coup became a coproduction of the U.S. and the UK. To front it, MI6 and the CIA enlisted a pro-Shah general who’d been imprisoned by the Allies during World War II as a Nazi sympathizer and who in retirement was spending most of his time with prostitutes. The general’s son, a fancy relic living in Swiss exile since the 1979 Iranian revolution, explains to the camera, with a bare minimum of conviction, that no, it was actually Mosaddegh who had syphilis.
After the coup, the CIA set up Savak, the Iranian secret police, and taught them how to arrest, torture, and execute leftists. The oil companies moved in, and the Shah got $45 million in aid from the Eisenhower administration. Ike became convinced coup d’etats were better than real wars, because they were cheaper and Americans didn’t die in them, and that democracy in the developing world was bad for natural-resource extraction. The United States tested that theory in Guatemala the next year. It worked there too. Twenty-five years later, however, in Iran, it was Long Live Khomeini, Death to Shah, Death to America the Great Satan, etc., with fifty-two American hostages held at gunpoint for 444 days. It’s outrageous that this important film—which many have already seen because it was a film festival hit—is now being suppressed under the threat of further censorship.
According to Coup 53, the CIA farmed out some of its Savak training to Mossad, the Israeli secret police. As I’m writing this, an Iranian nuclear scientist has just been assassinated while on vacation, probably by Mossad, and undoubtedly with the blessing of the Trump administration. It’s a last-ditch attempt by Trump to stir things up with Iran before he’s lugged out of the White House.
Republicans love messing with Iran then leaving Democrats holding the bag. In 1979 Richard Nixon was one of the people who, by appealing to Jimmy Carter’s humanitarian interests, convinced Carter to allow the Shah into the United States for cancer treatment. Letting him in precipitated the Iran hostage crisis and a year later swept Reagan into office.
Desert One, the new documentary by Barbara Kopple, whose groundbreaking first film, Harlan County, U.S.A., came out during the first year of Carter’s presidency, presents interviews with the surviving men of the 8th Squadron, Delta Force Special Ops, who Carter tasked with rescuing the hostages held in the U.S. embassy in Tehran. The Iranian revolutionaries called the embassy “the spy nest.” It sat on twenty-seven acres next to a soccer stadium and had a staff of a thousand people. That is a lot of embassy. The Delta force operation never landed there. Plagued by equipment malfunctions, it crashed and burned in the Iranian desert, leaving eight American soldiers dead.
Kopple’s film is a tearjerker, effective in its sentimental celebration of American heroism that didn’t pan out. Aside from those men and the former hostages she interviews, her film is a glimpse into an America whipped into an anti-Iranian frenzy by Republicans on the Senate floor, and by ABC News’s late-night show, Nightline, which the network created to cover the hostage crisis every weeknight after the regular evening news ended. Ted Koppel, a pretentious warmonger who spoke in the most stentorian and serious of tones, hosted Nightline in sober contrast to the senators he interviewed, who shouted about EYE-ran. The U.S. military used his show to gather intelligence from the embassy. Kopple (not Koppel) reminds us how bleak that time was, with Americans tying yellow satin ribbons around trees, inspired by a cheesy Tony Orlando song, and turned bellicose and eager for war.
Unlike Harlan County, U.S.A. (and Coup 53), Desert One has no real point of view. It doesn’t offer much, beyond honoring the men who tried to rescue the hostages, and is by default but not by conviction militaristic. Still, the Iranians emerge as the winners here, revolutionaries in dark gray suits and sunglasses trolling the United States while their humorless, frightening Ayatollah says no to every American proposal that doesn’t deliver the hated, dying Shah back to Iran for a show trial. Khomeini, the opposite of Mosaddegh in every way, was nonetheless his avenger.
Not only did the Americans fail in their mission, they failed in front of a tourist bus in the desert. A bus showed up unexpectedly, filled with passengers who Delta Force had to take hostage until they could hightail it out. Their haste resulted in a fiery crash in a sandstorm called a haboob. The Iranians eventually released the hostages—one minute after Reagan was sworn in as president on January 20, 1981. It was not their last troll. Today, at the site of the Desert One crash, there is a playground made from the American airplane and helicopter parts abandoned in the desert. Next to it, the Mosque of Thankfulness, where every April 25 they hold a holiday commemoration featuring a sign that reads, in English, “The Sands Were GOD’S Agent.”
Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President
Andrew Young, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under Jimmy Carter, says in this documentary, by Mary Wharton, that Carter was “an anomaly” and that “he grew up in a county that was 80 percent Black and he probably never had white friends till he went in the Navy.” Carter himself reminds us that he “grew up in a home that didn’t have running water or electricity until he was a teenager.” When he was bringing up his kids in Plains, Georgia, they used to get beat up at school for not being racist. One of his first acts as governor was placing a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. in the governor’s mansion and inviting the public to come see it. After beating the weird segregationist Lester Maddox to become governor, he defeated Gerald Ford, and by extension Nixonism, to become the post-Watergate president. He believed in peace and in the inherent goodness of his fellow man, and he never should have let the Shah go to that hospital in Manhattan.
Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President showcases Carter’s deft touch with soft power, in the form of the American music (rock, folk, blues, country, gospel, and jazz) he used to bring the country together, and to charm foreign leaders. Carter counted Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson as his friends. The Allman Brothers were among his first supporters, and the concerts they played for his campaign brought this Georgia peanut farmer to the attention of younger voters and the media. Gregg Allman and Cher, married at the time, were his first dinner guests at the White House the week he was sworn in. At his inaugural ball, Aretha Franklin sang “God Bless America” a cappella, and Paul Simon introduced a song by saying, “Perhaps a time of righteousness and dignity may now be upon us.” John Wayne, a non-musician, made a speech and looked on as the musicians played and sang, as he does in Rio Bravo. For a brief period, it seemed to be a time of healing.
Carter had Cecil Taylor play at the White House, and entertained the Chinese ambassador by taking him to Nashville for brunch with June and Johnny Cash and back to the White House to see Loretta Lynn in concert. Halfway through his term as a political concert promoter and DJ, there was a big change, telegraphed in this movie by placing Blondie’s “One Way or Another” over a montage of the Iranian hostage crisis. Carter, it seems, represented a last gasp of living, authentic classic rock and “May the Circle Be Unbroken” harmonizing before the punks came in with their post-modern mash-ups of pop trash and the Iranians got fed up with the Shah. I knew they had something in common.
After losing to Reagan, and leaving the White House like a decent human being, Carter became a secular saint. He remains so today, at ninety-six. In this enjoyable, ennobling movie, Willie Nelson and Nile Rodgers read Carter’s poetry out loud and sing his praises. So does Bono, alas. One unexpected thing I learned from this movie is how much more insightful, intelligent, and interesting Larry Gatlin is than Bono. Filmmaker Wharton neglects to include the best song ever written about a president, the one by Gene Marshall, a nobody who recorded other people’s lyrics by mail order and isn’t classy or famous enough to be in a movie with Bono and Bob Dylan. So I’ll quote them:
Can our government be decent and open?
As the 39th president, he has spoken, yes,
Jimmy Carter says yes.
Cordillera of Dreams
Exactly twenty years after the coup in Iran, the United States orchestrated one in Chile, prodding and supporting right-wingers and the military the same way they had done in Tehran in 1953. They toppled and assassinated the democratically elected socialist president, Salvador Allende, and once again freed up the country’s lucrative copper rights for American exploitation. The filmmaker Patricio Guzmán went into exile after being held as a hostage of the junta in a soccer stadium like the one next to the U.S. embassy where the American hostages were held in Iran. He completed his three-part film, The Battle of Chile, in Cuba and France between 1975 and 1979.
The Cordillera of Dreams is the last in Guzmán’s latest documentary trilogy on his home country. Despite the utopia of the Allende years, when he returns to Santiago he does not find the beach under the paving stones. Instead, he sees the streets, paved with rock from the Cordillera, the Andean mountain range that separates Chile from the rest of the world, as blood-spattered memorials to the fallen leftists of his generation.
Guzmán’s camera glides over the rooftops of Santiago into the now abandoned blue-carpeted offices of Augusto Pinochet, the military dictator of Chile who replaced Allende and implemented a program of disappearing leftists into graves in the Atacama desert. On the soundtrack, he muses on how Chilean economists still brag about being the first to apply “the Chicago model” to a whole country, one freed of trade unions and made safe for overseas investors. Guzmán reminds us that leftists had chanted in the streets, “Television is an accomplice! Television is lying!” as the Chilean right beat protesters and the country fell prey to a “mythological” ideology in which his unarmed socialist comrades were understood to be “child-eaters.” Leftists, accordingly, had to be totally annihilated in an “epic battle” that justified torture and murder, a battle the CIA under Nixon and Kissinger had stoked and approved.
The Italian embassy in Santiago accepted fleeing Chilean leftists, housing about 250 refugees from the junta who they eventually airlifted to Italy. There, as we learn in this compact, swift documentary, they got jobs in Italian towns that were “70 percent communist” and where there “was no undeclared work, no dirty tricks.” One woman, a leftist known as Lumi, did not make it to Italy. The junta threw her corpse over the embassy wall near a pool where Italian diplomats lounged and then claimed in the media she had died at a Marxist orgy.
Nanni Moretti, the Roman cinema owner and the comic auteur of such films as Palombella Rossa, Caro Diario, and The Son’s Room, in which he often acts, makes a brief appearance in Santiago, Italia. The director cuts short an interview with a former member of the Chilean military, imprisoned for kidnapping and murder, who says he is completely innocent, did nothing wrong, and that, yes, the military did kill three thousand of their fellow Chileans, a low number, but he is the real victim here.
Guzmán makes an appearance before Moretti’s camera, but most of the screen time is dedicated to the refugees who escaped to Italy—the film is somehow the opposite of Desert One. An exile tells the story of appearing before a crowd of Italians that included the movie star Gain Maria Volonté, who was crying and who he recognized because he had seen him in Sacco and Vanzetti. Under Allende, he says, “we had good cinemas then.” The aging partisans who had fought the Nazis and the Fascists recognized themselves in these young Chileans, just as I recognized in Moretti’s film the Rossellini who made Paisan and who in 1971, late in his career, made an interview film with Allende. Or maybe I just thought of Rossellini because one section of Moretti’s film is called “Voyage en Italie.”
Santiago, Italia ends the same way as The Cordillera of Dreams, with the triumph of neoliberalism in a Chile free of Pinochet but also in Italy. Chile today, like Italy, looks like the one the junta wanted, where people are “caught up in a society of frantic consumerism” and “don’t give a damn about others. If you can crush them, you do.” Today, highways link the wealthy suburbs and private-access vacation spots directly to the airport, bypassing Santiago and its cobblestone streets.
Feels Good Man
One of the first images of Pepe that we see in Arthur Jones’s documentary has the frog from Matt Furie’s Boy’s Club comics already repurposed into the hate meme the character became on the internet, out of Furie’s hands. In this simple drawing of Pepe’s face, with its open-to-interpretation amphibian Mona Lisa smile, Pepe’s catchphrase is unsubtly altered. “Kill Jews man,” he says.
Feels Good Man is about the devolution of a cartoon into hate speech, and how that affected its creator’s life. This comprehensive, intelligent film goes to unexpected places and, because of its subject, uses comics and animation in an organic, creative way. Its subject is memes, the dank ones, and how they helped Donald Trump get elected. They started as sick jokes cracked in the basement lairs of the NEET crowd on 4chan, and then made their way to people like Richard Spencer, the white supremacist ideologue. Spencer was wearing a Pepe pin on his lapel when, in a now-famous video clip, he got punched in the face by an anti-fascist during a live TV interview. Not only was Spencer wearing a Pepe pin, he was also fingering it just before fist hit face.
The battle of Kekistan was won in a meme war, according to Feels Good Man, and war is hell wherever it takes place. Matt Furie was its casualty, and should have sued right away, before things got out of hand, as America’s premier sicko cartoonist, Johnny Ryan, advises him to do in footage in the movie. Too nice a guy, Furie chose instead to observe as Pepe became a cultural melanoma and wound up on the Anti-Defamation League’s official list of hate symbols.
Today there is some understanding that the right-wing employs a strategy of “flooding the zone with shit” in order to obliterate objective reality by claiming that racist speech is just jokes. As we see this develop in Feels Good Man, however, Jones leads us down the rabbit hole that sucked in Furie’s life, not just as an artist. By the end, the right-wing radio host/lunatic Alex Jones (no relation) has appropriated Pepe, too, and we have to watch him rant and hear him rave in his comical scaryman voice while he tries to bullshit his way out of Furie’s first lawsuit.
Jones settles, then claims victory, like a true fascist, while also trying to show he’s a victim of harassment from a hipster cartoonist who draws cute animal-people. Is it a form of extreme speech to say that if comes to that, maybe I’d rather watch Bono tell me he’s saving the world in the name of love?
Happy Happy Joy Joy
There is not a happy ending for John Kricfalusi, the cartoonist and animator behind the wildly original, somewhat disgusting, and often quite beautiful Ren & Stimpy Show, which ran on cable television for five years in the 1990s. By bringing back hand-painted and inked single-cell animation in such an entertaining way, at a time when no one expected cartoons on TV to be any good, Kricfalusi suddenly had the world on a string with his 4.0 Nielsen ratings. But he faced enormous pressure to crank out new shows with the team of eccentric artists he ruled over in this orthographically wacky studio, Spümcø. Unwilling to let quality suffer, and at times far too demanding, he had a meltdown, lost control of his show, and had to walk away from it.
At the same time, he took up with a sixteen-year-old fan who he’d begun corresponding with when she was fourteen, and when that became too weird for her, he found another girl the same age. The hyperactive Kricfalusi, who in his heyday looked like a handsome New Wave cartoon character himself, now says he regrets all that, but in Happy Happy Joy Joy, named for a Stimpian catchphrase, his current looks belie his contrition. Whatever he’s gone through in his life, to me his new face, which resembles a mash-up of Jack Palance and Michael J. Fox as Martin Short might play them, reveals both a guilty conscience and the psyche of a man who suffered abuse early in life and didn’t get help. The film hints at that without stating it. Kricfalusi’s dad was the basis for his son’s “George Liquor” character on Ren & Stimpy.
The show paid close attention to the facial and vocal expressions of movie actors. Kirk Douglas, Peter Lorre, and Larry Fine were all sources of the shouting and the angularity, the squashed stupidity and mewling of Ren & Stimpy’s high-pitched mania. Cartoonists live to sneak in stuff and draw dirty comics—they can’t help it—and Kricfalusi was also successful in that regard, until he got too vulgar and lost the respect of his peers. Even so, Ren & Stimpy’s gestalt—a kind of tender boldness of form, something “churning like lava inside you,” as Kricfalusi puts it—was endearing and magnetic. You couldn’t look away. Part of Kricfalusi’s tragedy is that he proved something important in the world of animation, and he knows it. “It’s not Bugs Bunny that is the golden property,” he explains to filmmakers Kimo Easterwood and Ron Cicero, “it’s the artist.”
Love Express: The Disappearance
of Walerian Borowczyk
This seventy-two-minute Polish documentary got a theatrical release in certain parts of the country where theaters were open, in this crazy year when nothing big was coming out (except Tenet) and weirdness could slip in unannounced. As a documentary about the all-but-forgotten Polish-French avant-garde animator of the 1960s, who in the 1970s became a director of live-action erotic fairy tales, it had the unfortunate effect of leaving me wanting less Borowczyk, even though the film doesn’t use enough clips from his work.
Love Express errs in having only famous male directors comment on Borowczyk’s films. They watch them out-of-frame on a phone or a tablet. No one needs to see Terry Gilliam and Neil Jordan leering toward a device held at lap level as they watch Immoral Tales. Only two women, a screenwriter-psychoanalyst who wrote for Borowczyk and one of his actresses, appear in the film to discuss their work with him. It is clear from Love Express that Borowczyk’s animated shorts—with their clumps of blonde hair, milk bottles, black-and-white tracking shots of lead pipes, stop-motion owls, and angels with bleeding blue wings—deserve to be collected together and rereleased.
His first live-action film, 1969’s Goto, Isle of Love, was an anti-fascist tale in black-and-white. His subsequent color features, despite a Jean Rollin-esque quality, do not look appealing as presented here, though the description of a scene in The Beast as “endless ejaculations from a wooden dong” is not something I’d heard applied to any movie before. Borowczyk stopped making feature films in 1987, lived another twenty years, and never returned to making animated shorts. This documentary doesn’t bother to ask why.
Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful
Made by the German TV documentarian and television personality Gero von Boehm, this movie presents Helmut Newton as a well-adjusted, happily married artist who found his calling early, right before he escaped Berlin under the Nazis. As a teen, he worked for the German photographer Yva, who the film claims was the first to use live models in fashion photography. Yva’s fate could have been Newton’s. A Jew, as was he, she was murdered by the Nazis in a concentration camp during the war.
Newton got on a boat to Singapore, failed there as a news photographer, then moved to Australia, married a model, June, who became his business partner, and found his way into the pages of Vogue, which enabled him to live and work for the rest of his life between Paris and Los Angeles. Even his death was glamorous. In 2004, at age eighty-three, he had a heart attack in his Cadillac convertible as he was pulling out of the driveway of the Chateau Marmont.
Helmut Newton was probably the last Weimar artist and maybe the last surrealist. His photographs of tall, nude, or half-clad women, smoking or drinking in hotel rooms or on terraces, walking menacing dogs, in wheelchairs, or stuffing chickens with Bulgari jewelry were made for adults, but not in the prurient way of “adult” books or “adult movies” that Borowczyk’s films became. Newton, unlike many of the fashion photographers who followed in his wake, did not believe the world was trashy. Or maybe he thought it was, but that it was fully redeemable by female nudity. “Men are accessories,” he liked to say. “Like shoes, or hats.”
Early in the film, Newton claims all photography documentaries are boring. A Walter Matthau-ish figure with gray hair and glasses, Newton was evidently beloved by the models he worked with. A parade of supremely intelligent women—including Grace Jones, Isabella Rossellini, Charlotte Rampling, and Marianne Faithfull—appear in this film to praise and psychoanalyze him. When Newton appears in the film working with other models, they all seem on the verge of laughter as he says things to them like, “There is a kindness in your look, which is the last thing I want.” When photographing a nude blonde in high heels on all fours drinking a can of Coke and smoking, positioned in a pile of leaves next to a black sedan, his instruction to her is, “Make it always look almost natural.”
He claims Erich von Stroheim, a great film director and a phony Hollywood Teuton, was his hero, and that he admires Leni Reifenstahl’s work. His photographs create decadence as they parody fascism, in a perfect synthesis of those two figures. In a clip from a 1980s French talk show, he discusses his work with the show’s other guest, Susan Sontag, who wrote an essay called “Fascinating Fascism.” Looking at one of Newton’s photos, perhaps the one of a woman’s legs jutting out of a crocodile’s wide-open jaws, she announces to him, in French, “I am not impressed.” Sontag wrote a whole book about photography and therefore knows what she’s talking about, so I guess I should believe her when she pronounces on Helmut Newton, and not my lying eyes.
I couldn’t go a whole three weeks seeing only documentaries, so I watched Eugene Kotlyarenko’s new movie, Spree. It’s a mockumentary of sorts, shot from multiple sources in semi-real-time, mostly from the point-of-view of several cameras set up in his car by a rideshare driver named Kurt Kunkle, played by Joe Keery, from the TV series Stranger Things. Kurt livestreams his existence, in competition with an annoying younger hypebeast he used to babysit (Joshua Ovalle).
The film is a King of Comedy for an age in which images are ephemeral and disposable. Kurt’s main goal in life is accruing followers and becoming famous for his empty-headed, diaristic babble, which he doesn’t understand makes his life look sad. With its scenes of conversations in the car, shot from the front so that Kurt and the person he is speaking with in the backseat both face the camera, Spree also reminded me of the shots of Abel Ferrara playing pinball with his girlfriend in The Driller Killer, which is appropriate because Kurt, like Ferrara’s character in that movie, also becomes a serial killer.
Spree is a giddy adventure in screen maximalism, random violence, and cultural bitterness. As in Feels Good Man, the specter of Elliott Rodger, the Isla Vista incel mass murderer, haunts the film. A Kurt Pepe even shows up on one of the many screens Kotlyarenko uses to fill his frames. Sometimes there is triple-split-screen, almost impossible to make work, yet it works here. Sasheer Zamata plays a standup comic who becomes the final girl to Kurt’s vehicular-homicidal maniac, but she is a heroine revealed as a phony. She comes out on top after lying on stage, and when the mayhem subsides, we see her in the pages of The New Yorker, realistically presented as in a Ricky D’Ambrose film. Sunny Kim was better in the smaller part of a DJ from Seoul named uNo, who has Kurt drive her to a taco truck. He asks her what she wants to eat. “Get me most famous,” she says, as the screen is littered with livestream comments in all caps: ADD SOME WTF MOMENTS OR GTFO. Spree adds many such moments, including a car chase on the wrong side of an LA freeway shot on Instagram Stories—the film is something of a latter-day Repo Man too. In this version of cinema, the future is now but, Kotylarenko implies, even if it is, nobody notices for more than a second.