Friday 17 June 2011

Documenting lives

Martial Arts Master: The Life Of Bruce Lee, directed by Guy Scutter (1994)The Case For Christ, directed by Michael and Timothy Eaton (2007) and Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work, directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg (2010)

One recent afternoon I watched back to back to back documentaries on Netflix, and only after watching them realised they had a common theme: they were biographies of people. Or, technically biographies of two real people and one mythic figure with no historical proof; but you get my drift. The three films in question were 1994’s Martial Arts Master: The Life Of Bruce Lee, a 52 minute long film directed by Guy Scutter; The Case For Christ, a 71 minute long pseudo-documentary, from 2007, directed by Michael and Timothy Eaton, on Christian Apologist Lee Strobel’s claims to have ‘proof’ that Jesus Christ really existed, really was divine, and really died for you (yes, your!) sins; and a 2010 documentary, directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, called Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work, which runs 84 minutes. Of the three films, the Lee film was a solid, paint by numbers bio-documentary, the Christ film was not only wrong on virtually every historical claim, featured ‘experts’ who are nothing but apologists, but was shoddily made on almost every cinematic level, but the film on the 75-year-old Rivers was shockingly good, detailing her highs, lows, good and bad points, and with a depth and profundity that is rarely seen in such films. While it had some slack moments, here and there, enough to keep it from being a great documentary, it is an excellent one, and considering I never really cared for Joan Rivers - she was funny but something always turned me off: the film reveals it is her chasm of lost self-confidence- that explains a lot.

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As a child (ten and under), all I knew of Bruce Lee was that he was, for a few years, the biggest movie star in the world. Yes, he was in foreign karate films, which were extensions of the earlier samurai films, and not romances or high dramas, but, along with blaxploitation flicks and porno films, that was about as high on the dramatic scale as films got in the cinemas in my neighborhood. Paul Naschy sex/horror films, Japanese and Ray Harryhausen monster films, Hammer and Roger Corman films, and old B movie prints from the 50s and 60s were the usual fare. The few films Lee released in the early 1970s- Fists Of Fury, The Chinese Connection, Return Of The Dragon, and Enter The Dragon - became must see stuff for young boys. It was not just because they were action films, but because they were believable action films. Lee was not Superman, but a small guy who, through skill and cunning, could take out bigger and badder guys.

This documentary digs into a bit of why and how Lee was able to project that onto the screen, for he was not just a martial artist, but a philosophical thinker… who just happened to be the best fighter going. His youth is described by his brother and other friends and family, including his son Brandon Lee who, like his father, died an untimely early death. The younger Lee lived to 28 while his father made it to 32, dying in 1973, of all things, of a broken blood vessel in his brain. Other people who lend comment on his life are actors James Coburn and Jackie Chan. Having grown up in the 1970s it was impossible to not be at least aware of the Bruce Lee phenomenon. While I was not a great fan I did see his films, usually by sneaking in to theatres, and watching assorted scenes from his films had a disquieting effect on me, like that of seeing someone you once knew and cared for, after many years. The difference is, in real life, people age and become quite different from the people you once knew. Not so with Lee. He is forever young and emblazoned in memory. I’m sure there are better and more thorough documentaries to be done on Lee, but this tribute, released for the 20th anniversary of Lee’s death, is a good start for the novice. It also makes me want to go out and see these films that, for well over 30 years, I’ve not seen. Such a power cannot be bad.

(2)
Then there is power that is bad. Such a power is unvarnished stupidity, and it is on full display in The Case For Christ, based upon a similarly-titled book, wherein a former Chicago Tribune reporter-cum-revivalist preacher named Lee Strobel (who wrote the source book), tries to prove that Jesus Christ existed. Strobel tries to add ‘heft’ to this lightweight ‘investigation’ by claiming he was a raving atheist who was ‘overwhelmed’ by the evidence for Christ. Of course, his experts are all known apologists. Not a single Biblical sceptic, much less a professional historian or archaeologist is included, since they would be forced to admit there is nothing in terms of scientific evidence Jesus of Nazareth existed, much less was divine. There are so many laughable ‘proofs’ given in this pseudo-documentary, and done so ham-handedly (by presuming legalistic jargon to add ‘heft’ to the claims) that I could go one for pages. I’ll spare you all but one example. Classic of the dialectic nihility in this film, a typical assertion goes like this. Claim: how do we know Christ rose from the dead after crucifixion? Answer: well, because the Bible says that since the persecutors of Christ tried to blame someone for stealing his corpse, they are de facto (love that legalism!) admitting the absence of a corpse. No corpse? Damn, what more proof could you want that Christ had to have risen from the dead? Naturally, the logical approach would be ‘it’s just a story’. This sort of logic is akin to claiming ‘How do we know that Ahab went down with Moby-Dick?’ Answer: ‘Because we know Ishmael was the only Pequod crew member to survive and tell us the story. Therefore, that we know of Moby-Dick proves Ahab is dead.’ Yet, we know Moby-Dick is but a novel (albeit a great one). And, no, I am not making this up. This is the utter level of intelligence and investigation the film presents.

I am an agnostic, which means I have an open mind. But that does not mean I do not use it. This film is an abomination and an insult, not only to non-believers, but even more so to religious folks. It reminds me of an idiotic video I saw online where dumb-as-a-post 1980s child actor Kirk Cameron tried to use the shape of a banana as proof that Darwinism was wrong, for only God could design a fruit so perfectly suited for our digits. Needless to say, this film is an atrocity. It is to film what a homosexual orgy in the Vatican is to true believers. Strobel is a conman but the sad reality is one cannot even respect the fact that he’s good at the game.

(3)
Being good at the game is a fact that was never in question regarding Joan Rivers and comedy. While I was never a great fan of the woman’s routines during her 1970s and 1980s heyday, the reality is that Rivers is best appreciated when she’s at her most vulgar. Some people can just curse and rant in profanities with élan while others crash and burn. The film Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work tracks Rivers’ life, rise to fame on talk shows of the 1960s, stardom as the permanent guest host of The Tonight Show, during the Johnny Carson era, and her subsequent fall- after getting her own Fox television talk show, her husband’s suicide when it ended, Carson’s cold-hearted betrayal of her, and her business collaboration with her daughter Melissa, who, like her mother and Michael Jackson, has become astonishingly ugly due to multiple bad plastic surgeries.

But the film is not a talking head sort of documentary; it’s more of a road documentary, charting the septuagenarian Rivers’ unending quest for work and money to support her lavish lifestyle and equally unending parade of hangers-on. Rivers is seen as insecure and desperate to be loved, yet also bubbling with occasional wisdom, such as when she described her marriage to Edgar Rosenberg, whom she met and wed in four days. She admits she was not ‘in love’ with the man at first sight, but it was a ‘good marriage.’ She forgave his suicide because he was a good husband who was not as strong as she was. In another part of the film she even admits that no man has ever said she looked beautiful - ‘terrific,’ but never beautiful. But, she’s OK with that.

Documentarians Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, who followed Rivers in 2008 and 2009, and whose previous film, The Devil Came On Horseback, was on the Darfur genocide, are not into hagiography, though, and the film shows Rivers at her insecure worst, when she badmouths colleagues and abuses co-workers. But it also shows her at her best, forever forgiving her business manager of 35 years, Billy Sammeth, until he stiffs her once too often and she has to fire him. In a revealing moment, Rivers weeps that with the firing of Billy she has lost a memory bank, the last link to someone she could ask, ‘Do you remember _____?’ It’s offhanded moments of wisdom and genuineness like this that reveal Rivers as much more than a pottymouth comedienne and publicityhound, and Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work as a top notch example of the documentary film as biographical document; not only revealing the whos and whens, but gnawing at the whys and hows of a life. Ironically, there is an ongoing lawsuit between Sammeth and Rivers and the makers of this film, with Sammeth claiming they defamed him. Another truly great moment comes when, in her busy day to day schedule, Rivers jets off to play a show in snowy Wisconsin, and makes a joke about Helen Keller’s muteness rendering her the perfect child. A priggish heckler claims he has a deaf son and the joke in poor taste. Rivers blisters the fool on the meaning, origin, use, and purpose of comedy being to look at the not so great things in life and smile, rather than laugh. Of course, she does it more graphically, but it’s a brilliant moment that shows Rivers at her deft and extemporaneous best. That it was recorded on film is a pleasure and treasure given to the filmmakers.

The film also tracks Rivers’ annual Thanksgiving charity work with the indigent, her meeting with a disabled photographer, Flo Fox, her appearance and win on the 2008 ‘reality show’ Celebrity Apprentice, as well as her critically panned one woman play, which opens in Edinburgh and closes in London. Rivers is so upset at the negative reviews that she refuses to try and bring the show to Broadway, fearful that it will get critically sliced and diced, by the New York theatre critics, like her first play did, almost four decades earlier. One of the more revealing moments comes when she is invited to a Kennedy Center Honors for George Carlin, and states she feels like a hypocrite since Carlin loathed these sorts of events and the people who attended them. Such moments aptly recapitulate the film’s opening sequence, which shows parts of Rivers unmade up face, thus revealing that this film is not going to spare the proverbial rod on Rivers nor anyone.

Thus, the emblemic and perfect epigraph for the film is spoken by Rivers, herself, when interviewed on a New York radio show, on WOR. The host asks her is women should or should not be loved for their real selves, and Rivers replies (part deadpanning and part seriously), ‘What’s the real self?’ Thus, she states the very mission and purpose of this film and sort of documentary. Yet, I suspect the film answers that very question in an earlier scene that shows Rivers at a voluminous index card file cabinet that stores all the jokes she’s heard, written, and performed over her career. Joan Rivers is a comedienne (although she claims she’s an actress playing a comedienne) and what is such a creature but the funniness of her jokes?

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Ultimately, Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work reveals its subject as being right at home in the world described in Woody Allen’s underrated 1984 black and white comedy Broadway Danny Rose, and it lives up to its title. While the same can be said of the Bruce Lee documentary, it simply lacks the complexity and uniqueness of insight and querying that the Rivers documentary has. The Case For Christ, though, documents nothing, save the vacuity of its creators and claims. Perhaps that is the ultimate difference between God and Man, though? However, if Stern and Sundberg are held up as exemplars, I’ll go with Man (or Woman) every time. So should you.
© Dan Schneider


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