Dubious Documentaries

“American Dharma” Bum: The New Errol Morris Film on Steve Bannon Gets a Cold Shoulder

Lock him in! Lock him in! The Quonset hut at the closed South Weymouth Naval Air Station in Massachusetts. Photo by Rick Ouellette

I took the photographs in this post on January 2, 2017—after the election but before the inauguration of Donald Trump as U.S. president. The building in the picture above was one of the sites where Academy Award-winning documentarian Errol Morris interviewed former top Trump adviser Steve Bannon, the subject of his new film called “American Dharma.” It was a sort of stage set up for Bannon, who first rose to prominence (or infamy, as many of us would have it) as the executive chairman of Breitbart News, the alt-right, conspiracy-mongering website that is a favorite of the gullible current occupant of the White House.

A feature story in the arts section of the January 25th Boston Globe pointed out that the much-celebrated Morris has not found a distributor for the film, which has yet to see the light of day since it debuted at the Venice Film Festival last year. (There will be a screening at Harvard University’s Carpenter Center on Feb. 1st, just down the way from where Morris has his office). Part of the problem, might be in the blasé attitude that would let Morris indulge the highly controversial Bannon by having him blab away in the hut which resembles the one in his favorite World War II movie, “Twelve O’Clock High.” For Morris, the WW2 film title that probably best sums up his problems with his new documentary is “A Bridge Too Far.”

When I posted this photo of abandoned housing in early January of 2017, a friend wondered if it were a preview of “post-Trump America.”

That’s because “American Dharma” can be seen as the third entry in a loose trilogy of Errol Morris films about contentious men who were Presidential advisers or Cabinet secretaries: and they can also be seen as offering diminishing returns on the director’s artistic investment. (Like most people, I haven’t seen “American Dharma” and this post is about the idea of doing it in the first place). The first, 2003’s “The Fog of War,” was about Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense in the 1960s under Presidents Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Ten years later, Morris came out with “The Unknown Known” about the longtime Republican operator Donald Rumsfeld, who first came to the national spotlight as chief of staff and defense secretary in the mid-1970s under President Gerald Ford and, of course, held that latter position under George W. Bush during the calamitous invasion of Iraq in the early 2000s.

“The Fog of War” was an exceptional, riveting film that deservedly won Morris an Oscar for best feature documentary, an award that many thought he should have received fifteen years earlier for “The Thin Blue Line.” Robert McNamara was born in 1916 and in an early scene he tells of his first memory, watching victorious American soldiers in a parade after the end of World War I. Morris makes the film so much more than a filmed profile of the man who had recently published a book that was a semi-mea culpa about his role in escalating the disastrous Vietnam War. It expands into an incisive examination into nearly a hundred years of an increasingly mechanized and brutal evolution of warfare (McNamara used his exceptional analytical skills to increase the efficiency of the Air Force’s firebombing of Japan near the end of WW2). At the end, McNamara is dodgy when Morris presses him as to why he didn’t voice his grave misgivings about Vietnam policy to Johnson but, aesthetically anyway, he is not let off the hook. As we hear audio of a phone interview of McNamara declining a last chance to come clean, we see the now elderly man driving around Washington in inclement weather, the hard rain of history beating down on his windshield.

“The Fog of War” was one of the first projects on which Morris use his patented “Interrotron” which (Wikipedia definition) “projects images of interviewer and interviewee on two-way mirrors in front of their respective cameras so each appears to be talking directly to the other.” And by extension, it makes it look like the interviewee is making eye contact with the viewer. But if one thinks this method will necessarily out the truth, that notion is quickly dispelled by the ceaselessly obstructionist style of Rumsfeld in “The Unknown Known.” If you can get past his weasly double-talk (naturally, the film’s title is his own phrase) and the shit-eating grin, you might get something out of this film. But if you were someone outraged at Rumsfeld’s key role in the simplistic invasion plan in Iraq (“intellectually bankrupt” in the words of one general) that left the country in tatters and was based on a flimsy premise (the evidence-free accusation of Saddam Hussein’s involvement in the 9/11 attacks), or were upset at the policy of U.S. troops standing by during the wholesale cultural destruction of the Iraq Museum looting (“stuff happens,” said Donny) or revulsed at his enabling of the heinous treatment of detainees, many of them innocent, which devolved into the torture scandal at Abu Ghraib prison (aka “enhanced interrogation techniques”), the film will leave you cold. Rumsfeld doesn’t feel exposed, he is allowed to go on and on in the current fashion of unaccountable yammering. To him and us, it’s just another day in the grinding machinery of the media-industrial complex.

America’s favorite slovenly sociopath? Steve Bannon in 2010.

Can you blame potential distributors for thinking that “American Dharma” is more of the same, esp. in view of Bannon’s “toxic reputation” (in the words of the Boston Globe)? Breitbart is now all but the communications arm of a mindset that is not out of step with the Klu Klux Klan and neo-Nazism. I have no problem with Bannon having his say, but for God’s sake wasn’t he a top White House advisor, feeding his xenophobic notions to the already unscrupulous, spiteful and easily-manipulated Trump? That’s say enough. Any further exposure is just fodder for the ever-spinning media merry-go-round. But if you need further confirmation of what you already know, “American Dharma” will likely see the light of day in some form or the other. In the Globe article, Morris says “I think as the country becomes less angry, particularly the left, then it would be possible to look at the movie as a movie.” After Morris confirmed that Steve Bannon had seen the film and was asked what he thought, the director said “He likes it” and, according to reporter Mark Feeney, “barked out a laugh.” Forgive me if I’m not amused.

Dubious Documentaries #10


Unknown White Male
Directed by Rupert Murray—2005—88 minutes

(Unknown White Male? No, it’s not about my status as an indie author but the concluding entry in this series and one that shows that as the documentary field continues to expand and thrive, filmmakers need to be careful that the enhanced aesthetics employed in non-fiction movies don’t confuse people as to the ultimate veracity of your project. This review was adapted from my book “Documentary 101: A Viewer’s Guide to Non-Fiction Film.”)

From Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” in 1945 to 2000’s “Memento”, the complications arising from comprehensive memory loss has proved a top-drawer cinematic plot device. More novel is the idea of a documentary in which a real amnesia victim is filmed during the tricky process of reacquainting himself with a past life of which he has no recollection. “Unknown White Male” would appear to be just such a film. British-born New York resident Doug Bruce got checked into a hospital in July 2003 after alighting from a subway train in Coney Island not knowing where or who he was. For the next year or so, Bruce’s lifelong friend Rupert Murray constructed this artful film of his rehabilitation. Since its release, many critics and viewers have doubted the reliability of what’s on offer here. With its seeming inconsistencies and claims of a rare retrograde amnesia that is hard to both establish and refute, these nagging reservations will likely persist.

It’s not so much that you don’t want to believe Doug Bruce and his story, it’s just that everything is a little too clean cut—-life goes on pretty well for him with a supportive family, new girlfriend etc. There is far too little expert witness material here, as if you were supposed to accept the amnesia at face value even though what type of trauma may have caused it is unclear. That way we can get right to the human-interest angle, which is admittedly interesting. Perhaps this all would have worked better as a based-on-a-true-story film, maybe fashion it into some sort of thriller… Oh, wait never mind.

unknown poster

In some markets, this 2011 amnesia caper was also titled “Unknown White Male.” In other places it was known as “Taken 2.5”

Any readers out there have some Dubious Documentaries they’d like to share? Let us know!

Dubious Documentaries #9

Still alive

Paul Williams: Still Alive
Stephen Kessler—2011—86 minutes

In the Seventies, Paul Williams was a fabulously successful pop songwriter and, with his famously diminutive stature and impish sense of humor, was a staple of TV talk shows and guest sitcom appearances. His songs were recorded by 3 Dog Night (“Old Fashioned Love Song”, “Out in the Country), the Carpenters (“We’ve Only Just Begun”, “Rainy Days and Mondays”), David Bowie (“Fill Your Heart”) and many others, including the Oscar-winning prom buzzkill “Evergreen.” It is not Mr. Williams who is dubious. It’s just that, as with all but the shiniest stars in the celebrity firmament, he saw his time come and go. One glance at the title of Stephen Kessler’s film will let you in on the premise. The director’s first misstep is riding the I-thought-he-was-dead conceit for the first ten minutes of the movie instead of admitting to just checking Paul’s Wikipedia entry.

“I was going to thank all the little people but then I remembered I am the little people.” Williams wins an Oscar, 1977

Kessler professes his great admiration for Williams and his work, yet stumbles over several different doc-making strategies and mostly calls attention to himself. First, he stalks the tunesmith, then makes dubious claims about how he was granted access (“Paul and I bonded over squid”), before getting to tag along to the autograph sessions and Vegas nightclub dates that keep things going for an icon of an aging demographic. Kessler’s method seems either clueless (When Williams is in the middle of an poignant boyhood anecdote about his troubled and heavy-drinking father, the director cuts in to ask him about his first talent show) or just tacky (“Paul gave me what I always wanted.. a sleepover”). Williams is a likeable enough subject, if a bit guarded, and he’s more astute than his filmic biographer—at one juncture he even explains Kessler the relative merits of either playing to the camera or keeping it cinema verite. Although Williams’ story does get out in the end, a less kitschy approach would have yielded far more interesting subtexts than a celebrity sleepover—like a look at how fans’ persistent adoration this far down the rock ‘n’ roll road is perhaps colored by their own looming mortality. Still worth a look for fans of Williams (natch) as well as for pop-culture trainspotters of a certain vintage.

My new book, Rock Docs: A 50-Year Cinematic Journey will be released later in 2015.

Dubious Documentaries, Parts 1 and 2

(Somehow, the first two installments of my Dubious Documentaries series got lost in the shuffle, so I’m re-posting them here in shortened form so they’ll be archived. The last two installments coming in early January. Happy New Year!)


“Chariots of the Gods” (1970)
The unvetted premise of Erich von Daniken’s 1968 bestseller “Chariots of the Gods?” is that alien astronauts visited earth in its antiquity, influencing advances in civilization and supplying the technology that allowed for the building of the Egyptian pyramids, the Easter Island statues and just about everything short of the Brooklyn Bridge. As in the book, the film’s free-associating conclusions range from intriguing-but-unlikely to plain preposterous and matters are not helped by the old school “authoritative” narrator. But we all like ancient mysteries and this movie is very entertaining in an eye-rolling sort of way. “Chariots of the Gods” was even nominated for a documentary Oscar, helped no doubt by Ernst Wild’s globetrotting cinematography and the beguiling musical score by the Peter Thomas Sound Orchestra.



“Room 237” (2012)
If there were a quantifiable way of giving an award to the documentary with the most bats in the belfry, “Room 237” would be a strong contender.
This film is a coming-out party for the subculture of conspiracy geeks who think that Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 chiller “The Shining” is a whole lot more than just the master director’s entry in the horror genre. According to the six heard-but-not-seen interviewees featured here, “The Shining” is one or more of the following things:

A) The veiled confession of a man who feels remorse for helping fake the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969.
B) An encyclopedic film essay about sexual repression
C) A coded allegory of the Nazi holocaust
D) A connect-the-dots method of decrying the violent disenfranchisement of Native Americans

Not all of these theories are over the top. Aspects of “B” and “D” have been discussed by mainstream scholars and critics for years (Oedipal themes bob to the surface and the Overlook Hotel is clearly said to have been built over a tribal burial ground) and Kubrick spent years trying to produce a Holocaust-themed film. But it’s item “A” that’s bound to stick in the craw of those viewers like me who, while recognizing “Room 237” as an enjoyable evening out at the local arthouse, want to land back in the real world by the closing credits. To use “Where’s Waldo” methodology to claim that Kubrick was somehow recruited by NASA to film the moon landing on a soundstage is just silly—I don’t think Neil Armstrong will bother turning in his grave over this one. The five-minute excerpt below shows just how quickly fascination alternates with irritation while listening to theories that seem to say more about OCD than about the possible existence of clandestine reality.

Dubious Documentaries #8

Devil and DJ

The Devil and Daniel Johnston
Directed by Jeff Feuerzeig—2006—110 minutes

Early on in this film, when Daniel Johnston is introduced at a 2001 gig as “the best singer-songwriter alive today”, those for whom this praiseful documentary was made will nod their heads while neutral observers may well start scratching theirs. His braying voice and incongruous philosophizing is guaranteed not to be to everyone’s fancy, but still director Jeff Feuerzeig lets stand numerous favorable comparisons that have Johnston right up there with Bob Dylan, the Beatles and even the greatest classical composers.

Johnston is a compulsive and reasonably talented musician, illustrator and audio diarist who is also a deeply troubled man with significant mental health issues that went largely unaddressed while growing up in a religiously conservative household in West Virginia. Soon after he moved to Texas, Johnston was adopted by Austin scenesters and his homemade cassettes became all the rage. Before long he shouldered his way into an MTV special and was befriended and/or championed by members of Sonic Youth, Nirvana and the Butthole Surfers among others. “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” may prove an uncomfortable experience for those not already converted. Johnston’s schizophrenia has led to violent and extremely reckless behavior that have endangered himself as well as friends and families. While his guileless music and lyrics sometimes hit peaks of uncommon grace, there is a nagging notion that people wouldn’t be half so enamored if it weren’t for his mental illness, which for years was dealt with willy-nilly. Feuerzeig doesn’t go anywhere near that issue, leaving his film looking like a vanity tribute to counter-intuitive hipsterdom.

Dubious Documentaries #7


Channel surfing one night, I chanced upon “Beyonce: Life is But a Dream”. My first inclination was to row row row my boat right past it, but since my latest project is a book on music documentaries I figured I must keep up on the very latest even if this is not my cup of tea. It’s not Beyonce’s brand of modern soul-pop that’s a problem for me—it’s entertaining enough even if the big-budget production and iron-grip image control makes me nostalgic for the comparable but more magnanimous talents of Evelyn Champagne King or Jody Watley in her Shalamar days. It’s not even that Ms. Knowles, as the producer, co-writer and co-director, is calling the shots here: the subject as vested partner in rock docs is nothing new and was the same for such films as “Don’t Look Back” and “The Song Remains the Same.”

But I couldn’t help but think that this movie was some sort of defining triumph for the entertainment-industrial complex. Yes, I understand how Beyonce had to overcome her childhood spent in a well-to-do neighborhood to claim her rightful place as a multi-million gazillion ultra-watt superstar. That takes a lot of hard work as well as natural talent. But she should learn to let her success take a day off once in a while. “Life is But a Dream” is stuffed to the gills with redundant and defensive declarations of self-esteem and empowerment, while the in-concert production numbers are choreographed to within an inch of their lives. The surrogate interviewer serves up cupcake questions like “When did you first realize that all you needed was yourself?” Some of her comments are more revealing than they at first appear. My antenna was full up on such observations as “I felt like I had been so commercially successful… it wasn’t enough” and “there’s something really stressful about having to keep up with it.” I guess that means if the public suddenly tired of the high-tech burlesque act she would have to return to the upper middle classes. The horror!

bey concert
After Beyonce pointed out a couple of people who only “kinda” liked her show, security escorted them from the arena to protect them from fans who don’t like “haters”.

It all makes me feel a little like the guy in the SNL sketch who was roundly chastised by his friends because he only moderately liked Beyonce’s latest single. Although I don’t think it would jibe with her actual politics, her success is the show-biz equivalent of Republican Party worship of the 1% “job creators” with any opposition cheaply written off as “jealously” or the work of “haters.” The pop music business has been gutted of its middle class or at least it feels that way. All that’s left is the semi-required worship of designated A-listers like Beyonce because that’s the American way. Aspiring singers who want a piece of the action can enjoy toiling in obscurity or maybe getting an assumed big break on something like “American Idol” or “The Voice” and be handpicked by other celebrities sitting in judgment. Otherwise, there’s no more room at the top.

(Interestingly, the unquestioning veneration of musical artists can be just as rigid on the opposite end of the pop’s socio-economic ladder. More on that in the next installment of Dubious Docs).

My next book, “Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey” will be published in 2015

Dubious Documentaries #6

visitors 2

Directed by Godfrey Reggio—2013—87 minutes

Any of you who have read my book “Documentary 101” (don’t all speak up at once!) will know the conflicted feelings I have for director Godfrey Reggio and his “guided meditation” films. He first made his name back in 1982 with cult favorite “Koyaanisqatsi.” Right from the start, all the genre elements were in place: awe-inspiring large format cinematography, trippy special FX and hypnotic Philip Glass music. All were in the service of an un-narrated parade if images keyed into themes of nature, travelogue, ecology and implicit criticism of our rampant technological age.

It was a stunningly beautiful and dynamic film, but clearly wanted to be more than just eye candy for the stoned midnite-movie mavens. Reggio, whose background is in philosophy and social activism, was clearly in thrall of pre-Colombian landscapes and the wisdom of indigenous populations (Koyaanisqatsi is a Hopi word meaning “life out of balance”). Everyday people, on the other hand, are depicted as either rats in a maze or sardines in can, in repeated sped-up scenes of rush-hour train stations or clogged-up freeways. A non-verbal experience like the one Reggio was offering lets viewers provide their own context and what I saw as a blame-the-people tendency got acutely annoying for me when it was repeated in the sequels, “Powaqqatsi” (1998) and “Naqoyqatsi” (2002). The powers-that-be that play a major role in the environmental havoc that the director clearly abhors remain behind the closed doors of boardrooms and presidential palaces.

visitors 3
Who are you calling “dubious”??

To his credit, Reggio has switched gears for 2013’s “Visitors”, now available on DVD. Known in his earlier works for triple-time shots, here the pace has been slowed down to a crawl. The entire film, shot in B&W using pristine 4K ultra hi-def format, consists of only 74 shots lasting an average of 70 seconds each. It opens with an enigmatic stare down with a lowland gorilla (a highlight) before the staring contests continue with a diverse succession of humans. These are thankfully interspersed with richly pictorial (but static) scenes of mysterious abandoned buildings, a primordial bayou, a closed post-Katrina amusement park in Louisiana, etc.

vistors 4

Reggio has said that to be forced to gaze upon the supposedly familiar form of the human face until it becomes unfamiliar is a path to really seeing it for the first time. Maybe, but the best way to get to know people via cinematic means will always be through a strong narrative. “Visitors” was a film I found alternately enthralling and enervating, a bit of a seat-squirmer in theaters but one that may be helped on DVD by judicious use of the “next chapter” button on your remote. Honestly, this would have worked better as a multi-screen video installation in a contemporary art museum, or even as a coffee table book of stills.

My book “Documentary 101” is now on sale as both a paperback and e-book: http://booklocker.com/books/6965.html Also available from Amazon and other online book sellers.

Dubious Documentaries #5


For better and worse, there is little that you can’t see nowadays online or on the hundreds of cable outlets that provide us with a ceaseless tsunami of content. But back in the pre-Interweb days of 1962, when content on the handful of TV stations available was tightly controlled, a spicy but nominally respectable documentary like “Mondo Cane” (A Dog’s World”) could become a big hit. Which it did. Using a deft combination of National Geographic nudity, remedial anthropology and bargain-basement shock tactics, this Italian production did boffo box office in many countries, including the U.S. and Canada, and spawned not only a sequel but a whole genre of sensationalist pseudo-docs called “mondo films.”

Pellicole simili che sconvolsero il mondo!

Sex and mortality are two recurring themes and the fact that many scenes seem staged or too subjectively edited to pass as real reportage didn’t seem to matter much back then, and probably wouldn’t scare away many pop culture connoisseurs today. Without much rhyme or reason, but with a certain devilish flair, “Mondo Cane” flits from topless manhunting in New Guinea, to dogmeat restaurants in Taipei, to drunken follies in Hamburg’s Reeperbahn, to naval port temptresses, to cargo cults and various victimized animals without pausing to catch its breath or consult its ethical bearings.

Each segment is approached with a consistent combination of index-card research and casual titillation (with special emphasis on the first syllable of that last word). Even when the subject matter is less than enthralling, the producers work up a little a little purple prose for good measure as with this quip to go along with some footage of a Pasadena pet cemetery—“This place is so pathetic even we could shed a tear for these little tombs of illustrious creatures.” Ouch!
For me, “Mondo Cane’s” undeniable value as a cult classic curiosity was undercut by the constant snarky narration and Lawrence Welk-style soundtrack. But even if this doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, at least get the two and a half minute re-cap as seen below in the film’s inimitable trailer.

My book “Documentary 101” is now on sale as both a paperback and e-book: http://booklocker.com/books/6965.html Also available from Amazon and other online book sellers.

Dubious Documentaries #4


The Silent World
Jacques-Yves Cousteau, with Louis Malle—1956—86 minutes

Cousteau’s Oscar-winning 1956 documentary, based on his bestselling book of the same name, was his first film and a template for all the exploration/discovery type programming that would become a television staple in years to come. Rarely available on home video, I saw a screening several years ago at the Harvard Film Archive along with a sizeable student-age audience; it must have been assigned viewing for some course or the other.

Welcomed by Cousteau’s universally-recognized, French-accented narration, we settled in for a vintage seagoing nature doc, little suspecting what lay ahead. At first, Silent World proceeds as a conventional, if visually spectacular, science-travelogue film. Future auteur Louis Malle, fresh from film school, does a lot of the cinematography and there are several spectacular scenes: a diver’s-eye view of plunging headfirst to a depth of 150 feet in clear tropical waters, a school of racing porpoises jumping ten feet in the air in patterned intervals, the Calypso pitching and rolling through an Indian Ocean monsoon as shot from the crow’s nest looking straight down at the bow. The educational aspects, like the part explaining the ocean’s deep scattering layer or “false bottom,” were intriguing.

But the murmurs of appreciation turned to nervous laughter and gasps of disbelief with the mid-film arrival of the two notorious scenes that have since been dutifully noted on the film’s Wikipedia page. First the Calypso crew uses some TNT to blow to bits a coral pool in the interests of “scientific” investigation then call the results “tragic” (?!) before salting away the dead fish. Not long after, their vessel is steering (a mite too close) beside a herd of sperm whales when the baby of the bunch is accidentally killed by the ship’s propeller. When sharks, doing what comes natural for them, attack the wounded whale, the crew decides they must exact revenge upon their “enemy” and pull about a half-dozen sharks up onto the deck, slaughtering them in a spasm of ill-considered violence.

After a couple of more scenes of oceanic misadventure, The Silent World returns to a relative comfort zone until Cousteau asks “can man become more intimate with fish?” I could almost feel the audience brace itself, wondering if it were about to witness the ultimate indiscretion. Although a false alarm, you could hardly blame us at that point. As the Calypso sailed off into the 1956 sunset, I could at least comfort myself in the knowledge that Cousteau would soon become far more environmentally aware. And really, if you cut out the offending scenes, you’d have a one-hour program of some of the best marine documentary material ever. But that night, when the lights came up in Harvard’s Carpenter Center theater, there was nothing else to do but slink away without making eye contact.

Dubious Documentaries #3


(The first two entries in this series were posted on my Facebook page, before I decided to originate them here. Please feel free to friend me on FB, I am the Rick Ouellette from Bedford, MA)

The Hellstrom Chronicle
Directed by Walon Green—1971—90 minutes

Professor Nils Hellstrom is a man who has “lost two fellowships and a few friendships” because of his left-field theory concerning the imminence of insect world domination. The viewer is told right off that Hellstrom is a fictional creation; actor Lawrence Pressman plays him as a man on the verge of madness in a performance that stops just short of satire. After all, he asks, is the idea really so crazy? Those little buggers have a long evolutionary head start and limitless adaptability—not to mention that they kill more people each year through diseases like malaria than die in wars, car accidents and from old age. Viewers who can excuse the film’s daffy cinematic conceit will move on quickly to the real attraction: the astonishing field footage of the insects in question. The by-now-familiar time lapse and super-macro photography must have seemed extraordinary in 1971 and still holds up pretty well today. “The Hellstrom Chronicle” actually won a best documentary Oscar despite being nominated alongside Marcel Ophul’s “The Sorrow and the Pity.” Ophul’s four-hour investigative film about French collaboration and cooperation amid the Nazi occupation is now acknowledged as one of the great achievements in the documentary field. Amends were made 17 years later when Ophuls won for the similarly-themed “Hotel Terminus.”