After a Sundance where it seemed every doc was better than the last one I had just seen, I was really looking forward to catching a lot of documentaries at SXSW. Although I have seen a few phenomenal ones (I highly recommend WELCOME TO LEITH and BOUNCE, and of course THE VISIT and THE LAST MAN ON THE MOON), a majority of the docs I’ve seen this year have been really disappointing. A couple, like DISASTER PLAYGROUND, are so unprofessionally made that they become unwatchable. I don’t mind consumer grade cameras, but when the framing is so bad the talking head is an afterthought in their own office, or when the interviewer keeps interrupting the interviewee, it is too much of a struggle to take anything away from the film. I couldn’t make it past fifteen minutes of DISASTER PLAYGROUND, despite being extremely interested in the subject material – the aftereffects of an asteroid hitting the earth and our potential response.
Actually, the failing I’ve seen in most documentaries this year is the unwillingness to look past an initial viewpoint for the film, either by making the scope of the documentary to narrow or too biased. Film after film falls victim to this mistake, some resulting in missed opportunities and others that end up being well, really poorly made films. WESTERN, which I saw at Sundance, looks at the relationship between two border towns, one in Mexico, one in Texas, and yet it is really more a portrait of two men, both basically anglo, both living on the US side of the border, and both, well, men. That’s hardly a full view of life out in one of the more interesting and conflict-ridden areas of North America. If the filmmakers had tried to get interviews with the people on the other side of the line, or people who are …women, or poor people, whatever, it would be a more accurate and reflective portrait of the place. But the film is not interested in that, so really has nothing universal to offer, and we only really see one side of any conflict.
ALL THINGS MUST PAST suffers from falling a bit in love with your subject. Colin Hanks’s directorial début about the rise and fall of Tower Records is a really interesting and fun film. All the major players of the company are interviewed, and are pretty honest. The film is also filled with celebrity endorsements of Tower Records (Elton John, Dave Grohl), and either all the great trips they had to buy music or their experiences working there. What is missing is any commentary from outside the company dealing with why and when it went bad. I’d love to have seen someone with ties to Napster talk about Napster vs. retail, and not just the internal Tower conversation, or someone from Best Buy or Target discuss the cost pricing they did (which is all bull – we all know it cost like 20 cents to make a CD). Also missing is the voice of he anyone who might want to hold accountable any of the executives for the blatant womanizing that seems ever-present and even admitted to by several people. It’s all ‘oh, those old men just got drunk and couldn’t control themselves’ as if it makes it okay. So the film works, but plays more like a corporate funded self-history than anything representational of the large understanding of Tower Records.
THE NIGHTMARE, a film I like, is just a notch below great because, although it fully explores sleep paralysis by in-depth conversations with eight victims, as well as recreations of some of their dreams, it provides no scientific context to what is happening or why. I spent the film wishing I could have Wikipedia open on my laptop. And though the dreams are interesting and the subjects very compelling and believable, they were too similar to hold my attention for the film. The film could have used less a few less testimonials and instead interviewed doctors, psychologist, or even artists that paint what they see in their dreams. I spoke with the producer of the film, Ross M. Dinerstein, and he said they definitely had that discussion internally. Their reason to not have a doctor say ‘this is what is actually happening’ undercuts the experiences of the victims of sleep paralysis, and they didn’t want to do that to their documentary subjects. I fully understand that, but for me, it makes the film less interesting and less complete.
808 was one of the films I was most excited about, so it ended up being one of the most disappointing. Sure, the music is great. And there SHOULD be a film about the TR-808, but unfortunately the filmmaker didn’t seem to understand that more interviews does not make for a better movie. A majority of the people who weigh in on the most important drum machine of all time are recording artists, primarily from the field of hip-hop and dance. Of course these voices are important, but it is the overwhelming repetition in their comments that really drags the film down. Chris Frantz, of the Talking Heads, is on screen for maybe 15 seconds. Kraftwerk, who almost everybody mentions in the first thirty minutes, and probably were the inspiration for using a drum machine in the first place, are not interviewed at all. The first band to use the TR-808 in 1980, Yellow Magic Orchestra, is referenced but again not interviewed. In fact, there are very few interviews with anyone outside of the dance and hip-hop world, the main exception being Phil Collins, who ends up being one of the best interviews in the entire film. But what is really necessary is any view outside of music – how about a scientist to explain how it works? How about a musicologist to place its development in history? How about an interview with the person who invented it (that they did actually but you had to wait until the end of the film, which was really frustrating, I kept wanting it). The film is also really lacking in structure, popping around in time with little chronological order. It all seems to stem from the filmmakers wanting to give Afrika Bambata and his 1982 hit “Planet Rock” credit for popularizing the TR-808 alone. Its sets him up as the godfather of 808 and then shows all the musicians that followed in his footsteps. It feels like a half an hour later we get to Marvin Gaye, and his number one hit “Sexual Healing,” a single whose instrumental track was recorded in the same month as Afrika Bambata’s Planet Rock, and clearly had a much wider influence, reaching number one and selling two million copies. Phil Collins led Genesis used the TR-808 on their 1981 Abacab album, on two top forty singles, and Abacab also sold 2 million copies, not counting the sales of singles off the album featuring the 808. So for me, rather than allowing for discovery, 808 feels like a film where the filmmakers began the project with an erroneous proposition, that Africa Bambata’s April 1982 single “Planet Rock“ popularized the TR-808 drum machine, and then structured the film to say that.
Did anyone seeing a film named BIKES VS. CARS really think it was going to be a fair fight? In this ‘documentary,’ that does a great job popping about the world and looking at the bikes vs. car issue in many countries, the judgment has been passed against cars from the very first frame. Even the guy at the vintage car show is telling people car lovers want to limit pollution and essentially know ‘cars are bad.’ The one voice of reason allowed to say anything constructive about cars, is the deputy mayor of Toronto, who is continually weakened by cutting to his boss, mayor Rob Ford, who sounds like an arrogant pig-headed lunatic. In fact, the points the deputy mayor brings up (like people in the suburbs need to take their kids to day care and they can’t really ride bikes) are never really answered. No one from any automobile company is interviewed, and in fact there are demonized by an extended sequence where a bike tour goes to various company offices in Germany. So clearly, there is an agenda here with this filmmaker, and the filmmaker is not able to make their argument convincing enough without essentially only offering one view-point. BUT MORE important is this… Bikes Vs Cars? What about Public Transportation? What about light rail and subways? These obvious solutions are never even mentioned, which really makes the argument sort of pointless. That’s like a discussion of which kind of shower people should take, and restricting the choices to scalding hot and freezing cold. This film is not a documentary, it’s a propaganda piece. Well shot, sure, interesting to watch, sure, but not a well-made film.
Which leads me to Alex Winter’s DEEP WEB, which pretends to be an examination of the dark web, and specifically the Silk Road where illegal drugs were purchased and murder-for-hire hits were negotiated and paid for anonymously with bit coin. In actuality, the film is a deeply biased, poorly argued propdoc (propaganda documentary) in support of its ‘hero’ Ross Ulbricht, turning him into some sort of libertarian martyr. This film is as one-sided as any birther film or Robert Greenwald film about the evils of Wal-Mart. This is a shame because I really loved Winter’s first film DOWNLOADED about Napster, which I found to be a very balanced look into the story. In contrast, after about 30 minutes of DEEP WEB, one becomes increasingly aware the filmmaker intends to offer no dissenting view to the proposition that Ulbricht was illegally arrested and should be freed from prison. Ulbricht’s mother basically hijacks the film (we see several rallies, often filmed to make her look like the conquering hero), arguing her son couldn’t possibly have done this. Of course when Ross admits, under oath, that he founded the Silk Road, Winter never goes back and asks his mother what she thinks of her son now?
A lot of attention of the film is focused on whether it has Ross himself who ordered hits mafia style, paying to assassinate potential informants or whether it was someone else using the same the username (DPR, Dread Pirate Roberts). Who cares? Ulbricht founded, moderated, maintained, and profited from a website where illegal drugs were sold and murder for hire was as easy as a click of a button. And this is not someone buying pot, this is meth and heroin and any drug you might want.
Ulbricht is an accomplice to every single illegal act that happened on the website, every single one. He is a drug dealer. Not a single person in the film calls him out for that. Once they get to the court case (the build up is glacial) much emphasis is placed on the defense not being allowed to cross-examine witnesses on issues that were not part of the prosecution’s original questioning, as if that’s some sort of violation of Ulbricht’s rights. That’s actually how law works, it’s a cross-examination, a defense’s opportunity to respond to material brought up by the prosecutor, it’s a basic tenet of how our judiciary system functions.
Time and time again basic facts are distorted by the filmmakers, and important questions left unasked. We are subjected to countless character arguments; Ulbricht’s paper rose fashioned from toilet paper he sent his mother from prison, his roommate and best friend interviewing him about doing something to change the world when he first arrived in San Francisco, and person after person saying they can’t believe he would do these things. Here’s the problem with that, he was caught with the site open, logged in as an administrator interacting with drug dealers and he admitted under oath that he founded the site. DEEP WEB is as much a fundamentally flawed, one-sided hack documentary as 2016: Obama’s America. It’s a film that only serves to try to prove a belief the filmmaker went into the film already holding, and the Winter only includes what supports that belief. It is not a good film. It’s a big budget piece of advertising for a conviction that believes Fourteen-year-olds should be able to buy heroin online. Bravo free market.
I judge docs the same way I judge narratives, how completely does the film tell the story of whatever it is trying to show its audience. In the above cases, the filmmaker failed to live up to their contract to ‘document’ an issue. If they have a particular belief, its soundness should be borne out through expressing the entire story – let the audience arrive at the same conclusion. If you want to see how to do this properly, I highly suggest watching WELCOME TO LEITH (I have an interview piece with the filmmakers coming up). SXSW continues until Saturday the 21st. Several of the above films are playing again – I encourage you to see them and disagree with me. THE NIGHTMARE and ALL THINGS MUST PASS are both solid, good films worth seeing, if not perfect. 808 has great music. WESTERN and BIKES VS. CARS are professionally shot and effectively express their (somewhat limited) views. I can’t think of anything positive to say about DEEP WEB except Keanu Reeves does a nice job narrating. I’d like to see him do more voice over work. Deep Web will premiere on EPIX on May 31 at 8pm E/PST.