Brian De Palma looks back over his career in the documentary ‘De Palma’

Brian De Palma is an under-celebrated director, responsible for some of the most stunning sequences in American cinema. Just to name four personal favorites of mine: the split-screen prom massacre in Carrie, the Langley heist sequence in Mission: Impossible, the Grand Central Station steadycam chase in Carlito’s Way, and even the failed spacewalk rescue in the otherwise not-so-great Mission to Mars.

Like his touchstone Alfred Hitchcock, he’s also fascinatingly problematic enough to fuel a thousand hours of analysis and debate. Instead, Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s documentary provides only a quick overview of his work, solely from one point of view.

In what appears to have been a single sitting, De Palma reminisces over his filmography. The feature-length running time allows only a few minutes to cover each work, reducing his observations about each to a bullet point or two. His stories range from the gossipy (Bobby De Niro wasn’t motivated to learn his lines for The Untouchables), to dismissive (of the criticism over his violent & scopophilic treatment of women), and ultimately philosophical (on knowing when to retire, with Hitchcock and Wilder as exemplars).

There is of course great value in getting such a notable and controversial filmmaker on the record, after his career appears to be complete. But this documentary’s scattershot episodic structure is too broad and shallow, without a central thesis to hang a movie on. It would be serviceable as a value-added-material featurette, but not as a standalone theatrical feature film.

three out of five stars

A Clique of Cranks: Room 237

Room 237 is not about The Shining. It is about those lost in its labyrinth.

For better or for worse, Stanley Kubrick is one of the most potent gateway drugs for young cinephiles, and for many the early obsession proves lifelong. The addictive nature of his films is partly due to their own air of grandeur and carefully-crafted perfection, but the the popular perception of Kubrick as a total mastermind sweating every single detail of his films is belied by some accounts, such the surprisingly seat-of-his-pants making of 2001: A Space Odyssey. And the weight of reputation and self-seriousness often disguises the satire and sometimes even silly wit. Personally, I was exposed to 2001: A Space Odyssey as a child, and it wasn’t until years later that I realized how much of it was intentionally funny.

Perhaps even moreso than 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining is treated as a kind of holy book by a clique of cranks. And like all holy books, The Shining is big, deep, and rich enough to support almost any interpretation one might bring to it. If one looks hard and long enough for something, one will find it.

These Shining superfans evince little distinction between conscious authorial intent vs. after-the-fact critical deconstruction by outside observers. What is for most movie buffs a fun parlor game of spotting continuity errors is for them a deadly serious matter of asking what it all meeeeaannnns, man. In particular, the symbolism of the Overlook Hotel’s garden labyrinth tempts an examination of its indoor floorplan, which is indeed full of evident inconsistencies. But rather than consider the challenges of building a movie set, it’s more fun to read it as an exploration into the psychogeography of madness.

Some of the obsessives make interesting observations, but often undercut themselves. For instance: one egomaniac believes he has “solved” the film as Kubrick’s coded confession that he was involved in faking the Apollo moon landing footage. He interprets the hotel key lettering “ROOM No.” to be an anagram for “MOON”. He forgets “MORON”.

Radiohead: Meeting People is Easy…

…but being invited to your own party is hard.

I remember liking Grant Gee’s Radiohead documentary Meeting People is Easy when I first saw it in the late nineties, but now it just looks like a feature-length expose of how music journos are twits that ruin everything.

Hey Man, It’s Your Trip: Woodstock

The classic feature documentary Woodstock captures the full experience of the near-mythical 1969 festival of the same name, from septic tanks to traffic jams to brown acid. It remains an important record of one of the most peaceful spontaneous gatherings in human history, not to mention the brief-lived spirit of the hippie movement as a whole.

The original version directed by Michael Wedleigh, with a young Martin Scorsese as assistant director and editor and Thelma Schoonmaker as editor, was released the following year and played continuously in theaters for years. Oddly, it is the only film that the last surviving human on earth (Charlton Heston) chooses to watch repeatedly in The Ωmega Man. A Director’s Cut added 40 minutes of additional footage in 1994, but the new 40th Anniversary edition is a whopping four hours long, “Interfuckingmission” included. It’s unclear whether or not Scorsese and Schoonmaker were involved in either of the expanded editions.

The film is experimental in format, extending even to the aspect ratio. Nearly the first ten minutes are windowpaned, leading me at first to suspect something was wrong with the DVD. But the movie then alternates from windowpane to widescreen to splitscreen. The only other movie I can think of off the top of my head that played as loose with aspect ratios is the opening sequence to Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It.

Jimi Hendrix in Woodstock

With a leisurely four hours to fill, the first full 25 minutes concern the arrival of early fans while the stage is still being constructed. A surely ironic mural on one of the famously psychedelic caravan buses reads “even God loves America.” One of the festival’s most iconic images — a pair of nuns flashing a peace sign to camera — may have been in fact partially staged (as alleged in Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock). Based on the memoirs of Elliot Tiber, Lee’s film goes on to tell a conflicting, largely discounted, version of events in which a small town misfit midwifes the festival, which in turn frees his identity and transforms his family.

The first performance footage in Woodstock is an extended unbroken close-up of Richie Havens’ intense solo performance. Finally, the cameras turn the other way around and look out at the staggeringly huge crowd. Indeed, as later scenes make clear, so many people arrived that the earliest arrivals couldn’t physically leave. That such a large number of people coexisted peacefully while quite literally being trapped is a minor miracle.

Everybody knows the tale of the gargantuan crowd, but I underestimated the scale of the concert itself. In my mind, I always pictured a tiny stage dwarfed by throngs of hippies, but in actuality, the festival itself would have been a large production even if the crowds hadn’t materialized. Before simple logic forced the organizers to waive the ticket fee, the festival had a multi-million-dollar budget footing a massive stage, huge towers, power, food, lighting, and sound system.

Woodstock

Not all the acts would necessarily be known to later generations watching the documentary, but there is some surprising variety in genre; Joan Baez and Arlo Guthrie’s folk, Sly and the Family Stone’s funk, and Sha-Na-Na’s retro pop went a long way towards breaking up the sometimes tedious stretches of blues-rock jamming. Some key performances either weren’t filmed (such as The Band, at their request) or shot but excluded from the film (particularly The Grateful Dead, whose performance was compromised by heavy rain and technical issues), and some of the era’s top acts were absent altogether (most notably The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and The Rolling Stones — but Scorsese would later catch up with all three of them in his own documentaries Living In the Material World, No Direction Home, and Shine a Light). Personally, I most liked seeing The Who and Jimi Hendrix at the height of their powers, and was pleasantly surprised by an obviously nervous Crosby, Stills and Nash. CSN claimed it was only their second gig, and they seemed visibly relieved to receive applause. Each act was allotted only 1-2 songs each, even in the extended version of the film, which for many of these artists is not enough. I would have liked to see more Who footage, especially the famous moment where the often tempestuous Pete Townshend famously booted countercultural icon Abbie Hoffman offstage: “Fuck off! Fuck off my fucking stage!”

Interviews with audience members during the concert demonstrate that they were already self-mythologizing the event as it was occurring around them. A legend quickly spread that the gathering was the equivalent of a spontaneous city. Not quite, but the actual total of 500,000 people was nothing to sneeze at. But they were all correct that it was nothing less than a miracle that that many people could gather in one place and survive a massive storm on the second day, all without violence. That is, aside from Townshend again: “The next fuckin’ person that walks across this stage is gonna get fuckin’ killed!”

The film includes co-organizer Michael Lang and concertgoers facing hostile interviewers determined to express their bias that rock music is empty and meaningless. Scorsese emphasized similar confrontations in No Direction Home, where Dylan is dogged by condescending reporters determined to undermine his political and social import.

Wedleigh’s camera often seeks out nude young women. The blatant scopophilia misses the point of the burgeoning equality between the sexes by the late 60s — not only are the hippies embracing free love, they’re also obviously comfortable enough in each other’s company to bathe together like children in a bathtub. I can’t believe I’m complaining about the sight of naked girls, but Wedleigh’s camera is often just plain lustful.

Aside from free love and unashamed nudity, the next most alien aspect for contemporary post-War-on-Drugs viewers is the pragmatic attitude towards controlled substances. One of the first people seen brandishing a joint onscreen is none other than Jerry Garcia, despite his band not appearing in the performance footage. Everybody’s heard about the infamously dodgy brown acid, but dig this eminently pragmatic announcement issued from the stage: “Hey man, it’s your trip, don’t let me stop you, but if you feel like experimenting, try half a tab.” In contrast, we see a huge crowd practicing Kundalini yoga, which the guru espouses as an alternative to drugs.

One of the most striking sequences is when the documentary steps back from the proceedings to take in another angle that wouldn’t ordinary be covered in a typical concert documentary. Wedleigh takes the time to meet a Port-O-San maintainer with one son attending the festival and another flying helicopters in the Vietnam DMZ.

Champagne & Reefer: Rolling Stones Shine a Light

Martin Scorsese’s long history with musical documentaries and concert films includes working as assistant director and editor on Woodstock (1970), directing an account of The Band’s final concert as The Last Waltz (1978), executive producing and designing the shots for Peter Gabriel’s concert film PoV (AKA Point of View, 1987), directing part of the massive The Blues television documentary series (2003), and crafting the definitive Bob Dylan and George Harrison documentaries No Direction Home (2005) and Living in the Material World (2010).

Shine a Light is a little of all the above, but mostly just a straightforward concert film featuring the Rolling Stones in a benefit concert thrown at New York City’s Beacon Theater in 2006. The Stones are joined by special guests Christina Aguilera, Jack White, and Buddy “Motherfucker” Guy (watch the DVD bonus features for the entertaining story behind that moniker). It was originally released in IMAX, and no doubt loses something in translation from 50-foot theaters screens to small televisions. U2 did them one up by releasing U23D in 3D IMAX the year before.

Martin Scorsese and The Rolling Stones in Shine a Light
Are you sure you want to see these faces in 50-foot-high IMAX?

Like Gimme Shelter (1970), a documentary account of the fallout following the killing of a fan at a Stones concert in Altamont, Shine a Light is sometimes less than totally flattering. Mick Jagger is seen to be so ruthlessly single-minded that he will not deign to collaborate with Scorsese. Even when meeting no less than Bill Clinton, he only wants to talk about whether or not the lighting will distract from his performance. But to be fair, The Rolling Stones hit the big time long before either Scorsese or Clinton, so perhaps Jagger’s vanity may be partially excused. Let it not be said that the old codgers in the band don’t embrace new technology; witness as Jagger strikes classic poses for fans in the front row to capture on their mobiles.

Keith Richards and Buddy Guy in The Rolling Stones Shine a Light
Keef jams with Buddy “Motherfucker” Guy

Scorsese is famously a fan, utilizing Rolling Stones tunes in his soundtracks so often that Jagger now jokes that “Shine a Light was the only film of his not to feature the song Gimme Shelter.” I like The Stones well enough, but I’m not a huge fan. Here’s what a similarly casual listener might learn of them based on Shine a Light:

  • Charlie Watts, also a successful artist and jazz drummer outside of the Stones machine, comes across as quite distracted, almost to the extent of appearing senile (or maybe even more drug-addled than Keith Richards). He behaves the same in vintage interviews scattered throughout Shine a Light, so perhaps it’s just his natural demeanor. But there’s no doubt he can still rock his stripped-down drum kit.
  • Mick Jagger still has the body of a preteen girl, albeit one with impressively ripped arms.
  • Everybody knows the legendary Keith Richards has abused his body to such an extent that he has no business still walking this earth. He jokes in the film that he must come from hardy stock, but maybe he is in fact already dead, seeing as how he barely notices a kiss from Christina Aguilera. He still has chops, though, beyond going through the highly rehearsed motions of a typical Stones spectacle. In a telling moment, the camera catches him alone, playing some moody blues licks to himself as the rest of the band hobnobs.
  • Ronnie Wood comes across the best, reminding fans that although Keith Richards may have co-written many of the most popular and enduring rock songs of all time, he’s the one that plays all the solos.

Scorsese includes himself as a character in his own film, appearing at least twice in a characteristic tracking shot that caps the film: following the Stones offstage and out of the theater, and flying up into the night sky over New York. The world will have to wait for Scorsese’s true documentary on the Stones to equal No Direction Home and Living in the Material World as a true fan’s deep look into some of the world’s most interesting celebrities.

The Ultimate Six-String Summit: It Might Get Loud

It Might Get Loud indeed, when three generations of rock guitarists convene for the ultimate six-string summit. Jimmy Page (representative of 1970s stadium rock and, with Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton, part of the canonical trinity of guitar heroes) joins The Edge (child of the punk/new wave era but also paradoxically a bit of an egghead) and Jack White (student of Americana and freewheeling blues-rock of The White Stripes and the Raconteurs). The three had no doubt crossed paths before now, but probably never had a chance to pick each other’s brains, let alone trade licks and jam.

Director Davis Guggenheim also made the Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth and the soccer drama Gracie, but the core concept came from Thomas Tull, producer of Batman: The Dark Knight. As White quips in one of the DVD bonus features, he thought Page would make a fine Joker.

The Edge in It Might Get Loud
U2’s The Edge is a child of the punk/new wave era but is also paradoxically a bit of an egghead

Throughout, White is considerably more witty and spontaneous than the others, both verbally and in his effortless improvisation. In comparison, The Edge sometimes seems reticent and comparably tongue-tied. Considering his notoriety as the man that introduced cod-Satanism and Tolkien into Led Zeppelin’s lyrics and iconography, Page is quite the dapper English gentleman. He arrives in a chauffeured Rolls, while White and even The Edge drive themselves to the set.

Jack White in It Might Get Loud
Jack White, of The White Stripes and The Raconteurs, keeps it real

While Page and White share a background in the blues, The Edge comes from somewhere else altogether. He’s long been more interested in sonics and textures than in impressing audiences with fleet-fingered technique. Page was, for a time, one of the biggest rock stars in the world, but of the three, The Edge has enjoyed persistent fame the longest. He states with total conviction that This is Spinal Tap was, for him, not funny at all: “it’s all true.” A deleted scene answers a question I’ve long had: U2’s nicknames date back to their childhood, and now even The Edge’s mother now no longer calls him David.

There’s no need for an onscreen interviewer when no one else would know better what to ask these three men than each other. When guitarists get together for gabfests, a natural topic is to wistfully reminisce over their first instruments (The Edge and White still own and play theirs). Their conversation is interspersed with short animated sequences and priceless early footage, with relics including embarrassing very early footage of U2 as gawky teenagers.

All three have enjoyed comfort and success for quite some time, so it comes as a rather awkward shift in tone when they are called to reflect on times of crisis in their careers. None were instant stars. Page’s early anxieties are the most interesting; he became a highly successful session guitarist fairly early on (working largely in the now-forgotten musical genre of Skiffle), but realized he was looking at a creative dead-end. He found release in The Yardbirds, a fertile cauldron that famously also included Beck and Clapton at various times, and arguably invented hard rock. The hair came down, the pants flared, and the cello bow came out. Multi-instrumentalist White recounts a childhood sleeping on the floor in a room too crowded with drums to leave room for a bed, and founding his first band while working the lonely job of furniture upholsterer. The Edge recalls the contemporary political turmoil of Ireland as a backdrop to his anxiety over being “just a guitarist” and possibly never a songwriter. From this crisis of confidence came the politically charged U2 standard “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” His substantial contributions to U2 were deliberately obscured by the unusually democratic band; it’s only recently that they have begun to talk more openly about their internal division of labor (generally, Edge demos the music, Bono supplies the lyrics, Larry works alongside the producer, and Adam is resident sartorialist).

Jimmy Page in It Might Get Loud
Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page is now quite the dapper gent, but was once an infamous 70s bad boy that introduced cod-satanism and Tolkien to stadium rock

The natural wish is for the three to strap on their guitars and jam. So as each is celebrated as much for their songwriting as for their chops, they take turns teaching the others one of their signature tunes. The Edge’s chiming “I Will Follow” riff fails to take off, but Page’s “In My Time of Dying” provides a bed for some fantastic slide-guitar solos from all three players. The climactic closing tune is ill-chosen; The Band’s “The Weight” is without a doubt a great, classic song, but not much of a guitar showcase.

Design is how it works: Gary Hustwit’s Objectified

Objectified finds its thesis in a quotation from one of history’s prime industrialists, Henry Ford: “Every object, whether intentional or not, speaks to whoever put it there.” In other words, everything we select, purchase, and interact with, was first designed and manufactured by a skilled artisan. That person’s job is to obsess about you, your body, needs and habits, and how their product might become a part of your life. Director Gary Hustwit’s previous documentary feature Helvetica was a celebration of typographers and graphic designers, and inspired laypeople to recognize the long history and great labor that went into the typefaces they use every day on their computer screens. Similarly, Objectified profiles the often unknown industrial designers behind the stuff we buy.

Jonathan Ives in Objectified
Jonathan Ives’ inner sanctum. After conducting this interview, Apple had the filmmakers shot.

Apple’s resident guru Jonathan Ive is perhaps the most famous design auteur featured. Ive is probably the second most famous person at Apple, justly acclaimed for his singular design aesthetic that first caught the public imagination with the bondi Blue iMac and then the stark, white, deceptively “simple” iPod. Ive’s boss Steve Jobs famously said that design is “not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works,” a principle born out in Ive’s work. Knowing inside and out the particulars of different materials and manufacturing is just part of designing a product’s externals. Ive brandishes precision-tooled parts from a disassembled MacBook Pro to illustrate that Apple spends an enormous amount of time and resources not just designing their products, but also the custom machines and processes necessary to mass produce them.

Naoto Fukasawa in Objectified
Naoto Fukasawa rethinks the CD player.

Objectified spends some considerable time on the topic of sustainability, a responsibility that regrettably only recently entered the industrial designer’s job description. Valerie Casey of IDEO relates the incredible anecdote of the difficult process of developing a new toothbrush. When the product is finally ready and in stores, she embarks on a much-needed vacation to Fiji. If you didn’t already guess where this story was going, she finds a discarded IDEO toothbrush washed up on a beach halfway around the world. In less than a week, her product had become pollution.

Objectified necessarily makes a brief detour into interaction design (this brief digression would be worthy of a film unto itself, but in the meantime, the curious can refer to Steven Johnson‘s 1997 book Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate). When we interact with most analog products, their form follows their function. As a thought experiment, would an alien from outer space (or a Tarzan raised in the wild) be able to infer an object’s function simply by looking at it? That is likely the case with a spoon or chair, but not so much with an iPhone. For many products of the digital age, the outward form factor gives no clues as to the function. Thus, interaction design was born with the Xerox PARC graphical user interface. Many of our daily tasks are now abstracted onto a two-dimensional screen. The Apple iPhone and iPad have popularized the touchscreen, which likely signals the beginning of another sea change when peripherals like keyboards and mice will be revealed to have been a temporary evolutionary bump, now marked for extinction.

Objectified
Awww yeah, designers know what time it is.

The last images we see are of the devices used to make the movie itself: a computer, hard drive, and camera. Tellingly, the Objectified Blu-ray edition has no menu structure at all. You put it in, it plays, and the supplementary features follow immediately after the closing credits. It’s a completely guided, linear experience that speaks to the film’s elevation of the creator over the consumer.


Official movie site: www.objectifiedfilm.com

Must read: A Hurricane of Consumer Values by Alissa Walker

An Act of Journalism: Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir

Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir could easily be filed away under any or all of the following genres: documentary, autobiography, memoir, journalism, and nonfiction. If there’s one thing all of these have in common, it’s that none make for natural cartoons. The exception that proves the rule is Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, which began life as a pair of graphic novels before being adapted into an animated feature film. Waltz With Bashir takes the opposite route, starting as a film and ending up as a book. Could animated versions of Joe Sacco’s Palestine and Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale be far behind?

Folman has lost his memories of a key experience during his service in the Israel Defense Forces during the 1982 war in Lebanon. A conversation with a friend sparks a fragment of memory involving the Sabra and Shatila massacre. The Israeli Defense Force surrounded Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut, but stood by as the Phalangists, a Christian Lebanese militia, entered and massacred a still unknown number of Palestinian civilians. Was he really there, as he now seems to recollect? Did he have anything to do with it?

Waltz With Bashir

Folman speaks of memory as “something stored in my system,” as if his brain were merely a computer, disassociated from any culpability in the massacre. He merely witnessed it, but it was enough for him to subconsciously erase his memories over the intervening years. He seeks out old comrades in the search of someone else who served with him and may help fill in the blanks in his memory. Like a detective story, the search for clues provides a useful storytelling device while providing an episodic narrative structure.

The title refers to a fellow soldier that madly waltzed with a machine gun while surrounded on all sides by Lebanese fighters. “Bashir” is Bashir Gemayel, the assassinated Phalangist commander lionized by Lebanese, and a celebrity on a scale that one Israeli likens to how he felt about David Bowie.

Folman is an artist as well as a filmmaker; at one point he asks one of his old friends if it’s OK to sketch his family during their interview. His visual sense manifests in Waltz With Bashir’s stunning images, composition, and color. Like Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, it features stiff, simplified characters atop fully-rendered 3D environments. Human faces are crudely rendered with small looped expressions, when not totally still (note that the 2D vector animation is not the same technique used in Waking Life or A Scanner Darkly). They contrast sharply with the fluid movement of the detailed, complexly lit vehicles, backgrounds, and weapons. If such stylized human figures were a deliberate artistic choice, what is to be gained? A few possible explanations:

  • As recent CGI movies like Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, The Polar Express, and Beowulf have proven to their detriment, the uncanny valley (the point at which a simulation of a human becomes almost, but not quite, realistic and thus creeps audiences out) is a very real problem facing animators as technology progresses. All three of these are technological marvels, but the human characters are still just one step away from dead-eyed zombies.
  • In the most practical sense, animation is useful to create images of historical events where no cameras were present. Folman does recount seeing journalist Ron Ben-Yishai boldly film the aforementioned firefight in which his friend had his machine-gun-waltz with Bashir, so perhaps some actual footage existed for reference.
  • The dreamlike unreality of animation plays into Folman’s theme of the mutability of memory.
  • Like Isao Takahata’s stunning Grave of Fireflies, animation makes it slightly easier to watch painful images. Takahata’s emotionally draining film involved a little girl slowly starving to death after the World War II firebombing of Japan, and Waltz With Bashir features such images as a field full of dying horses and the corpse of a child buried in rubble. The end of the film snatches away this distancing technique; we finally see archival footage of the massacre’s aftermath.

Waltz With Bashir

Is it fair to criticize the film for taking the Israeli point of view in a story about the Sabra and Shatila massacre? Save for one woman that appears in the actual footage seen at the end, Palestinians literally don’t have a voice in the film. But neither, for that matter, do the Phalangists. In the case of this historical event, Israelis were passive bystanders, neither victims nor oppressors. If to bluntly ask what Waltz With Bashir is for, it does three things: First, it’s a meditation upon the complexity and unreliability of human memory. Second, it’s an act of journalism; returning the Sabra and Shatila Massacre to the public consciousness. Third, it’s one man’s personal coming to terms with his past.

Bill Maher Preaches to the Converted in Larry Charles’ Religulous

Standup comedian and occasional b-movie star Bill Maher remade himself into a satirical political pundit on the cable TV shows Politically Incorrect and Real Time. He most famously spoke truth to power when he defied the conventional wisdom after 9/11 and correctly stated that one thing the perpetrators were not were cowards. Not surprisingly, he was swiftly fired by Comedy Central. Had he stopped there, his arguable legacy would have been to blaze the trail for the likes of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to crossover from the gutter of comedy to mainstream political punditry. Maher’s peer Al Franken went even further, from heckler to actual political participant.

But Maher was not content to stop there. His latest incarnation is, for better or worse, the popular face of a growing movement against organized religion. Unlike the rational scientist Richard Dawkins (mostly rational, that is; his recent statements against children’s fantasy literature like Harry Potter reveal him to be at best a killjoy and at worst a censor) and the even more strident Christopher Hitchens, Maher uses comedy and outright mockery to advance the cause of atheism in the sometimes disturbingly theocratic American society. This Dork Reporter is on his side, but isn’t sure Maher and his movie Religulous is really what atheists need to combat the encroachment of church upon state. As Michael Moore is to liberals, so too may Maher be to atheists everywhere: is he really the best spokesperson?

Bill Maher in Religulous
A Jew and a talk show host walk into a bar… oh, you’ve heard this one?

Religulous teams Maher with director Larry Charles, also responsible for the high-concept low art Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006) and Brüno (2009). While Borat and Bruno fall on the fauxmentary end of the continuum, Religulous skirts with being an actual documentary but stops short of pretensions to impartiality. Maher and Charles talk their way into enemy territory like the Holy Land Experience theme park in Orlando, the Creation Museum in Kentucky (a temple to the denial of basic science that would be hilarious were it not such an astounding celebration of willful ignorance), and the Truckers’ Chapel in Raleigh. Maher and Charles may have used subterfuge to gain access, but the finished film is open about their deception. The filmmakers openly brag over such stunts by proudly including footage of the Holy Land Experience’s publicist freaking out at the presence of a bunch of godless liberals armed with a camera. All of this attitude is actually not necessary; the film is at its best when Maher allows his interviewees to simply talk their way into deep graves (which most of these intolerant ignoramuses do with great gusto).

My biggest issue with the movie is its use of satirical editorial juxtaposition that on at least one occasion is outright racist. I agree it’s fun to snicker at clips of cheesy old biblical movies, easy to mock the nauseatingly confused “former homosexual” Pastor John Wescott of Exchange Ministries with snippets of gay porn, and chuckle at the bald scam being run by José Luis de Jesús Miranda, a Puerto Rican claiming to be the direct descendent of Jesus Christ. But Maher refers to African American preacher Pastor Jeremiah Cummings’ gold jewelry as “bling” and intercuts footage of a comically stereotypical pimp. Wescott is obviously in deep denial, and Cummings and Miranda are despicable crooks out for nothing but their own profit, but such cheapshots are uncalled for.

Bill Maher in Religulous
And on the third day, Jesus went to Orlando

In the midst of all this fervent madness, it’s somewhat surprising that the Catholic Church and even the Vatican itself come across as the most enlightened. Maher is kicked out of the Vatican proper, but meets with the supremely sane and rational Father George Coyne, head of the Vatican observatory. Coyne is one man of the cloth, at least, that does not deny science or celebrate ignorance. Maher also strikes interview gold with the hilariously outspoken former Vatican scholar Father Reginald Foster.

The plot thickens! Maher does not actually self-identify as an atheist. As he told The Onion’s A.V. Club,

I’m not an atheist. There’s a really big difference between an atheist and someone who just doesn’t believe in religion. Religion to me is a bureaucracy between man and God that I don’t need. But I’m not an atheist, no. I believe there’s some force. If you want to call it God… I don’t believe God is a single parent who writes books.

Whether Maher positions himself as an atheist or merely a crusader against oppressive organized religion, he takes a kind of gleeful pride in it. Smug atheists can be just as insufferable as holier-than-thou theists. Even before becoming a self-appointed voice against religion, Maher had become somewhat infamous for louche behavior (dating and sometimes marrying strippers, frequenting the Playboy Mansion, etc.). His outspoken opinions and tabloid-ready behavior probably don’t help theists take him seriously. I imagine most fundamentalists picture atheists as being like Maher: proud, condescending, and shirking of the responsibility of religious-derived morals (in other words, not having hell to motivate them to not sin). What I think believers need to understand is many people arrive at atheism only after protracted periods of difficult soul searching, and aren’t necessarily smug about it.

Religulous may be preaching to the converted, but it can’t ever hurt to keep the pressure on those that would oppress and exploit others by claiming to have the ear of God.

Ideaspace Boils to Steam in DeZ Vylenz’s The Mindscape of Alan Moore

DeZ Vylenz’s feature-length documentary about the life and work of writer Alan Moore was made in 2003 but not released until 2008. The delay might be easily explained as that of an independent production’s typical struggle for funding, but it’s hard not to guess the timing of this particular film’s lavish release as a deluxe double-disc DVD may have something to do with Moore’s currently elevated profile. The long-awaited theatrical adaptation of Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal graphic novel Watchmen finally hits theaters on March 6 2009, after almost 2 decades of fits and starts in Hollywood limbo.

The Mindscape of Alan Moore is essentially an extended sit-down interview with Moore, intercut with evocative imagery evoking Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance. It moves too quickly to focus on any one aspect of Moore’s long career, and it’s possible to glean more insight into the man just by reading one or two interviews. But it’s apparent that Vylenz’s true interest lies less in Moore’s comics work than in his practice of magic. More on that later.

Alan Moore in The Mindscape of Alan Moore
The charmer from Northhampton

Let’s be frank; Alan Moore is a weird cat. As more than one person has described him, he’s a truly great writer that has chosen to work in “The Gutter” (as it amuses Neil Gaiman to call it): comics. Which is to oversimplify; some of his other work includes several performance art pieces and the stunning prose novel Voice of the Fire. All this has left Moore a cult figure, underestimated even by many fans. He is probably one of comics’ best-known names, but while his friend Gaiman frequently tours the globe like a rock star, he’s happy to stay at home in Northhampton. Like Stanley Kubrick, he has an unfair reputation as a kind of eccentric recluse, but reportedly the actual truth is that he is a warm and friendly person who simply wishes to enjoy life in his home town and practice his art.

Moore began writing comics in the 1980s Reagan/Thatcher Cold War era, which informed the paranoid and apocalyptic air of V for Vendetta and Watchmen. One particular fictional nightmare of Moore’s that he perversely enjoys to point out is V For Vendetta’s accurate prediction that CCTV surveillance would blanket England by the late 1990s. But further on the topic of political oppression, Moore affirms that while conspiracy theories are everywhere you look (the act of looking creates them, one might say), in fact there are no conspiracies. If the world is rudderless and chaotic, conspiracy theories are mere comforts.

The Mindscape of Alan Moore
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Against his intentions, his dark take on the superhero and science fiction genres was radically influential in the wrong way. Fans and creators who didn’t grasp the deeper themes behind Watchmen forever steered comics into grim and gritty stupidity, mimicking the superfluous sex and violence without the subtext and literary merit that Moore snuck in the back door. On its simplest level, Watchmen could be described as what the world would be like if there actually were such a thing as superheroes. The answer being: totally different and yet exactly the same. But looking deeper, Watchmen is actually about the danger of those that presume to the power to change the world. It’s impossible to read Watchmen now, two decades after its creation, and not to compare the book’s true villain (whom it would be a cruel spoiler for me to name here) with George W. Bush’s misadventures in the Middle East. Bush and Watchmen’s villain both manufactured wars with the presumptive belief that they were destined to save the world.

Moore believes that while a knowledge and appreciation of how cinema works can inform comics, there are things that only comics can do. If comics creators only work with movies in mind, their comics will be like “movies that don’t move.” So, as a result, most of his work was essentially “designed to be unfilmable.” This Dork Reporter worries that the forthcoming adaptation of Watchmen will carry on the tradition of missing Moore’s point, and will simply be a dark, nasty, and depressing story of violence, sex, and depravity starring superheroes in sexy tights.

Rorschach in The Mindscape of Alan Moore
Rorschach’s cameo appearance

Moore declared to friends and family on his 40th birthday that he was a magician. That’s not “magic” as in the pulling of rabbits out of proverbial hats, but as in the exploration of areas outside the realm of science. Magic is the exploration of what science does not cover, but sometimes science describes the world in ways that might sound like magic. Collaborator Dave Gibbons points out the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, in which the more we learn what makes up matter and the material world, the less substantial it all seems. We can’t observe or measure it; there’s nothing there.

Moore defines magic as “The Art,” and if art is the manipulation of words and images to alter consciousness, then art is magic, and a writer is a magician. As Moore says in an interview with Daniel Whiston, his best grimoire (or book of spells) is actually a dictionary. Moore believes writing is a “transformative force than can change society” but by the 21st Century, writing is seen as a mere entertainment. Whereas once, in less rational or scientifically enlightened times, writers were feared. A witch could curse your crops or your health, but a writer could afflict you with a satire that could cause an entire community to laugh at you, and worse, for posterity to continue to laugh at you generations after you die! Now, the power of magic is not only underestimated, but abused. Advertisers work magic every day by manipulating and anesthetizing people en masse.

The Mindscape of Alan Moore
Doctor Manhattan as Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man

Moore posits the existence of what he calls “Ideaspace,” the landscape of the mind and spirit. The various systems of magic, like the Tarot and the Kabbalah, are maps to Ideaspace. He describes how writers and musicians sometimes feel like they are tapping in to something beyond them, as if merely taking dictation. I myself once felt a faint, pathetic little echo of I think what Moore is talking about. A high school friend and I used to compose and record instrumental music for guitar and keyboard. Our compositions were of varying degrees of seriousness, many just silly fun, but some fairly ambitious. While jamming around one of our silliest tunes, I still swear I heard a melody in the music that neither of us had played yet. My friend couldn’t hear it even when I figured it out on the guitar and played it over the backing tracks we had already recorded. Perhaps I was just hearing musical overtones that were literally present in the sound waves, but I remain convinced that, as silly as that particular song was, I very briefly connected into some kind of world of music. I don’t feel like it was a piece of music that I wrote, more like something that was already there, waiting, and I just had to hear it and play it back onto tape.

But if Ideaspace is real place full of “information” (nonmaterial ideas and inventions), humans are accumulating information at an exponentially increasing rate, and Moore predicts an apocalypse of sorts. If it continues at this rate, the accumulation of information will accelerate to a point where it will effectively approach infinity around 2015. He doesn’t know what will happen, but poetically describes the event as society reaching a boiling point and “becoming steam.” Moore’s ideas here are similar to Ray Kurzweil’s notion of the coming Singularity, the point at which computers become so advanced that they can act of their own accord, and improve themselves, and in effect become conscious. What Moore has to say here is both fascinating and frightening, but the film falls down by literally illustrating his big ideas with overly literal special effects sequences showing Northhampton burning.

Other filmed sequences reenact scenes from Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and John Constantine: Hellblazer (a series initially written by Jamie Delano, but starring the character Moore created for Swamp Thing). It probably seemed extremely unlikely in 2003 that any of these properties would become big-budget Hollywood films, and yet they now all have. In particular, the two sequences from Watchmen and V for Vendetta almost surely didn’t make Warner Bros. (who owns the rights to the works) happy, but they seem to have allowed Vylenz’ film to be released nevertheless.

A bonus DVD includes lengthy interviews with many of Moore’s collaborators, discussing their own work as well as their collaborations with Moore. Moore’s wife Melinda Gebbie, an American expat and illustrator of the pornographic novel Lost Girls, is more… well, normal than I would have expected. She’s extremely intelligent, with progressive politics, making her an obvious partner for Moore, but to be honest, I expected more of a freak. Also, Dave Gibbons does a wicked impression of Moore.


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Must read: The Craft, by Daniel Whiston. An extended interview with Moore on the craft of writing.