Thursday, January 28, 2016

CRUMB (1994) and AMERICAN MOVIE (1999)

Somewhere between the sprawling saga of Hoop Dreams and the rise of the spotlight sucking Kardashians, we enjoyed a golden age of the documentary film, a thrilling time where the form was elevated to something approaching great art, where individuals you wouldn’t otherwise care about, indeed, people you wouldn’t even sit next to on the subway, became the subjects of heartbreaking drama, dished up and served to us in the same theaters that helped us celebrate another golden age, that of the independent film, so alongside Reservoir Dogs and The Full Monty came a plethora of documentaries made by earnest filmmakers itching to present the stories of real people. Among the best, if not the undisputed king of ‘em all, was Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb (1994) now showing on Crackle. It’s a raw and impenitent look at one of the most unique illustrators of our time, Robert Crumb, the man who turned the world of underground comics into a battlefield of sexual fantasies, a place where his complicated id revealed itself in its fetishistic, LSD-fueled glory. (Crumb would hate that line, but so what? He does his thing, I do mine.)

Next to the dreary feminists complaining about Crumb’s humiliation of women in his comics, the most unsettling thing in Crumb is learning about his reclusive brothers Charles and Maxon, the former an overly medicated middle-aged man who still lives at home with his clueless mother (he’d commit suicide shortly after participating in the film), the latter a panhandler who lives alone in a dank San Francisco hotel. Crumb's brothers, each talented in their own right, look damaged, as if their nervous systems had been fried. Both had issues with sexuality and lived celibate lifestyles.   Though middle brother Robert used his talent to achieve some fame and forged an apparently pleasant home atmosphere with his wife and daughter, he has more in common with his brothers than he might let on, and seems to have barely escaped the same kind of stunted adulthood. The three grew up sleeping in the same bed till they were 16 or so, enduring a sheltered, competitive upbringing under the iron-fisted rule of their father. As Maxon says, the brothers were “like primordial monkeys working it out in the trees.”

Whatever Crumb needed to work out, he did it in his drawings, which are brilliant, scary, beautiful. Through publications like ‘ZAP’ ‘Fritz the Cat’, and ‘Weirdo,’ Crumb unleashed his tales of sniveling, scrawny men taking advantage of unsuspecting super women. Crumb’s women are as easily recognized as any of Picasso’s nudes, identified by their powerful legs and gargantuan, shelfed-out asses. The typical Crumb story is a sort of surreal, oversexed comedy short, ala the Three Stooges as if scripted by Krafft-Ebing, where the loser gets the drop on his hulking fantasy woman, but usually ends up getting his own butt kicked, or at the least, chased away with a knife. When asked directly about his many kinks, the aloof Crumb shrugs. “That,” he says, “is for a psychiatrist to figure out.”

Zwigoff gives plenty of time to Crumb’s critics, and the charges of sexism and racism are nicely counterbalanced by Australian art critic Robert Hughes (1938-2012), who compares Crumb to Breughel and Goya, and chastises America for being too preoccupied with political correctness to appreciate Crumb’s brand of wild satire and grotesque imagery. “What do you do with practically anybody who’s got a vision of the world which isn’t in accord with the present standards at Berkeley?” says Hughes. Indeed, the movie’s end finds Crumb  moving to France, as if squeezed out by an increasingly intolerant homeland. But the man will never be stopped. The movie’s elegant intro, where Zwigoff pans across a collection of empty thread spools, each adorned by a tiny Crumb sketch, shows that Crumb draws the way other people breathe, and will continue to draw until there’s no life in his body. The chastising talking heads and baffled ex-girlfriends are simply no match for him.

Crumb was such a success that it inspired other filmmakers to seek out their own Crumbs. Chris Smith found his in Mark Borchardt,  a bumbling Wisconsin filmmaker trying to finish a movie called Northwestern, a magnum opus about “rust and decay.”  In American Movie (1999), also showing on Crackle, we see the true meaning of “indy filmmaking,” as Borchardt, an angry 30-year-old with a chip on his shoulder and a drinking problem, fights gallantly to finish Coven, a short horror film which he hopes will make enough money to finance Northwestern. He  enlists his friends and family to help, including his cantankerous uncle Bill who loans him $3,000.00, and his buddy Mike Schank, a good-hearted ex-druggie who keeps the movie warm with his nervous laugh. When Borchardt accuses Mike of stealing a riff from a Black Sabbath song for the Coven soundtrack, Mike matter-of-factly reminds him that “ideas don’t just come out of thin air.”

American Movie and Crumb are two sides of the same coin. Robert Crumb and Mark Borchardt are both iconoclasts. Though his talent can’t compare to Crumb’s,  Borchardt has a knack for framing scenes, and he knows what looks good in a movie. The real difference between them is that Crumb had an unbreakable faith in himself. Borchardt, as shown in American Movie, had some deep-rooted anger that went well beyond Crumb’s inability to get girls in high school.  Mostly, Borchardt nurses a hatred of his own working class roots. His anger leads him to drink, which prevents him from getting his work done. That he actually finishes Coven and has a little premiere at a local theater feels more like a fluke than a triumph. Since appearing in American Movie,  Borchardt has directed only one short. What American Movie did for him is turn him into a cultish figure; he has taken several bit parts in low budget films, and along with Schank appeared in cartoon form in a 2006 episode of Family Guy, an insider’s reference that is probably lost on most people by now.

American Movie won the Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival. So did Crumb, a few years earlier. Since that flourishing period of the American documentary, there’s been a decline, I think. Documentary filmmakers now go for either the overly silly, or the overly maudlin. Perhaps reflecting the current American culture, documentaries must be either goofy, or self-consciously “important.”  Though the doc is even more marginalized than the small, indy film these days, the silly ones still have their audience, though in diminishing numbers. Yet, I’m always reminded of Harvey Pekar’s line in American Splendor, when his friend Toby is on MTV, and Pekar grouses that the corporate world thinks nothing of taking these salt-of-the-earth types and letting audiences laugh at them.

Certainly, there have been some good documentaries in recent years, but they tend to feel staged now, owing more to an episode of Real World than the non-fiction works of, say, Errol Morris or Werner Herzog. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen anything comparable to Crumb trying to maintain his flip demeanor when describing his father smashing his collarbone, or Mike Schank’s confiding to Chris Smith’s camera that he’d just won a few bucks on a scratch ticket and didn’t want anyone to know.  Smith’s choice of Jerry Jeff Walker’s ‘Mr. Bojangles’ to play over the final credits, first on Schank’s acoustic guitar and then sung by Sammy Davis Jr., tells me American Movie, despite moments of unintentional comedy, was not a joke, but a serious musing on those who dream big but remain stuck somewhere, in a cell, in a job, in a cold hometown that seems to work against you at every turn.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

DRIVE, HE SAID (1971)...

Drive, He Said was made with unimpeachable spirit and inspired artistry, at a time when its angry outlook still had cachet. In our own moronic times, when campus life can’t be presented without slapstick lewdness, this thoughtful 1971 film exists in an endless season of questions and conflict. We need no beer blasts, or rivalries between fraternities. It’s enough that paranoia is seeping in from all corners, and if dying in Vietnam isn’t on your schedule, you may be spiritually crushed by the ugly vibes at home. There’s something insidious in the air, causing one character to say, “Sentiment’s gonna bust all our balls, man.”

The film, directed by Jack Nicholson, was part of a flurry of intriguing projects from BBS, a production group headed by Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider, and Steve Blauner, that included Head, Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, The Last Picture Show, A Safe Place, and The King of Marvin Gardens, films that were, as noted on the Criterion box set from a few years back, “created within the studio system but lifted right out of the countercultural id.” Nicholson was involved to varying degrees in all but one of those features, and though he’s not in Drive, He Said (aside from a nearly invisible cameo), his rebellious presence is felt throughout.

Nicholson was a Hollywood veteran but had only achieved stardom two years earlier for his role in Easy Rider. He’d spent a long gestation period working for Roger Corman, both as an actor and screenwriter, and had occasionally appeared in offbeat westerns, or taken small roles in large productions. By the time stardom landed in his lap, stepping into the director’s role was probably something he’d been thinking about for a while.

The result is a film that is surprisingly cinematic. Nicholson’s approach may have been self-consciously “contemporary” – he was determined to shoot more male nudity than was the usual, then or now, and made a point of rushing his crew to film an actual campus riot at a nearby college – but what stands out decades later is the absolute power and assuredness of Nicholson’s eye.  There are beautiful, swooping camera angles, remarkable edits that’ll pop your brain, and enough interesting imagery that you’ll come away impressed not only by Nicholson’s obvious attention to the foreign films of the day, but by his own muscular approach to visual storytelling.

The cast has a jumpy life of its own, with recognizable faces lurking in the margins of every scene. David Ogden Stiers, several years away from his starring role on TV’s M.A.S.H., appears, as does Cindy Williams, with no lines, staring into the camera as if to say, Don’t forget me, I’ll soon be known to you all as Shirley Feeney. Cult director Henry Jaglom appears as a campus drama teacher. Karen Black is Olive, a woman living with a drab professor but carrying on an affair with a college basketball star, while Robert Towne, some years off from winning an Oscar for his Chinatown screenplay, is Richard, the cuckolded professor. Bruce Dern is impeccable as the school’s basketball coach, struggling with his main player, Hector Bloom, a reluctant sports star played by William Tepper. Michael Margotta is Gabriel, Bloom’s high-strung roommate who has played at being crazy for so long that the act is becoming real. 

Nicholson has become such a monolithic Hollywood persona that it’s easy to forget he directed three features. Granted, Goin’ South, a loopy comedy western mostly remembered as John Belushi’s film debut, and The Two Jakes, a largely dismissed sequel to Chinatown,  were uneven and probably deserving of their cold receptions. Still, in their own ways, Nicholson’s films were highly stylish and watchable. Drive, He Said, with its liveliness and sense of purpose, is the best of the three. That Nicholson didn’t cast himself – he could have played the coach, or Towne’s part – is evidence, perhaps, that he was taking the project seriously, as was his use of former collaborators Dern and Black, and the fact that he supervised a high-definition digital transfer for Criterion's Blu-ray release in 2009. Nicholson cared about this film, as he did about all of his work.

Karen Black was in her early prime here, big boned and strangely beautiful, and Nicholson gives her plenty of coverage: in close-up, lighting her cigarette; artsy shots of her profile;  lingering close-ups of her wrinkling her brow in thought. These glamor shots alternate with scenes of a more animalistic, earthy tone, with Black grunting in orgasm, washing her feet, or coming out of a deep sleep. Olive is the most full-bodied character in the movie. Her dilemma is that she doesn’t know what she wants, only what she doesn’t want. Neither the jock nor the professor is enough.

Black is so good in this movie that you watch her with dread knowing that her career would soon dovetail into cheap horror movies. The scene where Black is attacked in her home by Gabriel made me realize the difference between a movie scream and a genuine scream of terror. Today’s actresses go strictly for volume, while Black’s scream is filled with sorrow and anguish. Awards should be given for such screams. 

The basketball scenes are presented by Nicholson, a well-known hoops fan, and cinematographer Bill Butler, with speed and fury, even though Hector is mocked by his roommate for “staying after school and running around in his underwear.” The teasing gay banter among the teammates sounds odd today, with the players taunting each other in the showers, and Dern exhorting his team at halftime to “stop playing like fags.” He’d probably lose his job today, though the comment feels real and honest for the character.

As Hector Bloom, Tepper is believable as a jock who enjoys the game but is uncomfortable with draconian team politics, and bowing down to a no-nonsense coach. I can imagine him turning down his pro-career to work at a summer camp, where he’d teach disadvantaged kids how to throw a proper hook shot. As Gabriel, Margotta resembles a young Nicholson, and the scene where he goes berserk in front of the draft board feels like a rough sketch for One Flew Over The Cuckoos’ Nest. When he attacks Olive in her home, Margotta’s acting is so full of animation and buffoonery that it’s as if he’s performing a kind of guerilla theater designed to frighten women. He’s a kabuki rapist.

The film’s reception was mixed in 1971. Roger Ebert dubbed it “disorganized but occasionally brilliant,” which is accurate. Other reviewers were less generous, though some praised it. Audiences never found it. The problem could’ve been that a few years had passed since films like The Graduate and Easy Rider, and the angst of young Americans was becoming rote. Still, the early reviewers may have dismissed it too easily. True, some scenes don’t hang together, and the ending, where Gabriel releases a bunch of lab animals before being hauled away by police, is unsatisfying, but the acting is very good, the score by David Share is effective, and it’s a better looking film than most of the independent projects coming out of the early 1970s. And while it’s become fairly routine for actors to become directors, Nicholson was a pioneer of sorts, along with his friend Dennis Hopper.

There are moments in Drive, He Said, that are the work of a skilled director. The powerful opening, where a basketball game is interrupted by campus protestors, is bristly and unpredictable, as are the scenes of Dern browbeating his team. And there are moments too heavy with symbolism, such as the team mascot, a jungle cat in a cage, pacing back and forth. Is there no other way to represent pent up anger? Even the characters' names – Gabriel and Bloom – are heavy-handed. Yet, those are small quibbles.

There are also moments of such delicious acting that we can almost hear Nicholson giggling with approval, such as when Olive learns a female friend has been shoplifting for years, or the scenes where the professor (Towne) and Hector are awkwardly thrown together. How much does the professor know, anyway?

The movie may have been stronger had it focused solely on any of the characters. Instead, the movie is about all of them, as if Nicholson, who adapted the screenplay with the novel’s author, Jeremy Larner, loved them all equally, and couldn’t bear to move any of them into the background. So he coaxed great performances out of his cast, and turned in a highly personal project, a forgotten gem from the golden era of personal films.                 


Wednesday, January 20, 2016


A pothead’s progress
by Don Stradley 


As much as Travels With Mary Jane is a travelogue, it’s also a memoir. The unnamed author, billed only as “The Old Head,” sets out to share his experiences as a 70-year-old stoner, a fellow who has embraced mind-altering substances since Rubber Soul was on the charts.  There are dozens of amusing anecdotes here, including some with a whiff of danger, but just as you feel you’re being taken on a dark adventure, ala Billy Hayes in Midnight Express, events seem to drift by with more humor than drama, allowing the author’s real agenda to emerge. You see, head trips are no match for nostalgia trips, and though it’s enlightening to read about changes in the pot industry since the Summer of Love, the author is at his strongest when rhapsodizing about the friends he made on his Candide-like search for the best of all possible highs. Unlike Voltaire’s naïf, our guide isn’t entirely innocent; he’ll dive right in for a night with a Mexican prostitute, or a brief stint as an international drug smuggler. 

Though he hasn’t exactly spent his life sittin’ ‘round the shanty getting a good buzz on, our humble narrator has seemingly maintained a steady buzz for decades. Fortunately, his lifestyle hasn’t left him addled. He’s downright erudite. But if insightful asides on Van Gogh and Wagner are not what you want from a drug book, his sections on marijuana, LSD, his travels throughout Europe in search of the good stuff, and his own living example of someone who has celebrated drug use (as opposed to drug abuse), should be enough for you. Even if you’ve never been to the quietly menacing Kasbah where everyone seems to be named Mohammad and carries a dagger, you’ve probably been high, or you’ve been to a party where someone revealed a small bag of mysterious powder. If you can’t relate to the author’s nail-biting stroll through customs, maybe you’ll enjoy his riffs on D.H. Lawrence and Quetzalcóatl, or John Wayne taking a bullet in The Sands of Iwo Jima. Maybe you didn’t land in London in 1967 as a 20-year-old art student, where a suave new friend introduced you to drugs, as well as something called ‘Mexican Magic,’ which allegedly involved digging up a corpse, cutting off the head, and planting a bean in its eye, but using his memory – amazingly sharp for a career stoner – and a writing style that veers from the casual to the elegant,  the author turns a trick known to all good memoirists: his experiences, somehow, will remind you of your own. At the very least you’ll realize the coke you snorted back in the 1980s that left you chatty and depressed was just cheapo street shit.

The expected weirdness comes early. A first acid trip results in some groovy hallucinations, including one where a friend appears to the author as a “giant groundhog walking upright and wearing clothes.” The Kenneth Grahame allusions sidle along with bits on other cultural heroes, from Charles Bukowski to Bo Diddley (“the fucking King Kong of guitar players!”), from Miles Davis to Tom Russell’s Hotwalker. But these references don’t simply bookmark the time period like a straw boater; they’re more like colorful bugs slapping against the windshield as the author barrels along through 50 years of shameless hedonism, even as he suspects he’s heading toward “a dinosaur graveyard, listening to the ghosts of the past and sucking on last night’s roach.” 

This sense of being “the last living hippie” isn’t a bad thing, according to the author. When gawkers gaze at him in the window of an Amsterdam shop, he’s happy to be part of the scene, even if he’s “just a human prop in a world of sin and laughter.” Identity and image are recurring leitmotifs, with the author continuously amused by his own conservative, non-threatening appearance. He asks at one point, “What difference does it make if your image is natural or contrived? If you wear it long enough, it will come to fit you.”

The author certainly has had his share of images. At various times he’s an only child, playing in the bombed out ruins of London, then a wide-eyed student, then a smuggler pretending to be a gay tourist, then an ex-hippie who finds himself the reluctant star of the Fort Bragg gun range, then a journalist, and now, a memoirist, not in the tradition of Hunter S. Thompson or Jack Kerouac, but more on the lines of Tobias Wolff. He could’ve called his book This Stoner’s Life, as he wanders through several countries, encountering a glut of interesting strangers, ranging from foxy waitresses to people who’d faced Nazi terrors during World War 2. He’ll pause to give you a pinch of French history, or recount the effects of some pharmaceutical cocaine shared by a friend: “Abandoned chicken coops, overgrown with old grape and honeysuckle vines, looked as beautiful as the ruins of antiquity. The meadow, with its clumps of roughly mowed grass turning dirty yellow, was an impressionist landscape come to life.”  

Such a rich, intelligent style makes me question the author’s nom de weed: The Old Head. It conjures up some tie-dyed Tommy Chong type, which is a slight disservice to such a well-written and thoughtful book. Then again, a theme in Travels With Mary Jane is that we’re looking behind the veil: a straight-laced army sergeant suddenly explains to a bunch of new recruits the proper way to get out of the army; a dancing boy in Tangiers removes his makeup to reveal his identity as a 40-year-old man; a rough army buddy turns out to be bisexual; a dashing drug dealer turns out to be as vulnerable to life’s changes as anyone else. An old head, then, careworn and quietly wise, reveals himself to be more than your standard Woodstock cliché.

True, there’s plenty of insider drug lingo here, but in the end, the book isn’t really about drugs. It’s not even about traveling. It’s about love. The author’s love of a good high, the love he has for his friends and family; it’s palpable. At one point he describes a dream where human figures sprout out of the earth and rise skyward, filling the author with a sense of excitement and wonder that carries over for several days. It’s a feeling of love, really, love for humanity, and how, despite our efforts to the contrary, we’re all in this together. This philosophy appears to buoy our author in several instances, most movingly when a swashbuckling friend from the past is found living in something close to depression and squalor. Love is all you need. Keep that idea in your pocket, next to your smokes. You’ll be fine.



Hey, Travels With Mary Jane is available through Amazon.  A link appears below.


Monday, January 11, 2016


New book of Howard Smith interviews offers revealing look at 1960s icons
by Don Stradley

About whether radio was more important than film, Lou Reed told Howard Smith that the kids of 1969 were “wired. They’ve got tape recorders in this pocket, they’ve got a radio over here…and films, where you have to sit in one place for, like, two hours to watch this thing, that’s not the future.” Then, the stunning caveat: “People like mobility.” There’s Lou, making like Nostradamus, practically predicting the forthcoming trend of people staring into their smart phones as they walk into traffic.  But Smith, a Village Voice columnist and New York radio personality, nudges the conversation into a dull talk about drugs. Smith was once described by Vanity Fair as “the preeminent reporter on the counter culture,” which means many of the interviews collected for The Smith Tapes 1969-1972 careen into random discussions of what drugs the kids were taking. If Smith had Lee Harvey Oswald on the verge of  confessing to the Kennedy assassination, he’d probably interrupt to ask if there were any good pot connections in Dallas. 

This doesn’t mean Smith’s subjects don’t get to shine a bit and reveal the unexpected. Jim Morrison, for instance, is quite funny when he defends his recent weight gain: “It’s terrible to be thin and wispy, because you could get knocked over by a strong wind. Fat is beautiful.” The material on these tapes, unheard for years until being edited and transcribed by New York filmmaker and artist Ezra Brookstein for Princeton Architectural Press, veers from the interesting to the mundane to the frustrating. Frustrating because Smith has access to some fascinating characters but tends to ask a lot of meathead questions, like when he asks George Harrison why Ringo didn’t get to sing more on the Beatles’ albums. Then again, maybe this is what made Smith a kind of cult figure himself back in his heyday on WPLJ, this sense that he was just some mustachioed everyman haunting hippie heroes with a tape recorder. (In 2012, a selection of these digitized uncut interviews were released as digital downloads and as a limited edition CD box set.)

Smith, who died in 2014, won an Oscar for his 1973 documentary on evangelist Marjoe Gortner, and his style seemed to be one of letting the camera run until something of interest happened. Gortner was an intriguing character – he’d started as a four-year-old fire and brimstone preacher, memorizing gestures taught to him by his mother – but too much of the film is endless footage of tent show preachers doing their thing. Academy Award aside, it’s a bit of a lurch. Yet, it’s easy to connect the maker of Marjoe with the man conducting the series of interviews in The Smith Tapes. The lineup is startling: Andy Warhol, Dennis Hopper, Joe Cocker, Dick Gregory, John Mayall, Sly Stone, Vidal Sassoon, Jane Fonda, Eric Clapton, Norman Mailer, and a couple dozen others, plus various Beatles.

And they don’t disappoint. From Pete Townshend describing an altercation with some Hell’s Angels, to Amiri Baraka telling white liberals to “not interfere in the affairs of black people,” to Buckminster Fuller discussing domed cities of the future, the conversations get better when Smith stops asking rock stars about their finances. The topics hurtle about like a kaleidoscope of the period: racism, sexism, politics, the aftermath of Woodstock, the rising youth culture, and the concept of celebrity.  Most of the figures are more or less as you’d expect them to be. Arlo Guthrie, hot after Alice’s Restaurant, is a jovial stoner, offering a comical description of his adventures before the draft board. Frank Zappa is prickly and impatient. Clapton, discussing the guilt certain rock stars feel about their massive paydays, says “I think money corrupts, so I get rid of it as quickly as I can.” Regarding actors who take up social causes, Dustin Hoffman, fresh off Midnight Cowboy mocks his colleagues for being “rather limited in what they know.”

Some moments are both chilling and poignant. Even as the Beatles were capsizing during 1969-70, both Harrison and Lennon suggest the band may still record together, though Lennon wishes the group could expand to include more members, perhaps even Elvis Presley. The soon to be dead Morrison is cryptic when he compares man’s sense of self-destruction to losing one’s virginity: “You hear everything about it – everyone’s talking about it all the time. So you kind of have this itch to try it and see what all the talk’s about.” But there may be no moment in this sprawling, epic, thought-provoking collection so rife with portent as Janis Joplin’s fear that her interview is unusable. She would die in a few days from a heroin overdose, but is concerned that her interview should be reviewed by her publicist, and fears she may have said something wrong.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016


The Nutty Jew
BBC South looks back at Jerry Lewis’ unreleased Holocaust drama
By Don Stradley


Jerry Lewis was no longer a top drawer movie attraction when he journeyed to Stockholm in 1972 to shoot The Day The Clown Cried. His brand of comedy (in America at least) had been knocked aside in those days by Woody Allen’s neurotic introspection and Mel Brooks’ farts. The idea that Lewis’ next project was to play Helmut Doork, a clown in a concentration camp whose job was to lead children into the gas chambers, was seen as just another misfire in what had become a prolonged backslide. It wouldn’t be until his great supporting role in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy that Lewis became respectable again. He’s since developed into a sort of living legend, enjoying a popularity that ebbs and flows. In BBC South’s The Story of The Day The Clown Cried, we see clips and stills of Lewis in Stockholm, filming what was to have been his magnum opus. But Lewis, 42 at the time, looks tired in those pics, weighed down, as if being so close to men in Nazi uniforms, even if they were just actors, was draining him. 

The documentary is hosted by David Schneider, a Jewish comic from the U.K. His focus is on whether it’s acceptable to make such a movie in the first place. He interviews several Jewish intellectuals (history professors and the like) asking whether its reasonable to make a film about the death camps, and if someone like Lewis could temper his silliness long enough to make a serious picture. Since very few have seen the thing – Lewis has the only copy in existence – there’s a lot of conjecture that goes nowhere. The people Schneider interviews seem to agree that all is fair when it comes to art, and that no subject should be off limits. But not even Schneider is sure if Lewis was making a comedy – he wasn’t – and the people interviewed have no idea, either. Schneider’s as well-meaning as a flu shot, but for someone who is obviously interested in the subject, he appears to know very little about it. We learn that Lewis had a falling out with the film’s Swedish producer, but there’s no mention, for instance, that the story’s author, Joan O’Brien, was never compensated for the story rights and had a lot to do with keeping the film from being shown.

Perhaps the most fascinating clip in the documentary is early on when Lewis, in civilian clothes with a typewriter in front of him, tells a reporter that the movie is about a famous circus clown who is no longer at the top of his game, and becomes a better person when he learns to care about others. The clip is intriguing. Is Lewis talking about himself? He was, after all, at a career nadir. Also, Lewis seems angry at discussing the movie, and abruptly cuts the interview off. What the documentary doesn’t touch on is that Lewis had been eating nothing but grapefruit for six weeks to achieve the emaciated look of a war prisoner. He was also, as an actress from the film recalled, difficult to deal with because he was taking pain medication for an ongoing back problem. Drugged up and starving, Lewis was in no shape to direct a film. There’s a clip of Lewis in recent years, addressing the movie. “It was bad, bad, bad,” he says. “I was embarrassed and ashamed.”

Schneider and BBC South gain a lot of mileage out of some newly discovered photos taken on the set, many not seen for decades. What I learned, contrary to what has been said over the years, is that the film doesn't look bad, or cheap, as many have claimed. Judging from the photos, Lewis captured the bleak atmosphere of the camps, and there doesn't appear to be much funny business going on. Schneider and his interviewees try to deduce a plot from this handful of pictures, which is strange considering the movie’s plot has been fairly common knowledge for years. From what I’ve heard, it could’ve been a very touching, gritty movie. But I don’t know any more than anyone else does, and though the documentary is tidily made and thoughtful, I know nothing more having seen it. I suspect it will only add more misinformation to the movie's murky legend. 

Lewis has donated his film collection to the Library of Congress, advising the Library to not screen The Day The Clown Cried until 2025. Perhaps Lewis thinks he’ll be dead by then, or that some of the rabid curiosity over the movie will have dissipated. The latter is doubtful, partly because people love the idea of a major failure, and also because some, myself included, think it might be better than its reputation. Yet, I also think curiosity is just a distant cousin of gluttony, and that some things should be left as they are, sealed away in vaults, enjoyed only in our imaginations.

The Story of the Day the Clown Died can be seen here: