Documentary Round-Up – March 2021

I Can’t Get You Out Of My Head (2021)
Written & Directed by Adam Curtis
You can watch this series here

I became a huge Adam Curtis fan a couple of years back when I watched his documentary Hypernormalisation. He can articulate the sentiments I feel about humanity’s current state, this looming sense of dread about a very uncertain future. Even better, he can go back in history and outline how we came to be in this state. Hypernormalisation outlined how so much of the world has come to accept capitalism’s sustained misery and just stop believing there can be anything else. I Can’t Get You Out Of My Head, subtitled An Emotional History of the Modern World, expands on that documentary’s ideas. We follow individuals from around the world as their stories reflect more significant movements happening in society.

Curtis looks at cultural revolutions in China, Britain, the United States, Germany, and other places as a starting point. Zooming in further, he tells us the story of Michael X, a Trinidadian immigrant to Britain who worked as a strongarm for a London slumlord. Michael goes on a journey of becoming a civil rights revolutionary and then spirals into a tragic conclusion. Then there is Jiang Qing, the wife of Mao Zedong, who started her career as an actress only to be usurped in her eyes by a rival. She becomes deeply involved in the Cultural Revolution but more to satisfy her personal grudges. She runs up against male members of Mao’s inner circle, with her story also ending in tragedy. Curtis tells us of Afeni Shakur, Tupac’s mom, and her time with the Black Panther movement. We see how she was aware of government agents’ infiltration into the group, coercing them into criminal acts, while Afeni was ignored. 

Throughout this fantastic documentary, Curtis shows how so often revolutions are spoiled when those leading them fall back on old ways of thinking. They convince themselves that this is a new path, as yet unforged, when they have simply rebranded archaic systems in reality. Class hierarchies persist, and it becomes more about getting even with someone who slighted you than elevating the vulnerable. Curtis entirely agrees we should be afraid of a future under the current structures. The way things are run right now will lead to mass suffering & death. He does end things on a hopeful note, talking about humans tapping into their imaginations to conceive new ways of building society, bridging the difficulty gap between acknowledging the individual & the masses.


Wrinkles the Clown (2019)
Written by Michael Beach Nichols & Christopher K. Walker
Directed by Michael Beach Nichols

In 2016, I was greatly annoyed by the killer clown viral rumors that abounded online. I was teaching 3rd grade, and I had to explain to these children there’s no evidence that this is happening. I talked to them about the internet being a device that could spread lies very quickly and that we should be skeptics about what we saw on there. However, some parents were more gullible than their children and kept the inane clown shit persisting. It’s no wonder things like QAnon have flourished with adults, ironically forgetting how they warn their children about the internet. 

Wrinkles the Clown is about exploring a minor viral phenomenon that some people have gotten swept up in. In 2015, a video was uploaded to YouTube that showed a little girl sleeping in her bed while a scary-looking clown emerged from beneath. This was followed by stickers popping up around Naples, Florida, advertising Wrinkles the Clown with a phone number. If you called the number, you usually got the voicemail where Wrinkles offered his scare services. Parents began to use the number as a pretty unhealthy way of punishing misbehaving children. We get to hear some of those voicemails, parents asking Wrinkles to come and get their child while the kid screams & cries in the background.

More video popped up, and Wrinkles was really making appearances outside people’s homes after being paid. Reporters began calling the number, and some interviews were done that revealed Wrinkles was a sixty-five-year-old retiree who was uninterested in living in some retirement community. Instead, he lives out of his van and drives around the country, getting paid by parents to frighten their children into behaving better. But that’s only part of the story, and the documentary certainly has some twists as it goes along. I can’t say I loved this documentary. Ultimately, it fell apart for me by the end; I just didn’t find its thesis too compelling. I think the topic has a lot to be explored, though.


Ask Dr. Ruth (2019)
Directed by Ryan White

I grew up in the 1980s & 1990s and was aware of Dr. Ruth. I wasn’t clear on what exactly she was a doctor of until I was older, and even then, I don’t think it was until I was in college that it clicked. She just seemed like a person late-night comedy hosts would make jokes about and a lady who had a perfect sense of humor about herself. As I’m sure you all know, Dr. Ruth was is a sex therapist known for being diminutive (4’7″), speaking in a German accent, and being exceptionally bubbly in her personality. The documentary was made around the time Ruth Westheimer turned 90 years old and looks back on her life to help the audience understand how she got to such fame.

She began life as Karola Siegel in Frankfort, Germany. She is a Jew and was around 10 years old when the Nazis came to power. Through some beautifully animated reenactments, we learn that her father was taken from the first, and eventually, Karola was sent on a train with other refugee children to Switzerland in 1938. She would never see her family again but received postcards from them until 1941. It wouldn’t be until the filming of this documentary that she would officially know they were killed in the Holocaust. Ruth learns her father died in Auschwitz while the details of her mother’s death are murkier. In Switzerland, she has her first pangs of love and begins to embrace her sexuality. Eventually, Karola would become one of the early German-Jew settlers in Israel and change her name to the less German, Ruth.

The documentary is very focused on her biography rather than the specifics surrounding her ideas about sex. We understand how she adopted a positive mindset despite the tragedies around her and embraced being a sexual person. Ruth would have three husbands; the first two she would choose to divorce to further her own pursuits. She spent time as a single mother in the 1950s after moving to New York City, and her third husband became the man she would spend almost four decades with until he passed. There are interviews with her children and grandchildren that help illuminate Ruth even more. I thought it was very interesting how they address Ruth’s mentality of not crying in public due to her experiences being a survivor. She remarks at one point that every person has secrets that no one, not even their most intimate partner, will know, emotions that only the individual can fully understand. I have to say, walking away from the doc, I have a much better understanding of this very public, often mocked figure from the 1980s.

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