DocuMondays – This Filthy World

This Filthy World (2008, dir.Jeff Garlin)

Unlike the other documentaries I have looked at, where you have multiple interviewees and tightly edited footage to form a narrative, this is simply one man on stage in front of a crowd, talking to them. It’s basically a concert film, but while most of those feature either a music performer or comedian this is a film director. I guess the closest equivalent  of this would be the Evening With Kevin Smith DVDs. Both are the result of directors whose personalities are as large as the reputation of their films. John Waters is definitely not a filmmaker who appeals to everyone, something he readily admits, but even if you don’t enjoy his films I think it would be hard not to enjoy this one-man show about his love of all things strange.

Waters was raised in and around Baltimore, Maryland, which is to him like New York is to Woody Allen. Baltimore, named the Ugliest City in America at the time which Waters proudly cites, provided him with a front row seat to the grotesque. Rather than being repulsed, Waters was drawn to the misshapen and demented natives and made them movie stars. His love of film also began in Baltimore when, as a child, he became enamored with the gimmickry of William Castle (House on Haunted Hill, House of Wax) and Kroger Babb. Babb was a filmmaker who had little skill with filmmaking, and more with being a salesman. He produced films like Mom and Dad, which the Catholic Church gave a Condemned rating, and features actual birth footage, one of the few ways of showing female nudity in those days. Babb would have an obvious influence in Waters later work, and Castle got a very gimmicky homage with the Odorama cards handed out at showings of Polyester.

My favorite piece of the performance was the second half, where Water discusses how he even he has lines he doesn’t think people should cross. This allows him to go into very poetic descriptions of teabagging, helicoptering, and other outer edges sexual practices that he gets pleasure from horrifying the audience with, but also seems to honestly think are too far. He addresses his child molestery appearance, which draws looks when he goes to see animated films at the theater. He talks about his love of attending trials and the little club of friends who try to one up each other about which they have attended (Waters got into one of 10 public seats at Watergate for a day, an elderly woman beat him, she was Nuremburg, the Super Bowl of courtroom trials). There’s a wonderful sequence where he talks about the influence The Bad Seed has on him, creating a desire to be a secretly evil child. Even now, he says he loves to encourage children to get into trouble, mentioning when he was attending a parade recently and tried to convince a little girl to help him go knock people’s bicycles over.

Like I said, Waters isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, nor should he be. If he was, then the entire agenda of his work would be subverted. He talks about how his career is now lauded in elite high society circles in New York and that he thinks its wrong. Even if you don’t care for his films, I don’t think you could watch this and not find some anecdote or piece of wry wisdom memorable. If you haven’t seen his work some segments might be confusing, but nevertheless this is an excellent piece of insight into one of the ground breaking directors in America.


DocuMondays – Harlan Ellison: Dreams With Sharp Teeth

Harlan Ellison: Dreams With Sharp Teeth (2008, dir. Erik Nelson)
Featuring Harlan Ellison, Robin Williams, Neil Gaiman, Peter David, Ronald D. Moore

One of the first things you learn about Ellison in this documentary is that once he was so pissed with a television executive that he boxed up a dead groundhog and mailed it to the man. Ellison made sure that he paid the cheapest postage possibly so that it would take upwards of a week to reach the man and be sufficiently bloated and rotting. This is tempered with his friend Neil Gaiman saying that Ellison’s entire life’s work is one large piece of performance art. That it is not about his 1000+ short stories or numerous award-winning teleplays, but its about the cultivation of this quick-witted curmudgeonly persona.

For those of you not in the know, Harlan Ellison is an acclaimed author of literature both of the science fiction genre and not. He’s actually famous for calling the “sci-fi” abbreviation a “hideous neologism” that “sounds like crickets fucking”. Needless to say, he is a very opinionated man and any attempt to make a documentary about him is going to be caught up in his fiery and impassioned rantful nature. Ellison was responsible for the classic “City on the Edge of Forever” episode of the original Star Trek, “Demon With a Glass Hand” episode of The Outer Limits (which he sued James Cameron for ripping off to make The Terminator), and for much script work on Babylon 5.

The film focuses on exploring the history and personal philosophy of Ellison. It is near impossible to get the experience of prose across on screen, though the film attempts it by having Ellison recite a few passages from his more famous work against the backdrop of incredibly shitty lava lamp-esque green screen backgrounds. The more interesting pieces are of Ellison expounding on his personal beliefs. He his passionate about writers not being treated like second class citizens by the studios. Ellison tells of how he received a call from woman who told him that on an upcoming Babylon 5 DVD they were wanting to make an extending interview with him a special feature and he agreed, with the stipulation that he receive a paycheck. She replied that everyone else just said yes and did it for free, resulting in a verbal lashing from Ellison about how she and the others in the business side of things wouldn’t work for a second if they weren’t getting paid.

The documentary suffers due to the absence of any counter to Ellison. He is infamous for public spats and lawsuits and it would have given a interesting balance to the film to have a group of people who disliked the man. Instead all we get is fawning praise and admiration from people who grew up reading his work. Ellison’s writing is wonderful, and he is one of the best writers of the late 20th century. The film just hurts from not having those voices to temper Ellison’s oft loud and bombastic one.