It’s sad to see how few people can appreciate a good documentary, the same way so few people appreciate a fine wine or a well-trained gimp.
Working at a video store, I see the documentary section gather dust and the ghosts of dead orphans. It is only ventured into when something topical or bland and heartwarming comes out. And even then people scamper out when they start to feel poor, dead Timmy Weatherbee’s spectral breath on their neck.
But there’s good stuff in there, interesting movies about subjects a lot of people probably didn’t even know existed, and that’s what this week is about, bringing you some much-needed knowledge on little-seen documentaries.
Reclaiming the Blade
Medieval martial arts isn’t something a lot of people even know is a thing, the popular conception being that swordplay in the time of chivalry being more a game of “who can brain the other guy in the head with a broadsword harder” than anything approaching an actual combat style.
Reclaiming the Blade seeks to undo that misconception by shedding light on the art of swordplay, as well as the role swords play in popular culture. Big names present include Viggo Mortensen and Karl Urban from Lord of the Rings, as well as renowned sword-fight choreographer Bob Anderson and a host of historians, blacksmiths, and members of various societies dedicated to keeping the traditions of medieval martial arts alive through exhibitions and reenactment, all topped off with Jonathan Rhys-Davies filling the narrator shoes to lend austerity.
The slightly low budget of the film does occasionally become apparent, like in the animated segments that look like something out of a bad History Channel show, but the subject matter and interviews are fascinating.
Just Like Being There
Personally, I have the musical knowledge of a particularly ignorant garden slug. I don’t frequent concerts or live shows and mostly just listen to the same small collection of bands and songs endlessly, so when I found a documentary entirely about the art and artists behind concert posters, I wondered aloud how they could make an entire film out of the subject.
Just Like Being There manages this feat, with only a little bit of padding. The film is as much about the technical aspects of poster making as the artistic, with gig-poster rock stars showing us the various means, new and old, of making an awesome poster, as well as recounting the stories of how they got into the business.
The movie does take a few detours however, like an overly long look at one poster artists’ overwrought past, and a welcome (in my case) side-trip into poster artists who have taken to doing special movie posters for specific screenings on the side.
How much you’ll dig this will probably depend entirely on your tolerance for horn-rimmed glasses and absurd facial hair, but even non-music people like me should find something interesting in the film to latch on to.
But if movies are your bag, Blank City is something you should probably watch first. The subject this time is the underground art scene that exploded in the grungier parts of Manhattan in the 1970s, particularly the dearth of experimental and punk film makers who gained notoriety for putting weird, nigh-unintelligible and micro-to-no budget stuff on film and releasing it to a bewildered public. Usually one as drugged out as the artists themselves.
More than anything else, Blank City is a collection of cool anecdotes and stories, like Jim Jarmusch talking about filming Permanent Vacation with artist Jean-Michel Basquiat asleep on the floor in the same room.
But similar to Just Like Being There, if you get put off by people clearly high as fuck on themselves, you may get the occasional urge to punch the screen. More than a couple of the interviewees come across as the kind of egomaniac wankers I make a habit of avoiding, and it can get tiring hearing them drone on and on about how Soho in the 70s and 80s was this perfect crucible of non-conformist artistic fairy-dust, and no one will ever surpass the brilliance of a drugged-up part-time film maker with a Super-8 camera.
All the same, Blank City is something anyone interested in recent film history should check out, because even if the people behind it were often douchey as hell, the work they did changed the landscape of American film in numerous ways.
In the Realms of the Unreal
Writing a novel is something a lot of people always plan to do, but never get around to. That is, except for Henry Darger, a most likely autistic or schizophrenic janitor who, over the course of most of his later life, wrote an epic novel detailing a war incited by a child-slave rebellion.
Why’d it take so goddamn long, and why have you probably never heard of it, let alone read it? Well, to answer the first, it’s 15 thousand pages long. And to answer the second, it’s mostly about a troupe of constantly naked little girls having adventures and killing people. Also there’s illustrations. Lots of them. And they’re pretty uncomfortable most of the time.
But the movie doesn’t dwell too much on the implied pedophilia so much as the life of the quiet, withdrawn man who crafted the novel, what little information is known about his life, and the portrait of himself that can be found if you read between the lines of the novel, as well as the detailed journals of his life that were found when his landlords opened up his room after Darger’s death in 1973. All of which is accompanied by animated recreations of scenes from Darger’s works, with narration by Dakota Fanning.
The film uses Darger’s work as ink to paint a portrait of his life and mental state, and indeed it’s probably one of the more sympathetic and understanding movies about mental illness, which is pretty amazing given the somewhat unsettling subtexts of Darger’s work.