CATEGORIES Classics, Comedy, Documentary, Foreign Language, Independent, Fandom, Home Entertainment, Columns, Cinematical Indie, Features, Columns, Cinematical
Enter a true movie lover's home and you're obviously going to see shelves and shelves of DVDs (and now Blu-ray), but you're also likely to see a lot of books about filmmaking, including filmmaker biographies. There are a number of classics, many in interview form like Francois Truffaut's Hitchcock and the (director) on (director) series -- I'm particularly fond of Trier on von Trier. And recently, a lot of lower brow fanboy types seemed to be reading Rebecca Keegan's book on James Cameron, The Futurist, so reading about directors is not just for film studies nerds looking to expand on their knowledge of film history and auteurism.
So where are all the great biographical documentaries about specific filmmakers? I'm not talking about DVD supplement stuff, or episodes of Encore's The Directors or even docs about the making of -- or attempted making of -- specific films, such as Hearts of Darkness and Lost in La Mancha. Although, I would maybe count Overnight, because even though it's focused on Troy Duffy's first (and then only) film, it is really a portrait of the director more than just about the production of The Boondock Saints. Is it because we don't need such biographical films when we have so many books and TCM profiles to keep us happy? That's the conclusion I got from my triple feature this week of Don't You Forget About Me, ClarkWORLD and Two in the Wave, all of which seem worthless efforts to pay tribute to and share some background on, respectively John Hughes, Bob Clark and Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard.
I actually began this trip into the world of filmmaker biographies as a double feature while browsing through new additions to the Netflix Watch Instantly library. Noticing that both DYFAM and CW were available, I curiously wondered if either one served as a worthy cinematic form of panegyric. You may recall that DYFAM was in the works for years prior to Hughes' death last August, and then of course immediately afterward it was picked up for distribution. So it didn't start out as a postmortem celebration, but it now exists as one. As such, it's not a terrible celebration of a sort of film icon, even if the documentary only really focuses on the teen movies Hughes wrote and directed in the 1980s. Enough of the actors from those works show up to talk about the guy that you might not even notice the absence of necessary interviews with Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall and Matthew Broderick.
There actually isn't much information on Hughes' life and overall career, save for some glimpses at his high school yearbook and a slight mention of the pseudonymous screenwriting work he'd done since "retiring" from Hollywood and living out his last fifteen years as a recluse. Even less than I'd expected, DYFAM isn't your typical biographical documentary in that it's as much about his fans as it is about the guy being celebrated. Teens of today are interviewed to show how much his high school films still resonate 25 years later with a whole new generation, while the driving narrative of the doc involves a trip made by the DYFAM crew as they attempt to get an interview with Hughes -- by showing up unsolicited at his house and admittedly ambushing him. This latter element is as naive and embarrassing as you might think, but it's not entirely damaging to the doc as a whole. Or maybe I just put it into perspective against far more self-serving films, such as Mark Wexler's doc about his father, filmmaker Haskell Wexler, Tell Them Who You Are.
Also, I watched DYFAM after viewing the first half of ClarkWORLD (there was some technical difficulties via Netflix or my Wii that made me have to return to the film later), which is actually quite excruciating at times. No, there is no Christmas Story fanatic attempting to track down Bob Clark -- this film was made entirely following the filmmaker's tragic death, along with his son, in a 2007 drunk driving accident. The uncomfortableness comes instead through interviews with a number of people who acted in Clark's films, most of whom have little more to say than how great it was to work for the guy. And how much he loved food. And how enthusiastic he was. Sure, it's kind of funny seeing Jon Voight show up to discuss his roles in The Karate Dog and the two Baby Geniuses movies, but there's definitely an awkwardness to it. Same goes for the interviews with Scott Baio and Denise Richards, the latter whom at one point confuses the filmmaker with Dick Clark, despite having worked with him in some capacity on something called Blonde and Blonde.
The fact that the film gives as much attention to Clark's latter, lesser films as it does to A Christmas Story, Porky's and Black Christmas is to show that a filmmaker can be highly influential one moment and highly forgettable another moment. It's something Clark kind of shared with Hughes, among other things (let us not forget Hughes wrote Baby's Day Out). And for that it's a bit more honest than DYFAM. I only really wish that it didn't turn into an anti-drunk driving PSA during the segment on Clark's death. And that it didn't re-play the Chinese restaurant scene from A Christmas Story over and over. And that the expert voice on film criticism employed to discuss the significance of Clark's films wasn't Richard Roeper (Roeper also shows for a second in DYFAM, but that doc's main film expert is Roger Ebert). Another criticism I have is that there is some non-interview stuff in the form of visits by former Clark crew members to different locations used in Porky's. So why not continue that with trips to the Christmas Story house or any place from any of the other films? As they stand, these little aside moments are insufficient and therefore unnecessary.
As a mere coincidence, I followed those two documentaries with Two in the Wave, not even realizing that this newer work could possibly have anything to do with them. But the documentary, which premiered at Cannes last year and will open in NYC next Wednesday, surprisingly has much in common. Visually it only relates by similarly filling up the majority of its minutes with scenes from the subjects' films. However, in context, it also made me realize that this is just another film about filmmakers that I believe would have worked better as a book. You'd expect that a doc about Truffaut and Godard would be better than those on Hughes and Clark, and you'd be right in terms of the improved level of craft, especially editing, involved in the making of Two in the Wave. And the non-movie-clip footage, including old interviews with Jean-Pierre Leaud around the time of the Cannes premiere of The 400 Blows, has a more significant value as far as film history goes, I guess. But the film is very much a talky work of film history primarily centered on its voice-over narration. And just as with the two other docs, this one only made me impatient for the ending so I could just go watch the filmmakers' works rather than bits and pieces of them.
Ultimately for film buffs, I'd recommend Two in the Wave, but I can't say I really enjoyed it any more than the other two. And I doubt there is a whole lot of information presented that hardcore fans and scholars of these two masters aren't already aware of. The same might be true for fans (and scholars?) of Hughes and Clark, yet some satisfaction of those docs at least come from being able to see all the "where are they now?" interviews with people like Ilan Mitchell-Smith (Wyatt in Weird Science) and Ian Petrella (Randy in A Christmas Story). There are no recent interviews with Godard or Anna Karina or Leaud in Two in the Wave, unfortunately. Not that they'd have the same, nostalgic effect, but they might have offered substantial retrospective thoughts to contribute to the history. Maybe there are some books out there that can fill that void?