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Tag Archives: documentary

Children of the Pyre (2008): “If you look at a corpse long enough, it gets into your head.”

Children of the Pyre (Rajesh S. Jala, 2008)

Two of the movie's titular children, running with a stolen burial shawl, adorn the movie poster.

Fluttering in the breeze.
photo credit:

I’m a big fan of horror movies. Not because they scare me; maybe a half-dozen horror movies have done that in the past forty years, but because they are, in the main, a paradoxical escape from the horrors of reality. Horror movies are predictable, conventional creatures for the most part, as much a slave to their internal mores as romance novels. I haven’t seen a horror movie that’s truly scared me in over a decade. On the other hand, I can think of two documentaries just off the top of my head that I’ve seen in the past two years that have been far more disturbing than any horror film. This is one of them. (The other is Modify.)

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Mule-Skinner Blues (2002): I Don’t Ever Want Another DUI

Mule-Skinner Blues (Stephen Earnhart, 2002)

[originally posted 4Feb2002]

The movie's proposed giant ape-like monster, Beany Anderson standing atop it, adorns the movie poster.

Standing on the shoulders of giant…somethings.
photo credit: IMDB

I’m wondering who’s written the reviews I’ve been reading, and whether they’re plants from the production company. Or I would be if the reviews I’ve been reading weren’t uniformly worse than the one I’m about to give this engaging, twisted little documentary. The film is relentlessly compared to Errol Morris’ classic first film, Gates of Heaven. That’s a reach, especially when there’s another, far more obvious, basis of comparison sitting right in front of the face of any reviewer of documentaries on the planet: American Movie. You’d have to be braindead to have seen American Movie and not catch the similarities here: Mule-Skinner Blues is about a bunch of scary, dysfunctional trailer-park residents who are trying to scrape together the cash to make a no-budget indie short horror film. Sound familiar? Of course it does. Sound like Gates of Heaven? Uh…

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Genetic Chile (2010): A Hill of Beans

Genetic Chile (Christopher Dudley, 2010)

The title is superimposed over apicture of a pile of New Mexico chiles on the DVD box.

Wear latex gloves when cutting.
photo credit:

Christopher Dudley’s 2010 documentary Genetic Chile is at least honest enough to put itself out there as a “war on ideas” movie from the get-go. (Compared to, say, Hot Coffee, which starts out looking like it’s going to focus on the Stella Liebeck case before unreasonably broadening its horizons.) I mean, maybe it’s me, but it was impossible for me to look at that title and think anything other than “this is an anti-GMO movie.” And then I sat down to watch it, and I got exactly what I expected to get. As I am somewhat aggressively pro-GMO, I attempted as best I could to divorce my feelings about the subject matter from the presentation; after all, I have in the past been perfectly willing to approach movies whose subject matter I find distasteful with an open mind, and if they present their case well, recommend them, sometimes strongly. (The most recent example: Chasing Ice.) Still, I’d advise you to take what I have to say about Genetic Chile with a grain of salt, especially since (a) I also had the pleasure of watching this on a seven-inch phone screen, which is not a mode of playback for a feature-length film that I would wish on my worst enemy, and (b) I was floating in a wonderful dilaudid haze for about half the movie’s barely-over-feature-length runtime, as I was in the hospital when I saw it (viz. my review of Shank, above).

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The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (1994): Darling, Its Better Down Where It’s Wetter

The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (Ray Muller, 1994)

[originally posted 2Nov2001]

A montage with Riefenstahl in the foreground, Hitler in the background, and the masses behind them adorns the VHS cover.

photo credit: IMDB

First, let’s get something straight. An artist’s intentions are secondary, to say the least, to the intentions of the viewer. (That’s how Jesse Helms can say “I don’t know what pornography is, but I know it when I see it,” I can say the same thing, and both of us can be accurate despite having thoroughly different subsets of what constitutes pornography in our heads.) That said, the “is/was Leni Riefenstahl a Nazi?” question is quite simply irrelevant all the way around, and is hereby dispensed with.

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A Band Called Death (2012): A Film Called Life

A Band Called Death (Mark Covino and Jeff Howlett, 2012)

A publicity still of the band, overlaid with the film's tagline "before there was punk, there was Death", adorns the movie poster.

Death most certainly does not equal silence.
photo credit:

If you are still somehow half-convinced that there is justice in the record industry, and that what you hear on the radio is the cream of the crop from among the many thousands of submissions to record companies, here is the movie that will finally show you what things are really like. In the early to mid-seventies, Death, a band formed by three African-American brothers in the slums of Detroit, toiled in perfect obscurity for five years. They released one 7” single and recorded the masters for an album; they had been signed to Arista, and things were looking up. But then, the album never got released because Arista’s A&R guy had a problem with the band’s name, which guitarist David Hackney refused to change. As a result, Death were never heard outside one Detroit rock station who briefly played the single the boys had self-released, and they became a footnote in rock history that no one referenced… until 2008, when a copy of the band’s 7” showed up on an Atlanta music blog, and all the sudden the Internet realized that these were the guys who invented punk. Before the Ramones, before the Pistols, there was Death, and they made some of the best punk rock you will ever hear.

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Degenerate Art: The Art and Culture of Glass Pipes (2011): Everybody Move to Canada and Smoke Lots of Pot

Degenerate Art: The Art and Culture of Glass Pipes (Marble Slinger, 2011)

A glassmaker fashions a bulb on the movie's poster.

Fire one up.
photo credit:

Here’s another one I swear I wrote a review for, but I can’t find any evidence that it exists; I seem to have dreamed it. Thankfully, if it was a dream, I remember most of what I’d written.

Here’s rule number one: you cannot start your movie bitching about your art not being taken seriously outside drug culture and then spend the rest of a documentary glorifying said art within drug culture and expect to be taken seriously in any way. That, unfortunately, is the exact tack taken by Degenerate Art: The Art and Culture of Glass Pipes, which in the rest of the world we call bongs. One of the interviewees towards the beginning of the film goes on for what seems like hours, but is probably only forty-five seconds or so, about how glass pipemaking is a legitimate art that deserves to be recognized for something other than being vessels in which to pack one’s marijuana and get stoned. And really, the man’s got a point; like any glassblowing, there is a great deal of skill involved in the making of glass bongs, and the makers tend towards bright colors and fantastical designs, for what (to me, anyway) are quite obvious reasons.

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When We Were Kings (1996): Stumble in the Jungle

When We Were Kings (Leon Gast, 1996)

[originally posted 18Jun2001]

A close-up of Muhammad Ali's sweaty face adorns the movie poster.

Float like a butterfly, sweat like a pig.
photo credit: Wikipedia

Taylor Hackford, the director behind such interesting and absorbing fare as An Officer and a Gentleman and Dolores Claiborne, bankrolled this film and allowed Leon Gast to direct. One assumes Gast took them helm because he’d already done a documentary about B. B. King’s attachment to the events in question twenty-odd years before. Big mistake.
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