It’s hard to watch Errol Morris’ documentary Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., in part because its subject – the titular electric-chair specialist who became a champion of Holocaust deniers after testifying on behalf of one – is so deluded as to make listening to him an ordeal. But there’s something fascinating about the story behind this misguided individual, and Morris tells it in his usual compelling way. In revisiting the film last night, I was struck by a question I asked myself: Does Leuchter realize he comes off as being willfully ignorant?
Morris’ technique, which includes using incidental music and slow motion to comment on the proceedings, often seems tongue-in-cheek, as it does in another one of his documentaries I saw recently: Tabloid, whose subject also could be construed as being misguided. In some way, this strategy detracts from the idea of letting the viewers draw their own conclusions about the individuals appearing onscreen, but it also adds flavor, context, perspective.
I kinda like it.
Other good news: Morris peppers Mr. Death with views from, happily, intelligent people who document the evidence behind Auschwitz’s use as a location to gas Jews to death during the Holocaust, which Leuchter’s poorly generated findings argued against. Still, watching this guy talk is a trial, and it’s difficult not to get frustrated with what he and other Holocaust deniers interviewed onscreen (such as David Irving) have to say. It’s a testament to Morris’ skill that he lets them speak on camera, and I appreciate that. Because how else are we to know what kinds of people we’re dealing with?
A well-done film. Just not one I want to sit through again.
I’ve seen so many good documentaries that sometimes it seems bad ones don’t exist.
Well, it’s not true. Case in point: American Wine Story, a tedious, unfocused attempt to look at a number of American winemakers who left unrelated jobs to pursue their dream of crafting vino. Written and directed by David Baker, this film features unnecessary animation, stilted narration and some of the worst incidental music I’ve ever heard in a documentary – a droning, repetitious sequence of sonorities that doesn’t belong anywhere near a movie reel.
Yeah. I think it’s clear that I didn’t like this picture.
The subject itself can be intriguing, and the flick tries to show how fascinating the talking heads onscreen are, but it doesn’t succeed. At one point, if I recall correctly, one of them even indicates that she has never had an uninteresting conversation with a person in winemaking … at which I suggested to the television that she should watch this movie. When you hear about five people recount the best wine they’ve ever tasted in wistful tones, you know you’re in for a dreary hour-plus of film watching.
So, in sum: not a well-done documentary. Which is an anomaly in a month during which I’ve viewed more compelling pictures such as Tabloid and Searching for Sugar Man. I guess every time period is bound to have its cinematic disappointments. The only thing to do is watch a better movie to clear my mind of the worse one.
That I can easily do.
I like Errol Morris’ documentaries. He’s not my favorite director, but he picks interesting subjects and films them creatively.
Tabloid is no exception. A Morris-helmed documentary about the adventures of Joyce McKinney – a supposedly all-American gal who captured the loins of the British press in the 1970s by allegedly abducting and sexifying a Mormon boyfriend whilst in the United Kingdom – the film offers an intriguing, sometimes tongue-in-cheek look at a very smart, possibly disturbed woman and the bizarre life she once led. Interviewees include McKinney and a couple of British tabloiders who worked on the story back in the day, who provide a variety of opinions and perspectives. The movie does leave things relatively ambiguous as to who is the wronged party, and it’s a credit to Morris that it does so.
A few issues: Some of the edits aren’t seamless, leaving wide swaths of black screen before jumping to the next scene. And then there is the humorous commentary, consisting of certain words blown up to immense proportions on camera, as well as old footage meant to shed light on amusing or telling situations. I think the film would’ve worked better without these bells and whistles; it would’ve seemed more impartial, allowing us to draw our own conclusions.
Nevertheless, it’s an interesting documentary – another strange, beguiling piece of filmmaking by a very inventive director. He’s got quite a strong portfolio right now. I’d be curious to see what he adds to it.
It turns out that I didn’t watch Searching for Sugar Man at dinnertime tonight, as I originally predicted.
I watched it before that, in the early afternoon.
And what a film it is. The story of the hunt for 1970s musician Sixto Rodriguez – who made a huge impression in South Africa but hardly any commercial impact in the United States – Searching for Sugar Man is a terrific documentary about failure and success … about a man who seemingly doesn’t crave glory or riches, but is content to live a generally quiet life despite his fame across the pond. This movie is directed superbly by Malik Bendjelloul and is packed with classic Rodriguez tunes, all of which I hadn’t heard before. They lend themselves well to the film, which features plenty of fascinating interviews with Rodriguez’s colleagues, fans and family, as well as the man himself.
I felt that this was a sad picture, despite the fact that it has a happy ending. But then my wife asked me why I should feel that way, and I started to think differently. So what if Rodriguez doesn’t revel in the trappings of fame and fortune, like many other celebrities? Is it a fault to live so simply, to – seemingly – want so little? Perhaps it’s just an indication of what kind of man Rodriguez is: a person who doesn’t gravitate to the same things most of us do. Does that make him a tragic figure?
I guess it doesn’t. It actually makes him triumphant. Which the film is as well. I’m happy to have seen it, heard the songs. And I’m happy there are people out there like Rodriguez. He really made this Searching worthwhile.