Category Archives: Documentary

My Scientology Movie (2015, John Dower)

My Scientology Movie almost ought to be called Our Scientology Movie as much of the film plays like a buddy movie between documentary filmmaker Louis Theroux and ex-Scientology chief enforcer Marty Rathbun. Theroux doesn’t want to make a buddy movie with Rathbun, he wants to go and tour the Scientology campus and interview Scientology head man David Miscavige. Who’s also Tom Cruise’s BFF. But more on Tom Cruise later.

Only Miscavige doesn’t give interviews and Theroux can’t tour the campus. So then he starts talking to the only people he can—ex-Scientologists. He meets up with an actor, Steven Mango, who used to be a member and gives Theroux some of the scoop. Rathbun comes in once Theroux comes up with a plan to make the documentary without interviews of any active Scientologists. He’s going to take existing interview footage of Miscavige (along with leaked, wacky, kind of scary really promotional videos from inside the Church) and hire actors to do scenes as Miscavige. Rathbun’s going to be there to help cast the part, since he was that aforementioned chief enforcer. He got things done for Miscavige. Like hiring private investigators to stalk people. After Rathbun fell out with Miscavige, he left the Church and wrote some tell-alls and pissed them off for years. Including during the filming of this movie. They show up to harass him, which gets to be one of the wackier ways the Church responds to the documentary. On one hand, whenever they’re dealing with Theroux without Rathbun, they threaten Theroux with made-up laws and promises to drop a dime so the cops can come out, read Theroux’s permit, leave the scene. Watching Theroux address the never-identified as Church employees Church employees is fairly disquieting, as the Church employees come off like they’re Bond henchmen. Only Blofeld never shows up. Oddjob never even shows up. Theroux’s biggest back and forth is with a woman hired to pretend to be producing a documentary about “people” and film Rathbun and Theroux from across the street.

Most of the interactions Theroux has with the Scientologists come off like candid camera moments. Not the ones Rathbun has with them—like I said, they’re chill with Theroux with Rathbun, but when Rathbun’s all alone, they go wild. Theroux’s got a reserved take on Rathbun—it’s not a functional buddies buddy flick—but Rathbun comes off really sincere. All of the ex-Scientologists do, especially when they’re trying to show Theroux how stoic they can appear (thanks to all their Church trainings).

So Theroux and Rathbun first do a casting call for Miscavige, eventually going with the utterly fantastic Andrew Perez. Theroux runs a pretty chill in-movie movie production where the actors don’t really seem to worry about much except having a good time; only Perez is always on. He’s always intense. You get to watch him prepare for this performance and then give it. His brief Miscavige “moments” are the tapioca balls in the film’s boba. They’re just so good. It’s immaterial to the film whether or not Perez nails not just “the scene” but his process leading up to it, but he always does. So good.

But even though Theroux’s getting the Church’s attention, it’s not getting him anywhere getting on campus much less an interview with Miscavige. He and Rathbun are just going to have to keep going with their reenactment production. They want a Tom Cruise, because there’s this disturbing promotional video Cruise did for the Church and it’s like couch-jumping then stopping to rip the couch apart with your bare hands and maybe bite a cushion just to be sure. Rob Alter is the Tom Cruise. He’s good too.

And Theroux’s interviewing other ex-Scientologists. One (Marc Headley) takes Theroux (and Movie) on some road trips, which then become a regular occurrence because Theroux really pisses them off whenever he shows up at the movie production company compound.

Like, it’s a Roger Moore James Bond movie. It’s like if they’d done Diamonds Are Forever with Moore. It’s goofy. Then you remember it’s real and it starts getting really scary. Because the Scientologists aren’t out to destroy the world or turn it into a giant diamond or whatever, they’re trying to save it from itself. Movie knows it has to frequently remind it’s real life. It’s not fantasy. At all.

Lawyers get involved, sending Theroux what amounts to a high school trash talk note about his new friend Rathbun. So Theroux tries to respond to the letter and can’t get anyone to take it. So the Church’s lawyers want to send trash talk notes but not receive presumably lawyerly responses?

So maybe it’s like a conspiracy movie spoof and a seventies James Bond movie.

And Theroux—despite having a lot of dry laughs—isn’t out to do a hit piece. Not an exceptional one. He doesn’t get into any rumors, any conspiracy theories, blackmail theories. There’s nothing about how Battlefield Earth is just a thin fictionalization of Church history. Theroux’s really interested in how Church founder L. Ron Hubbard saw himself as a big-time movie director because he directed the Church’s inspirational movies. Theroux’s looking for a Hollywood connection, especially since the “clearing” procedures the film shows (advised by Rathbun) often seem like acting class exercises. Theroux can’t quite get there, but when he can’t make it, it’s not like he falls back to easy targets. He does it straight and… ahem… clear. He tried to make this movie, he couldn’t for these reasons, here’s what he did.

My Scientology Movie raises a whole lot of questions and provides very few answers. Theroux, director (and co-writer) Dower, editor Paul Carlin, cinematographer Will Pugh, they make a great picture. Awesome music from Dan Jones too. Jones never takes anything too seriously and the “sci-fi movie” motif he brings back time and again is more endearing than a dig.

It’s superb.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Dower; written by Dower and Louis Theroux; director of photography, Will Pugh; edited by Paul Carlin; music by Dan Jones; production designer, Alessandro Marvelli; produced by Simon Chinn; released by Altitude Film Distribution.

Starring Andrew Perez (David Miscavige) and Rob Alter (Tom Cruise); presented by Louis Theroux.


RECENTLY

Advertisements

Hail Satan? (2019, Penny Lane)

Hail Satan? starts with a joke and ends with Satanic Temple spokesperson Lucien Greaves having to wear a kevlar vest to a rally because so many Pro-Life, Born Again Christians are making legitimate assassination threats. The opening joke is one of the first Satanic Temple rallies, when they’re goofing on Rick Scott. In the span of five years, the Temple (TST) went from being a prank to getting a theatrically released documentary. TST has gone on to become a tax exempt religion (so head to their website if you want to join and get your kid out of corporal punishment, because Satanists aren’t about any of that shit).

The documentary does a mediocre job tracking the organization’s growth. In the first “act,” as the founders recount its early history, all the interviewees are obscured because death threats from Christians. By the end, when the film’s interviewing regional chapter leaders and so on, those folks are on screen unobscured. Hopefully they’re not getting death threats from Christians.

But the film doesn’t get into the death threats. Someone mentions it before they suit up Greaves with the kevlar for what turns out to be the perfunctory finish of the film. Director Lane directs the documentary’s sporadic narrative without any structure, so it’s not like a “let’s talk about death threats” aside would fit but not talking about them also stays in line with how Lane avoids talking about opposition to the Satanic Temple.

Given the TST members define Satan as the “adversary” not the horned beast or whatnot… Hail Satan? not mentioning how the opponents to the Temple are 1) Christian, 2) dedicated to the destruction of the U.S. Constitution, 3) hypocrites, 4) bad people, 5) whatever else. There’s one montage sequence where Lane shows Christians complaining to a city council about the TST giving the daily prayer but not much else. Sure, the film shows Arkansas senator Jason Rapert as an evil fuckwit, but the guy’s objectively an evil fuckwit. Those citizens ignorantly ranting against Satanism? Lane and editors Amy Foote and Aaron Wickenden made the choice of how to present them. Including using a woman who’s apparently an ESL speaker as a joke.

Lane is more than comfortable to present the Satanic Temple as a necessary good but doesn’t get into why it’s necessary; the documentary does at least silver medal gymnastics to avoid talking about how awful American Christians treat everyone who doesn’t think like them. Lane frequently just uses a one-liner from Greaves to comment on something, which “works” because Greaves has got a great onscreen presence as an interviewee (the film relies on following him so much it ought to just follow him), but it’s a major dodge. Lane’s more than comfortable to use Megyn Kelly as a sight gag but not to actually address why Kelly is able to be used as a sight gag. Because she’s an evil white American Christian.

Of course, Lane avoids a lot of other things too. Frequent interviewee Jex Blackmore ends up excommunicated from TST (for promoting the idea of assassinating the forty-fifth president) and Lane covers it, but then seems to use pre-excommunicated interview material from Blackmore again, which doesn’t seem… right. It’s “fine” in a documentary-sense, like Blackmore signed the releases or whatever, but has her perspective changed since the excommunicating. If it hasn’t, it at least ought to be addressed. Pretty much everything Lane avoids ought to be addressed.

Because Hail Satan? only runs ninety-some minutes but the lack of structure makes it feel like two and a half hours. The middle section is just waiting for something to happen. It rarely does. When TST wins one case then loses another, Lane barely addresses the loss. She doesn’t ask her interviewees about it, she just has some quick newsreel footage.

The use of footage is another thing. It’s where Lane’s most comfortable taking jabs at American Christians, usually letting someone else do it, not the film. And Lane doesn’t have to be making a pro-TST documentary—it doesn’t start out as one (when it covers the Temple’s early shenanigans)—but it definitely ends up making one. Some of that positive light is going to be inevitable with the Satanic Temple. Their seven pillars, after all, are just about being good to one’s fellow humans. They aren’t the hateful shit stains. The hateful shit stains are the Christians, who Lane isn’t willing to address, which is the missing half of Hail Satan?

Because the movie just makes the Satanists out to be regular folk (and now a literal oppressed minority), maybe twenty-first century punk slash retro grunge is a little overrepresented but they’re basically just anti-ignorant humanists. Their opposition? Their adversary? The pro-ignorance Christians.

Who Lane takes a swipe at in the editing room with someone else’s footage, someone else’s words.

As is, Hail Satan? is two or three short documentaries lumped into a feature but about half of what it needs to be. It tries to have the Satanic Temple without its adversary and you always need to show the evil. Rapert’s a loathsome, dangerous buffoon, sure, but he’s a poor stand-in for Christianity. Hail Satan? doesn’t flesh out its villains enough; so Christian privilege even permeates a movie about how Satanists are actually the good guys.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Penny Lane; cinematography by Naiti Gámez; edited by Amy Foote and Aaron Wickenden; music by Brian McOmber; produced by Gabriel Sedgwick; released by Magnolia Pictures.


RELATED

De Palma (2015, Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow)

De Palma is director Brian De Palma talking about his films. He’s talking to the directors, Baumbach and Paltrow, but without ever addressing them by name. De Palma’s filmmakers have zero presence in the film, until the epilogue. Matt Mayer and Lauren Minnerath’s editing is magnificent, especially how they’re usually able to keep De Palma from referencing being interviewed. Because when he’s just talking, De Palma’s a natural storyteller. When he’s being interviewed, he wants to converse. He unintentionally implies De Palma has some specific layers, only it doesn’t. Because De Palma didn’t make the film.

De Palma sits in a chair and talks. He’s usually shot from a low angle and his hands gesticulate with almost three-dimensional effect. Then De Palma cuts to film clips. The film clips are fantastic. They emphasize De Palma’s most startlingly composition as a director, then also looking at his Steadicam shots.

When the film starts and De Palma is covering his student days, he’ll talk trash about people he worked with. He talks trash about Orson Welles not wanting to learn his lines, which was also a problem with Robert De Niro on The Untouchables. Only De Palma trashes Welles while making De Niro’s identical action seem cute. But there are more stories–Cliff Robertson’s no fun, John Cassavetes hates special effects–and then they stop. No more trash talk. Except the “cute” De Niro story.

There’s more focus on the technical aspects of the films and less about how De Palma got them made. It’s cool stuff.

When De Palma talks about his films, he acknowledges his divisiveness but doesn’t elaborate. He’s telling the same stories he’s always told. He’s not searching for some great introspective eureka, he’s doing an interview. He’s proud of some movies, he’s not proud of some others. Bad movies are never his fault. Pauline Kael likes him, he can’t be misogynistic. He likes some excellent classic movies. He doesn’t understand why people don’t like his movies.

De Palma’s a neat introduction to Brian De Palma movies. It’s well-produced but otherwise simply a lengthy pitch reel for De Palma.

It’s also a little dishonest. Paltrow and Baumbach shot the interview in 2010. There are clips from a 2012 film, integrated like De Palma’s talking about it. And it changes how the epilogue plays.

As far as documentary filmmaking goes, De Palma is basically a “professional” YouTube video, which is fine. At least it’s not pretentious. And De Palma’s a fun interviewee.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow; edited by Matt Mayer and Lauren Minnerath; released by A24.

Starring Brian De Palma.


RELATED

13th (2016, Ava DuVernay)

The first half of 13th is didactic–well, except when the film makes fun of interviewee Grover Norquist. There are three or four capital C Conservatives interviewees; Norquist and Gingrich are present because they’re such trolls they think they’re convincing. Gingrich is during his Black Lives Matter phase (the documentary is pre–2016 election, but still very 2016, which I need to talk about), but Norquist is just a chump. Everyone knows it and the film embraces it, maybe the only time 13th lets you have the hint of a smile.

Getting it out of the way, the other Conservative interviewees are just unknown chumps. Or worms. The sad part of reality is director DuVernay isn’t hunting down worms or chumps for these interviews (except Norquist and Gingrich, though, again, Gingrich seems to be present with a different, pre-Trump agenda); they’re just the right guys to be interviewed. Evil organizations out to ruin the United States are actually staffed with the Conservative geek out of a late nineties teen movie.

Norquist being more in line with what happens with a John Hughes bro grows up.

Anyway. I think I have that fervor out.

The first half of 13th is extremely didactic. DuVernay is guiding the film through a certain number of interviewees, through a certain bit of history. She’s also making an argument–the 13th amendment to the Constitution has been used through white supremacy to fuck up the lives of people of color, specifically Black people. And, you know, she’s right. She wins that argument the second Angela Davis comes back as an interviewee after being shown in historical footage. DuVernay doesn’t introduce Davis as a former firebrand, she’s a professor. Even if you know Angela Davis, she goes from being this beauteously interviewed academic to someone who outsmarted some significant bad guys of history in this raw historical footage.

DuVernay does a lot with historical footage, whether it’s from the teens, fifties, sixties, eighties, nineties. It’s one of 13th’s few sticking points. The footage isn’t up-converted correctly. Or it is and DuVernay is obscuring history and making memory this permeable thing, but I think it’s just not up-converted well enough.

So that first half is didactic. It’s a history lesson. It’s a thesis statement, it’s a persuasive essay. DuVernay covers 149 years of history, with more and more focus on the last fifty years as the film progresses. It has a natural narrative flow and then it stops in 2012. And DuVernay tells the audience to now apply that history to what’s going on right now. Starting with Trayvon Martin, continuing into Black Lives Matter, finishing with Trump.

Now, 13th is pre-election, another of its sticking points. Certain aspects of it feel a tad ephemeral. That first half is a lot of historical fact. Learning history, even critically thinking about that history as it affects modernity, it’s ephemeral. Film viewing is an ephemeral act. But since DuVernay’s already proved the thesis, before getting to the present day, what’s 13th doing now? It’s no longer a persuasive documentary or a didactic one. It doesn’t have a narrative. Or, is DuVernay’s narrative distance such the narrative is the viewer’s.

13th is an excellent documentary for the first ninety percent. I even enjoyed the camera manipulation in the interview after a certain point. 13th’s very accessible; DuVernay is looking at the impossibly grim, but she keeps it accessible. With profile interview shots for emphasis. It’s fine.

But then in the last ten minutes or so, DuVernay brings 13th into reality. Immediate, clear, HD reality. Everything comes together. Not just all the subjects, but the visual style of the infographics. DuVernay’s the first person I’ve ever seen the use infographics so starkly. It’s almost a rejection of the effect.

Fine photography from Hans Charles and Kira Kelly. Editor, co-producer, and co-writer Spencer Averick is best at the writing and producing. Even if the cuts to profile weren’t his idea, they’re inappropriately jarring. There’s no nuance to the cuts–good guys and bad get the same cutting. It’s off-putting. Editing is very important.

Nicely, DuVernay doesn’t use that device much in the second half so it’s win-win. She does quite a bit with the documentary medium to get the film right. 13th is outstanding.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Ava DuVernay; written by DuVernay and Spencer Averick; directors of photography, Hans Charles and Kira Kelly; edited by Averick; music by Jason Moran; produced by DuVernay, Averick, and Howard Barish; released by Netflix.


RELATED