On May 24, 1971, the BBC program New Horizons ran a documentary about the new youth culture under the title “The Alternative Society.” Rather than make jokes at the expense of empty-headed young hippies, the segment, which runs about 22 minutes in this video (although it is missing both the start and the end) chose to seek the validity in the new generation’s need to communicate, experiment with illegal drugs, create new fashions and music, create social services separate from those provided by the state, and so on.
Featured in the show are several important figures from the U.K. counterculture scene who have popped up on DM before. For instance, the man addressing the camera in the opening sequence is Richard Neville, whose groundbreaking underground newspaper OZ has been highlighted at DM severaltimes.
Caroline Coon, an artist, music journalist and activist (who was featured in the documentary She’s a Punk Rocker) is interviewed as the founder of Release, which was a parallel organization to NORML in the U.S., providing legal services to those charged with drug possession. In the years to come she would become romantically involved with Paul Simonon of the Clash (she briefly managed the group) and serve as technical advisor on the cult punk movie Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains.
The narrator of “The Alternative Society” is Harvey Matusow, an extremely interesting fellow who was primarily known as being an FBI informer in the 1950s but worked with people in the Fluxus movement and not long after this documentary got involved with a hippie commune called Brotherhood of the Spirit. Always a joiner (or something), in the late 1970s he became a Mormon and took on the name Job Matusow.
Last night before diving greedily back into binge watching Daredevil, I was extremely happy to see that Netflix was streaming Toby Amies’ 2013 documentary, The Man Whose Mind Exploded—and even featuring it prominently on their “new releases” homepage. I first saw the film last summer and it was easily one of the very best things I saw last year, as I enthusiastically related to our readership at the time. However, at that point to actually see the film yourself, you’d have had to have gone to the iTunes store, something that I’m reasonably sure that only a tiny percentage of you bothered doing… I know, I know, give me convenience or give me death. Although it’s difficult to imagine too many things easier than simply downloading something as you just sit on your ass otherwise, now that Netflix is ready to pump this extraordinary film right into your home like water or gas with the mere push of a button or two, you’ve got no excuse. I wanted to republish this interview with Toby Amies from 2015 to get this film on our readers’ radar screens again, in hopes that they’ll be watching it later tonight on their HDTV screens. We’re in the Age of Consumer Enlightenment, people. Why not take full advantage of the modern world before President Trump starts World War III?
Anyway, I think it’s very safe to say that you’ve never seen a story like this one before.
The titular focus of Toby Amies’ extraordinary, sensitive and lyrical 2013 documentary, The Man Whose Mind Exploded is one Drako Zarharzar, who is, when we meet him, 76 years old, exotic, theatrical and utterly flamboyant, but due to brain injury, he cannot remember much of anything about his long and eventful life. He “knows” for instance, that he knew—and posed for—Salvador Dali and that he once had a career onstage in show business, but he doesn’t remember what happened yesterday. Or who someone is from one day to the next.
Drako lived “completely in the now,” his mind unable to create new memories, a condition called “anterograde amnesia.” In order to get around this obviously monumental handicap, he created a 3D collage—a sprawling, kaleidoscopic, pornographic hoarder’s mobile hanging from string around his tiny, unhygienic flat in Brighton—to compensate. When one entered Drako’s cave-like dwelling, they were in effect entering his autobiography and mind. Additionally he modified his own body with Memento-like tattoos, including his motto/philosophy “TRUST ABSOLUTE UNCONDITIONAL” which was how he saw—or at least coped with—the outside world as he encountered it.
The Man Whose Mind Exploded, beyond being a moving portrait of an extremely eccentric (and unwell, yet happy) character facing life against such daunting headwinds, brings up all kinds of philosophical notions about time, memory (or complete lack thereof) and gives the viewer a great sense of empathy for what it’s like to care for someone who literally cannot remember who you are each time they encounter you.
The soundtrack, which is gorgeous, was done by Adam Peters (who I think is a musical genius).
I asked Toby Amies—who you might recall from MTV in the 1990s—some questions via email.
Richard Metzger: How did you meet and befriend Drako?
Toby Amies: I first saw Drako in Kemptown in Brighton, he swished past me on his bike in a cape like a Surrealist superhero! Then I met him properly through a mutual friend David Bramwell when I made a film for his band Oddfellow’s Casino that starred Drako. When I saw inside Drako’s extraordinary and bizarre home, where every room was filled with a sprawling 3D autobiographical collage, it reminded me of the so-called “outsider” art I’d seen and studied in the US. Ever since visiting S.P. Dinsmoor’s “Garden of Eden” in Lucas, Kansas I’ve long been fascinated with what I call “automonuments” where people, usually men, build tributes to themselves, but there was something very sweet and intimate about Drako’s home work, as it was designed to remind him of his self.
Drako and Toby Amies
Yes, he’s a bit of an outsider interior decorator, isn’t he? How long before you started visiting him with a camera? Was he okay and cooperative about you making a film from the start?
I began filming him on the second day I met him. Initially it was disconcerting, because of his mantra “Trust Absolute Unconditional,” he would happily agree to anything that we asked him. And this made it obvious to me from the start that there was a tremendous responsibility associated in working with someone who had chosen to believe, as a result of brain damage, in a completely benevolent universe. The onus was on us to make sure we did right by him. There were times when Drako clearly tired of my questions, and in one instance this is recorded in the film. Because I’d made a radio documentary about him first, we contacted his immediate family and his closest friend to ensure that we had a consensus that it was okay by the people who cared most about him that we were recording and documenting him. Consequently this tight community of concerned individuals became part of the film, because one of the things it explores is what our responsibility is towards someone who may not be able to care for themselves, and from a filmic point of view they are exceptional, funny and kind people.
Although there is the Salvador Dali story that he keeps repeating, and the photo of him in the singing group, there’s precious little of Drako’s past life and career that’s touched upon in the film. Was this a deliberate decision on your part, to keep Drako, as it were tabula rasa and in his “eternal now” for the audience, or was it more a matter of him having precious few memories of his past that he could even tell you about?
In the early stage of the editing we found that much of the biographical material was interesting from a cultural and historical point of view but looked like pretty boring cinema, or, as I call it: “television.” What was much more compelling to me and my editor Jim Scott was the actuality, the experience of being in Drak’s never-ending now. Film is such a great medium for communicating the emotional immediacy of a situation and I wanted to make the audience feel what I felt in visiting that bizarre and wonderful environment, though no film, could come close to the olfactory experience of that place, it would defeat even the greatest practitioners of Odorama. The biographical elements that remain are usually there to provide context to understand the comedy, battles and struggles that happen in the moment. Drako’s memory worked in such a way that whilst he had access to memories of events that happened before the accident that damaged his hippocampus, he remembered them in a way that seems more biographical than autobiographical. And also he would often tell the same story in exactly the same way no matter the circumstance. Often ending it with a very sweet “Did I tell you that already?”
He might have lost part of his memory but his manners were always immaculate and likewise his sense of humour was always present. That became the foundation of our friendship, our ability to make each other laugh, and what better version of “the now” is there than two people laughing with each other? Those were the moments I wanted to record and share, the ones where the greatest empathy is possible. In making the film I was very careful never to present Drako as an object except when we see others react to him on the street. It was important to keep the audience’s relationship with him subjective, even though to many folk he might look weird and behave in a bizarre manner, I wanted to make sure he was included in our definition of what it is to be human whilst expanding the possibilities of that definition a little. In other words, he’s one of us, but broadens the definition of “us” in the process.
The body modification and tattooing that he was into—is this something that happened before or after the events that stole his memory?
Even though when I knew him, Drako was in the process of externalising his memory to compensate for the loss of inside his mind, hence the film’s title, I think it’s fair to say that he had started the writing of his story on himself long before. Some of his tattoos were to remind him of things said to him in a coma, but most were there before, and he was a pioneer in piercing and extreme tattooing long before they became ubiquitous. His superb “ram fucking the moon” body tattoo was done by the properly legendary Alex Binnie. Even though I didn’t meet him then I am pretty sure Drako and I were first in the same room together at the Stainless Steel Ball, a get together organized by the Piercing Association of the UK in Brighton, waaaay back in the day.
Do you think that it was in fact brain damage that caused his perpetual sunny outlook on life?
Well, I can only offer an opinion, but following a conversation with our superb Neuropsychological Consultant Professor Martin Conway I wondered whether Drako had in a sense hypnotized himself to cope with the loss of so much of what he used to take for granted. As his friend Mim suggests in the film, perhaps the mantra, said to him in his second coma: “Trust Absolute Unconditional” had transformed from a question into an answer. This upset me for a bit, the idea that Drako had to hypnotise himself to happiness, but then I thought about the meaningless of my existence as I hurtle down the shrinking highway of my life towards inevitable death; and I thought don’t we all in some sense hypnotize ourselves into thinking that in spite of our grim fate there is still a point, of our own invention, to life, in spite of death? Also as his nephew Marc says, within his ability to do so, Drako lived how he wanted, and did exactly what he wanted to do, without harming anyone else in the process, which is a lifestyle that would make most folk happy I reckon.
When you pointedly ask him if he remembers you, he says that he doesn’t, that “you’re new every time.” Did you have to establish who you were each time you visited him or did he kind of recall you after a while? Like when his sister arrives after some time and starts speaking French to him, he seems to immediately know who is speaking and responds enthusiastically (without seeing her, she’s on the intercom outside of his flat)
There was a good lesson there for me—even though I knew Drako had a unique mind and had suffered serious brain trauma, who the fuck was I to decide how consistent his memory loss should be? I had the sense that he had a rough idea of who I was after several visits and was comforted to see my name appear on notes in the house, but then there were moments even late in the relationship where I was clearly someone new. I dealt with that by thinking that pretty much any opportunity that teaches you how little you matter in a wider context than your own head is helpful, and by following Drako’s lead and trying to be as present as possible in the moment. That made the filming intense, difficult, and exciting, a kind of improvisational theatre that put my background as a photographer and TV presenter to effective use. Drako still had access to memories from before his accident, but could not record ones effectively afterwards. He described it in terms of a magnetic tape machine, the playback head works, but the record doesn’t. So Anne existed for him but the time they spent together didn’t so much. Perhaps that ended up being harder for the people who wanted him to remember the time they had together, their shared narrative, than for Drako himself. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I made the film, to preserve and share my part of that extraordinary story.
Ten years ago I was at a garage sale with my husband Steven in our hometown of Nottingham, England. On a stall filled with cheap ornaments and dog-eared paperbacks, standing proudly at the front of a box of faded vinyl records, we found this album:
Orion: Reborn. Sun Records. Collector’s gold vinyl. Release date on the back said 1979. No songs we’d ever heard of, but that cover… Who was this mysterious masked man, standing hand on hips, with his perfect raven hair and sta-press trousers? What the hell was his story?
We took the record home, put it on and within seconds the mystery deepened. Whoever this guy was, he sounded exactly–and I mean exactly—like Elvis. Except these weren’t songs that Elvis ever recorded, and there was no mention of the King on the record. But there was the fact of Sun Records and this odd story on the back sleeve about this guy called Orion Eckley Darnell and something about a coffin, and a book… Most of all, though, there was this guy in the blue rhinestone-studded mask with the voice of Elvis. I had to know more.
The story I uncovered was one of the strangest I’ve ever encountered. As a documentary-maker, I’ve long been fascinated with stories that peek under the surface of popular culture and the machinations of the music industry, or explore just how important music is in our lives. Stories like The Great Hip Hop Hoax–about two Scottish chancers who faked their way to a record deal by pretending to be American rappers; SOUND IT OUT about the very last record shop in my home town in Teesside or Goth Cruise a documentary about 150 goths (along with 2500 “norms”) taking a cruise in the sunshine to Bermuda.
But this story had it all. A roller coaster tale of the Nashville music scene in the wake of Elvis Presley’s death, taking in deception, a quest for success, a search for identity and ending in brutal and tragic murder.
Even if you’ve never heard of Orion, you probably know about the “Elvis is Alive” myth. What I uncovered was that the story of Orion is the story of how that myth got started. In the marketing offices of Sun Records, maverick producer Shelby Singleton came up with the plan to utilize the incredible pipes of Alabama singer Jimmy Ellis – a voice which was both a blessing and a curse to the singer. Ellis had found it hard to get a solid foothold in the industry because of the similarity of his voice to Elvis’ –a similarity which was wholly unpracticed. Jimmy didn’t try to sound like Elvis, he just did. That made it hard for any record company to use him.
Shelby had already tried one tack, dubbing Jimmy Ellis’ vocals uncredited onto the Jerry Lee Lewis tracks in the Sun catalog, releasing the recording under the name of Jerry Lee Lewis “and friends.” He’d leave it up to the audience to come to the conclusion –if they saw fit—that it might just be a previously unheard recording from the depths of the Sun vaults. After all, it sounded just like Elvis…
“I was born in Sun Records, in the studio.”
But it wasn’t until Shelby came across a novel by Georgia writer Gail Brewer Giorgio that the stars aligned for Jimmy Ellis. Orion was the story of the world’s greatest rock star and how he fakes his own death. As a character, her “Orion” was not a million miles away from a certain Memphis-dwelling King. It was a fantasy that so easily could be true. A fantasy that could be made true… In a move that Shelby himself later described as “part madman, part genius,” Sun Records put a mask on Jimmy Ellis, rechristened him “Orion” and unleashed him on an unsuspecting world. In Jimmy Ellis, Shelby had “The Voice.” And the book gave him a name, and a backstory.
A copy of the letter announcing the name “ORION” for the first time. The mask was the beginning of the Orion mystery.
In May of 1979, one month after his announcement of the imminent arrival of “ORION,” Shelby Singleton sent the first single to the radio stations. The cuts were “Ebony Eyes” and “Honey,” but there was no label on either side. Shelby wanted to build the mystery. The voice was the thing. He knew that the moment they heard that voice, they would have a million questions. And they’d want to see the mouth it came from…
Orion’s first album was readied – but hit controversy when there were complaints about the depiction of the masked singer appearing to rise from the dead from an open casket. (It was replaced by the blue cover above, which was later to catch my eye.)
Orion was now out in the world. Performing across America, always in the mask, always in character (legend was that Shelby would fine Jimmy if he were caught not wearing the mask at any time). And the crowds came. Hundreds and thousands of them, many coming for that voice–and many simply coming for the fantasy, the fantasy that the thin mask kept precariously in place. But for Jimmy, it was a frustrating ride.
Orion traveled the world while on Sun–including, bizarrely, performing with Kiss in Germany—putting out seven albums on Sun in just five years, but Jimmy hated the mask; the gimmick that provided the all-important mystery was ultimately a trap. He could never be himself.
“Look Me Up”
When the gimmick wore thin, Ellis discarded the mask. The fragile spell was broken – but Jimmy was free. However, he struggled to step out of the shadow of Presley and the voice he was “blessed and cursed” with. He tried out many different identities – Ellis James, Mister E – he put the mask back on, then took it off again - but he never really found the same bright spotlight again.
Note the presentation by David Lynch. Lynch actually had nothing whatsoever to do with the film, but allowed his name to be used for promotion.
The famous myth about the 1994 documentary Crumb is that director Terry Zwigoff only got Robert Crumb to agree to make it because Zwigoff threatened to kill himself if Crumb didn’t participate. This was a legendary miscommunication that stemmed from a comment made by Zwigoff describing the intense nine years of production. During that time, Zwigoff was living off of “about $200 a month and living with back pain so intense that I spent three years with a loaded gun on the pillow next to my bed, trying to get up the nerve to kill myself.” It’s from this statement that Roger Ebert clarified the film may have saved Zwigoff’s life, meaning that his obsession with completing the film might’ve tempered his suicidal impulses.
Although Zwigoff and Crumb actually were very good friends at the time the film as made (they still are and once even played in a 1920s-style string band together), it is true that Crumb was hesitant to make the film, and it’s easy to see why. While Crumb has always portrayed himself as a sort of deviant/pervert/degenerate, he is most definitely the most normal one in his family. The Crumb boys grew up with a pill-addicted mother and a violent alcoholic father. Crumb also features Robert Crumb’s brothers, Maxon and Charles and both come off like victims of parental-inflicted PTSD.
Charles—a brilliant artist in his own right and R. Crumb’s childhood artistic collaborator—identified as a pedophile, and though he never acted on his urges, he refused to leave his mother’s house. He committed suicide by overdose in 1993. Maxon Crumb is more functional, and a talented painter (as per the family genre, he portrays incredibly disturbing sexual subjects like incest and abuse). Despite his own sexual obsessions, Maxon remains celibate, as he believes sex causes him seizures, although he admits to molesting women and girls.
In spite of all this, it’s an incredibly moving portrait of an artist—and there is grateful sense of relief at the film’s end, when R. Crumb and his family leave behind Maxon, Charles and their mother for France.
Musician/actor Michael Des Barres has worn many hats over his decades-long career. As a vocalist, he’s fronted such acts as the Power Station, filling in for the departed Robert Palmer on their lone US tour (with a high profile appearance at Live Aid), and the highly underrated Silverhead, one of the finest groups of the glam rock era. He’s also released a handful of solo albums, including Somebody Up There Likes Me, a neglected LP that deserved better. His biggest success (in the form of royalties) has been as songwriter, having co-penned “Obsession,” a worldwide hit for ‘80s synth-pop act Animotion. In addition, he’s a talented character actor, most known for his recurring role as TV villain Murdoc on Macgyver. His versatility is acknowledged in the title of the fabulous documentary, Michael Des Barres: Who Do You Want Me To Be?, which is currently making the film festival rounds. Dangerous Minds got in touch with the director of the documentary, J. Elvis Weinstein, and asked him some questions via email.
How did you come to know Michael’s work?:
Weinstein: The first time I came to know Michael as a musician was when he joined the Power Station, but I recognized him from TV roles at the time. I was a TV junkie as a kid. He lived in my head as a trivia question for many years. I’d always notice him in TV and movie roles.
The many faces of Murdoc.
How and when did you approach Michael about making a documentary about him? Was he open to the idea or did it take some convincing?:
Weinstein: We met several years ago working on a TV series, me a as writer/producer, he as a cast member. We spoke about writing a book and even did some interviews at the time, but it never materialized. Then a few years ago, we ended up guests on the same radio show and I mentioned we should have done a documentary instead of a book. There was instant agreement; we were shooting within three weeks.
What drove you to make the documentary?:
Weinstein: I knew that there was a great story to be told and that there were things I could learn for myself from telling it.
Michael appears open and frank during the interview segments in the film. Were you surprised by anything he told you? One of the things I learned from watching the film is that Silverhead was really Michael’s project and the other members were hired guns—I never knew!:
Weinstein: Michael was very generous in his willingness to examine and re-examine his life as honestly as possible through this process. I think he realized very early on that I wasn’t striving for a sensationalistic telling of the story but rather a very human one.
As for surprises, I don’t have any specific ones that jump out. While Silverhead were hired musicians, they quickly became a very collaborative and tightly-knit band. Michael was very much the leader but the sound evolved from the players.
Vogue’s 1992 grunge feature, “Grunge & Glory,” becasue nothing says “grunge” like Naomi Campbell in Perry Ellis!
The “grunge speak” hoax of 1992 may be the greatest youth culture response to unwanted media hype in the history of “shut up, old man!” A reporter for The New York Times was working on a grunge story for its Style of the Times section—a little exposé on the scene’s hip, new slang. Trouble is, there really wasn’t such thing as a grunge slang, so when the Times contacted Sub Pop Records receptionist, she just made up a bunch of silly shit. The result was a comically ridiculous list of phony jargon titled “Lexicon of Grunge: Breaking the Code.” When Thomas Frank over at The Baffler pointed out that no one was calling anyone a “cob nobbler” or a “lamestain,” the Times was so miffed that they demanded Frank apologize before finally realizing they’d been had.
Like the grunge speak hoax, Hype! is a fascinating record of the grunge phenomenon, specifically because it’s about the tension between the scene and the media. The bands themselves tell the story (and I mean nearly all the bands—Mudhoney, Nirvana, Soundgarden, The Gits, The Melvins, Mono Men, Pearl Jam, 7 Year Bitch and a host of less famous acts), and though there is a genuine love for the Seattle scene and the community it produced, there is already a bitter awareness of grunge’s fate. Members of 7 Year Bitch point out the sexism of the coverage women in bands receive, Eddie Vedder expresses anguish over the immediate commercialization of the grunge phenomenon and the discomfort of living the shadow of Kurt Cobain looms large for many bands.
Far from the bitter, childish personas so often associated with angry young people and their guitars, the subjects of Hype! are thoughtful and clear-eyed, still professing a genuine love for the music and the organic nature of the scene, despite the obvious reality that Grunge has been thoroughly appropriated for mass consumption.
In a 1995 interview with Rolling Stone, Mick Jagger admitted that Their Satanic Majesties Request wasn’t a particularly good album. Interviewer Jann Wenner actually compared it to Spinal Tap, and perhaps unable to deny the resemblance to “Listen to the Flower People,” Jagger answered, “Really, I know.”
However the hippie-dippy experimentation of 60s Stones is in no way their most Spinal Tap era—that would be the mid-70s. In 1975 Jagger would ride a giant inflatable phallus onstage. In ‘76, they released Black and Blue with the very Smell the Glove-reminiscent advertisement you see above; the feminist group Women Against Violence Against Women protested until it was removed from the Sunset Boulevard billboard it adorned. The tour that promoted Black and Blue was a singularly debauched affair, complete with elaborate riders and highly specific luxury travel demands.
This 1976 mini-doc is a great record of the period, with footage of the band, crew and adoring fans. Highlights include a crew member trying to explain the inflatable pee-pee stage design; watching Mick and Bianca taking pulls off a champagne bottle celebrating their fifth wedding anniversary; a short Keith Richards makeup tutorial, and a surprisingly candid Charlie Watts reflecting on his ambivalence towards fame. There is a tension to the film. A fan made the Beatles/Stones comparison, despite the Beatles being long gone at this point, and the the interviewer actually questioned the band on a final album.
Nirvana fans worldwide were devastated, when on April 8th, 1994, Kurt Cobain was found dead. Adding to the distress, it was revealed he took his own life, dying from a self-inflicted shotgun wound. Over 20 years later, a new documentary, Soaked in Bleach, examines the possibility that Cobain’s shocking death wasn’t due to a suicide, but a homicide.
Largely told through information provided by private investigator Tom Grant, writer/producer/director Benjamin Statler takes another look at the case. Grant was hired by Cobain’s wife, Courtney Love, in April 1994, supposedly to find Kurt after he went missing following a stint in rehab. Almost immediately after taking the case, red flags started popping up, and Grant began recording all the conversations he had with Love and others. Statler airs selections from those audio recordings, along with interviews with Grant, various law enforcement experts, and friends of Cobain’s, taking the viewer down a path that is revelatory and often chilling. I was surprised to learn of all the myths we’ve taken as truth in regards to the crime scene, how much the media played a role in disseminating this misinformation, and just how badly the Seattle police department bungled the case. Statler also filmed several recreations, and while such a technique can often appear cheesy and cheap looking, here they are highly effective and stylistically pleasing.
Kurt in 1994
So if Kurt Cobain was murdered, who did it and why? In Soaked in Bleach, all roads lead to Courtney Love. Kurt was planning to divorce her and was drafting a new will at that time of his death; the two had signed a prenuptial agreement and Courtney had a lot to lose financially if the couple divorced. She’s portrayed, often through recordings of her own voice, as being highly manipulative and contradictory. In the documentary, she’s all but accused of orchestrating Cobain’s murder, which will surely be a stretch for many, while others will find it impossible to deny the possibility after watching the film. It’s worth noting that Love has yet to file a defamation lawsuit against Statler, nor Grant, who’s been pursuing the case, publicizing his findings—and his interpretations of those findings—for decades. (including his appearance in Nick Broomfield’s Kurt & Courtney documentary of 1998). Her lawyers did send Statler cease and desist letters and recently threatened theatre owners set to screen Soaked in Bleach, but no further action was taken.
Kurt and Courtney
Though the documentary is one-sided, and Statler doesn’t offer conclusive proof of foul play, what’s presented does raise many questions. One indication that Kurt’s death may have been a homicide is the unusually large amount of heroin found in his bloodstream. In the below clip from Soaked in Bleach, the query is put forth that if Kurt did inject the quantity of heroin that’s been stated (the toxicology report is still sealed by law), how could have he possibly fired that shotgun?
Soaked in Bleach will be released on DVD on August 14th. Watch the trailer and pre-order the disc via MVD or Amazon.
In 1974 Norman Mailer wrote an essay for Esquire called “The Faith of Graffiti”—a gripping and sympathetic investigation on the defacement of public and private property as an urban art movement of complex and fascinating depth. Mailer’s work eventually produced two collaborative pictorial books—The Faith of Graffiti and Watching My Name Go By. The beauty of tagging and graffiti art is almost taken for granted today, especially since artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat legitimized the genre to the art world in both its unlawful execution and its distinctive aesthetic, but Mailer was doing something new by recording the phenomenon as an organic outpouring of artistic expression, and this short 1976 documentary—also named “Watching My Name Go By”—is equally open-minded in its portrayal of graffiti artists and their critics.
The documentary isn’t just mindless cheerleading either; time is given to community members who hate seeing their city constantly vandalized (though quite a few also admire the work), and on some level you have to feel bad for the public servants charged with cleaning up after the kids. At the same time, no one is shocked by it; in addition to the graffitists’ own reflections on their craft, the “civilian” interviewees offer thoughtful insights on the phenomenon. There is a certain amount of juvenile nihilism of course, but some theorize this outlet of masculine delinquency as youthful rebellion. One official points out that graffiti isn’t a practice relegated to “minorities” or “kids from broken homes,” and from the accounts of the kids themselves, the graffiti “craze” appears to be appealing most of all as a hobby, rather than a denouncement of society or conscious act of dissent.
”The most extraordinary film I’ve seen in my life is certainly ‘Portrait of Jason.’ It is absolutely fascinating.”—Ingmar Bergman
During a winter night in 1966, director Shirley Clarke brought her friend, Jason Holliday, to her apartment atop the Chelsea Hotel in New York City and filmed him for twelve consecutive hours. Over the course of the evening, Jason drinks and gets high as he tell stories of his life as a gay, African-American man. Clarke took the footage and edited it down to 95 minutes, resulting in Portrait of Jason (1967). In the film, Jason is charming, entertaining, funny, contradictory, and boorish. His stories concerning class, race, sexuality, and identity alternate between humorous and tragic, all told by a man who appears larger than life.
Portrait of Jason is a landmark film. In this setting, an individual was allowed to simply tell his story over the course of a film’s standard running time. Its cinéma vérité style brings to mind Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests, as well as the films of John Cassavetes, but Clarke’s work is a truly unique movie experience. This mainly has to do with Jason Holliday (a/k/a Aaron Payne), the only person who appears on screen.
Jason talks about his life as a prostitute, houseboy, and drug user, as well as his dreams of becoming a nightclub performer, in a completely engaging, charming manner. His enthralling, yet heartbreaking tales of racism and homophobia—at a time when the ink on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had barely dried, and, due to anti-sodomy laws, sex between gay men was still illegal in most of the United States—are told with a laugh and a shrug. So be it, he says; through it all, he’s had a ball. It’s obvious he has a knack for storytelling, and though what he’s experienced may be true, it all feels like a performance.
Early on, Jason talks of being a hustler able to sweet talk anyone into anything, and you can clearly see why, because as a viewer you are taken in by this man from the get-go. Having said that, about half through the film I found myself exhausted by Jason’s stories and continuous, riotous laughter. When reading up on the film, I discovered that’s part of what Clarke was trying to get across; as the director later commented, her subject “is both a genius and a bore.”
At a certain point, after hours of storytelling and consumption of that truth serum known as alcohol, it appears his façade has cracked and the bona fide Jason/Aaron begins to emerge—or does it? Part of what makes Portrait of Jason so fascinating is the inability to know what is genuine and what is performance.
Nevertheless, I do believe it’s safe to say that Jason is struggling. Among other aspects of this life, he grapples with what kind of person he is; he admits to being both a deceiver and someone who “can be hurt in a second.” Though he has lived a unique life up to that point, a kind most will never know, it is through his contradictions, his inherent humanity, that we can see aspects of our own existence. Jason’s continually trying to make sense of who he is, all the while shifting between the walls of protection he has erected and allowing himself to be vulnerable, constantly moving forward as he smiles through a life filled with sadness and regret. Even if we rarely talk about those facets of being, it is through Shirley Clarke’s dazzling character study that we can relate, which is why Portrait of Jason endures.
In 2013, a restored version of Portrait of Jason arrived in theatres. It’s now available on DVD and Blu-ray via Milestone Films. If you have any interest in reading more about this incredible film, you’ll want to check out Milestone’s press kit.
Here’s a clip of Jason talking about his experience as a houseboy, in which he touches on issues of class and racism:
Last week, allegations emerged that Spokane NAACP president Rachel Dolezal—who says she is African-American and in the past claimed she was a victim of racism—is, in fact, white. Similar incidents have occurred over the years (Binjamin Wilkomirski pretended to be a holocaust survivor, for example), and after the initial shock of revelation, naturally many questions emerge, though the main one is always simply this: Why?
Lessor known is the story of Tania Head, a survivor of the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks, who became a beloved figure within the community of 9/11 survivors. Tania was working in the south tower of the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001, and though badly burned, she made it out of the building alive; her fiancé, Dave, who was in the north tower, did not. Tania’s back-story and account of that horrific day were especially tragic, but her bright personality and positive outlook was inspiring to others, including her fellow survivors, even the media.
To behold (Tania) Head’s smile is to know the terrorists did not even close to winning. To see that smile is also to be challenged to be as decent and positive as this true survivor. (New York Daily News, September 7th, 2006)
On September 27th, 2007, the New York Times ran a front-page story about Tania: “In a 9/11 Survival Tale the Pieces Just Don’t Fit.” In the piece, it was revealed that no part of Tania’s story could be validated. Merrill Lynch, the company she claimed she was working for—the reason she was in the World Trade Center on 9/11—had no record of ever employing a Tania Head. Harvard, the school she claimed to have graduated from, didn’t have a record of her having attended. The family of Dave, who did die in the north tower, said they never heard of her. Friends and associates spoke of varying accounts that Tania had told over the years. The Times noted that she had nothing to gain financial from the deception.
So, why did she do it? Why would she pretend to be a involved in one of one of America’s greatest tragedies? How could she befriend and lie to actual victims of this horrific event?
In many ways, R.E.M. were always the quintessential MTV band. The group’s first single came out in July of 1981, while MTV debuted but a few weeks later, on August 1. MTV must’ve had a lot of rabid R.E.M. fans working there when they launched, because from the very beginning the band was seemingly always on the channel, a practically ubiquitous “indie” presence on programs like The Cutting Edge (which was produced by their label, I.R.S. Records), Alternative Nation, and 120 Minutes. Their career moves, tours and general gossip about them were constantly chronicled on MTV News. They were usually on the MTV awards shows getting them, presenting them and playing live. I think it’s safe to say that when MTV beckoned, R.E.M. showed up on time and did a great job and made everyone’s lives easier. That’s how a group stays on top for thirty years. To sustain that long of a ride you need to be professional, hardworking, easy to deal with, etc, etc.
As a result of their practically symbiotic relationship, MTV documented practically everything about R.E.M. right up to their decision to disband in 2011. R.E.M. BY MTV, the critically acclaimed feature-length documentary by Alexander Young, draws exclusively from archival events and traces the history of R.E.M. (and MTV itself) in a chronological manner, which makes it feel as exciting and immediate as it did when it first took place.
R.E.M. BY MTV is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD on June 2 from Rhino, and includes some rarely-seen live performances. You can win a copy of the film—and a whole lot more—by entering to win in the widget below the trailer.
The question arises, how is it? The simple answer is, it’s very good. I’m a little too close to the subject to review it properly, so while recommending the documentary (directed by Neil Berkeley, who also directed Beauty is Embarrassing: The Wayne White Story) I thought I’d also express some thoughts about why Harmontown (the podcast) is such an achievement as well as a few things the documentary inevitably missed (not a diss, it would have been impossible to cover everything).
Spencer Crittenden, Jeff B. Davis, Dan Harmon, and Erin McGathy
Dan Harmon is a TV writer and showrunner who is responsible for Community (NBC) and Rick & Morty (Adult Swim). He’s from Milwaukee and he drinks too much and he’s got some impressive verbal gifts and he has issues with people telling him what to do. Harmontown (the podcast) is taped every Sunday at the NerdMelt Theater, the back room of Meltdown Comics in Hollywood. The governing conceit is that Dan Harmon is the mayor and his buddy Jeff B. Davis is the comptroller. Dan occupies a unique niche, as something like the world’s most dangerous showrunner (i.e. writer who oversees a television show). The advent of high-quality TV that requires attention to long-form narrative issues has made a figure like Harmon nearly inevitable—who knew who ran Kojak? If America loves Chuck Lorre’s shows, then that leaves an opening for an uncompromising indie showrunner who caters to a coterie—that’s Harmon, who plays Pulp to Lorre’s Oasis, perhaps.
Every show involves a mix of discussion about whatever has been occupying Harmon lately, audience participation, special guest appearances (Robin Williams, Patton Oswalt, Eric Idle, etc.) and a 20-minute chunk of D&D. The shows are entirely unscripted, and somehow they manage to be pretty darn diverting just about every week. As Davis points out in the movie, because it’s constructed from scratch every week, every episode feels completely different. What’s guaranteed is that because everything is filtered through Harmon’s lively, dangerous personality, there’s not much out there like it. What it feels like is unprecedented.
Harmon’s a dork of long standing, and his audience overwhelmingly consists of smart, introverted creative people (this is a euphemism for “on the Spectrum”) who, possibly, were bullied in high school; were far too interested in the Alien movie series and pop culture artifacts of that type; and have found some private fulfillment as adults in some interesting endeavor. What’s key is that the generosity, tolerance, and democracy behind Harmon’s sincere efforts at outreach have struck a massive chord among the people of this sub-sector, who in turn regard Harmon as their own special hero. The documentary is largely about Harmon going out into the country from LA to meet the throngs that make up his adoring audience. As Harmon often jokes, “his people” aren’t great at eye contact, which made the lengthy meet and greets after every session of “HarmonCountry” interesting social events in their own right.
The documentary covers all of this back story—the poster’s touting of the appearances of Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Joel McHale, and John Oliver is a bit of a cheat, they only appear in the movie for a couple of seconds apiece, as talking heads testifying to Harmon as a co-worker in the world of TV (Sarah Silverman and Jason Sudeikis are both in the movie in a fuller way). Implicit in that promotional strategy is that there’s not that much here to sell the movie. Much like Community, Dan Harmon himself is an aquired taste, and people watching the documentary should know that the movie features huge amounts of footage of exactly four people: Harmon, Davis, Harmon’s girlfriend (now fiancée) Erin McGathy, and Spencer Crittenden, the D&D dungeon master who was recruited from the live audience in an early episode and has appeared in the largest number of episodes since, excepting Dan himself of course).
Watching the movie, I found myself wondering what non-devotees will make of Dan Harmon. It’s a little like when you introduce your favorite noise-rock band to a friend, you might not have the best antennae about who will like this band. Same thing here—I love Harmon, but from all external appearances he’s a talkative alcoholic and egomaniac with a mean streak. It would be easy to imagine him wearing on people, which I sincerely hope doesn’t happen because I think Harmon’s worth the trouble. The thing to understand about Harmon is that he’s an idealist of the highest order. For instance, the HarmonCountry tour, even if it was the act of an egomaniac, was essentially an attempt to execute the world’s largest hug. A devotee of the Jungian mythologist Joseph Campbell, Harmon sincerely believes that his own writing accomplishments are merely a reflection of universal wisdoms that could equally well be expressed some other way. Harmon drinks too much and is self-destructive, all of which makes his penchant for unvarnished revelation all the more admirable. The list of his uncomfortable admissions (his purchase of a Real Doll many years ago, for instance) would be long indeed; would that we were all so honest! (Thus we see the idealism at work.)
One of the central issues in Harmontown the documentary is Harmon’s treatment of McGathy, who is clearly Harmon’s #1 supporter as well as his lifetime companion. The legendary Pittsburgh entry of HarmonCountry devolved into a huge onstage argument between Harmon and McGathy; the tour was clearly taking a massive toll on their relationship (they’re still together, obviously). Harmon did a bit about trying to become “visibly” aroused in full view of the audience by fantasizing about an attractive young lady in the audience, a bit that understandably wounded McGathy, who said so onstage some minutes later. The slack-jawed Pittsburghers were treated to a bit that wasn’t a bit, in essence a drawn-out, gut-wrenching conversation about the ways Harmon can wound McGathy and Harmon’s refusal to change.
Harmontown the documentary faithfully captures the complexity of Harmon and the appeal of the show, almost entirely. Inevitably, a documentary of this type must maintain its focus on Harmon and the rapid rise to nerdy prominence of Spencer, the D&D dungeon master. What a movie of this kind can’t, by definition, capture is one of the central sources of appeal of the podcast, which are the longer-form discussions/banter, and especially the longer set pieces in which Harmon improvs a rant about the injustice of being told to tie his shoes or the faulty logic of Uber or why Captain America is an unsatisfying movie. That’s the stuff I go to Harmontown for, and there’s virtually none of it in the documentary (again, not a diss; Berkeley made the right movie that was there to make). For that, go to Harmontown.com (episode 1) and listen to the podcasts. I wish they’d captured the dapper charm of Jeff B. Davis or the comedic genius—yes, genius—of Erin McGathy. In the movie you would get the impression that McGathy is a fairly typical supportive indie chick, but she has a lengthy background in improv and her comedic instincts are every bit as developed as those of Harmon himself. If anything she’s even quicker, and her bits don’t always depend on the filter of her own psychodramas. She has a podcast of her own about relationships called This Feels Terrible, which I highly recommend.
Download Harmontown the documentary—for some interesting insights into the making of the documentary, the Nerdist episode with Harmon and director Neil Berkeley is well worth a listen.
Celebrities and artists discussing religion is always a tricky business. Fame tends to be a of a very worldly nature and often threatens to cheapen the subject, or distract from the gravity of spiritual matters. This can go doubly awry when westerners project their exotic fantasies on Asian religions—the fantastic book, Karma Cola, by Gita Mehta is an insightful look at the phenomenon of American and European “pilgrims” traveling to India, hoping to find enlightenment. (Since people are people, anywhere you go, many of those pilgrims were defrauded by fake yogis—India’s snake oil salesman and televangelist swindler equivalent.)
However, Leonard Cohen’s narration of the 1994 documentary pair, The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Way of Life and The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation, is both understated and dignified (with the first film featuring The Dalai Lama himself). Cohen, who was ordained as a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk in 1996, is staid in his narration of Tibetan Buddhist theory and practice, but the films are neither dry nor academic—a scene with a man in a hospice dealing with his own mortality is particularly affecting. I have to say, I initially just checked this out looking for something on Cohen’s Buddhism; what I found was an extremely respectful and compelling documentary, devoid of voyeurism, and mindful of the humanity of its subjects.
The series in its entirety is divided into five segments below, four being about 20 minutes long, with a two-minute clip in the middle.
I first discovered the amazing 1976 BBC documentary Princely Toys—about the incredible antique automaton collection of a man named Jack Donovan—on an art film tracker with the description “creepy toy documentary.”
That seemed too good to pass up and I’m glad I didn’t. Princely Toys is an unexpected pleasure and, yes, it’s a little creepy (check out the animated smoking monkey doll dressed as Napoleon in the beginning or the doll hacking a woman’s bloody torso with a butcher knife) but mainly it’s just… really neat. The soundtrack is probably from a music library, but it’s a suitably weird synth-based Muzak-y sort of affair that fits perfectly with the dimly-lit footage of Donovan’s superb 19th century animated doll collection.
There’s next to no information about this doc online. After his death, much of Jack Donovan’s unique collection was apparently acquired by the York Automata Museum, and after that closed down, sold to a Japanese collector.