Documentary Review: Kids Who Kill (dir by Andy Genovese)

It’s currently True Crime Week on A&E, with every day being filled with programming about murders, court cases, and unsolved mysteries.  It’s all a bit icky but I do have to admit that I have a weakness for true crime.  That’s why, when A&E aired the 2017 documentary Kids Who Kill yesterday, I ended up watching.

As soon as Kids Who Kill started, I found myself wondering if I had watched it before.  It turned out that I hadn’t.  Instead, my sense of Deja Vu was due to the face that I had seen all of the stories featured in Kids Who Kill on numerous other true crime programs.  One reason why there are so many true crime programs is that they’re cheap and easy to make.  Most of the information is in the public domain and you can always grab footage from the local news broadcasts of the time.  The reporters who covered the murders and the trials are always willing to build their brand by appearing on the program and saying stuff like, “Things like this just didn’t happen in our town.”  If the actual murderer is still alive and willing to be interviewed, chances are that his story will be told on at least a dozen different programs.

That’s certainly the case with Eric Smith, who was 13 years old when he murdered a 4 year-old boy.  Smith has been incarcerated since 1994 and his willingness to be interviewed has led to him being featured on several different programs, including this documentary.  In every interview, Smith says, not surprisingly, that he was an abused and emotionally neglected child who, having been bullied his entire life, lashed out in one terrible moment and that he’s no longer that child and that he deserves to be released from prison.  (You can always tell if the program is sympathetic to Smith by whether or not they include the fact that he sodomized the boy that he killed.  Kids Who Kill leaves out that fact.)  What Smith always seems to miss is that one can very legitimately say, “That sucks you were abused and you never really had a chance but, at the same time, you strangled and beat a four year-old to death so fuck you.”

Kids Who Kill tells several stories about people like Eric Smith, who committed murder when they were just a minor and who were subsequently sent to prison, often for life.  It’s full of contemporary news footage and psychoanalysts offering up theories about why kids kill but it never really digs too deeply into the subject.  There are several prison interviews with the killers.  At least two of them blame “first shooter video games.”  (While I would certainly be concerned about someone who spent 24 hours a day playing a violent video game, it’s also hard to buy that a 16 year-old couldn’t tell the difference between Doom and real life.  If you thought Doom — or Halo, as another shooter claims — was real life then you obviously had issues before you even picked up your first controller.)  Every killer interviewed expresses remorse but, with the exception of Nathan Brazill, who was convicted of shooting a teacher, none of them seem particularly sincere about it.  Then again, one could argue that they seem insincere because a lifetime in prison has conditioned them not to express any emotions that could be mistaken for weakness.  Perhaps I was being too quick to expect tears from men who live in a confined society where tears can lead to being targeted.

It’s a complex subject, kids who kill.  Can we forgive?  Can murderers be rehabilitated?  Can someone mature into becoming a different person than they were when they were 16?  Is it more important to punish or to rehabilitate?  These are important questions and, unfortunately, they’re not the type of questions that are really explored in any sort of depth by most true crime shows and documentaries.  Kids Who Kill offers up some disturbing stories but it never scratches beneath the surface.

The Films of 2020: Athlete A (dir by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk)

By now, we all know who Larry Nassar is and what he did.

Nassar was the USA Gymnastic Team doctor, the guy who worked with some of America’s top gymnasts.  For several years, he was the guy who you would see standing in the background of televised gymnastic events, including the Olympics.  If any of the gymnasts were injured during a competition, he was the man who television audiences would see running out to the mat.  He was the man who both viewers and gymnasts were conditioned to see as being a protector.  In the documentary Athlete A, there’s footage of Nassar kneeling down beside an injured gymnast while a commentator assures the people watching at home that there’s no reason to be worried.  If anyone is going to know what to do, the commentator explains, it’s going to be Larry Nassar.

In 2015, USA Gymnastics cut ties with Larry Nassar, citing “athlete concerns.”  In 2016, the Indianapolis Star broke the story that two gymnasts had accused Nassar of sexual abuse.  (Despite the accusations, Nassar still received 27% of the vote when he ran for his local school board that same year.)  When Nassar was arrested in 2016 and put on trial, more gymnasts came forward.  It is currently estimated that there are over 265 identified victims of Nassar’s abuse and an infinite number who may never be identified.  After Nassar pled guilty to charges of possessing child pornography, he was sentenced to 60 years in federal prison.  After pleading guilty to seven counts of sexual assault against minors, Nassar was given a state sentence of 175 years.  This was followed by an additional state sentence of 40 to 125 years when he pled guilty to three more assaults.  At the time of his sentencing, the judge said, “I just signed your death warrant.”  At the time, I remember being more than a little worried that Nassar would attempt to cite those words as proof that the judge was biased against him and that he would request a new sentencing hearing.  Of course, that’s exactly what Nassar did.  Fortunately, that request was denied and Larry Nassar will die in prison.

Athlete A is hardly the first documentary to be made about Larry Nassar and the USA Gymnastics sex abuse scandal but it is the first one to truly explore how a monster like Larry Nassar was not only able to thrive but also why he was shielded by the very people who should have been protecting his victims.  As the documentary shows, USA Gymnastics is a brand and it’s champions — especially it’s female champions — are expected to be the perfect ambassadors for the brand.  That means following orders, winning gold medals, and not complaining.  Despite all of the footage that we see of various commentators rhapsodizing about the special relationship between the gymnasts and their coaches, the gymnasts themselves are treated as just being a commodity that’s valuable as long as they can keep winning medals and keep bringing money into USA Gymnastics.  Once they can no longer win, those coaches no loner have any use for them.

At the legendary Karolyi Ranch in Huntsville, Texas, young girls were separated from their parents and trained by Béla Károlyi, a strict taskmaster who had no hesitation about slapping a gymnast who he felt hadn’t done well.  Into this harsh environment came Larry Nassar, a seemingly dorky and friendly guy who claimed to only be concerned with the health and the safety of the gymnasts.  Nassar would assure the gymnasts, most of whom had yet to even reach puberty, that everything he was doing was for their benefit.  Some of them, he abused for years, from the moment they came in for their first check-up until the day that they finally retired from competition.   And, when many of the gymnasts grew older and realized that what Nassar was doing was not okay, they would discover that no one was willing to listen to them.  Though the first complaints agaist Nassar were made in the 90s, it wasn’t until 2015 that anything was done about him.  In fact, parents were often lied to.  As is recounted in this film, the president and CEO of USA Gymnastics, Steve Penny, assured at least one gymnast and her parents that he had forwarded their concerns about Nassar when he had done no such thing.  Though Nassar’s trial got the majority of the coverage, Steve Penny would also be arrested and charged with deliberately tampering with evidence in order to protect him.

As I said a few paragraphs ago, this is hardly the first documentary about what went on behind the scenes at USA Gymnastics.  It probably won’t be the last.  But this may be the most important one because, through heart-wrenching interviews with Nassar’s victims, Athlete A shows how a man like Nassar was able to abuse young girls for years while those who should have been protecting the athletes were making the decision to look away.  Some of the most powerful moments in the film come from the contrast between the reality of what was happening and the way that USA Gymnastics presented itself in public.  The doctor who was supposed to take care of the athletes was a monster and the coaches, who were presented as being strict but caring, were his enablers.  Everyone wanted to benefit from the success of the athletes but no one was willing to stand up for them.

Athlete A is not easy to watch.  It’s a harrowing documentary but it’s also an important one.


The Films of 2020: Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics (dir by Donick Cary)

Since this Netflix documentary features people talking about their experiences with hallucinogens, I debated whether or not I should begin this review by discussing my own limited experience with psychedelics.  I went back and forth on whether or not to write about it.  It’s not that I feel any shame about having “experimented.”  Instead, it’s just that my experiences were all so damn boring.

I mean, which one should I tell you about?  Do you want to hear about the time that I went to the mall and I marveled at how all of the shoppers seemed to be moving at a different speed than me?  How about the time that I was sitting in a lecture and the professor’s voice kept getting really loud and then really soft?  Maybe I could tell you about the time my friends and I were driving around the Texas countryside and I kept seeing the same man standing on the side of every single road, watching us as we drove by?  He was wearing a black trenchcoat and a black cowboy hat and I was convinced that he was Death….

(Okay, that last experience was kinda freaky.)

Have A Good Trip is a film about people discussing their experiences with hallucinogens and some of them had more interesting experiences than I did.  Of course, all of the people who were interviewed were celebrities.  Sting talks about helping a cow give birth while tripping on peyote.  Lewis Black talks about doing acid and then forgetting his name.  Sarah Silverman recounts how she and a friend did acid and then ended up befriending a bunch of homeless people.  In interviews recorded before their death, Carrie Fisher and Anthony Bourdain both discuss their LSD experiences.  Probably the best story comes from Ben Stiller, who called his father during his first (and it’s implied only) acid trip.  Jerry Stiller is described as being very understanding, which is sweet.  “I know what you’re going through,” Jerry says, “I smoked a Pall Mall cigarette once and was sick for days.”

Have a Good Trip is 100% pro-hallucinogenic drug, which gives it a nice subversive feel.  The film humorously dramatizes the drug stories, sometimes with animation and sometimes by hiring other celebrities to play the celebrities telling their story.  In between the celebs, we get an interview with a researcher who explains how hallucinogenics can be used to help people dealing with depressing and anxiety.  The film doesn’t downplay the fact that bad trips happen but, at the same time, it also makes a convincing argument that the dangers have been overstated.

Yet, I have to admit that Have A Good Trip is never quite as much fun as you’re hoping it’ll be.  I think part of the problem is that most of the celebrities interviewed in the film are exactly who you would expect to interviewed in a film like this.  I mean, learning that Sarah Silverman, Judd Nelson, and Lewis Black have tried acid is not exactly an earth-shattering discovery.  When you’re watching a documentary in which celebrities talk about their drug experiences, you want to be surprised.  You want to see or hear about someone who you’re not expecting to see or hear about.  You want to hear about the time that the cast of Saved By The Bell went on a six-day coke binge in Vegas.  Learning that peyote makes Sting somehow even more pretentious just doesn’t have the same subversive bite as hearing from someone who you wouldn’t normally expect to have any good drug stories.

Anyway, Have a Good Trip is an amusing film, even if it’s never quite as subversive as it thinks it is.  It’s currently on Netflix.

Documentary Review: Lord Lucan: My Husband, The Truth (dir by David O’Neill)

Who was Lord Lucan?

He was a British aristocrat, born not only wealthy but also with all the right connections.  His birth name was John Bingham but he eventually inherited the title of Lord Lucan when his father died in 1964.  At the time, the new Lord Lucan was 30 years and had been married for less than a year.  Lord Lucan was handsome and charming, so much so that Cubby Broccoli considered him for the role of James Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  Lucan had no formal acting experience but he had the right look.  Nothing, of course, ever came of the idea of casting Lucan as Bond.  It’s rumored that he may have done a screen test but nothing can be said for sure.  Would Lord Lucan have had better luck with the role than George Lazenby?  Well, it’s hard to imagine how he possible could have had worst luck.

Like James Bond, Lord Lucan loved to gamble.  Unlike Bond, who was rarely seen to lose a hand whenever he sat down at the poker table, Lucan was not a particularly good gambler.  In fact, he lost so often that he was often broke.  Fortunately, his rich friends usually took care of him whenever he needed money or someone to testify as to his courage whenever he was accused of neglecting his wife, Lady Lucan.  When Lord and Lady Lucan separated in 1972, it forced the members of British high society to pick sides and most of them sided with Lord Lucan.  That remained true even in 1974 when Lord Lucan was accused of murdering his children’s nanny, Sandra Rivett.  Rivett, who bore a superficial resemblance to Lady Lucan, was bludgeoned to death with a piece of lead pipe while making a cup of tea in Lady Lucan’s home.  Lady Lucan claimed that she came across Lord Lucan in the house and that he admitted to having attacked Sandra in a case of mistaken identity.  Meanwhile, shortly after the murder, Lord Lucan reportedly called his mother and told her that he had just happened to be driving by his old home when he saw an unidentified man fighting with his wife.

The same night that Sandra Rivett was murdered, Lord Lucan vanished.  Both the police and Lady Lucan speculated that Lord Lucan had committed suicide by drowning himself in the Thames.  However, for years after Sandra Rivett’s murder, there were regular sightings of Lord Lucan around the world.  While many of those sightings were undoubtedly due to hysteria caused by the extensive press coverage surrounding the case, there were other sightings that seemed to be a bit more credible.  There was much speculation that Lucan’s powerful friends had helped him escape from Britain and he had relocated to either southern Africa or Australia.  As late as 2012, sightings of Lord Lucan were still being investigated.  If Lucan were still alive, he would be 86 years old today.

The story of Lord Lucan and the murder of Sandra RIvett is a fascinating one and the 2017 documentary, Lord Lucan: My Husband, The Truth, is a must-see for everyone interested in the case.  Produced for British television, this documentary is essentially an hour-long interview with Lady Lucan, during which she discusses not only her abusive marriage but also her feelings about the question of whether or not Lucan was still alive.  (For the record, she felt that he committed suicide “as a nobleman would do.”)  The documentary also features video that was shot by Lucan himself in the 60s, showing himself, his wife, and their wealthy friends touring Europe and basically acting like members of the idle rich.  Lady Lucan discusses how the notoriety surrounding the case affected her own life, leading to her becoming estranged from her children.  When asked if she was a “cold” towards her children, Lady Lucan chillingly replies, “All of my relationships are cold.”  When asked why she once claimed that Lord Lucan was still alive and hiding out somewhere in either Europe or Africa, Lady Lucan replies that she was “drugged up” when she said it and, as such, had no control over anything she said.  The documentary than shares a clip of a very stoned-looking Lady Lucan being interviewed in 1981 and saying that her former husband was still alive.

It’s an interesting story and a rather sad one.  Lord Lucan: My Husband, the Truth is a documentary that should appeal to anyone who is interested in true crime, missing fugitives, and the scandals of the very rich.  Despite the rumors of him still being alive, Lord Lucan was declared dead in 2016 so that his son could inherit his title and his place in the House of Lords.  As for Lady Lucan, she committed suicide shortly after being interviewed for this documentary.

Lord Lucan: My Husband, The Truth can be viewed on Amazon Prime.


Documentary Review: Ernie & Joe: Crisis Cops (dir by Jennifer McShane)

The new documentary Ernie & Joe: Crisis Cops opens with police body cam footage of a man getting gunned down in the doorway of his own house.

Why was the man shot?  Because he was holding a screwdriver and he apparently didn’t drop it quickly enough.  Why were the police there in the first place?  They had been called by the man’s mother, who warned the police that her son was schizophrenic and that he was hearing voices.  When the cops shoot him, the man’s mother can be heard screaming in the background, begging the cops not to kill her son.  But kill him, they did.  He died for the crime of holding a screw driver while having mental health crisis.

Unfortunately, that’s a scenario the seems to be happening more and more frequently in the United States.  The police are trained to quickly take control of dangerous situations, to show no emotion, and to bark out orders.  How many times do we hear it whenever someone is gunned down for not immediately dropping whatever they were holding their hands?  “If he had just done what the police said, he’d still be alive.”  We hear that a lot but what if, like the man holding that screwdriver, you’re already hearing voices before the police start screaming at you to show them your hands.  What if you’re already disorientated and not sure what’s real and what’s not?  What then?

Unfortunately, it’s rare that the police are trained on how to deal with someone suffering from mental issues.  Ernie Stevens and Joe Smarro are two cops in San Antonio who are trying to change that.  As members of the SAPD’s mental health unit, Ernie and Joe are advocates for changing the way that the police deal with the most vulnerable members of society.  As they explain at one of their training sessions, the police academy will spend days teaching recruits how to draw and fire their weapon without devoting one minute to discussing how to deal with someone who might be hearing voices or who might be suicidal.  Ernie and Joe argue for compassion over brute force.  (Unfortunately, while some cops are seen nodding along with Ernie and Joe’s lessons, several others are seen smirking and rolling their eyes.)

Shot in the style of cinéma vérité, the film follows Ernie and Joe as they deal with cases and attempt to teach their fellow cops that brute force is not always the solution.  At one point, we watch them deal with someone who is threatening to jump off an overpass.  We also listen as Joe, a former Marne, discusses seeing a child blown up in Iraq and how he is still haunted by PTSD.  Ernie, meanwhile, is a family man who goes to church every Sunday and who is looking forward to soon retiring from police work.  The film follows them as they talk, joke, and occasionally bicker like an old married couple.  It’s a good, if somewhat low-key, documentary.  One watches it and hopes that other police departments will learn from San Anotnio’s success.

As I watched the film, I found myself thinking about Vanessa Marquez.  Vanessa was a former actress and a longtime member of the #TCMParty on twitter.  Vanessa was always very open about her own health struggles.  14 months ago, the police showed up at Vanessa’s house in South Pasadena, California.  They say they were doing a welfare check.  They say that Vanessa was in obvious mental distress and that Vanessa resisted their attempts to force her to go to the hospital to be checked out.  The police say that Vanessa pointed a BB gun at them.  Unfortunately, we only know what the police said happened but Vanessa is not her to tell her side of the story.  She was shot and killed.  At the time, it was big news but, as always happens, the media eventually moved on to something else.  After all this time, we still don’t know what really happened the day that Vanessa Marquez was killed in her own home.  We probably never will.

Watching the documentary, I found myself wondering what would have happened if it had been Ernie and Joe or, at the very least, a cop with a similar outlook and compassion who showed up at her house on that day.  Would Vanessa still be with us, watching movies on TCM and tweeting about her experiences in Hollywood?  No one can say for sure but I think she would be.

Hopefully, this documentary will serve as a wake up call for some people.  One need not lose their compassion just because they put on a uniform.  In fact, it’s essential that they don’t.

Documentary Review: American Relapse (dir by Adam Linkenhelt and Pat McGee)

In general, I usually don’t get much out of watching documentaries about drug addiction.  There’s a few reasons for this:

1. Drug addicts are depressing to watch.

2. Drug addicts are boring to listen to.

3. Since everyone knows that drug addiction is a bad thing and that there’s usually only two possible endings to a drug addict’s story — death or detox — it’s not like the majority of drug addiction documentaries have anything new or surprising to tell us.

4. I always find myself wondering about just how much the film crew is enabling the addicts that they’re following around.   There’s always a feeling that the documentary crew is more concerned with putting addicts on display as opposed to actually getting them the help that they need.  It’s hard not to feel that the point of many of these documentaries (and reality shows) is to invite the viewers to gawk and say, “My life may be messed up but at least I’m not passed out in the parking lot of Burger King with a syringe hanging out of my arm.”

Taking all that in mind, I do have to say that I found the new documentary, American Relapse, to be a disturbing and thought-provoking look at not only drug addiction but also the way that the rehab industry has become a big business in South Florida.  Frankie Holmes and Allie Severino are two former addicts who now work as — well, they’re referred to as being “Junkie Hunters,” though Allie objects to the term.  A junkie hunter is someone who searches the streets, befriends drug addicts, and eventually takes them to rehab.  Frankie and Allie both say that they’re in the business because they want to help people and save lives.  At the same time, they also admit that their industry is full of people who don’t care about the addicts that they’re claiming to help.  Instead, they’re simply looking for addicts who have good health insurance so that the rehab centers can make money off of treating them and the hunters can make money off of finding them.

As American Relapse demonstrates, there’s a lot of money to be made in rehab.  The simple act of giving someone a drug test can bring in a few hundred dollars, assuming that the person being tested has insurance.  For a rehab center to make money, there has got to be addicts to make money off of and every time that a formerly sober person relapses, that means even more money. It leads to a viscous cycle, one where people will help but only so much.

The film alternates between scenes explaining how the rehab industry works and scenes of Frankie and Allie working the streets and searching for addicts.  Frankie spends his time trying to get Conor into rehab.  Allie spends most of her time searching for a missing friend of her’s while also trying to help a homeless couple.  Adam Jasinski, who won Big Brother 9 and later went to prison for using his winnings to stet up a drug distribution network, shows up for a few minutes and acts like a dick.  Unfortunately, there are no happy endings.  By the end of the documentary, some people have died.  Others have vanished.  One of the “junkie hunters” has relapsed.

It’s certainly not a happy documentary.  It’s also a bit too long as well.  105 minutes is a long time to spend watching people who aren’t going anywhere.  (Then again, if you consider that Allie and Frankie spend their entire day doing just that, perhaps 105 minutes is not too much to ask.)  Like a lot of recent documentaries, the film occasionally tries to shake things up by inserting animation and clips from old educational films and the results are a bit mixed.  This documentary works best when it sticks to a cinéma vérité style.  Still, it’s a thought-provoking if rather depressing look at lives of intense desperation.


Documentary Review: Unmasking Jihadi John: Anatomy of a Terrorist (dir by Anthony Wonke)

Who was Jihadi John?

He was the black-clad terrorist who haunted the news in 2014 and 2015.  He was the faceless man with the London accent who was frequently filmed standing in the desert, taunting Barack Obama and David Cameron before then beheading a hostage.  In total, Jihadi John was filmed either beheading or directing others to behead 29 hostages.  Among his victims were American journalist James Foley and British aid worker David Haines.

Up until he was apparently blown up by a drone strike in 2015, Jihadi John was, for many of us in the West, the best-known member of ISIS.  When we heard the word “ISIS,” he was the one we pictured.  Because his face was always covered, his identity was unknown.  All we knew about him was that he spoke perfect English with a British accent.  He was like a creature sprung from a nightmare, a monster who materialized out of nowhere and taunted us for our inability to defeat him.  There was much speculation about who Jihadi John was.  Even after we found out that he was probably a Kuwait-born British citizen named Mohammed Emwazi, we still wondered how this man came to be standing in the desert, being filmed as he committed terrible crimes.

The new HBO documentary, Unmasking Jihadi John, is an investigation into the origins of terrorism.  The film attempts to reconstruct Emwazi’s early life as an outsider in the UK.  His teachers describe him as being quiet and somewhat forgettable.  Video from that period shows a skinny and awkward-looking teenager, one who covered his mouth whenever he spoke because he had once been taunted for having bad breath.  When he was ten, he wrote that he wanted to be a soccer player.  A few years later, he was caught on video, smiling while sitting in a computer lab.  And then, just a few years after that, he was in Syria, committing horrific acts of evil.  And make no mistake about it — the Emwazi who we see waving a knife while condemning the West is evil.  Evil comes in many disguises and will often try to justify itself by hijacking a religion or an ideology.  But in the end, evil is evil.

Because Emwazi was vaporized in 2015, he’s not around to explain just what exactly led him to join ISIS.  The film speculates that Emwazi initially joined because he was looking for both a surrogate family and a place where he actually belonged.  The documentary contains clips from several ISIS propaganda videos and what’s interesting is that the images that ISIS used — children playing in the streets, men working together to rebuild a city, and friends hugging each other — are many of the same images that one would expect to find in western advertising.  They’re seductive images, ones that offer up a promise of a better life as long as you follow orders and don’t question authority.  They were exactly the type of images designed to appeal to someone like Emwazi (and countless others), who had a need to feel as if they belonged to something bigger than themselves.

If the first half of the documentary focuses on Emwazi and the founding of ISIS, the second half deals with the aftermath of Emwazi’s actions.  Interviews, with the hostages who survived and the families of those who did not, drive home the pain that was caused by the actions of ISIS as a whole and Emwazi in specific.  It’s in those interviews that we are reminded that Emwazi’s evil cannot be excused by a turbulent childhood or misplaced idealism.  Towards the end of the documentary, the man who controlled the drone that fired the missile that ended Emwazi’s life is interviewed.  When we watch the grainy and coldly impersonal footage of Emwazi’s car blowing up, we feel no sympathy for the man who was called Jihadi John.   As to whether or not there’s joy to be found there, well, that’s up to the viewer to decide for themselves.

It’s a compelling documentary but it’s also frustrating, if just because it poses a question that may be impossible to answer.  Why does evil exist?  How can one go from being a normal, if awkward, teenager to being a savage murderer?  Like the rest of us, the documentary can only wonder why.

Film Review: The Top Rope (dir by Cody Broadway)

About halfway through the 20 minute documentary, The Top Rope, a soft-spoken, bearded man named Billy Gray says, “It’s how I’m wired.”

Billy is explaining why he spends most of his time playing a character named Hunter Grey, a viking who is, at one point, seen carrying a big axe.  (By being a viking, he explains, he can make people laugh while still being believably intimidating.)  Billy, who was a championship wrestler in high school and who comes from a long line of wrestlers, now makes his living traveling the pro wrestling circuit in Colorado.  It’s hardly glamorous.  Billy tells us stories about having to change in parking lots and says that if you have a locker room, you should consider yourself to be lucky.  He also tells us about how his family was initially dismissive of his career and how it took a while before they actually started coming to his matches.  But, whenever we actually see Billy performing and in the ring, we understand why he does it.  The crowds love watching him.  When Billy Gray’s in that ring, he’s a star.

Billy is one of several wrestlers to be interviewed in The Top Rope.  Considering that one of the main appeals of pro-wrestling is the flamboyance of the people involved, it’s tempting to be surprised to discover that, outside the ring, the majority of the participants come across as being rather soft-spoken.  Then again, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised at all.  One of the joys of performing, after all, is assuming a new and different persona.

For instance, a wrestler named Zach Anaya is obviously somewhat bemused with his villain status but, when we see him in the ring, we see someone who is truly enjoying playing his role.  A scene in which he jumped off a ledge and landed on top of two wrestlers below left me cringing because you could tell that, for all the talk about how pro-wrestling matches are essentially a type of performance art, the participants can still get seriously injured.  Scripted or not scripted, you have to be willing to push yourself to extremes in order to pursue it.

Also interviewed is Curtis Cole, a wrestler who rather touchingly talks about how he used to watch wrestling with his mother.  You get the feeling that, to a certain extent, he’s wrestling in her memory.  Cole also discusses the importance of having a storyline in the ring.  Without a storyline, it’s just two guys jumping on each other.  With a storyline, it becomes an epic battle of good and evil.  Cole tears up while discussing once past storyline and I have to admit that he got so emotional that even I, who has never even watched a wrestling match, started to get emotional too.  In a film full of great storytellers, Curtis Cole might be the best.

This documentary was directed by Cody Broadway, who previously directed 4 Quarters of Silence, a film about the Texas School for The Deaf’s football team.  He brings the same empathetic touch to this film.  Though the film did not make me a pro wrestling fan (to misquote Billy Gray, it’s just not how I’m wired), it did make me a fan of the men who were interviewed and it made me happy that they have this in their lives.  We’re all wired differently but, as this film demonstrates, there’s a place for all of us if we’re willing to look for it.

Film Review: Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (dir by Errol Morris)

This 1999 documentary provides a disturbing portrait of an absolute moron.

Of course, when we first see and hear Fred Leuchter, Jr., he doesn’t seem like a moron.  He definitely comes across as being a bit eccentric and maybe just a little bit off but, at first sight, he’s actually kind of likable.  As he explains it, he grew up in the United States prison system.  His father worked in prison administration and one of Fred’s earliest memories was sitting in an electric chair.  Fred grew up to be an engineer and, concerned that America’s execution methods were cruel and potentially dangerous to even those who weren’t being executed, he decided to dedicate his life to redesigning electric chairs and gas chambers.  He even built his own lethal injection machine, all designed to make sure that the condemned felt as little pain as possible while dying.  As Fred explains it, he supports capital punishment but “I don’t support torture.”

Fred Leuchter soon came to be recognized as one of America’s leading experts on execution devices.  As he himself admits, that’s largely because he was American’s only expert on the way that people are legally executed.  Whereas most people deliberately went out of their way not to learn the specifics of what happens when someone is put to death, Fred made it his life’s purpose.  After redesigning an electric chair in Tennessee, Fred was soon being summoned to other states so that he could refurbish and, in many cases, redesign their execution machinery.  For the first 30 minutes of the documentary, Fred explains what it’s like to be an expert on executions and it’s hard not to like this nerdy, self-described “humanitarian.”  If anything, you spend the first part of this documentary considering the oddness of finding a humane way to execute the condemned.  America prides itself on both it’s rejection of cruel and unusual punishment and it’s willingness to put criminals to death.  It’s an odd combination and, briefly, Leuchter seems like the embodiment of those two contrasting positions.

This changes during the documentary’s second half.  That’s when we learn how, in 1988, Leuchter was hired by a German anti-Semite named Ernst Zundel.  Zundel was being tried in Canada, charged with publishing and shipping works of Holocaust denial.  For a fee of $30,000, Leuchter spent his honeymoon in Poland, went to Auschwitz, and personally “inspected” the gas chambers.  Because Leuchter brought a camera crew with him, his every action was recorded.

We watch as Leuchter and his assistants sneak into the gas chamber and proceed to clumsily start chipping away at the walls.  We listen as Leuchter goes on and on about how he doesn’t feel that the gas chamber was actually a gas chamber because it just seems too impractical to him.  If they wanted to executed a large group of people at once, why didn’t the Nazis use the gallows? Leuchter wonders.  (They did.)  Why didn’t the Nazis use firing squads?  Leuchter asks.  (They did.)  Even before Leuchter returns to America, he’s made it clear that his mind is made up.  He can’t understand why the Nazis would have done what they did and therefore, in his mind, that means they didn’t do it.  After all, Leuchter’s an expert.  He’s Mr. Death.

He’s also a moron and, by the time he starts cheerfully talking about all the effort that went into smuggling the wall chips out of Germany, whatever likability he once had has vanished.  Watching this film, I found myself wishing for a time machine so that I could go back in the past and throw something at him.  You just want him to shut up for a minute and realize that what he’s saying makes no sense.  Not that it would make any difference, of course.  Leuchter is too proud of himself for having discovered “the truth” to actually consider that he could be wrong.

When Leuchter’s samples are tested for trace amounts of poison gas, they come back negative.  Leuchter announces that this means that the Holocaust never happened and he writes up the infamous Leuchter Report, which is still regularly cited as evidence by Neo-Nazi groups and anti-Semitic historians like David Irving.  However, as Dutch historian Robert Jan van Pelt explains (and, as we’ve already seen in the video that Leuchter himself shot at Auschwitz), Leuchter not only did not take a big enough sample but he was so clumsy in the way that he transported it that he diluted the sample as well.  Even beyond all that, it would be very unusual for cyanide residue to still present after forty years of everyday wear and tear.

None of this matters, of course, to Fred Leuchter.  With the publication of the Leuchter Report, he becomes a fixture on the Holocaust denial circuit.  (We see an edition of the Leuchter Report that was published and distributed by the Aryan Nations.)  Suddenly, Leuchter has fans.  In his own sad and pathetic way, he’s become a celebrity and we see him beaming as he stands on the stage of a Neo-Nazi conference.  Meanwhile, his wife leaves him.  And prisons stop using him as a consultant, especially after they discover that he was never actually licensed to practice engineering.  Financially bereft, Leuchter even resorts to trying to sell one of his beloved “execution devices,” putting an ad in the classifieds.  (Needless to say, things don’t go well.)  Looking over the ruins of his life, who does Leuchter blame for his troubles?  “Jewish groups,” he says before then going on to assure us that some of his best friends were and are Jewish.  Was Leuchter always an anti-Semite or did he become one because he needed someone to blame for his own self-destruction?  That’s a question that the viewer will have to answer for themselves.

Mr. Death is a disturbing portrait of a rather sad and pathetic figure, a man who fell victim to his own arrogance and hubris and who, as opposed to seeking redemption, instead allied himself with the only people ignorant and hateful enough to still embrace him.  As is his style, documentarian Errol Morris interviews Leuchter’s critics but refrains from personally arguing with Leuchter, instead basically giving the self-described execution expert just enough rope to hang himself.  (Morris does, at one point, ask Leuchter if he’s ever considered that he might be wrong.  Not surprisingly, Leuchter claims that he has not and seems to be confused by the question.)  In the end, it’s impossible to feel sorry for Leuchter.  The nerdy humanitarian who opposed torture had been replaced by a self-pitying Holocaust denier.  By the end of the film, Fred A Leuchter, Jr. and his report have become a reminder of the damage that can be done by one dangerously ignorant man.

Remembering Avicii: Avicii: True Stories (dir by Levan Tsikurishvili)

It was a year ago today that we learned of the passing of Tim Bergling, who was better known as Avicii.  For those of us who loved Avicii’s music and who followed him throughout not only his career but also through his multiple health issues and his widely publicized retirement from touring, the loss of Avicii is one that we have yet to recover from.

On this sad anniversary, I’m thinking about the first time that I watched Avicii: True Stories on Netflix.  This documentary, which covered the majority of Avicii’s career — from his rise to his eventual retirement, was released in Europe six months before his death.  In the U.S., it was released on Netflix on December 14th, 2018.  It’s not always an easy documentary to watch but I recommend it to anyone who loved Avicii’s music or to anyone who is just curious about the pressures that go with being a star.

Featuring interviews with not only Avicii but also his collaborators, the film follows Avicii as he quickly goes from being just being one of the many people posting remixes on online forums to being one of the top and most important DJs in the world.  We watch as Avicii maintains a hectic schedule of nonstop touring, often sacrificing both his physical and mental health in the process.  Avicii ends up in the hospital, suffering from acute pancreatitis.  Later, he again ends up in the hospital, this time to have both his appendix and his gall bladder removed.  The film makes no attempt to hide the decadence that goes along with touring but, in its best moments, it also highlights the conflict that arises from having to be both Tim Bergling, an anxious young man who finds a much-needed escape in music, and Avicii, the superstar who has to be on every night.

When we first meet Tim, he seems young and hopeful and enthusiastic.  Halfway through the film, an exhaustion starts to creep into his voice and, by the end of the film, he’s become far more world-weary.  As we watch Tim struggle with the weight of being Avicii, we’re also aware of the people around him, whose careers and finances are pretty much dependent on making sure that Tim never stops being Avicii, regardless of how much damage it does to him mentally and physically.  Throughout it all, one thing remains consistent and that is Tim’s love of music.  It’s only when creating and talking about music that Tim seems to be truly happy.  It’s his escape from a world that often seems like it’s conspiring to swallow him whole.

The film ends on what should have been a happy note.  Tim announces his retirement from touring and the film ends with him, in good spirits, on a beautiful beach.  Tim seems like he’s finally found some happiness and a chance at the inner peace that stardom often denied him.  Beyond a title card (which was added for the film’s U.S. release), Avicii: True Stories does not deal with Tim’s death but it still haunts every minute of the film.  Watching this documentary, it’s impossible not to mourn what the world lost when it lost Tim Bergling.  The film stands as both a tribute to his talent and a portrait of a good and likable man struggling to escape his demons.

Tim “Avicii” Bergling, rest in peace.