Though the impulse for many during times of stress is to escape into fictional entertainment—or something “stranger than fiction,” like Tiger King—nonfiction can prove just as diverting, and arguably more edifying.
In this column we’ll take a fast look at some new documentary features (and one fact-inspired drama) that examine everything from celebrity marriage to SF-bred heavy metal music, and from world economic inequality to gross abuses of Central American political power. Some of that may sound awfully “good for you,” in a dutifully improving, eat-your-greens way, but one thing these movies all have in common is that they’re thoroughly engaging.
Capital in the Twenty-First Century
The White House response to the current pandemic has been irresponsibly chaotic at best in terms of protecting the population’s health. Yet it’s been very focused on another front: Using the crisis as yet another excuse to provide tax cuts, subsidies, and other cash-grabs to precisely those wealthy corporations and individuals least likely to suffer from drastic economic slowdown. Those actions have only accelerated further a wealth gap that was already expanding for decades before Richie Rich became POTUS.
This excellent new documentary inspired by French Piketty’s 2013 best seller provides a sweeping big picture of how we got here. It suggests that things are coming full circle: To an aristocracy-based, peasant-exploitative system like pre-revolutionary France, in which inherited capital once again becomes the primary, almost sole means of attaining a state of affluence that theoretically is still supposed to be attainable by any industrious striver.
In a flashy, catchy progress illustrated by a lot of old movie and news clips, director Justin Pemberton’s cast of historians, journalists, economists (including Piketty) and others chart the history of modern capitalism. We see how colonialism fueled conspicuous consumption, and vice versa; governments’ frequent violent opposition to unions and worker strikes; the alternating cycles of financial-sector regulation and deregulation, usually punctuated by Wall Street-generated calamities like the Great Depression; the last half-century’s pafrade of inflation, globalization, yuppiedom, “trickle down” economics that in fact only trickle “up,” and so on and so forth—all the way to today’s rise of oligarchs, xenophobia, offshore tax shelters, middle-class shrinkage, and slow death of economic compassion. After the “American Dream” realization for many of the mid-20th century, our new era is on track for 2/3 of the population to be poorer than their parents. As one commentator here puts it, yes: “The system is rigged.”
In content terms, this is a horror movie that will make your blood boil, even if the basic concepts are all likely to be familiar. But it’s also a terrifically clever and entertaining packaging of those ideas, as well as a call to arms of sorts that does offer some degree of hope. To save ourselves from a spiral of institutionalized economic corruption, Piketty says, “We need a progressive tax on capital”—making people support society to the degree that they profit from it, with no loopholes or shell companies. Could that ever happen? Desperation is a great spur, and we may find out just how great all too soon. Capital in the Twenty-First Century can be accessed via the Roxie’s Virtual Theater as of May 1.
Murder in the Front Row: The San Francisco Bay Area Thrash Metal Story
Adam Dubin’s documentary, which premiered at SF Docfest last year, traces the arc of our region’s hugely influential thrash metal scene—not just famous acts like Metallica, Exodus, Possessed and Death Angel, but lesser-remembered bands like Laaz Rockit and Vio-Lence, as well as long-gone venues like the Mab, Keystone and Ruthie’s Inn. There’s plenty of old video performance footage, as well as latterday insights from MVPs like Kirk Hammett and Dave Mustaine.
This 80s flashback provides a good overview of how a punk-influenced club movement gradually came to rival and perhaps finally vanquish the excesses of the “hair metal” era, musically and otherwise. When they won, it was a sad day for the manufacturers of guyliner, spandex and Aqua Net…but a very good day for headbanging music in general. It climaxes with Metallica’s entrance to the big leagues at Day on the Green in 1985, which confirmed that their kind of back-to-basics purism—not, say, power ballads and Poison—would be the heavy musical trend of the future. The film is now available on DVD, Amazon, Vimeo, iTunes and other platforms.
My Darling Vivian
Fifteen years ago the Oscar-winning biopic Walk the Line portrayed Joaquin Phoenix’s Johnny Cash as a henpecked, drug-addled lost soul “saved by the love of a good woman”—fellow musician June Carter, memorably played by Reese Witherspoon. For Cash’s four daughters by his prior marriage, however, that depiction was just another way in which their mercifully just-deceased mother (played as a conventional shrew by Gennifer Goodwin in the movie) was “written out” of a superstar father’s official history. They (including country music luminary Rosanne Cash) are the principal narrators of this absorbing portrait by Matt Riddlehoover of Vivian Liberto, a 17-year-old San Antonian who met the barely-older Air Force recruit just before he was shipped off to Germany, then married him upon his return from service three years later.
It was by all accounts a passionate, initially happy union, though strained by Cash’s increasingly long absences as his music career took off in the 1950s. Vivian was mostly left alone to raise four very young children (plus the menagerie of pets Johnny kept bringing home) on an isolated So. Cal. hilltop, beset by bobcats, rattlesnakes, and fans on drunken pilgrimages to their hero’s house. When Cash started abusing drugs, things got worse, though My Darling Vivian suggests that his spotlight-shy yet strong-willed wife never got over him, even decades after their divorce.
Among the factors that made their relationship even stormier was a barrage of racist abuse—unusually dark in coloring, the Sicilian-heritage Vivian was for a while accused of being “Cash’s Negro wife,” and had to endure the humiliation of proving her ethnicity in court so his career could survive bigots’ boycotting. Though this documentary doesn’t necessarily justify its full 90 minutes (Liberto’s later life isn’t so interesting), it’s a strong testament to a woman who deserved better treatment both from her man and his public. The film is available for Amazon Prime streaming rental through the “SXSW Film Festival CollectIon” (of titles that would have premiered at that virus-canceled event) until May 6, preceding an open-ended release sometime later in the year.
Circus of Books
Netflix is premiering a lot of strong documentaries these days, among them Rachel Mason’s fond portrait of the outwardly staid So. Cal. suburban parents who largely kept their business secret from their children. Because that business was, well, porn: After other, more respectable financial avenues apt for their background and educations dried up in the mid-1970s, Barry and Karen Mason began distributing materials for Hustler publisher Larry Flynt. They then branched into gay erotica, then acquired an adult bookstore (whose profits were going up the prior owner’s nose), then a second. They rode out government crackdowns on “obscene” materials, the AIDS epidemic, collaborating with gay XXX superstar Jeff Stryker, and other challenges before finally the advent of free internet porn killed off their “aging, ailing” operation just recently.
Yet all this they managed to hide from their neighbors, as well as for the most part from their own children. As open and supportive as the Masons were towards their gay employees and customers, they still somehow weren’t quite prepared when two of their own three offspring turned out to dwell on that side of the Kinsey scale. Though titillatingly amusing for its ostensible subject matter, Circus of Books is really less about sexual issues (or products) than it is about parent-child dynamics. Much of it is occupied by filmmaker Rachel’s quibbling with her mother, who admittedly “wears the pants in the family” and remains a mini-monster of micro-management, while dad Barry simply refuses to get bothered about anything. They are funny, contradictory, and relatable.
Other Netflix documentaries of recent vintage include Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story, about the long path to clemency of a sex-trafficked teenage prostitute given a life sentence for killing an allegedly abusive client; A Secret Love, about the real-life, long-term lesbian love story between pioneering pro women’s baseball players that mysteriously got left out of their depiction in A League of Their Own; and (premiering Wed/6) Becoming, Nadia Hallgren’s portrait of Michelle Obama.
Winner of the Camera d’Or at Cannes last year, Cesar Diaz’s first feature isn’t a documentary, but was originally conceived as one, and utilizes primarily non-professional actors to tell a story from Guatemala’s recent history. During that country’s lengthy civil war decades ago, myriad political activists and apolitical ordinary citizens alike were tortured, raped, and/or killed by government forces.
Here, young Ernesto (Armando Espitia) is a forensic anthropologist working to identify remains found in mass graves many years later. His dedication turns to obsession when one village woman travels to the city, pleading for excavation of the rural site where soldiers buried most of her slaughtered community in 1982. A photo she brings of her dead husband also seems to include the image of Ernesto’s own father, an erstwhile guerrilla leader who “disappeared” at the same time. Neither his boss nor his widowed mother (Emma Dib) welcome our protagonist’s newfound, very personal zeal. But he does get the answers he’d been seeking—even if they turn out not to be the ones he was expecting.
Though just 78 minutes’ long, this Belgian co-production achieves considerable power in blending verite elements with scripted drama to depict the lingering impact of genocide. Streaming rentals will benefit shuttered independent movie theaters throughout the country.