Fame—its pursuit, rewards, and regrets—is in different ways the subject of four new documentaries centering on four distinct individuals, all opening this week in local theaters.
It’s hard to think of anyone who seemed more at ease with fame than Tom Wolfe, the late author profiled in Richard Dewey’s Radical Wolfe, which opens Fri/13 at the Opera Plaza. That trailblazer of “New Journalism” crafted a public persona whose distracting image—that of an old-school Southern dandy in white linen suits—belied both the frequent satirical social-dissection savagery of his writing and the contrastingly discreet cloak of privacy around his own (rather conventional) personal life.
He broke from the voice of “neutral objectivity” then standard in journalism to create freewheeling portraits of singular individuals and milieus from the early 60s onward, applying novelistic techniques to nonfiction terrain. This could be invigorating and revealing, whether scrutinizing star stock-car racers, San Francisco hippies or astronauts (in The Right Stuff). It could also curdle into pure snark, as in his notorious sendup of a 1970 Black Panthers fundraiser at chez Leonard Bernstein’s—a funny piece, but one that seemed to ridicule the very idea of the privileged caring about the underprivileged, or indeed of any dialogue between races. Similar perspectives were amplified in his eventual novels, from megahit The Bonfire of the Vanities though later, less successful works.
Such stances (as well as his enormous popularity) resulted in spats with the “intellectual left” that he seemed to enjoy, despite claiming to be apolitical. It is notable that his surviving champions interviewed here include the likes of Christopher Buckley, Hoover Institute personnel, and billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel. This trim (at just 75 minutes), workmanlike documentary prefers to stay on the surface of a glittering if “controversial” career, suggesting its critics were mostly just jealous.
While their circles sometimes overlapped, it’s hard to think of a figure more oppositional to Wolfe than the one given a somewhat exhaustive forum in Miri Navasky, Maeve O’Boyle and Karen O’Connor’s Joan Baez: I Am A Noise. For her, music and activism have been equally earnest, rarely-separable pursuits. The film is framed by footage from her farewell concert tour in 2018, at age 79. The earliest performance clip here is from 1958, and she estimates she spent fully one-third of the next six decades on the road. It was a life she was suited for, as much as any, as she admits finding the adulation of the crowd much easier to deal with than one-on-one relationships.
“The right voice at the right time,” Baez rode a folk revival wave to national, then international fame at age 18. We see her deep subsequent involvement in the civil rights and antiwar movements; these early years remain so indelible that by its halfway point, I Am A Noise has only reached 1965, skimming with comparative haste over later eras.
With her fabled “pure” soprano and yea purer politics, she has always been an exemplar of Sixties progressive values—sometimes, perhaps, a bit insufferably so. But the halo of near-saintly altruism gets dinged in the confessional content here, which isn’t “damaging” but reveals a more complex private individual.
Among surprise revelations are a significant lesbian relationship not long before her famous involvement with Dylan; quaaludes being her “drug of choice” for eight years; and a host of mental health issues (depression, anxiety attacks, et al.) whose causes she ultimately decides include childhood sexual abuse—though other family members have vehemently denied those “recovered memories.”
All this may be Too Much Information for some viewers, but as ever, Joan Baez is nothing if not highly intentional in even this late-breaking avalanche of self-disclosure. I Am A Noise opens Fri/13 at Bay Area theaters including the SF’s Opera Plaza and Metreon, plus the AMC Bay Street in Emeryville and Piedmont in Oakland; it opens Mon/16 at the Smith Rafael Film Center, with Baez in person for a Q&A on Nov. 3.
A life spent in stubborn yet mostly futile pursuit of renown is examined in Brian Vincent’s Make Me Famous. Its primary focus is the scrappy, now-fabled NYC art scene of the 1980s, from which Basquiat, Haring, Schnabel, Scharf, Koons, et al. emerged—turning an “underground” into a cultural phenomenon of frequently stupefying financial rewards. That era and its breakout “art stars” have been amply documented elsewhere. But this film is about one contemporary who didn’t “make it,” despite no lack of trying.
Edward Brezinski was among many 1970s San Francisco Art Institute graduates who flocked to Manhattan at its infrastructural nadir, “living in incredibly devastating poverty” (as one art dealer says of him) while nonetheless able to rent large live/work spaces in neighborhoods still far from gentrification. He even turned his sixth-floor walkup opposite a homeless shelter into a gallery. Despite the scourges of AIDS, crack, crime, et al., others flourished in this adverse environment, bringing “painting back with a vengeance” after years of conceptual-art vogueishness.
Somehow, though, this determined “oddball” failed to be “discovered.” His “mania to be noticed” led to some questionable stunts, and he was purportedly a mean drunk. But the real problem seemed to be lack of enthusiasm for his work—oil portraits that were expressionistic yet unfashionably retro, stencils arriving too far ahead of their Banksy-embraced moment.
Not particularly well-structured, Make Me Famous nonetheless compels as a sort of mystery. Not only do we puzzle why Ed’s career never took off (his work certainly looks good now), but eventually it emerges no one is certain if he really died in 2007 Nice, France, or at all. He’s a vivid personality in the ample old video footage utilized here, though surviving relatives don’t seem fond of him, and erstwhile artistic colleagues are still backbiting and gossiping 40 years later. He may still be less than famous, but at least he’s become a certifiable enigma. The documentary plays Sun/15 at the Roxie Theater, then Tue/17 through Nov. 3 at the 4 Star Theater, both in SF.
Both attracting and repelling fame’s ugly sibling, notoriety, is the latest quarry of New Zealand investigative journalist David Farrier, whose work frequently walks a fine line between corruption expose and character assassination. Mister Organ finds him becoming intrigued by an anomaly in his upscale Auckland neighborhood: People parking in a business zone outside a closed antiques shop are routinely made to pay up to $800 to get their car wheel de-clamped by a minder who seems to lie in wait for just such opportunities. It’s legal… and also kind of a scam. The more he digs into the identity of the fine-levying gentleman concerned, one Michael Organ, not to mention his ambiguous relationship with the shop owner, the more bizarre things get.
Mr. Organ, who sometimes claims to be a prince or count, is… a colorful personage, to say the least. His past activities are somewhat murky, but it is clear he spent time in prison for stealing the yacht of the landlord who evicted him from his sex shop for nonpayment of rent, that many former acquaintances (if they’re willing to speak at all about it) felt exploited and intimidated by him, and that he is an endlessly grudge-keeping “litigious nightmare.” Needless to say, once Organ is aware that he’s attracted Farrier’s notice, that attention gets reciprocated in disturbing ways. Soon the filmmaker is being hauled into court, informed that Organ somehow has acquired a copy of his house key, and taking phone calls in which guess-who prattles for “hours on end about absolutely nothing.” He seems to have gotten himself into a “black hole” with a delusional sociopath who “refuses to let anything go” and “bores people to death until they jump off a building,” at least figuratively speaking.
Farrier made a similar wild-goose-chase documentary, 2016’s Tickled, in which his seeking the truth behind a tickling fetish website (whose models frequently wound up blackmailed and slandered by a shadowy owner) led down a very dark hole indeed. At the bottom lay another well-off, somewhat closeted gay man with a taste for manipulation, identity disguise, and nuisance lawsuits. It was amusing, then shocking, even scary.
But Mister Organ doesn’t lead anywhere so definite, or damning. Its subject, whom we eventually learn once spent time in a mental institution, certainly appears someone best avoided. Yet whatever horrible revelation Farrier hopes to uncover about him never quite arrives. The film itself (whose “investigation” began way back in 2016) does ultimately feel like harassment—never mind that we don’t exactly sympathize with this particular harassee. If you keep poking a snake, it will bite. But this movie inadvertently raises a different concern, namely: What’s the point? Wouldn’t it be better for all concerned if you just left that snake unpoked? Mister Organ opens Fri/13 at the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission.