Toronto 2013: Docs in Brief, Part Two

The Dark Matter Of LoveContinuing my attempt to get caught up on docs from last month’s Toronto International Film Festival, this post wraps up the TIFF Docs section and also includes a couple of films from the fest’s high-profile Gala Presentations. One additional post will round out the remaining sections.

Sarah McCarthy’s latest (pictured above), which will screen as part of DOC NYC’s Viewfinders competition next month, explores how people form loving bonds by focusing on the thorny issue of international adoptions. Claudio and Cheryl Diaz, a suburban Wisconsin couple with a teenage daughter, grow their family by adopting three Russian children – the preternaturally detached Masha and rowdy twins Vadim and Marcel. Facing numerous problems connecting to the kids from the get go, they turn to Dr Robert Marvin, a specialist in parent-child attachment, even as the film proffers other, sometimes unsettling, theories on the topic through curious archival footage. Following the family for a year, McCarthy skillfully captures the results of Marvin’s advice put into practice, as the two halves of the family gradually adjust to their new situations.

whenjewswerefunny_03WHEN JEWS WERE FUNNY
One of the more surprising docs at the festival was Alan Zweig’s existential investigation of Jewish comedy. With a premise that initially suggests a workmanlike survey of old comics, the film instead delivers a thoughtful meditation on identity, with a fairly heavy dose of self-obsession, all wrapped up in a frequently disarmingly funny wrapper. Zweig tries to understand why so many seminal comedians from his childhood were Jewish, and how they maintained such broad popularity while drawing from a very specific kind of cultural background. The problem is, these comedians, interviewed here, never viewed their humor as “Jewish,” leading the filmmaker to seek the opinion of a wide-range of other comics as he reveals his core concern – how to pin down a nostalgic conception of the nature of Jewishness, something he fears is quickly being lost.

There’s a fair amount of nostalgia in Barry Avrich’s biography of the legendary founder of Penthouse, as viewers revisit the sexual revolution and what followed as realized in the pages of what was once the most popular men’s magazine in the world. Eschewing the familiar, and very tired, debates about the morality of porn, Avrich instead focuses on a fairly straightforward chronological review of the development and influence of the magazine within the popular cultural landscape, intertwined with Guccione’s rising and falling fortunes in publishing and other ventures. For the uninitiated viewer, there’s plenty here that demonstrates the unusually low-key subject’s impact, beyond popularizing a rawer sexuality than was originally found in rival Playboy – his commitment to hiring women in key roles unavailable elsewhere in publishing, his championing of the First Amendment, and battles with hypocritical leaders of the religious right, not to mention popularizing science in the pages of his Omni magazine. At the same time, Avrich isn’t shy about pointing out his subject’s shortcomings, from the epic financial catastrophe of CALIGULA to a costly but never-built hotel/casino, and, ultimately, his inability to adapt to the ubiquity of free porn in the digital age.

burtsbuzz_01BURT’S BUZZ
Also receiving the biographical treatment is Burt Shavitz, the founder and face of the successful personal care product line – a grizzled, bearded would-be recluse who claims to prefer his modest Maine cabin to the globetrotting necessitated by his obligations to the company he co-founded with ex-girlfriend, the far more business savvy Roxanne Quimby. As Jody Shapiro’s film reveals, he gave up his stake long ago, but is under some kind of retainer to allow the company to capitalize on his iconic visage through personal appearances. For all his grumbling, he nevertheless seems to embrace the five-star treatment, making special requests during hotel stays, and enjoying the company of younger women. For all the time spent on the origins of Burt’s Bees, and on his ouster, it remains unclear exactly why he agrees to participate in these disruptive promotional tours. Beyond that, Burt’s general antisocial demeanor makes it hard for the viewer to connect to him, aside from one notable scene in which he Skypes with his beloved dog.

Keeping with the theme, but moving into autobiography, is the latest from nonfiction auteur Marcel Ophüls. At 85, the director of such notable films as THE SORROW AND THE PITY and HOTEL TERMINUS turns his camera on himself in this freewheeling reflection on his life and career in film. Frankly, the result lacks a discernible structure and speaks very much to the converted – audiences familiar with his work and that of his famed father Max, who receives extended consideration here. For those not already predisposed to an Ophüls lovefest, it’s hard to imagine this anecdote heavy exercise in (admittedly, largely deserved) self-indulgence will resonate to any degree.

The final TIFF Docs selection, the directorial debut of photographer Chris Jordan and editor Sabine Emiliani (MARCH OF THE PENGUINS), received a decidedly subdued if not outright negative response, going by word of mouth. It was soon revealed that the version which screened should be considered a work-in-progress, so the following should be taken with that in mind. As signaled by its title, the film takes place on the remote atoll that’s home to albatross, the remnants of WWII equipment, and, most disturbingly, the world’s plastic refuse, a great deal of it ingested by the poor birds, hastening their demise. Jordan and Emiliani’s film is undeniably gorgeous, capturing remarkable images of the albatrosses and their unusual domain, but the project as a whole is let down by a strange decision to anthropomorphize the island so that it can tell its own story, in groan-inducing poetic form.

Moving over to Toronto’s Gala Presentations, and back to biopic terrain, actor and comedian Mike Myers makes his nonfiction debut with this tribute to longtime friend and influential entertainment talent manager Gordon. As announced by the film’s title, Gordon is a beloved figure, instrumental in the careers of such diverse performers as Alice Cooper, Anne Murray, Teddy Pendergrass, and Emeril Lagasse. He’s the kind of warm, open subject who excels at behind-the-scenes storytelling that effectively draws in both die-hard fans of his clients and the casual listener, revealing the halcyon, anarchic days of the entertainment industry, when an Everyman like Gordon could just chance into his career. If the film is a bit scattered, betraying both Myers’ closeness with his subject and his inexperience as a docmaker, it can be forgiven for introducing this vibrant, likeable character to larger audiences.

armstronglie_01THE ARMSTRONG LIE
Finally, the second of only two Gala docs I managed to screen takes on a decidedly much more public persona: Lance Armstrong. Originally given access to document the champions comeback from retirement, director Alex Gibney found himself in a unique position to get the full story from the disgraced cyclist after he came clean about his use of performance-enhancing drugs. Gibney makes smart use of the footage of Armstrong pre-doping revelation, following him as he prepared for and competed in the Tour de France, and makes the argument that were it not for his inability to stay out of the limelight, he could have kept the secret that had persistently dogged him for years. While the general facts of the case might be known to the legions of fans who felt betrayed by their hero’s downfall, Gibney’s singular access, combined with interviews with outspoken critics of the athlete, allow the director to craft a compelling and nuanced tale of celebrity hubris.


Filed under Documentary, Film, Film Festivals, In Brief

2 responses to “Toronto 2013: Docs in Brief, Part Two

  1. Would you say that Burt’s Buzz is worth a watch? I enjoyed the trailer, but I can imagine that his antisocial personality would make the opportunity for the audience to get to know him quite difficult.

    • Some viewers have responded more strongly to the film than I have, finding something in the disjunction between Burt’s curmudgeon/hermit ways and the major corporate entity that Burt’s Bees has become and to which he’s still tethered. I don’t actively dislike the film, but it didn’t feel satisfying, and I wasn’t charmed by Burt.

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