If I'm So Crazy, Why Do I Have My Own Movie?

Unconventional wisdom from unstable characters in the City Pages Documentary Film Festival

It's kind of a thrill to watch someone for whom eccentricity is so natural, or at least so thoroughly cultivated as to seem natural. A similar feeling is conveyed by the festival's separate offerings about Hunter S. Thompson and Charles Bukowski. They live like jesters, and partly because they say and do things that most of us can't, they're heroes and anti-role models--even though most of us don't say and do crazy, oppositional things because we don't really want to. For one thing, it's a lot of work. Watching Thompson and Bukowski in their cups and raving, one is struck by the energy needed to consistently stand against every profound or trivial offense: drug laws, offhand remarks, trumped-up DUI charges, poetic cliché, Nixon, Hollywood screenwriters, normal standards of personal hygiene. The line between heroic dissent and loony querulousness becomes hazy. Bukowski, who spent 15 years working for the United States Postal Service, was probably better than Thompson at suppressing his anti-authoritarian impulses, but clearly, for both men, opposition is both crusade and pastime.

Both Wayne Ewing's Breakfast with Hunter (11:30 p.m. Friday, November 7) and John Dullaghan's Bukowski: Born into This (9:45 p.m. Sunday, November 9) peak with boozy ejaculations of bile. Thompson is shown in early 1997 blowing up at screenwriter Tod Davies and director Alex Cox, who were then preparing to adapt Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Cox and Davies wanted to use animation to illustrate some of the psychedelic components of Thompson's book. Thompson hates the idea.

"Write your own fuckin' movie, you're a smart girl," he fumes at Davies. "Just don't fuck with mine by making it into a cartoon"--this despite the fact that the original text quite famously showcased the cartoon accompaniment of Ralph Steadman. Thompson hasn't bothered to read the script, though he sees no reason why this should preclude him from impugning its quality. Later, at Thompson's urging, Terry Gilliam replaces Cox.

In the key tirade from Bukowski: Born into This, the writer rather suddenly explodes at his future wife, hurling every misogynist epithet in the book at her, while limply kicking at her as she leaves the scene. An ugly, pathetic display, yet later we see Bukowski weeping profusely on his wedding day, and in another scene he can barely recite a poem through a flood of tears. The hero of Breakfast with Hunter, despite his apparent absence of self-censorship, remains an aloof showman, but Born into This shows you all the mythic contradictions you could ask for: the workaholic fuck-up; the vulgar romantic; the misanthropic humanist.

The contradictions in Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill's Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (9:30 p.m. Saturday, November 8) are more disturbing. The film is the follow-up to an earlier Broomfield documentary about Aileen Wuornos, the Florida hitchhiker-prostitute who murdered seven johns between 1989 and 1990. Interspersed with clips from the earlier film and featuring a visit to the sites of Wuornos's nightmarish childhood, Aileen features a series of gripping interviews with the prisoner, filmed in the months leading up to her execution in October of 2002.

During one interview, Wuornos refutes her earlier claim that the killings were committed in self-defense. Later, she refutes the refutation. And in her final interview with Broomfield--her last interview with anyone--she is so psychologically wracked that it's hard to watch. "A raped woman got executed, and was used for books and movies and shit," she tells Broomfield, a supporter who, of course, is using her for a movie.

 

Wuornos's outburst brings us to the last of the big questions that I originally said I wasn't interested in pursuing: those of artistic entitlement, artistic motivation, the very function of art. Photographer Shelby Lee Adams, whose work is examined in The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams' Appalachia (3:30 p.m. Sunday, November 9), has spent almost three decades taking black-and-white shots of people in the Appalachian hollers. Adams grew up in the region, middle-class but not entirely removed from the poor of eastern Kentucky, and he has become friends with his regular sitters.

The pictures have the surface aspect of documentary photography, but on closer inspection look like carefully staged compositions, which they are. One shot, of a proud family having just slaughtered and butchered a pig in the traditional Appalachian way, takes on a different meaning when you learn that Adams bought the pig and orchestrated the whole event. The movie juxtaposes the photographer's compelling defense of his methods with harsh criticism of his work. Among the naysayers are local residents and historians of the area, who say the visual cues in Adams's often disturbing portraits--of scarred serpent handlers, unkempt guitar pickers, mentally retarded siblings--exploit and promote Deliverance-style hillbilly stereotypes.

William Styron takes a similar shelling in Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (1:30 p.m. Sunday, November 9), a mix of dramatizations and interviews about the mysterious leader of the 1831 Southampton slave rebellion. Styron's 1967 novel The Confessions of Nat Turner was a bestseller and won a Pulitzer Prize, but it was met with anger by many African Americans. Some found the very idea of a white novelist writing a first-person account of Turner to be presumptuous and distasteful. Others accused Styron of perpetrating images of lustful black monsters in his invention of a love-hate relationship between Turner and the plantation owner's teenage daughter.

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