Performance anxiety: Philip Bosco and Carol Burnett in D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus's Moon Over Broadway

Moon Over Broadway
Oak Street Cinema
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Red Eye Cinema, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.

"This is the pact you make with the devil in the modern theater," muses a playwright in the backstage documentary Moon Over Broadway. "You need a star to sell tickets." These days, the same appears true of docs. Between Lou Reed and Kurt and Courtney, Wild Man Blues and Full Tilt Boogie, it seems you can't swing a Steadicam these days without hitting a major celebrity. Not coincidentally, the four films above could hardly be considered models of cinema vérité. In fact, to the extent that Nick Broomfield's Kurt and Courtney does anything at all, it addresses the impossibility that a decent movie could be made about a star of Love's stature without her approval. Perhaps the trick is to find a star big enough to "sell tickets" but not so gigantic that she ends up directing the doc or blocking its release.

Which brings us to the less-than-omnipotent performing artists at the center of two all-access documentaries: Carol Burnett in D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus's Moon Over Broadway, and the S/M exhibitionists of Broomfield's Fetishes, all of whom had more to gain by becoming someone else's subject than by remaining control freaks behind closed doors. In particular, Burnett must have figured the filmmakers could help cut the risk of her return to Broadway after 30 years, in a hysterically unfunny $2-million comedy called Moon Over Buffalo--but it doesn't come out that way on screen. Spanning six grueling months, from the play's first press conference through its backbiting rehearsals, gaffe-laden previews, and (gulp) reviews after a tense opening night, the film portrays Burnett as a resilient but largely untalented rube. "I'm just very nervous about remembering what we're gonna do," she confesses amid frantic rewrites, and it's clear from her candor that she hasn't seen "Jane," the scathing portrait of Jane Fonda's own Broadway pratfall that Pennebaker made with vérité pioneer Robert Drew in the early '60s.

Instead, the burden of Carol Burnett's celebrity belongs to the playmakers, who are repeatedly shown whispering behind the star's back, mostly about how her TV background in what amounts to a female impersonator shtick doesn't gel with their stated ambition to revive French playwright Georges Feydeau. The catch, of course, is that Burnett's fans will make or break the show, and so the key is to give the core audience a little of what it wants in trade for a few brief moments of freedom (a "pact with the devil" roughly equivalent to director Barbara Kopple's agreement to follow Woody Allen for Wild Man Blues). When the fussy author Ken Ludwig (Crazy for You) draws the line at Burnett's embarrassingly extraneous rendition of a few bars from "Singin' in the Rain," director Tom Moore (Grease) finally dares to give his star the bad news--and the moment plays funnier than anything on stage.

As it happens, the play itself is about a fallen star who hopes Frank Capra will come to the rescue of her sad career. Small wonder Burnett chooses to riff on a third delusional comeback story, Sunset Blvd., when a broken winch forces her to regale the paying audience with an impromptu stand-up routine. As the play's cast (which also includes Philip Bosco and Kate Miller) is given to acting theatrical whether in character or not, performance anxiety is multiplied several times over, to the point where the so-called critics' night show becomes surprisingly suspenseful. Will the Times' Vincent Canby accentuate the positive? Will the audience give its ultimate approval by applauding in rhythm? In fact, as Moon Over Broadway isn't quite Waiting for Guffman, Moon Over Buffalo benefits unconditionally from the well-paved street of dreams. The film's final joke is that, in spite of its egregious flaws and with the help of some creative quote-pulling in the PR war room, this pathetic star vehicle runs nine months anyway.

Speaking of the press, it's been reported that Pandora's Box, the upscale S/M parlor profiled in Fetishes, allowed critics to tour its New York facility as a way of cross-promoting the film and the business. Which is another way of saying that Broomfield's sensational work can hardly rank as investigative journalism if the disciplinarian subjects consider it good publicity. Focusing on a handful of professional "mistresses" and their mostly male clients, who pay up to $1,000 per session to be humiliated in style, Fetishes was commissioned by HBO as a late-night installment of its America Undercover series, and there's a sense in which its palatable kink has been cut to suit the fetishes of cable subscribers too timid to order pay-per-view. The theatrical version playing at the Red Eye reinstates some offending images of pierced nipples and penis slapping, but, as Mistress Raven puts it, "it's all theater," and Broomfield never dares to puncture the proscenium. In fact, the movie's most playful moments find the dominatrices recapitulating their drama with the documentarian. "When I ask you to stay back, stay back!" warns one mistress after Broomfield oversteps his bounds.

The question of how the filmmaker gradually ingratiated himself over the two-month shoot isn't nearly so curious as the legal fine print in some of these painful transactions or the enigmatic nature of Broomfield's own fetish about transgressive women (e.g., Heidi Fleiss, Aileen Wuornos, Courtney Love)--both of which, alas, go unexplained. More than the male client who has a thing about stinky tennis shoes, or the guy who likes licking sweat from his mistress's leather wear, Broomfield's laconic voiceovers and charmingly workmanlike approach make him the film's star, if not its master. Befitting the definition of S/M, the movie does observe a certain transfer of power as a team of mistresses reach out to tickle and pinch poor Broomfield, who strains to hold back a smile while clutching his, um, boom mike. If nothing else, Fetishes hits upon a seductive visual metaphor for the documentarian's submission to his subjects.

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