Documentary Day

tickledBy now, you’re probably aware of some of the story behind Tickled, the fascinating, bizarre documentary from David Farrier and Dylan Reeve. How Farrier, a journalist with a penchant for offbeat stories, got tipped off to a series of videos of an underground “competitive tickling” competition. How Farrier started looking for interviews, only to get far more blowback and pressure than would seem logical for the situation. How Farrier and Dylan Reeve began investigating the situation, only to realize that there’s a much bigger – and stranger – story behind these videos. But even knowing some of that won’t prepare you for how gripping Tickled really is as a piece of investigative journalism, as Farrier and Reeve move step by step through this insane story that starts with what are clearly fetish videos, but end up in a world where money can let you get away with anything. Tickled struggles a bit along the way; without giving too much away (although there’s little here that’s truly out of nowhere, it’s still best to watch things slowly unfold), this ultimately becomes an effort to find someone who has no interest in being found, which leaves the documentary with a hole to be filled. (The long section where the film tries to present the tickling fetish as something far weirder than it is is a prime example of that, and easily the film’s weakest point.) That leads to a bit of a fizzling end to the documentary, which is why I’m so glad that HBO has released a short follow up, The Tickle King, which follows what’s happened since the film’s release, including confrontations at film festivals, legal threats, and more. It’s a far more satisfying conclusion to the film, even if it leaves out the most recent – and most final – update to the story (which happened in March). But watching them back to back makes for a riveting, bizarre experience, and a wonderful piece of storytelling that immerses you bit by bit into a strange world of fake identities, blackmail, bluster, and more. Even though there are some issues, and the better film would cut out some of Tickled and replace it with the end of The Tickle King, the pairing makes for a riveting night’s viewing that leaves you pondering the strangeness of human nature. Rating: ****

large_2iu7m8zs5fha4ct3c55ah38bc5sWhat I expected from Nick Broomfield’s Tales from the Grim Sleeper was another piece of investigative journalism. This was the story of a serial killer who preyed on South Central, a largely African-American community in Los Angeles, for nearly 25 years. And as such, what I expected was that the film would open with the early murders, then follow the case as it unfolded up until the arrest. Instead, Tales of the Grim Sleeper opens with the arrest of Lonnie Franklin, a largely beloved local man, and then investigates the obvious question: how did this take 25 years? And what does a revelation like this – that a local institution could be capable of possibly more than a hundred murdered women – do to the neighborhood around him? Director Nick Broomfield mainly stays out of the way for much of Tales‘ running time, instead letting the inhabitants of South Central – Lonnie’s friends, the activists, but also the prostitutes, the crackheads, the criminals – tell their stories largely uninterrupted. What emerges is a film that accurately reflects its title: this is tales from the world of the Grim Sleeper, a world where the murder of prostitutes were dismissed with the acronym NHI: No Humans Involved. It’s a world where black women didn’t feel safe going to the police to ask for help, and a world where the Los Angeles police didn’t feel the need to alert the community to the threat living among it, nor to investigate the evidence given by the lone survivor of the attacks…not until 20 more years (and countless more victims) had passed. Tales of the Grim Sleeper is a haunting, heartbreaking film, one that exhibits endless empathy for its interviewees. There is no judgment for their bad choices, be they crack or prostitution or both; instead, the film constantly reminds us that no matter what people have done, they don’t deserve to have been killed in such a horrific way. More than that, it’s a film that makes it impossible to ignore the racial double standard at work with the Los Angeles police, and forces us to grapple with the ways in which that double standard cost the lives of so many women. And most hauntingly, it shows us what it must be like to have to come to terms with the fact that we may never truly know the people around us, and what it would be like to deal with the revelation that someone you knew and cared for could be so violent. Tales of the Grim Sleeper is a haunting, powerful piece of filmmaking, one that’s far more about the world that allowed this man to prey on women and the damage he left behind than it is the man himself – and is all the more powerful for that choice. Rating: *****

weiner-posterIf you’re at all interested in the political process, or the role of the media in that process, or in the line between public and private lives, I can’t recommend Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s fascinating, uncomfortable documentary Weiner, which follows infamous former New York congressman Anthony Weiner as he makes an ill-fated attempt to run for mayor of New York City. Knowing how Weiner turns out – that a new sex scandal will break midway through the election, dooming his chances – doesn’t take away in the least from the fascination of Weiner, which attempts to take a “fly on the wall” approach to Weiner’s campaign and marriage; instead, it makes the campaign all the more excruciating, as we wait for this bomb to explode, destroying all of this work. Weiner does a phenomenal job of staying neutral in its reporting, and the result is fascinating, showing Weiner both as a savvy, intelligent politician and a capricious hothead who’s unable to think sometimes before he acts. In other words, we get both the sense of how great of a leader Weiner could have been, but also why he’s completely unelectable. The film never judges Weiner for his actions, allowing him to explain how little they have to do with his public persona or his platforms, while never flinching from the face of Weiner’s long-suffering wife Huma Abedin, whose strained, placid face reflects the pain she’s in all too often. Whether Weiner should be judged for the actions of his private life, whether the media’s focus on those issues prevented the real problems from being addressed, whether Weiner deserved to be constantly raked over the coals for his actions – the film raises all of these questions, but leaves them to the viewer to decide for themselves. Instead, it shows Weiner as a human being, letting us see both the energetic, avid politician and the conflicted, wounded private individual – and even the blurring of the lines between those two that so often hurts his marriage. Weiner is fascinating as a snapshot of a political landscape where private and public lines blur, as a snapshot of the modern political machine and how it reacts to scandals, and as a humanizing portrait of a flawed human being. All in all, a fantastic watch. Rating: **** ½

9e436d15140d704796d42283497ed5275ff2edf7John Huston’s Let There Be Light first came onto my radar after the release of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, when he cited it as a major influence on that film. It wasn’t all that familiar to me, and once I started looking into it, I understood why. A surprisingly controversial documentary, Let There Be Light was Huston’s effort to capture the realities of PTSD at a time when that phenomena was little understood or even acknowledged. By modern standards, Let There Be Light is a little slow-paced; more than that, it definitely feels of a piece with a lot of the World War II propaganda documentaries that we’ve seen over time, only with a different focus. And yet, none of that detracts from the power of this footage, which simply sits and observes these men as they attempt to come to terms with their experiences. Some have developed twitches or stutters; some have psychologically-induced amnesia; one has even developed psychosomatic paralysis. And over the course of the brief running time, Huston walks us through some of the therapies being implemented, from hypnosis to talk therapy sessions. It’s a calm, non-judgmental film, one that simply depicts these men’s psychic wounds and their efforts to heal. And yet, the government repressed the film for years, worried that it would lead to decreases in morale or a reluctance to enlist. But what’s evident from watching this film is that Let There Be Light is an important piece of work, a way of showing people that war doesn’t just destroy people physically; it takes a toll on the mind, and those wounds are no less deadly. It’s a remarkable, and even an important, piece of film that has earned its place in the pantheon of military documentaries, even if it feels a little slow and overstated by modern standards. Rating: ****

IMDB: Tickled | The Tickle King | Tales of the Grim Sleeper | Weiner | Let There Be Light
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