The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005, Jeff Feuerzeig)

RIP Daniel. This was jaw-dropping, I had no idea.

“He spent some time in Bellevue, a day or two, was released through a clerical error, and actually opened for Firehose at CBGB that night.” It all sounds perfectly unbelievable, “print the legend,” larger-than-life biography, but Daniel is real and wonderful, so you follow along from his humble beginnings as the stories get wilder. I kept pausing the movie to tell Katy stories until she asked if I was Forgotten Silvering her. Then Daniel wrestles control of his dad’s plane, cuts the engine and throws the keys out the window, and you’ve entered new ground for a rock doc.


Industrial Accident: The Story of Wax Trax! Records (2018, Julia Nash)

Katy overheard me watching this, said it seems like there’s a lot of talk and not much music, and she’s not wrong. Wax Trax! was started by a gay couple in the 1970’s, and this is very much their story, with the colorful rock & roll stories as decoration. In fact it could’ve used more WT! music – when the label starts taking off with some Ministry singles, we hear “To Hell With Poverty” instead of Ministry. Nice touch: we hear someone say “Nine Inch Nails was a terrible catalyst,” before showing the heretic speaking the words (it’s Reznor). The label was said to be popular in the bible belt (“It almost seemed the more conservative a small town you were in, the more you needed a Revolting Cocks record”), and in fact one of the label cofounders left it all behind and moved to Arkansas in the mid-90’s, right about when I was in Arkansas discovering all this music for the first time. The Amphetamine Reptile movie was 100x better, but this one is more emotional.


MC5: A True Testimonial (2002, David Thomas)

I watched this despite having listened to the group’s “Kick Out The Jams” album this summer and thinking it was just okay… and after watching, it turns out the MC5 is the greatest band in the history of rock & roll. One of the most unconventionally affectionate rock docs I’ve seen, with not a single celebrity testimonial, just the surviving band members and their friends and family, making the band seem smaller than they were, which lets the music (and there’s lots of it!) speak for itself.

MC5 faced down the police, constantly got arrested for obscenity, faced down the US fuckin’ Army, and formed the White Panther movement because they wished they could be as cool as the Black Panthers.

The internet says Wayne Kramer suppressed the movie for 15+ years, boooo.


Apocalypse: A Bill Callahan Tour Film (2012, Hanly Banks)

Between songs, some very short interviews, scraps of wisdom and insight. Grab all you can from the Apocalypse man. A few short years later in 2019, Bill is healthy and happy, wide open, chatty and content, touring on another consecutive masterpiece record. Back in 2012, this was more than we expected, and it was good, each song with its own visual scheme, as in the best concert films.


Also watched some live Malkmus/Jicks

Some reunion-era Ween

Yo La Tengo with Jad Fair

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever

and Courtney Barnett

I thought I’d do another Shorts Month, but February turned out to be pretty busy, so I only got to a dozen (plus the Oscar Animation program). Breaking them up into two posts…


Skinningrove (2013, Michael Almereyda)

After Experimenter and now Escapes, I thought it’d be worth watching everything I can find by Almereyda. This one is simply a slideshow, narrated by photographer Chris Killip who’d spent a few years documenting the titular fishing village. We get descriptions of who we’re seeing, how his (excellent) photographs were taken, and what happened after (two of the boys died in a storm). Killip says he’s never been sure what he should do with the photos – I suppose this is what.


Me the Terrible (2012, Josephine Decker)

Girl dressed like a pirate conquers New York, from the Statue of Liberty to Wall Street to the Empire State Building, until a gang of red-suited bicyclists steal her teddy bear in Central Park and she abandons the rest of the conquest. The adults seem to be lipsyncing to voices from old movies. Not at all like Decker’s Butter on the Latch, but fully wonderful in all new ways.


Split Persona (2017, Bradley Rust Gray)

Twin sisters Karrie and Jalissa have a majorly depressed mom. Jalissa always takes care of mom, so she asks Karrie to stay home for once, but apparently whenever mom is left home with Karrie she attempts suicide. Bummer of a little film, possibly made as a PSA for mental health care – it barely exists online, despite coming from the director of Jack & Diane. This was written by a Nelson, whose mom suffers from depression, and it stars a Nelson as the mom, but no word whether it’s Mom Nelson.


Second Sighted (2015, Deborah Stratman)

Movement through space. Stock footage. Water and earth… earth under water, and flowing like water. Graphic markups on photographs. Models and data and data models. Good stuff, and I didn’t even mind the soundtrack: drones, chimes and that chirpy chatter that accompanies old computer images. My first by Stratman – I’ve been seeing her name here and there.


Woodshock (1985, Richard Linklater)

Bunch of pretty annoying dudes clown around at a Texas underground film festival. Daniel Johnston makes an appearance, then the footage starts overlapping and running in reverse in order to get groovy and psychedelic. He calls this a “film attempt” in the credits, fair enough. I spotted GBH and Exploited t-shirts! Shot by Lee Daniel, who was still working with Linklater as late as Boyhood.


Gazing at the Catastrophe (2012, Ali Cherri)

Closeup of a man’s face, his skin tone shifting every couple of frames. A photoshop cursor strokes each of his features, slowly applying scars or burns to his visage, then the picture cuts away to stuttering video horrors for a few seconds, and repeat.

This completely lived up to expectations. I’ve been a big Malick fan since The Thin Red Line, and this movie showed plenty of his current style (whispered voiceovers about pained relationships as the camera pans up through the trees) while forging a whole new one, had the boldness to turn a man’s memories and inner life into a visual montage of the history of the planet Earth. It shows small moments, real and imagined, and becomes almost completely untethered to plot. It’s almost unbelievably gorgeous in the way it looks and moves through time. But all this is what I expected, from reading vague reports of the film’s genesis as Malick’s intended follow-up to Days of Heaven, to its winning the top prize at Cannes last month, to the rapturous critical acclaim it’s been receiving upon release. I expected the best, most ambitious movie of the year, by a long shot, and that’s pretty much what I got, so I’m gonna have to process it for a while.

Jack and his brothers live in a quiet Texas town with proud, hardass father Brad Pitt (representing Nature in the film’s mythology) and pure, uncritical mother Jessica Chastain (representing Grace), both of them loving in their own way. Years later, Jack is Sean Penn working at a giant, modern architecture firm, looking world-weary. He chats with dad on the phone (we don’t get to see Brad pull out the Ben Buttons old-age makeup), but Katy guesses that mom has died, maybe recently. Oh, also there’s the history of the universe and of life on earth, with CG dinosaurs. The movie scatters its narrative for so long, it’s like a two-hour trailer for a life-length feature (or perhaps just the rumored six-hour cut). It’s like nothing else, ever, not 2001: A Space Odyssey or Malick’s earlier movies or anything else it’s being compared to.

Production design by “man in the planet” Jack Fisk (all five Malick features, four by Lynch plus There Will Be Blood and Phantom of the Paradise), shot by Emmanuel Lubezki (The New World, Sleepy Hollow, all the Alfonso CuarĂ³n movies), music (very good, sometimes too large and overpowering) by Alexandre Desplat (Fantastic Mr. Fox, Birth) and edited by a bunch of guys (including, counterintuitively, Jarmusch’s buddy Jay Rabinowitz).

It’s not hard to find people walking about Tree of Life, but it’s surprisingly hard to find film critics as unhesitatingly impressed by it as I was. Suppose they’re doing their job, hesitating to fully recommend the most narratively unhinged major film of the year. I haven’t been recommending it around much myself. P. Bradshaw in The Guardian calls it “a rebuke to realism, a disavowal of irony and comedy.” The movie has no built-in defense against people who snicker at the cartoon dinosaurs and the whispered voiceovers and the biblical metaphors. It takes itself very seriously and demands that you do the same, or the whole thing could fall apart.

Not quite what I’d expected. Thrilling, tense, exciting movie. Brolin and Bardem are impassive Western types, TL Jones is unexpectedly the protagonist. Hardly any music. Good chase scenes in river (brolin vs. a dog) and on abandoned city streets at night (vs. bardem).

TV star Garret Dillahunt played Tommy’s deputy. Kelly Macdonald, who I did not recognize from “Tristram Shandy”, was Brolin’s wife. I knew I’d seen Brolin somewhere… he was a lead in “Planet Terror” (and in The Goonies). Stephen Root as “man who hires Wells”.

On the way home, I was pondering the storyline, decided out loud that while most movies tell you “these are some things that happened”, this movie instead says “this is the way things are.” But I don’t remember what I meant by that.

P. Nugent of Screengrab says about the Coens/Fargo:
“I tend to think of the Coens as surface guys who put an incredible amount of conscious planning into the physical details of their movies, and who are inhumanly aware of how they expect both critics and audiences to respond to their cleverness. It might sound as if I’m one of those people who sometimes badmouth the Coens for being ‘merely’ clever, but cleverness is something I’m all for; at the very least, it sure beats lack of imagination. … Fargo is a smart, impressive movie, but it is also a movie outside what I think of as their best range, and a movie that I think they made for the outside world, a movie pitched at the mainstream.”

Great paragraph from E. Kuersten from his year-end roundup in Bright Lights:
“The Coens love circles… who doesn’t? In NO COUNTRY, locks come flying off in all directions leaving beautiful round holes in which to have light issue, peeping tom doors of perception through which one is able to read at least one thing: a circle! The hula hoops in HUDSUCKER, the hair cream tins in BROTHER; the hubcaps in MAN WHO WASN’T THERE… What do they mean? Exactly! Take ZODIAC, the amazing police procedural that disappears into the same plot void which drowned the old LEBOWSKI. Again, all you’re left with in the end is the shuddering realization that “Hurdy Gurdy Man” is the scariest song ever written. And then in the other corner, you’ve got Tommy Lee Jones playing more or less the same character in both NO COUNTRY and IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH, that is to say, the leather face of America as it looks off from the Medusa-eye view of the circular zodiac watch screen and crumbles to dust. There’s no easy answers, not no more.”

UPDATE: Watched again April ’08 under slightly adverse conditions. Not as caught up in the tension of the thing this time. I admire it as a technical achievement, great acting and direction, but I’ve been veering more towards Black Book because BB has all of those things as well as Something To Say. I’m not sure that No Country is saying anything valuable, and I’m not sure that the Tommy Lee Jones bits pondering the death of decent human behavior offers enough food for thought to outweigh the rest of the film’s constant reveling in human misbehavior.