Making something other than films was unthinkable for him, Howard Hawks says in the inedited film document on his participation in the 1972 San Sebastian Film Festival, which was presented in Mar del Plata. As the two young interviewers — Jesús Martínez León and José Luis Cuerda, today two veterans of Spanish cinema — say Hawks’ statements were just like his films: precise, clear and simple. In the interview, which took place while sailing along the Basque coast, Hawks made it clear that his films always corresponded to his interests (if he made westerns it was because he liked to ride horses), and draws a line between himself and directors like Peckinpah, explaining that if he had to ‘kill’ someone, he would ‘kill’ him and that’s it; not throw buckets of blood like in “The Wild Bunch”.
Although the only real interest in discovering these images is to underline his visit to Spain and show that in those days it was not impossible for two young students to interview a director of Hawks’ status, its inclusion in Mar del Plata’s program adds to that of several documentaries about people in cinema and entertainment.
The Souls of Men
Richard Schickel’s “Charlie: The Life and Art of Charlie Chaplin” is a fine documentary that — as the title reads — deals with the filmmaker’s life and work, from his beginnings with Mack Sennett to his testament-like “Limelight”. With a classical interview structure and abundant archive footage — his films and home movies — he is able to demonstrate Chaplin’s wholesomeness as an artist. It is a known fact that for Chaplin cinema was a vehicle for his ideas and interests, but also a breeding ground for his love affairs and personal revenge (as Schickel emphasizes by through a short film in which Chaplin makes fun of Sennett).
Two notable aspects of the film are that it shows that Chaplin was fully aware of the Tramp’s potential from the beginning (and that he knew that giving it up in films like “A Woman of Paris” went against the audience’s interests) and the paradox that his becoming a famous millionaire did not affect the character’s credibility. The only flaw in Schickel’s work is underestimating the interest of Chaplin’s two last films and not including them in his analysis for not being at the filmmaker’s level; not being authentically “chaplinesque”. But can’t Chaplin also be measured through his most piercing failures?
Even though Jackie Chan’s career is very different to that of Chaplin, they have more than one point in common: a lonely childhood marked by poverty and an early artistic talent. Unlike Schickel, director Mabel Cheung’s “Traces of a Dragon: Jackie Chan and His Lost Family” focuses on that period, whereas Chan’s filmography is completely absent. In this sense, rather than making a documentary on Chan, the filmmaker uses his family story and origins to paint a fresco of China in the past century. In spite of the remarkable historic exploration and the interviews with Chan’s brothers — who he does not know yet — the film looses strength when it abandons the actor and focuses on the father, and when it insists on Chan’s emotions, without ever reflecting them on the screen.
Who is Long Tack Sam? That is the first question that his great-granddaughter Ann Marie Fleming asks in her film “The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam”. He was a Chinese acrobat and magician that no one knows despite having had a prominent career. His frequent trips and the fact of not having left a legacy behind him (his company split up once his daughters abandoned show-business) forced Fleming to literally travel throughout the world in search of a story of which she only knows a few fragments. Curiously, Fleming’s most concrete idea of why “Long Tack Sam” has been forgotten is because he refused to play the Chinese crook roles that were the parts available for Asians in the early days of cinema. It is a visually appealing reconstruction, with remarkable animations and photographic montage, but it is overwhelmed by its excesses: too much information and too many special effects (each one of the pictures is animated). Fleming proposes several hypotheses about “Long Tack Sam” beginnings that are not truly interesting and that eventually only cause confusion. Although the overworked image surprises at first, it soon tires because it does not renew its format. It seems as if the director were unstoppably seeking the spectator’s attention by fear of loosing his interest.
Wim Wenders once again shows that when it comes to documentaries he still has the talent that seems to have abandoned him in fiction. “The Soul of Man”, included in the festival’s program at the last minute, tells the story of two jazzmen, Skip James and JB Lenoir. Though they were both very influential in the blues scene, they were forgotten during decades. The story told by Blind Willie Johnson (one of the founders of the genre, represented through Laurence Fishburne’s off-voice and by Chris Thomas King’s acting) surprises by beautifully recreating Johnson’s work, rescuing some images of Lenoir, and creating a terrific counterpoint with both old and new versions of classic songs by contemporary musicians, through a captivating nostalgic look.
The Real Monster
Although it does not have much in common with the abovementioned documentaries, Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill’s “Aileen Wuornos: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer”, is ultimately a film about show-business.
Broomfield’s previous work about Wuornos, “Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer” (1992), showed how the police, some politicians and even her lawyer had tried to make money by selling the story of the first female serial killer to Hollywood. Because of this, Broomfield’s new film begins ten years later, when the antecedents revealed by his research were investigated, and he was summoned as a witness to the trial.
At the same time, Wuornos says that she killed with premeditation, thus denying her previous statements in which she assured that it had been in self-defence. Though her presence is compelling, the film lacks rigor in the use of its resources. At a certain point it uses the “old trick” of counting the days, but it does not provoke any suspense or emotion. It inserts scattered and rather superficial interviews, and tries to find support in an important antecedent that is nevertheless clear from the beginning: that Wuornos is demented and her new version is just a plot to die, tired of being manipulated and cannibalised by the media. It is therefore strange that the filmmaker does not make any reference to “Monster”, the biopic about Wuornos that gave Charlize Theron the Oscar and that is undoubtedly a shadow cast over this film.
© FIPRESCI 2004