Reviews Of Scott Walker: 30 Century Man; Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey; Transcendent Man; Limelight; And Lenny Bruce: Without Tears
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/2/12
I recently watched a run of five biographical documentaries on Netflix streaming video that were about, well, assorted wacky folks in the arts and sciences. The five films were Scott Walker: 30 Century Man; Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey; Transcendent Man; Limelight; and Lenny Bruce: Without Tears.
The first of the films I watched was Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, a 2006 film on the music of singer Scott Engel, whose professional name is Scott Walker, due to his initial claim to fame as part of the 1960s pop trio, The Walker Brothers- musicians not named Walker who were not brothers, who hit the big time in Europe but were forgotten in America. After the breakup of that group, Engel ventured out onto a solo career, producing ‘experimental music’ over the last few decades that has descended into noise and spoken word, more than crooning. In fact, with age, Engel’s art has gotten worse with each infrequent release, even though he is idolized by a plenum of rock music talking heads that litter the 95 minute long film: David Bowie (who produced the film, Sting, Brian Eno, and Ute Lemper, among others).
Film director Stephen Kijak’s film is to be commended for never descending into minutia on Engel’s life. In fact, virtually nothing, after the initial information on Engle’s youth, is mentioned of his private life. This is refreshing, for it lifts the film well above any claims of being a vanity documentary. The negative is that Engel’s ‘art’ is simply not good. Yes, he had a deep, powerful bass voice, and it was put to great effect in the early recordings. But, listening to his latest efforts, not only are his lyrics bad (Jim Morrison, Walker is not, even as some talking heads bizarrely link him to T.S. Eliot, Samuel Beckett, and James Joyce)- in a jumbled sense, but they border on PC and the ‘music,’ such as it is, is random and found noise, not harmonies and melodies. To top it off, Engel’s voice is a dim echo of its former glory, often descending into what seems like a parody of some local 1960s television station’s late night horror film show host’s attempt at singing to a bad B film.
Initially, the film plays out like a mockumentary, but the infusion of vintage television clips dashes that surmise. What is not dashed is the reality of how limited the ‘art’ of Engel’s music. Great art does art well. Visionary art pushes boundaries, as well. But, to push the boundaries back, the artist has to stay anchored to the extremes, at least of the art form. In the case of music, this means non-banal lyrics, damning predictable percussion, varying melodies and other such extensions. Simply going off into a corner and wailing, or grunting, is not an extension of music nor singing, as arts. Of course, that is hyperbole, but Walker’s latest efforts smack of a phenomenon known in the arts- that of the spent artist realizing he’ll never duplicate his earlier successes, so he just preens and deranges, then hides behind the veneer of his earlier success, as a ‘genius,’ or the like (and it’s no shock to know Engel worships the Beatniks). Engel simply never expands the boundaries of music- pop nor otherwise, even as talking heads damn many of the progressive rock acts of the 1970s that went far beyond Walker’s experimentalism: Yes, King Crimson, and others.
Scott Walker: 30 Century Man (the title taken from an Engel song) is a well wrought and exquisitely structured film on an ultimately interesting subject, but that subject is not Engel nor music nor art, but the peregrinations of the spent artist in search of that golden nipple needed to nurse him into senescence’s uneasy drool. Now, if only director Kijack can find an artist and subject worthy of his talents, the film will be a landmark in the genre.
While not a landmark in documentary filmmaking, Steven M. Martin’s 1993 documentary, Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, is almost the documentary Kijack’s is, as it has a far worthier subject- electronic musical pioneer and inventor Leon Theremin, but a bit more scattershot execution, cinematically. The 83 minute long film mixes traditional biography of Theremin’s life, his loves (marrying a black ballet dancer in the 1930s), his political persecution in the Stalin era Soviet Union, details on the history, construction, and musical influence of the theremin, and a summary of it all.
The film features interviews with Todd Rungren, Robert Moog, who discourses on Theremin’s role in electronic music, his own influential career, and has a number of lesser known talking heads, and one transcendently silly interview with a literally batshit insane Brian Wilson (of The Beach Boys fame), who speaks wanderingly of how he got the idea to use the theremin for his hit song Good Vibrations. Archival footage and audio only clips of theremin music, as well as clips from many films- including 1940s A films like Spellbound and The Lost Weekend, and 1950s B and sci fi films, like It Came From Outer Space and The Day The Earth Stood Still, testify to the influence of the film.
However, the film’s star is not Leon Theremin, but his younger protégé, the great theremin player, Clara Rockmore. And when I state that this woman was great, I mean it. Her handling of the theremin dwarfs all the other players. This virtuoso could literally make the instrument, which could range from producing eerie to barely tolerable sounds, into an instrument of, well, to beg the cliché, genius. In Rockmore’s air divining fingers, the theremin could sound like the most virtuoso female singing voice ever recorded. Her talent level, on this instrument, is so staggeringly far above any of the other onscreen players that it is akin to watching humans and a cvreature from another species do the same task.
Additionally, this film, unlike the first, is much more dependent upon the technical aspects to cohere it into a narrative and artistic whole. Aside from director Martin, kudos must go out to cinematographer Robert Stone and, especially editor Robert Greenwald. Rare is the film where the editor plays a larger role than the cinematographer, but this is one of those films. By the end of the film, we get to see the long awaited reunion of Theremin and Rockmore- who long feared Theremin was dead, after he was kidnapped in 1938 and forcibly returned to the Soviet Union. The film deserved its many honors at film festivals.
Likewise, instead of a Robopocalypse engulfing Mankind over the fate of artificial life, expect massive lawsuits as AIs seek legal recognition as persons, as well as the right for humans and AIs (full robots or cyborgs) to intermarry- a distant echo of former interracial marriage fights, and current homosexual marriage rights battles. I predicted that some years back in a novel of mine.
If Peter Gatien was a vapid figure on which to base a well produced documentary it’s a shame that an important cultural figure like comedian Lenny Bruce is the subject of such a badly made documentary as Fred Baker’s 1972 black and white mishmash, Lenny Bruce: Without Tears. At a mere 70 minutes running time, the film derails mainly because of its era’s technological inefficiencies, but also because of its creator’s utter lack of vision. A teenager, at home, with a good video camera and software, could produce a better made film in under an hour, nowadays.
This film, however, is an unsynched nightmare that, somehow, through its selection of Bruce monologues and bits (even when tossed together with random scenes unrelated to the material, still works. But because of Bruce (aka Leonard Schneider- no relation), not Baker. And this is because Bruce was not only a brilliant comedian- influencing comedians as diverse as George Carlin, Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy, and Howard Stern, but an important advocate of free speech, who was doomed to an early death, via drugs, because of a) his own lifestyle and b) the relentless harassment and blacklisting of him by local authorities who would, literally, have him arrested by police the moment he uttered a four letter word on stage.
But, if one believes that Bruce appreciation is reserved only for the lower depth of society, as a sort of prelude to the rock stylings of Jim Morrison, one would be wrong, for the film provides talking heads as diverse as Paul Krassner, Mort Sahl, Kenneth Tynan, Jean Shepherd, Nat Hentoff and Malcolm Muggeridge, as well as footage from Steve Allen’s The Tonight Show, which first exposed Bruce to a national audience. Yes, the bits from television are tame, compared to the audio bits taped from live performances, but even amongst the censorship, Bruce’s darting and ferocious wit and satiric nature shine through.
But, near the end of the film, one sees a ravaged Bruce, only 40 at his death in 1966, look like a man twenty to twenty-five years older. If Peter Gatien thinks he had it rough with America’s little moralities, he only need sit through Baker’s film to see how easily he got off, in comparison. So, if Lenny Bruce: Without Tears can be recommended on any level, it is as a tribute to Bruce’s brilliance despite Baker’s film’s flaws, so many and manifest.
Of the films under review, only Lenny Bruce: Without Tears fails, and this despite having the most important subject. The best of the films, and easily so, Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, had the second most important subject, and the three remaining films- Scott Walker: 30 Century Man; Transcendent Man; and Limelight are films that showcase documentary talents that simply need to find the right subject for their talents, as a loony singer, loonier death-obsessed inventor, and drug-addled night club owner simply bear no long term relevance, and people watching these films in a few decades will wonder why these films, as slick as they are, were made, and why, at least one of these directors did not pick a better subject, like the aforementioned Mr. Schneider?
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Salon website.]
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