Film Reviews Of
Trudell; The Eyes Of Tammy Faye; Mario’s Story, And Inside
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/17/13
I recently watched four documentaries involving criminal scandals of assorted varieties, and each film had pros and cons. The four documentaries under examination are Trudell; The Eyes Of Tammy Faye; Mario’s Story, and Inside Deep Throat.
The first documentary I watched was one of those documentaries whose subject was vaguely familiar, via his spoken word performances, but whom I knew little of personally, until the film revealed to me that his other side of life, the non-artistic one, was much more important and interesting than the artistic one. That film was director Heather Rae’s 2005 hagiographic documentary Trudell, on actor and spoken word poetaster John Trudell, who was also the ubiquitous American Indian rights activist of the 1970s, with tangential involvements in such episodes as the occupation of Alcatraz Island, the takeover of Wounded Knee, and the murder trial of Leonard Peltier.
While this is certainly the more interesting side of Trudell, even this side gets little real examination- partly because the film only runs 53 minutes in length, but mostly because Rae is more interested in crafting a bouquet to Trudell rather than informing her viewers. Naturally the Indian activists are all good and the government all bad. Even granting that premise, little background information allows the viewer to truly place Trudell in a spectrum, aside from that of being the Indian most white celebrities want to embrace at a political cause. Among the embracers shown in this film are Robert Redford, Kris Kristofferson, Sam Shepard, Val Kilmer, Jackson Browne, and Bonnie Raitt.
Potential points in the film worth exploring are the deaths of Trudell’s wife and children in a suspicious fire but….Rae raises the issue then quickly drops it, rather than exploring any possible inconsistencies. Such an obvious neglect of journalistic duty (one of a number) removes this film from any serious consideration as a documentary film. On the plus side, it’s refreshing to see the film depict Trudell’s rather dubious ‘art’ as simply the therapy he needed to get over the great losses in more important areas of his life for, truly, Trudell is a poetaster, and his claims as a musician are on even shakier ground. Even sillier are some claims from older Indians who try to claim Trudell is a Native American philosophic giant yet, when we hear him speak, he speaks in the worst Leftist clichés. This is not to say he is not correct on most of the political issues which he has supported, just that it’s clear that these are gut level ethical stances, not any deeply cogitated upon conundra. He is really an odd mix of PC and good sense.
On a technical level, director Rae, cinematographer Gilbert Salas, and editor Gregory Bayne do a fine job of visually exciting the viewer with intercut scenes from old and new sources, staged and news scenes, and color and black and white footage contrasted with a musical score made by Trudell. On an artistic and journalistic level, Trudell is a rather pathetic and feeble attempt to portray a man as Rae believes he should be portrayed, not as he is, or was. Thus, in her own vain attempts to praise the man, she actually stains whatever good his legacy entails with this solipsistic act of cinematic fellatio.
From the reverential to the silly is how one can only describe watching Trudell and following it up with Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s 78 minute long wackumentary, The Eyes Of Tammy Faye, released in 2000. The late Ms. Messner (Nee Bakker) was the weepaholic fashion houndwife of disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker, of the PTL Ministries, whose multimillion dollar empire, built on scamming gullible white trash, mostly, came to an end in the late 1980s with the revelations of Bakker’s affair with his secretary, Jessica Hahn, Tammy Faye’s drug addictions, and rival televangelist Jerry Falwell’s hostile takeover of PTL, under threat of blackmail, while pretending to want to bail out the Bakkers. The end result was that Bakker spent time in jail, Tammy Faye ended up a pariah in the Bible Belt, and became a gay icon for her championing of homosexual rights at a time when few in society, much less Bible-thumping Christians, were doing so- she even later hosted a talk show with gay actor Jim J. Bullock from the sitcom Too Close For Comfort.
Narrated by drag queen RuPaul Charles, this film starts each segment with handpuppet introductions- a tip of the hat to the Bakkers, who started out as children’s show hosts. But, as filled with joyous moments as the film is, it becomes apparent that Tammy Faye was the ultimate pleaser sort of personality, and that this was borne out of a desperate need to be liked. In fact, in one archival clip from her appearance on Roseanne Barr’s defunct talk show, Tammy Faye even admits she wears so much makeup because she feels she is ugly without it. Yet, the film never wades into pseudo-profundity, and gleefully straddles the line between mockery and reverence. Technically speaking, it’s a superbly wrought and entertaining film. No, it’s not a great documentary, but it does leave you with something afterwards, and that’s what all art should do. There is fine work done by musical scorer James Harry, cinematographer Sandra Chandler, and editor Dan Weaver. That the film, ignored upon its theatrical release, has become a cult classic in video, is little surprise, and a fitting encore.
At the end of the film, we see Tammy Faye meeting her second husband, Roe Messner, after he gets out of jail, on charges eerily similar to that of her first husband, and seemingly on the upswing after her first battle with cancer. Only a few years after the documentary, Tammy Faye would, indeed, die of the disease.
If few people would be inclined to root for Tammy Faye, after the scandals that brought her multi-million dollar world of excess to its knees, even fewer people would be inclined to root for a punk Latino gangster from LA who is convicted of murder and given a double life sentence. That is until it becomes glaringly obvious that the accused was innocent, set up for some reason, and framed by an incompetent and desperate LA DA’s office, intent on putting their reputation ahead of real justice. Thus is the tale laid out in the 2007 documentary Mario’s Story, a 97 minute long film, directed by Susan Koch and Jeff Werner, which follows almost eight years of the case after defendant Mario Rocha spends two years in juvenile hall, at 16, and then is transferred to regular prison, Calipatria State Prison in Imperial County, California, at 18, where he later survives two stabbing attacks meant to silence him. His case is championed by the former chaplain at Juvy, a nun named Sister Janet Harris, and a group of lawyers from Latham And Watkins, working pro bono on his case, who, after several setbacks in appeals, at several levels, finally engineer his release from prison in August of 2006, on a writ of habeas corpus petition, which has less than a 1% chance of success, the viewer is told. The film ends with Rocha awaiting a retrial, since the grounds of his release were incompetent representation by his initial lawyer, but, in 2008, after the film’s completion, the retrial was abandoned, and Rocha is now married, and free to live his life.
Like John Trudell, the film tries to make it seem as if Rocha is a poet and writer of substance, but naturally, his writing is as bad or worse than Trudell’s- the same simple-minded doggerel and political rhetoric most bad poets spew. Given all he went through in his life, one might wonder why anything of depth did not penetrate Rocha’s mind. The answer, of course, is simple: like Trudell, Rocha is not really an artist, just a man venting his frustrations over the injustices he endured. And while one can sympathize with the manifest wrongs inflicted upon Rocha (this is where prosecutors and judges should be held legally and financially responsible), to claim him a writer and artist is wrong. Show him as he is: a wronged individual. Period.
This is another well wrought documentary, on a technical level, and, while the cinematography, by Neil Barrett, and editing by director Werner, are good, the standout is the soundtrack, by Joel J, Richard, who knows when to let ambient noise and silence have their way. Overall, a good documentary whose biggest flaw is that it should have been released a few years later, once there was finality to the case, and Rocha was free from legal harassment for good.
If the prior film should have gone on a bit longer, to get total viewer satisfaction, everything about the 2005 documentary. Inside Deep Throat, seems just about right, from its length (89 minutes) to its subject (the most famous porno film ever made) to its directors (Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, the men who also made The Eyes Of Tammy Faye, their prior film, reviewed above). Narrated by actor Dennis Hopper, this film explores the phenomenon of the 1972 film, Deep Throat, whose title invaded the Watergate scandal, whose star, Linda Lovelace- aka Boreman, became a household name, and whose lead actor, Harry Reems, was brought to trial for doing what he was paid to do. Assorted talking heads include 1970s icons director John Waters, writers Norman Mailer, Erica Jong, and Gore Vidal, activists Gloria Steinem and Helen Gurley Brown, comic and talk show host Dick Cavett, filmmaker Wes Craven, and pornographers Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt.
The film makes convincing arguments about the need for the freedom of speech but also realizes that the early porno industry was dominated by Mobsters, who would strong-arm theater owners for their outrageous cuts of the profits. It shows what a hypocrite and liar the star of the film was, as Lovelace first indulges in her porno celebrity, then claims she was forced into porno by her husband, and becomes a Born Again Christian railing against the industry, then, upon being abandoned by the Far Right, willingly returns to porno before her death, in the early 2000s, in a car accident. Co-star Reems had an even worse go of things, becoming an alcoholic after he was blackballed in Hollywood, then turning to Christianity and becoming a real estate agent. But, perhaps the worst off was former hairdresser and the film’s director, Gerard Damiano, who made no money off the film, and ends up living a life of poverty in what should be his golden years.
Even though there is no prurience in this riveting documentary, the film was slapped with an NC-17 rating for showing a few sex scenes from the film, showing how dense the nation still is over one of the most basic of life’s functions. Proof of the enduring popularity of porno can be seen by trolling online for the instant porno a click away, or savoring this number: Deep Throat was made for $25,000 and grossed over $600 million, in 1970s terms. This is surely the greatest profit, percentage-wise, in film history. And the oddest thing is that, just a few years earlier President Nixon’s commission that scientifically investigated pornography found that it had no deleterious effects on its audience, but later studies, done non-scientifically, and with the funds of the Far Right, contradicted that claim, thus spawning the urban legend that porno was socially harmful.
As with all the documentaries reviewed, this one is slick and technically well wrought, with excellent and apropos scoring by David Benjamin Steinberg, solid cinematography by Teodoro Maniaci, and bravura editing by William Grayburn. Inside Deep Throat is not the most thought provoking film ever made, but it is a worthwhile exploration of a subject that is as ridiculed as it is marginalized in latterday banter.
Of the four films contained in this review- Trudell; The Eyes Of Tammy Faye; Mario’s Story, and Inside Deep Throat- the two best are the Bailey and Barbato films, but Mario’s Story is the one that most exemplifies why documentaries are both an art form and a form of journalism. Trudell, by contrast, is just fellatio. Now where would I get such an idea?
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Salon website.]
Return to Bylines