||3 Artist Documentaries: Genius Within: The Inner Life Of Glenn Gould, American: The Bill Hicks Story, And James Ellroy’s Feast Of Death
Over the course of several evenings I found myself watching an eclectic run of three biographical films of artists of varying quality. The films were Genius Within: The Inner Life Of Glenn Gould, American: The Bill Hicks Story, And James Ellroy’s Feast Of Death, and herein my views on all three works of art.
The first of the three films was the longest, the best of the films, and on the greatest of the artists, and clocks in at 113 minutes in length. Interestingly, all three films’ decreasing running time matched its qualitative content, as well as the skill level of its profiled artist. None of the films, however, rose to the level of greatness. The first film was Genius Within: The Inner Life Of Glenn Gould, a 2009 film directed by Michèle Hozer and Peter Raymont, and was on the well known Canadian concert pianist who died in 1982, at the age of 50.
The film tracks Gould’s rise to fame in his 20s, and his blaze from mere stardom in his native land to international superstardom with his first recording of Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Goldberg Variations. This led to his ability to work with famed conductors who begged for his services, as well as international tours that showcased his eccentric brilliance. By his early 30s, however, Gould ended his life as a touring musician, and decided to concentrate on studio recordings, as well as making full use of the burgeoning technology of the day; sometimes obsessively inserting a singular note difference from one of many takes into the final recorded version of the song. His fame, wealth, and ability to control his own career led to his descent into a mania of neuroses, which some in the film describe as almost reaching psychotic proportions.
The man’s personal life is well limned, as the main affair of his life, with the wife of a composer friend of his, Lukas Foss, is punctuated with interviews with her and her children about their ‘Uncle’ Glenn. He comes off rather well, but one feels that there were serious holes in the man’s existence, resulting in loneliness and drug abuse, as well as possible dementia. That stated, it’s clear that Gould had few rivals in modern piano technique. While no expert on the technical aspects of the art form, it’s clear seeing Gould playing that his recordings of established works was different, and more lively and explorative than other recordings of the same works by other lauded piano masters. Gould also seemed to understand music at a fundamentally deeper level, often telling composers that his deviations to their written work was better because they didn’t understand their own music. He also made a key observation that most written music is dead if it is constant recorded and re-recorded the same way. He asked, ‘What’s the point of doing that?’ I find much truck with these sentiments as applied to my own career in writing, but- aside from qualitative excellence- that’s where any similarities to Gould end.
The only down note one can claim of the film is a tendency for the film’s narrator to speak over the performances of Gould. If the very point of the film is to highlight the uniqueness and greatness of the music this musician recorded in his lifetime, does it not stand to reason that allowing the viewers to actually listen to uninterrupted portions of said music should be paramount?
A similar negative to that which afflicts the overdub of narration on to the music in Genius Within: The Inner Life Of Glenn Gould affects the 2010 documentary American: The Bill Hicks Story, which runs 101 minutes, and follows the rise and premature fall to death of one of the better stand up comedians of the 1980s and 1990s, Bill Hicks. While one might wonder why such a nearly forgotten figure is worthy of a documentary, the film’s directors, Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas, do a good job of making that question fade to irrelevance by giving generous portions of Hicks’ stand up routines, culled from assorted media sources. They show the comic as witty, engaged, funny, and passionate; especially so in the few months prior to his death by cancer in 1994, and the age of merely 32.
The problem this film encounters is that the first 40-50% of its running time is hampered by visual graphics and animation, that tries to be like that seen in the outstanding The Kid Stays In The Picture, admixed with a nonstop logorrhea of narration from friends, family members, and cronies of the man whose insights and memories of Hicks are simply nowhere nearly as interesting as the taped and filmed performances of the man in his element.
Hicks was a comic who rose to fame with a reputation similar to that of Sam Kinison, another comic who died young, and rose to fame using profanity and an outrageous persona, often while slamming contemporary political and cultural topics. However, just listening to two or three minutes of Hicks’ act dispels the notion that there was anything but a vague, superficial comedic resemblance to Kinision. More apt is the comparison to Lenny Bruce, although, in terms of cultural import and originality, Hicks fails such a comparison. However, he was more sophisticated, and had a better sense of himself and his audience, than Bruce did, so his increased stature amongst comedians who merely did standup and never got a break into doing television nor film may be justified.
Also, Hicks’ insights into himself, his family, and the changing nature of the times shows that comedians can be good indicators of the social mores of a time and place. However, while he never made it big in America, he became a superstar in Europe, mostly on the strength of his outspoken liberal political views and, despite his claims to the contrary, his often Politically Correct stands on war, abortion and other cultural hot buttons. At times, Hicks often strayed from that must basic fundament of a comedian. ALWAYS BE FUNNY! People do not pay to hear, nor do they give a shit about, a comedian’s political nor religious views UNLESS he makes them VERY funny, and while, when he was good, he was very good, like the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead, well, you can figure out the rest.
Being exceedingly easy to figure out is the least of the sins of the third film, a vanity documentary that, if it was not financed as a piece of personal agitprop by its subject, the insecure and self-aggrandizing crime writer James Ellroy, it sure plays like one: the 2001 documentary James Ellroy’s Feast Of Death, directed by Vikram Jayanti, which runs 90 minutes, but due to Ellroy’s faux tough guy schtick, seems to last three or four times as long, and the very nature of the man’s filmic egoism makes it all that much harder for real artists who simply state and back up their greatness to be taken seriously, as he panders to the worst instincts of audiences to fall into the trap of believing the very stereotypes Ellroy (and many an aspiring amateur) delights in embodying.
The film ostensibly promises to ‘investigate’ the seamy underside of America’s fascination with murder but quickly devolves into a solipsistic lovefest where Ellroy sucks up to Los Angeles cops, proclaims himself a great writer (presumably on the ego-strokes of hacks like Joyce Carol Oates, who once declared Ellroy ‘America’s Dostoevsky’), and then obsesses over both the murder of his mother- in 1958, and the killing of Elizabeth Short (The Black Dahlia) in 1947, at a supper he has with a number of LAPD detectives and actor Nick Nolte. This allows the nerdy Ellroy to dickwave and curse about sex and violence, even though his writing is, by its very pulp fictive style, almost wholly void of real characterization. Almost all of Ellroy’s heroes and villains are stereotypes that are unnuanced in the slightest. While he is often good at describing a visceral moment of violence, his über-Hemingwayvian staccato affectations render coherent prose of any depth a desideratum, due to the abruptions which come out of nowhere. And, worst of all, the man seems to have fallen into a world of his own making, wholly detached from reality. In this way, he much resembles the sci fi writer, Harlan Ellison, whose own narcissistic delusions are on full display in Dreams With Sharp Teeth, another documentary which, like this, comes damned close to being a dreaded vanity documentary. Like Ellison, Ellroy’s supporters claim he is far deeper than being a mere genre writer, but this is not so, as any read of several pages of his prose indicates: archetypes, at best, stereotypes at worst; dialogue seemingly gleaned from 1950s films noir, attempts at philosophical depth that devolve into execrable pseudo-poesy. No, Ellroy is a genre writer; good and competent in his limited style (a graphic novelist sans pictures), but he falls well short of someone like Mickey Spillane, whose writing lacks Ellroy’s pretensions, but has more real poesy- both within the text, and in the way the moments depicted play off of each other- diegetic or narrative poesy. Great writers explore reality; lesser writers merely evoke it, at their best. Ellroy is the latter. He has famously described how rigorously he plots out the tiniest details of his tales, which only goes to show why they are so void of depth (other than the lack of such in Ellroy himself), and that’s because he allows no room for the books to find their own centers in the very creative act of writing itself. Thus, he is not an artist (much less a great one) but a writer, a pulp fictionist- a typist, in the best sense of that word used by Truman Capote, even though he claims to never type, but send his work out to a typist. This is why L.A. Confidential, the film version of his novel, is so much better than the book, as director Curtis Hanson sliced away a good 60% or more of the excess, to pare the tale down to its essentials. Art and poesy was found in the flab of Ellroy’s excised prose.
If one needed proof of how predictable Ellroy is, even his documentary is full of fluff and advertising ling: ‘a dark journey through the grisly underworld of American murder’ is what the film is labeled. In truth, it’s a stupefying trip through the yawning boredom of a man feting himself at a restaurant with too old and too fat LAPD cops. And that’s the capper: the film is a boring rendering of an intensely boring man, whose idea of wit is to open all of his readings, while on book tours, with such ‘witty’ lines as ‘Good evening peepers, prowlers, pederasts, pedants, panty sniffers, punks, and pimps.’ In short, with his bald pate, throwback 1950s eyeglasses, cheesy mustache, and bow ties, Ellroy comes across as the ultimate wimp trying to look and act tough, yet being clueless of how to do so.
Having stated that about Ellroy the man, I can recommend viewing James Ellroy’s Feast Of Death, as well as Genius Within: The Inner Life Of Glenn Gould and American: The Bill Hicks Story because the Ellroy film displays everything NOT to do as an artist, while the Gould and Hicks documentaries show almost everything to do; with varying degrees of success. James Ellroy’s Feast Of Death thus becomes that artistic oddity whose merit lies not in its art but in its being used as a public service announcement for the many things future aspiring writers of quality need to avoid. That may not be wonderful, but it is something….maybe.