Of the many documentaries available for streaming on Netflix, very few are worth watching. Some have potentially interesting subject matter, but are ill wrought. Others are just paint by numbers formula documentaries with a political, religious, or philosophic agenda. Still others are just plain amateurish. Then there are documentaries like Bill Rose’s 2005 The Loss Of Nameless Things, about the rise and violent fall of a playwright and dramaturg whose critical and artistic star seemed to be waxing, before, like many clichéd artists of talent, he kyboshed it all and nearly killed himself. Instead, he ended up destroying his brain, his marriage, his past, and his future. The artist in question was Oakley ‘Tad’ Hall III, son of the fairly well known novelist and Academic, Oakley Hall II.
Rose’s film is odd because it is compelling, due to its structural innovation (its first 70% details Hall’s rise, until his 1978 accident, without a single contemporaneous image of Hall, and the last 30% shows the brain damaged Hall dominating the film), even as the life it tells of is both trite and rather tritely conveyed by the man’s peers and friends. Of course, like Arthur Rimbaud, Jim Morrison, Vincent Van Gogh, and countless other artists of merit who flamed out early, Hall is hagiographized as a potential great, even though the little bits of his art the film presents is, well, trite. Naturally, he had an obsession: for Hall it was the mediocre French playwright Alfred Jarry, and his rather over the top work, Ubu Roi. If that’s not enough to give one a sense of the man’s easy box, Hall is portrayed as a sexual magnet for the opposite sex and an artistic outsider and rebel, even though his father was a well known and influential leader of the MFA movement in California in the middle of last century. To say that Tad Hall was ‘connected’ is an understatement. To top matters off, of course, this rebel, in the late 60s, was into partying, sex, drugs, free love, etc. Stories of his ‘brilliance’ and ‘genius’ and other good qualities are neverending, it seems. In fact, here are how some articles and reviews on the film describe the man:
In 1978, Oakley Hall III was a brilliant 28-year-old playwright on the verge of national recognition when he mysteriously fell from a bridge and lost everything.
In 1978 Oakley Hall III was a promising playwright on the verge of national recognition when a mysterious fall from a bridge took his artistic life away.
This documentary focuses on dangerously brilliant playwright Oakley Hall III who, through a near fatal fall from a bridge one late night, suffers brain damage and loses that special talent that had many revere the man as a true genius
As founder of the avant-garde Lexington Theater Company in upstate New York, Oakley Hall III led a fiercely loyal group of actors who held fast to his every word, and for Hall, words flowed as easily as the whiskey he consumed in abundance. Together, the magnetic, brooding Hall and his band of followers transformed a ramshackle Catskills camp into a creative paradise. Fueled by sex, drugs and Hall’s genius, the company staged obscure Absurdist plays….
Reading the above, it’s almost as if people want to believe that artistic talent is akin to melodramatic tendencies and self-destruction, when the vast majority of great artists are nothing like that and the few that are like that get overexposed, thus leading to poseurs who think by approximating the rather easy side of the equation (melodrama and self-destruction) they will somehow absorb the actual talent, skill, and accomplishment, as well.
And everything that Hall’s cronies and theater troupe say reinforces that perception of Hall as a phony- a man rebelling and competing with his father, besting the old man, and then seemingly losing a purpose in life. It’s as if Orson Welles was not crushed by William Randolph Hearst and the Hollywood studio system, but by his own ego. Unfortunately, nothing that would display the supposedly brilliant mind of Hall- either as a creative demiurge or interpreter- is shown. The excerpts given from his plays, like the verse melodrama Grinder’s Stand (from which the film gets its titular inspiration). are unfortunately melodramatic and predictable. His ‘genius’ is all a thing granted by believing the words of people that, in all honesty, come off as minor league artistes. But, then we get the climactic fall, and we switch gears and see and listen to the 50something Hall, who recently died at the age of 60, in 2011, of a heart attack. He clearly is brain damaged, and yet one seems to be able to piece together his intelligence, although it’s much like many sciolists in the arts that I’ve come across. His obsession with the wan Jarry is still going, and we get a recitation of the man’s failures since his accident, and how he seems ‘happier’ as basically a bumbling madman that one might step over on a New York City Subway grate.
Yet, to an artist who has known many of these sorts of ‘geniuses,’ the reality is likely that Hall was not nearly as brilliant as proclaimed before his fall and probably much closer to what he really was when the film was shot a decade ago. Did the man suffer? Undoubtedly. But, he also had much handed to him and did not appreciate it. Reading between the lines of several of his cohorts one senses that had Hall not fallen from the bridge he would likely have never come close to his ‘potential.’ His ultimate story, then, concluding this year, as a man who was ‘tragically’ unable to reach his potential, is much ‘sexier’ than what likely would have occurred- a slow fade into oblivion, fueled by alcoholism, infidelity, and egoism. The good thing is that filmmaker Rose actually inspires a degree of sympathy and empathy for this rather pathetic, trite, and despicable figure who, by virtue of a de facto accidental lobotomy, got rid of his demons (oy vey!), and settled into a life of lonesome acceptance, if not joy, of his own self. Would that others were so injured.