“Frittering Away”

“Best Worst Movie” is a Where Are They Now documentary account of the personalities behind “Troll 2,” arguably the best car crash of a B film ever made. It’s all pretty dramatic stuff. The director, Michael Stephenson, once the would-be child star pictured anguished and green above, doesn’t make much of the superlative besides the Upright Citizens Brigade-driven cult frenzy that sparked some 20 years after the film’s original release. His energies are spent instead piecing together the various ways that the film’s comically horrid reputation has played out in each of the actors’ lives since and presently.

From Stephenson’s own ironic look at his dashed childhood dreams of launching a career from a no-name Italian director’s anti-vegetarian gore fantasies to the accomplished career stage actor who, approaching 80, considered the film just another meaningless development in a life frittered away lonely and absurd, “Best Worst Movie” does much more than highlight the really, really hysterical joys of watching (and making!) bad films. With equal attention Stephenson gives us a cross section of the delusional hunger for celebrity: he himself admits this consciousness at 8 years of age, while Margo, now ostensibly schizophrenic and holed up in her self-imposed solitary confinement of caring for another unstable woman (her mother: thus visions of Grey Gardens) waxes inflationary on what “Troll 2” has meant to her: “You compare our movie to a Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart movie and it fits in. Because our movie was all about people and the experiences those people are experiencing. Just as Casablanca and those movies are about people and the experiences they are experiencing.”

I should mention here that it’s not just the nods to the Maysles’ brilliant documentary interest in loneliness and insanity – sure, solitary and completely nutty real life characters are a-plenty in “Troll 2″‘s living specimens; but Stephenson also has some keen ability to express the painful frustrations of any process of artistic production: one can never know the results in advance (the bankrolled Damien Hirsts of the world notwithstanding). Thanks to films like “Hearts of Darkness” and “My Best Fiend,” film goers can bear witness to the agony and ecstasy of great film making. Safe to say that Stephenson has given us the same picture for the worst.

From the Margins Archives – Madness and Social Withdrawal

Bananagrams, the anarchist take on speed scrabble, oftentimes ends with thematic verbal crisscrossing. I won’t argue that every letter combination expresses some form of unconscious desire, but post-mortems can render interesting stories if you “think, really think.” I’ve found that the random selection of films I’ve viewed over the last two weeks themselves crisscross with revealing thematic commonalities.

This week’s theme: madness and social withdrawal.

Not surprisingly, one of the films I watched is Word Wars (Erik Chaiken & Julian Petrillo – 2004), a documentary about the cloistered lives of hardcore Scrabble geeks. It’s not quite as compelling a look at game obsession as The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (Seth Gordon – 2007), but that’s not to argue that one covers its subject matter with more success than the other. The dueling Kong kings in Gordon’s film couldn’t be fictionalized as better opponents. Steve Wiebe – the son of Boeing engineers, down-to-earth father, science teacher and killer toy-drum-kit percussionist – represents Goodness. He’s the endearing counterpart to the Evil Billy, a God fearing patriotic sonofabitch who would stab his own grandmother for a shot at the title. For all the nerdiness of being renowned Kong contenders, the fact that both opponents have lives outside of Kong fills in the documentary with something most of audience can find familiar.

Not so for Word Wars. In this case, we’re talking a group of Maalox-chugging, Brain-booster popping, unemployed Scrabble geniuses that eat, breath and sleep anagrams. Where I left feeling amped about Wiebe’s ultimate victory over the mustachioed douche, the Scrabble guys made me feel, well… depressed (all Q without U hints notwithstanding). Chaiken and Petrillo leave us with a sense that they’ve lost touch with reality, having withdrawn into days and days of 60+ consecutive game challenges in preparation for the annual National Championship. The comparison is a stretch for many reasons, but watching the Maysles Brothers’ Grey Gardens (1975), you’ll likely get the same impression. Here, though, the Maysles may have documented case of serious mental disorder in the Beale sisters (especially the younger one).

New York debutantes and immediate relatives of the Jackie Onassis, the Beales are captured here reminiscing on the days of their youth and beauty. Reality doesn’t go far beyond scrap books of past social successes. The mother still sings beautifully, though she, like her daughter, has lost all interest (or perhaps even sense of) social engagement. They sit together in side-by-side beds, listening to Catholic radio or making their way through vinyl recordings of Beale the elder. The film can be touching at times, marked with the Maysles’ brilliant ability to record unique, accidental moments in the women’s lives. (A stark counterpoint ancestor to today’s reality television, where everyone knows they’re on the tube.) In short: documents of eccentricity at their finest.

The question of madness is of course central to my favorite of this week’s viewing, The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean, 1957). It deserves more than a quick comparison to Grey Gardens (if one is to be found beside mental health), but suffice it so say here that Lean’s epic account of Japanese POWs in Burma, though fictionalized, has no less of a place as a document of madness in society than the documentaries covered here. (To be “marginalized” shortly.)

[Originally posted on the now-defunct Film Margins tumblr, Winter 2010]