FILM 2021

Heart of a Poet: New Documentaries Portray Conflicted Men in a Complicated World

The subjects in question are multifarious troubadours who invested their souls into their respective trades and maybe even sacrificed their lives in the process

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If there was ever a time to step into someone else’s shoes and experience another place and time, this would be it! While we continue to sit in our homes and wait for the COVID-19 nightmare to end, documentaries provide a unique, somewhat voyeuristic experience. Coincidentally or not, a few covering cantankerous, visionary men and their strange, tragic lives have been released in the last month. The subjects in question are multifarious troubadours who invested their souls into their respective trades and maybe even sacrificed their lives in the process. Their biographical journeys are a little on the dark side, but they’re never boring and collectively, they suggest that it might be a good time for men to take a cold, hard look at themselves in an ever-fluctuating modern landscape.

Val  (Prime Video)

The new documentary on the inscrutable Val Kilmer is an exercise in distilled subjectivity. There isn’t much in the way of breathing room or impartiality since Val exists within its own cocoon – the point of view of Val Kilmer. From the opening scene (featuring home video of Kilmer and his Top Gun co-stars hanging out in a trailer while making fun of Tom Cruise) we quickly realize we’re entering a personal arena. It’s an intimate, insider journey, and the rules are only dictated by the subject himself. This is a little disappointing since he’s a notoriously difficult celebrity whose career suffered due to a problematic reputation. Even as Kilmer rose to stardom in the mid-’80s, the rumor mill circulated stories about a combustible method actor with a penchant for perfection and callousness to his crews. It would’ve been more interesting to get a neutral voice in the room. At times you’ll wonder if this is a grandiose vehicle for self-promotion or a genuine exploration. Actually, it’s a little of both.

Ting Poo and Leo Scott might have directed the movie, but it’s obviously Kilmer’s passion project. Narrated by his son Jack, Val consists of home video footage Kilmer obsessively amassed throughout his life. From 16 mm movies he made with his brothers in Chatsworth, California as a teenager to his days at Julliard, the movie doesn’t disappoint in displaying an artist in the making. There’s also plenty of behind-the-scenes footage from movies like Tombstone and The Doors before they cut back to the present where Kilmer makes appearances at Comic-Con and screenings of his most popular films. There’s some juicy stuff in his video archive, including a cool bit with a young Kevin Bacon and Sean Penn on a Broadway show they starred in together and a nasty row with director John Frankenheimer on the doomed production of The Island of Dr. Moreau.

The movie continually switches back to the present day where we see Kilmer struggling with throat cancer. It’s indisputable that his battle is brave and heart-wrenching, as is his close relationship with his children. Kilmer himself also retains a unique charisma and humor even as he goes through this daily hell. The narrative moves at a breakneck speed and has a certain magnetism, but it’s also self-serving and evades the darker side of his persona. Though there are some news clips regarding his terrible rep on various productions (it would be an absurd omission if there wasn’t), Kilmer never addresses this himself. It’s confusing that a man who’s obviously going through a soul-searching journey wouldn’t confront the stories about his past abusive behavior. Has he made any amends? We are talking about an actor who Batman Forever’s Joel Schumacher called “childish and impossible,” and Marlon Brando famously took aside and said, “Your problem is you confuse your talent with the size of your paycheck.”

The film views its subject’s life through rose-colored glasses so we never really get to know him. Still, Kilmer’s journey is absorbing, especially when it tackles the untimely death of his brother and his painful divorce from Joanne Whaley-Kilmer. There’s no doubt you’ll feel sympathy for the difficult plight Val is going through now, but it’s a shame you won’t leave the movie any wiser about this enigmatic artist than you did going in.

Roadrunner (In Theaters)

Unlike Val, which is clearly biased and definite in its approach, director Morgan Neville’s documentary Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain is a more inquisitive and complex study of a mysterious public figure. Friends and fans alike were stunned when the famed chef, author, and TV host took his own life in 2018 at the age of 61. After gaining fame with his book, Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain became a modern cultural ambassador, traveling the world on his shows No Reservations and Parts Unknown. He wasn’t simply a celebrity chef introducing his audience to world cuisine. Bourdain challenged the ugly American stereotype with his Byronesque humor, deadpan wit, and punk rock ethos.

From various interviews with his compatriots, all of which are impassioned and engaging, the movie sketches a persona of a man who was as comfortable with fellow chefs (David Ripert), as he was with artists (David Choe) and musicians (Josh Homme, Alison Mosshart). He was both a sensitive everyman and a forceful intellectual. Studying Bourdain’s life with a patient zeal, Roadrunner mostly skips over his childhood. Neville touches on his addiction to heroin as a young man, his start as a chef in a shabby  ’70s New York, his meteoric rise to fame with his bestselling book and his awkwardness as an inexperienced television host. The eventual love he cultivated with traveling the world affected his second marriage which produced a daughter, leading to frustration at not being able to just stay home and be a normal father. Conventionality was not Bourdain’s forte and yet a part of him yearned for it.

The second half of the movie takes a darker turn when self-doubt seems to seep into every facet of his life. He feels like he’s shedding a little more of his psyche each time he goes somewhere. His second marriage dissolves. He starts exhibiting emotional deprivation, which results in treating close friends with disdain and cruelty. By the time he falls in love with Italian actress Asia Argento, Bourdain is already a little adrift. His relationship seems to give him a new lease on life, although it seems misguided at times. In one unnerving scene he fawns over her parallel parking skills to the point of embarrassment. On the surface, the romance looks more like a man reaching for a life preserver than a genuine rebirth. By the time their relationship collapses, badly, he’s down and diluted.

Director Morgan Neville walks a tightrope in his portrayal here. He doesn’t want his movie to look like a basic CNN retrospective, with the usual clips of Bourdain eating in different countries, and he wants to pose some profound questions regarding Bourdain’s suicide. This narrative tug-of-war feels strained at times. The movie’s emotional currency and unabashed passion helps it transcend its somewhat basic architecture. It’s a messy affair, but then again so was Bourdain. Above all,  he was a romantic with a poet’s soul. Roadrunner is a heartfelt film that’s both a celebration of a man who encouraged people to step outside their comfort zones and a genuine eulogy for a public figure who battled very private demons.

Searching for Mr. Rugoff  (In Theaters)

Have you heard of Donald Rugoff? Unfortunately, hardly anyone has, although he should take his place alongside other eccentric movie moguls such as Robert Evans, Dino De Laurentiis and Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. Rugoff was a complicated, irascible New York film distributor and marketing visionary of ’60s and ’70s independent and foreign films. An old-school Jewish entrepreneur, Rugoff made going to the movies an intellectual and sexy experience before that was even a consideration. Directed by Ira Deutchman, Rugoff’s former employee and now a film distributor himself, Searching for Mr. Rugoff is not only a fascinating exposé of a bullheaded businessman who changed the face of cinema, but also a remembrance of a time when seeing new and strange movies was a special experience.

Rugoff started Cinema 5, the company that released such groundbreaking films like Swept AwaySeven BeautiesMonty Python and the Holy Grail, David Bowie’s film debut The Man Who Fell to Earth and the exceptional Rolling Stones documentary, Gimme Shelter, and many more. Rugoff saw something in these movies other American distributors did not at the time. While the big studios relied on brash musicals and silly melodramas for their revenue, Rugoff was flying to Italy and France and meeting with new and exciting filmmakers to buy their movies. Cinema 5 also owned the best, independent theaters in New York, such as Cinema I and II, the Beekman, the Plaza, the Gramercy, and others.

A businessman is responsible for creating a culture of cinephiles in this country, because let’s face it, it’s not all about art, but marketing and exposure too. Without Rugoff who knows if these movies would’ve made a dent in this country. Throughout the doc, Deutchman travels to Martha’s Vineyard to find out what happened to the now-deceased mogul. It’s a weak subplot, but it only takes up a small part of the narrative. Most of the movie features interviews with luminary filmmakers (Robert Downey Sr, Lina Wertmuller),  as well as Rugoff’s former employees and his ex-wife and sons. Deutchman sketches a portrait of a cantankerous, maniacal genius who dressed badly, chain-smoked, only ate pastrami sandwiches and left food stains all over his clothes.

“He was kind of a terrible person,” Deutchman admits. Employees described a peculiar, paranoid boss who worked directly from instinct. He had amazing taste in films and a special gift for picking winners, but also was addicted to pills and passed out at almost every screening. Filmmaker Francois Truffaut was shocked that the same man who wanted to buy his film, The Soft Skin, couldn’t stay awake for the whole thing. As the doc outlines, Rugoff was more than just a distributor, he put art films on the map. He created marketing campaigns that are still being used by Hollywood today. He designed avant-garde newspaper ads; he had employees dressed in Medieval outfits walk in front of the theater to promote Holy Grail; and he created the “meet and greet” with directors and actors after screenings.

Reminiscent of another brilliant documentary, 2004’s Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession (which chronicled Jerry Harvey- the brilliant albeit tragic cinephile who created an L.A.-based cable station dedicated to important films), Searching attempts to deconstruct a pioneer who also had “an element of madness in him,” as Wertmuller says. It’s no surprise that Rugoff ended up severely depressed and penniless in his later days, as his myopic obsession with his business became an unhealthy compulsion and his ultimate undoing. It’s impossible to measure his influence on contemporary cinema, but at least this wonderful documentary gives him the same spotlight he placed on so many others throughout his life. (All proceeds of this will be donated to indie theaters presenting the film. See the full list HERE)

Highlights