Future Shock! The Story of 2000AD (2014), and Being Evel (2015)

Director: Paul Goodwin (Future Shock!…) / Director: Daniel Junge (Being Evel)

An interesting double feature.  Future Shock! The Story of 2000AD (2014) is Paul Goodwin’s documentary about the British comic magazine ‘2000AD’.   Being Evel (2015) is a documentary about American icon Evel Knievel, directed by Daniel Junge.  It was financed in part by Johnny Knoxville’s ‘Dickhouse Productions’, and also features Knoxville as a talking head.

“Don’t Trust Your Heroes”

Topically and geographically, these two documentaries couldn’t be further removed.

One is the chronicle of a firebrand motorcycle daredevil, and the people he hurt — not least himself — over the course of a 15 year stunt career.

The other is the tale of the British comic anthology 2000AD, which originated cult characters like Judge Dredd and Strontium Dog, to name but a few.

One is about a huge cult of personality.  The other is about a niche cult of comics.  And yet, despite these obvious differences, there is plenty of thematic crossover here.

Markedly, they’re both about the myth of superheroes.

In Being Evel, director Daniel Junge gets to have his cake and eat it too.  The film’s portrait of Knievel is at once contentious of his mythologised status (early scenes establish that he was formerly an unscrupulous insurance salesman), whilst also paying homage to the hyperbole (in the same sequence, we are told that Evel sold a staggering number of policies, more than any of his coworkers).

Junge’s cutting style is linear.  He lays out the pertinent beats of Evel’s life from beginning to end, in an uncomplicated fashion.  This linearity serves the film perfectly, and the daredevil’s fascinating trajectory contains more than enough torque and momentum to power it.

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Being Evel is a 99 minute documentary that straps you in early and holds you for its duration.  It also contains some hysterically funny ad-libs (most of which come courtesy of Evel’s old ground crews), and the knackered footage of his various leaps remains worry-making stuff to this day — more than thirty years from the fact, my hands still clammed.  Clearly Junge has a lot of archival material to work with here (the film is bursting with it), but this doesn’t overclutter the story, and the proceedings maintain a tight and fast style throughout.

Future Shock! The Story of 2000AD is markedly less linear.  Sections of the film are organised into titled chapters, dealing variously with the publication’s relationships with violence, UK politics, sexism, editors, Hollywood, and plenty else.  These chapters are chock of great stuff, but the lack of a through-line means the final product lacks something of the bullet-focus so distinct in Junge’s film.

But I digress.  Back to that ‘myth of the superhero’ part.

Like I stated up there, both of these documentaries do something, rather pointedly, to confront the fallacious nature of superheroism.  As writer Neil Gaiman notes: “don’t trust your heroes” was the mantra of 2000AD.  Artists with the magazine wanted to unseat the flawless comicbook hero (see: Clark Kent), in favour of a less splendid, morally grey alternative.  Their mission, as they saw it, was to plant distrust for authority, distrust for broad ideas, in a new generation.  This modus was accomplished with the invention of Judge Dredd — a fascistic, mass-murdering stormtrooper, in the guise of a superhero.

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In Being Evel, Junge seeks to do something similar.  With candid interviews, press recordings, and home video, Junge pares away the stuntman’s heroic facade, the one peddled by Hollywood and Ideal Toys, and reveals the selfish philanderer underneath.

But this isn’t the only way in which these two documentaries intersect.

In Future Shock!, a great deal is said about the efforts of certain writers to elevate the status of the comic books, which had long been relegated to toy racks, disregarded by many as simple juvenilia.  One of the core aims of 2000AD was to upend this notion, and to finally intellectualise the medium.

It is in much this same way that Junge’s film seeks to elevate the stunt performances of Evel Knievel — postulating that the daredevil was a figurehead of truth, in a decade (the 70’s) polluted by lies and uncertainty.  In a particularly memorable segment, actor Guy Hamilton asserts that Evel’s enduring popularity may well be the result of his commitment to an act without artifice.  And he has a point.  With so much popular entertainment that is spurious and bloated, it’s hard not to appreciate Knievel’s feats for their honest simplicity.

S.S.

Berberian Sound Studio (2012), and Duke of Burgundy (2014)

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Director/Writer: Peter Strickland

Peter Strickland both writes and directs these handsome, but frustratingly top-heavy, chamber pieces.

To date, I have seen two of Peter Strickland’s films.  I was lucky enough to catch The Duke of Burgundy in the cinema (where it had only a limited run), and later watched Berberian Sound Studio on television, when it aired on Film4.

The two films share a lot of the same pros — both are beguiling, atmospheric, period-set character studies.  They also share the same core problem — namely, the absence of a satisfying conclusion.  This is probably a little overstated, and I’m aware that complaining about a lack of closure in art cinema is wholly redundant, but I was irked all the same.

In both films, Strickland creates a microcosmic world, out-of-joint with reality, and ornamented with stylised filmic horror.  In Berberian, it is the world of gory Giallo, and in Burgundy, it is the world of softcore sexploitation (think Black Emmanuelle meets Hammer’s Karnstein Trilogy).  Both aim for a sumptuous 70’s style-set befitting of their analogues.

Burgundy’s premise is fascinating, and the conceit of Berberian is no less so.  The former is about two lesbian lovers, both lepidopterists, whose relationship is gradually consumed by one party’s escalating fetishism.  The latter concerns a quaint English foley artist, tasked with designing the sound for a splattery Italian horror film.

When I first heard these loglines I was sold.  They were so singularly evocative that I determined to see both films as soon as I possibly could.

It wouldn’t surprise me if Strickland had that same eagerness when he conceived of them.  I imagine both ideas were expedited to the page slightly too soon.  I suppose the trap is: ‘this idea is so good, I needn’t plan it.’, when in reality, the opposite rule applies.  Of course, I am just speculating here.  These ideas might have been gestating in Strickland for decades.

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As I have stated already, my biggest gripe with these films is their endings.  Both tumble into paranoia just slightly before their last reel, and it is at this point (with story tensions coming to a head) that Strickland falls back on his visual language — for the last ten minutes, there’s precious little dialogue, and instead, a montage of images takes over.

In both cases I was reminded of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, a film which I admire greatly.  It is after this fashion that Strickland crafts his climaxes — however, whereas the climax of Don’t Look Now threads images and music together coherently (and movingly), Strickland throws coherence out of the window.  There is no longer any semblance of story, and every bit of intrigue, every question (‘Are these lovers going to kill each other?’, ‘Is the technician going to fall victim to a malevolent force, or insanity?’) is lost in the confusion, as the subtly built-up tautness unspools.

Imagine a child crafting, in laborious and painstaking detail, a highly ornate sandcastle… and then trampling it.

This ‘tease and denial’ of a resolution is more apropos in The Duke of Burgundy, given its context (it is a film about sadomasochism), but Berberian Sound Studio (the weaker of the two films, in my opinion) has even less of an excuse.

I hate to kvetch, especially when there’s so much artistry and intelligence in these films — barely any of which I’ve talked about — but frustratingly, it’s the disappointment I remember best.  After all, even the most fruitful relationships can be tainted by a messy breakup.

In my search for closure, I may just have to watch his 2009 debut Katalin Varga.  Wish me luck.

S.S.