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Bob Ray’s Hell on Wheels and Total Badass

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Bob Ray’s Hell on Wheels and Total Badass

Every year gives us documentaries that society deems we should see, and many of them are good, or, at the least, polished. Perhaps too good and too polished. Man on Wire was visually beautiful crackerjack entertainment that played as a complete gloss on an egomaniac. Young@Heart was undeniably poignant, but it also has a sentimental pity-the-elderly undercurrent that struck me as somewhat condescending. Werner Herzog’s docs are typically glorious but are as much about him as anything else. Errol Morris and Michael Moore make unmissable documentaries, important, theoretically rabble-rousing documentaries (they’d be rabble-rousing if anyone, sadly, seemed to give a damn), but their talents and their showmanship sometimes inspire distrust. These important directors are nearly too sure of themselves considering the troublesome waters with which they choose to swim. The point is that a direct artlessness—while less of a conventionally cinematic accomplishment (and considerably less pleasant to watch)—might be valuable in opening up the sorts of conversations that most documentaries clearly strive to open.

Bob Ray’s two docs, Hell on Wheels and Total Badass, are artless—but that proclamation of artlessness is meant partially as a compliment. The films are ineptly made. You can see boom mikes at various points, and the cameras have a habit of dropping and wiggling and doodling as they would in the films of a particularly promising third-grader. The material isn’t shaped, as scenes are frequently redundant of information we’ve already learned. Informational text is clumsily inserted at various times, and the writing of that text is obvious. Yet, both films offer a little bit of the truth that can be found in raw, unprocessed material.

Hell on Wheels concerns the formation of the first all-girl roller derby in Austin in the early 2000s, an act that would eventually inspire dozens of similar organizations across the country. The premise suggests an uplifting true story of girl power, and, to an extent, Hell on Wheels is just that. But Ray lingers on details that cannier directors would glide over in an effort to approximate a fictional sports film. Much of Hell on Wheels is compromised of footage of bickering between the four captains of the initial teams and the remainder of the players. The captains took charge, picking up primitive on-the-fly lessons in corporate organization in order to get the derby going. The captains elected themselves as leaders of their fledgling company, bequeathing themselves the power they (understandably) felt they earned; while the players (understandably) felt exploited and cheated of a business they paid dues to support—and, in their eyes, invested in.

These arguments could have a rebellious, chic, sexy, reality-TV charge; following these mostly pierced, mostly tattooed, sometimes-lithe wannabe hellcats as they try to forge a refuge from the laws of others. But Ray doesn’t have that calculation, or, I assume, the resources. Ray works cheap and to the point, and so the camera remains mostly still in these meetings for large passages of time. We’re uncomfortable, and we’re more-than-sometimes bored. We feel that we’ve been trapped in a PTA meeting. But an irony is achieved of the sort that one normally first encounters in a school reading of Lord of the Flies. These girls become the kind of perceived-to-be-uncaring “Me! Me! Me!” company they sought to escape, because that devolution of individuality is probably unavoidable if one hopes to coral a large amount of people into one direction, regardless of the nature of that direction. These girls contend with a lesson that might have slipped through a slicker film’s cracks: That all accomplishments might have a root in dictatorship and egomania. But I don’t wish to portray Hell on Wheels entirely as some crude art-savant cave painting. The images of the girls in play are occasionally lyrical. That lyricism, in the context of these women trying like Hell not to fall apart, is casually beautiful and even a little heartbreaking.

Total Badass is harder, much harder, to like than Hell on Wheels. The technique is even cruder, as Ray frequently turns his camera over to his subject, Chad Holt, who seems to be coked up, drunk, stoned, and ranting most of the time. Holt is a Don Quixote of a contemporary, very typical sort: He plays the role of the tortured artist for the buzz and the self-delusional glory all the while failing to produce the actual art. He’s a little-bit-of-everything kind of guy. Holt’s an Austin local who writes and publishes his own magazines (sometimes), performs in a number of bands (sometimes), sells weed (all the time), and launches into tirades that are meant to be profoundly ugly glimpses of the turmoil of the inner soul (all the time). Holt’s days are spent mostly on the above pursuits as well as on his, one presumes, frequent legal troubles, which, at the time of this film, mostly concern an incident of hawking counterfeit wrist bands at South by Southwest—which I admittedly found to be kind of ingenious.

I also admit that I nearly gave up on Total Badass at the 30-minute mark. It wasn’t because of the profanity, which is beyond considerable (this film has to set some sort of record for the use of “fuck,” especially for a 90-minute film); it wasn’t because of the misogyny; or because I thought that Chad was an exceptionally unexceptional douchebag. No, the potential deal-breaker was my perception that Ray—like any number of amateurish promoters for shitty bands—was glorifying Chad as some sort of everyman who fights conventionality and keeps it real. Judgment is an ugly indulgence, but Holt is—at least as presented here—an intolerably self-absorbed human being. Let’s just use the word: He struck me as a loser.

As the film continues though, it becomes obvious that Ray isn’t glorifying Holt. Ray isn’t editorializing in one direction or the other, and this eventually uncovers an honesty. Classic portraits of the troubled—whether it be a song by the Rolling Stones or a book by Charles Bukowski—have one central problem unavoidable in the work of talented men: The brilliance of the artist dilutes the hopelessness of losing. A song by the Stones is still a song by the Rolling Stones, just as a passage of a man puking on his girlfriend’s pussy is still a passage written by Charles Bukowski. Holt’s life is cleansed through no such filter of brilliance, and so the loser story remains—stunningly—without the glory that comes from the ability to create art from low existences. It’s this inability to create or redeem that Chad himself doesn’t comprehend. In his eyes, he’s an artist. Ray has made an unpleasant, partially pornographic film that most people will detest, and I can confess that I will never watch it again—though I’m in danger of making it sound worse than it is. But Total Badass, intentionally or not, has accomplished something. I can honestly say that I want to see another film by Bob Ray. I want to sort through the wreckage, the purposeful from the happy accidental.

Bob Ray’s Hell on Wheels and Total Badass will play at the reRun Gastropub Theater from November 19 – 25.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Adapted Screenplay

After walking back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing here.

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BlacKkKlansman
Photo: Focus Features

Eric and I have done a good job this year of only selectively stealing each other’s behind-the-scenes jokes. We have, though, not been polite about stepping on each other’s toes in other ways. Okay, maybe just Eric, who in his impeccable take on the original screenplay free-for-all detailed how the guilds this year have almost willfully gone out of their way to “not tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film.” Case in point: Can You Ever Forgive Me? winning the WGA’s adapted screenplay trophy over presumed Oscar frontrunner BlacKkKlansman. A glitch in the matrix? We think so. Eric and I are still in agreement that the race for best picture this year is pretty wide open, though maybe a little less so in the wake of what seemed like an easy win for the Spike Lee joint. Nevertheless, we all know that there’s no Oscar narrative more powerful than “it’s about goddamn time,” and it was so powerful this year that even the diversity-challenged BAFTAs got the memo, giving their adapted screenplay prize to Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott. To bamboozle Lee at this point would, admittedly, be so very 2019, but given that it’s walked back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing.

Will Win: BlacKkKlansman

Could Win: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Original Screenplay

This season, Hollywood is invested in celebrating the films they love while dodging the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.

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Green Book
Photo: Universal Pictures

You know, if it weren’t for the show’s producers effectively and repeatedly saying everything about the Academy Awards is terrible and needs to be changed, and the year’s top-tier contenders inadvertently confirming their claims, this would’ve been a comparatively fun and suspenseful Oscar season. None of us who follow the Academy Awards expect great films to win; we just hope the marathon of precursors don’t turn into a Groundhog Day-style rinse and repeat for the same film, ad nauseam.

On that score, mission accomplished. The guilds have been handing their awards out this season as though they met beforehand and assigned each voting body a different title from Oscar’s best picture list so as not to tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film. SAG? Black Panther. PGA? Green Book. DGA? Roma. ASC? Cold War. ACE? Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Even awards-season kryptonite A Star Is Born got an award for contemporary makeup from the MUAHS. (That’s the Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild, not the sound Lady Gaga fans have been making ever since A Star Is Born’s teaser trailer dropped last year.)

Not to be outdone, the Writers Guild of America announced their winners last weekend, and not only did presumed adapted screenplay frontrunner BlacKkKlansman wind up stymied by Can You Ever Forgive Me?, but the original screenplay prize went to Eighth Grade, which wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. Bo Burnham twisted the knife into AMPAS during his acceptance speech: “To the other nominees in the category, have fun at the Oscars, losers!” In both his sarcasm and his surprise, it’s safe to say he speaks on behalf of us all.

As is always the case, WGA’s narrow eligibility rules kept a presumed favorite, The Favourite, out of this crucial trial heat. But as the balloting period comes to a close, the question remains just how much enthusiasm or affection voters have for either of the two films with the most nominations (Roma being the other). As a recent “can’t we all just get along” appeal by Time’s Stephanie Zacharek illustrates, the thing Hollywood is most invested in this season involves bending over backward, Matrix-style, to celebrate the films they love and still dodge the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.

Maybe it’s just tunnel vision from the cultural vacuum Oscar voters all-too-understandably would prefer to live in this year, but doesn’t it seem like The Favourite’s tastefully ribald peppering of posh-accented C-words would be no match for the steady litany of neo-Archie Bunkerisms spewing from Viggo Mortensen’s crooked mouth? Especially with First Reformed’s Paul Schrader siphoning votes from among the academy’s presumably more vanguard new recruits? We’ll fold our words in half and eat them whole if we’re wrong, but Oscar’s old guard, unlike John Wayne, is still alive and, well, pissed.

Will Win: Green Book

Could Win: The Favourite

Should Win: First Reformed

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Watch: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Starring Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton, Gets First Trailer

Joanna Hogg has been flying under the radar for some time, but that’s poised to change in a big way.

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A24
Photo: A24

British film director and screenwriter Joanna Hogg, whose impeccably crafted 2013 film Exhibition we praised on these pages for its “disarming mixture of the remarkable and the banal,” has been flying under the radar for the better part of her career. But that’s poised to change in a big way with the release of her latest film, The Souvenir, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Prior to the film’s world premiere at the festival, A24 and Curzon Artificial Eye acquired its U.S. and U.K. distribution rights, respectively. Below is the official description of the film:

A shy but ambitious film student (Honor Swinton Byrne) begins to find her voice as an artist while navigating a turbulent courtship with a charismatic but untrustworthy man (Tom Burke). She defies her protective mother (Tilda Swinton) and concerned friends as she slips deeper and deeper into an intense, emotionally fraught relationship that comes dangerously close to destroying her dreams.

And below is the film’s first trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t9Al2nC0vzY

A24 will release The Souvenir on May 17.

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