True/False Film Fest 2014: The Notorious Mr. Bout and Actress

The Notorious Mr. Bout romanticizes rather than humanizes its rather thorny subject matter.

True/False Film Fest 2014: The Notorious Mr. Bout and Actress
Photo: True/False Film Fest

Maxim Pozdorovkin and Tony Gerber’s The Notorious Mr. Bout teems with a masculine bravado evinced by both the documentary’s numerous male talking heads and its own chaotic, almost exhausting pace, which cuts between home-video recordings, news footage, CCTV cams, animated maps and explanations, and five continents to more comprehensively explain the tribulations (and eventual trial) of Viktor Bout, the convicted Russian arms dealer more colloquially known as “The Merchant of Death,” whose mythological status served as the basis for 2005’s Lord of War.

As Gerber explained in the Q&A following the film, he and Pozdorovkin set out to reveal that Bout isn’t simply a “shadowy Keyser Söze character,” but a complicated man who also liked to spend time with his family and shoot countless hours of home video. The danger in such an approach—and it’s a danger The Notorious Mr. Bout ultimately succumbs to—is that the subject becomes fairly romanticized rather than humanized, since the attempt to reverse one mythological status results in the valorization of another: insistence of Bout’s actual figure as part diabolical, part naïve, part victim. Unfortunately, Pozdorovkin and Gerber’s representation here appears as forced and questionable as much of the media portrayals denigrated throughout the film.

The film does little to complicate Bout beyond home-video footage that shows his marriage, various parties celebrating his wealth, and playing grab-ass naked in the snow. Moreover, slow-motion theatrics precede every subject that sits down for an interview, which provide only hollow stylistics. Curiously, Bout provides voiceover to several sequences, narrating parts of his life before and after conviction. When he arrives in America, he comments on the Brooklyn Bridge—how it’s just as he “recognized it from the movies.” Bout also explains how, by 25, he was a millionaire and, by 30, had “an empire.” Yet, the wrench in all of this comes from Bout’s insistence that he remained unaware throughout that his planes were transporting arms; instead, he simply rented out planes for exorbitant prices. For Bout, it’s “not my responsibility what I transport.”

These claims appear ridiculous on the surface, especially in light of DEA testimony that soberly explains Bout’s guilt. The film’s most compelling figure, and one the filmmakers would have been wise to feature more prominently, is Alla, Bout’s wife, whose presence looms throughout the film as she both rewatches Bout’s home-video footage and comments on her husband’s trial as it unfolds in New York. She remains insistent of her husband’s innocence, but in various moments, it’s clear that her claims mask a vulnerability she feels from having remained oblivious for many years.

Yet, one would be stretched to claim much tragedy in any of the film’s proceedings, especially once it’s clear that the filmmakers are forcing an “outlaw couple” paradigm onto the events, with Bout’s boyish, goofball sociopath as Kit and Alla’s naïve, devoted partner as Holly. Unlike Badlands, however, The Notorious Mr. Bout operates through an unpleasant auto-irony, which plays in equal parts fascination and horror. At least that seems to be the idea. In actuality, the proceedings are far more fascinated than horrified at the unfolding events. And perhaps with good reason, as the filmmakers spent over a decade viewing, shooting, and cutting footage together. But unlike, say, The Wolf of Wall Street, which makes evident its disgust and horror through a cutaway to a graphic suicide and a hyper-chaotic mode that could only be understood as grotesque parody, The Notorious Mr. Bout doesn’t untangle the moral and ethical quandary presented here by the density of reconciling public sins with private passions.

More successful at reconciling private passions with public desire is Robert Greene’s Actress. Greene has apparently become fascinated with investigating “performance” in recent years; his previous film, 2012’s Fake It So Real, followed a group of independent pro wrestlers in North Carolina for a week leading up to their show. Now, Greene turns his camera on Brandy Burre, who retired from acting after becoming pregnant in 2006; most famously, she appeared as Theresa D’Agostino in 15 episodes of The Wire.

As the film opens, Brandy is performing the banal duties of a stay-at-home mom, slumping around, picking up toys, putting away board games, and reassuring one of her children, who complains of a headache, that “cereal will heal your brain.” Greene shoots these scenes on low-grade digital video, almost mimicking the visual fuzziness of pre-digital home videos. The film’s earns its Warholian title through these scenes, which linger on the mundane passions Burre seeks now that she has stepped away from acting. Sitting and speaking about her new life as a mom, she points to her children as her new “creative outlet.” And almost as if trying to convince herself, she says it a second time.

However, Greene’s camera isn’t confined to quiet moments of quotidian behavior; in a bravura sequence, Brandy showers in slow motion, accompanied by an operatic song that renders grandiose what has previously been tranquil. Stepping out of the shower and into the hall, still in slow motion, Brandy is handed a white, plastic coat hanger by one of her children, which she foists in the air. The camera tilts to follow her movement and homes in on a close-up of the hanger, which Brandy raises in equal parts elation and despair. If this is her creative outlet, she must repurpose the domestic space into a stage, something Greene is acutely aware of throughout this sequence and much of the film.

Perhaps the film’s most compelling scene comes as Brandy flips through different episodes of The Wire, explaining her character’s role to her mother. In changing from disc to disc and speaking of what’s on screen as if a distant, unreclaimable moment of artistic prowess, one can’t help but be reminded of This Is Not a Film, when director Jafar Panahi, under house arrest, cycles through his films, switching discs and narrating, realizing that he will likely never be able to create so freely again. In these moments, art becomes personal home video, replete with nostalgia for moments in time that can only be glimpsed by representation; of course, these representations mask what happens off screen—mainly, the sustaining passions of the artists involved.

The final portion of the film details Brandy’s attempt to make a comeback, the results of which I won’t divulge here. Nevertheless, Greene ultimately makes too little of his primary conceit: a documentary about an actress. The layers of potential representation here should be apparent enough, but when Brandy becomes teary-eyed and self-absorbed throughout these sequences, Greene’s approach underwhelms, particularly because it’s clear that Brandy’s on-screen pleas might not be genuine at all, but the emotional appeals of a gifted thespian. Perhaps, then, that’s ultimately Greene’s point and one expected given this festival’s name: In some cases, the line separating true and false is not only thin, but nonexistent. If Brandy is embellishing for the sake of the film, then she’s what she says she is: an actress. And in Actress, it’s ultimately unclear how one would begin to separate the two. In this case, a lack of clarity is illuminating.

The True/False Film Festival runs from February 27—March 2.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

Clayton Dillard

Clayton Dillard is a lecturer in cinema at San Francisco State University.

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