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.