Wednesday, March 01, 2006

You "DiG!" ?



Further evidence of my total fossilization came yesterday in the form of another interesting documentary, DiG!, Ondi Timoner's 2004 alleged chronicle of two bands, Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols. While I was still listening to the same old stuff - Dylan, Stones, Nirvana, Frank Black, etc. the first band totally passed under my radar.

That's a crime. They're fabulous!

Fronted by the seemingly demon-plagued, iconoclast genius Anton Newcombe, Brian Jonestown Massacre has a totally unique feel and sound. Even their shows were esoteric, if one buys into the documentary. After reading from various sites, including Newcombe's own blog and the band's namesake website, I'm not sure I do.

Timoner's premise seems to start off with a focus on what happens to a band from the attendant pressures of signing with a big label, and how the industry corrupts and prostitutes new talent. Somewhere along the line it derails, and takes the form of portraying Anton Newcombe as a mad Syd Barrett-like genius, spiraling ever downward into a hell of his own creation: drugs, ego, more drugs, band breakups...

Like a really dramatic, lengthy Behind the Music segment that panders to simplistic expectations about music, artistry and excess.

Not to say Newcombe didn't do those things, but whenever viewing these documentaries I'm skeptical of the extent to which the director's narrative desire, rather than the topic, informs the central thesis.

Like Herzog with Grizzly Man, Timoner sifts through footage and seems to cherrypick specific bits that support her larger idea. Unlike Treadwell, Newcombe is still around and able to defend himself from being pigeonholed by someone else's creative views.

Nevertheless, on various DiG! forums, like Grizzly Man's, both are getting thrashed by people naive enough to believe two hours of select footage gives us all the right - and skill - to diagnose and judge someone in the most simplistic of fashions.

I love documentaries, but think they may sometimes do more harm than good. Particularly when they're handily diluted and distilled for the greatest mass consumption. What to make of the rest of these men's lives that don't provide exciting, dramatic footage as filmmaking fodder?

Apparently, for many, the answer is dismissal. If we didn't see Treadwell interacting at all in the winter with students, friends or family, the automatic assumption seems to be that he simply didn't. And if Newcombe had moments of sober, stunning alacrity on subjects other than his own musical desires, apparently they didn't exist if the viewer hasn't seen them on camera. (His blog does prove that he's got much more interest in the world than his own place in it, by the way.)

Neither of them is thought by many to be anything more than what's found and contained on celluloid.

This inherent pitfall in making documentaries about real people simply feeds our already stuffed desire to avoid consideration of complexity and acceptance of people as complicated, contradictory individuals.

Just what we need: a return to black and white thinking brought to us in stunning Technicolor.
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