May 21, 2020 § 2 Comments
Soon after Netflix released the new Ryan Murphy-Ian Brennan miniseries “Hollywood,” I heard from Chris Yogerst, a University of Wisconsin film professor who has corresponded with me off and on since 2010, that Peg Entwistle’s story was a major theme. Naturally, I got right on it.
Since releasing my short film “Peg Entwistle’s Last Walk,” my documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign” in 2009 and my book of essays (Peg Entwistle and The Hollywood Sign) in 2013, a number of Peg-related projects have been announced, such as this one ://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2014/10/05/the-newly-announced-peg-entwistle-biopic/ , but “Hollywood” is the first major one to be completed. It’s also the most imaginative, using Peg’s story not as a grim cautionary tale but the departure point for a wildly revisionist Hollywood history.
At the outset of “Hollywood,” a script about Peg is greenlit by the Paramount-like Ace Studios. The screenwriter, Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope) is predictably male but also black, and his struggle to make it in Hollywood gives him empathy for Peg’s tragic story. Fortunately for Archie, his champions at Ace Studios are self-professed outsiders: the director Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss), though passing for white, is half-Filipino, and the acting head of production Avis Amberg (Patti Lupone) is a former silent film star whose acting career was cut short by her apparent Jewishness.
Though the Peg Entwistle project begins as a straightforward biopic featuring a blonde, white starlet, Avis agrees to cast Claire Wood (Samira Weaving), a Dorothy Dandridge-like actress whose screen test blows away the competition, in the lead. Thus Peg becomes Meg, and the film changes from a tragedy to a triumph of interracial romance and career redemption. If that weren’t enough, a major subplot involves Archie’s romance with the young Rock Hudson, and the couple soon smash racial and sexual barriers by walking the red carpet hand-in-hand at the Oscars. When Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec) becomes the first Asian to win an Academy Award, every studio-era wrong is righted, and it’s only 1948.
In short,”Hollywood” is a fantasia of racial and sexual justice. Though it’s based in fact–Rock Hudson, his manager Henry Willson (Jim Parsons) and the gas station/prostitution ring all existed–the series becomes increasingly fantastical as it careens toward a universal happy ending. This revisionism actually works for Peg Entwistle’s story, which–stripped of her Depression Era suicide–becomes a tale of movie stardom and true love.
Unfortunately, Ryan and Brennan can’t let go of the biggest myth about Peg: that the Hollywood Sign symbolized Hollywood The Industry. In fact, it didn’t even symbolize Hollywood The Place. As I’ve said many times, the Hollywoodland Sign (which is how it appeared even when “Hollywood,” is set) was a billboard for the neighborhood where it stood. What it symbolized was real estate, nothing more. If Peg Entwistle hadn’t been living in Beachwood Canyon in 1932, she would have chosen another spot from which to jump–or might not have jumped at all.
As for Peg’s drinking beforehand, it didn’t happen, not only because there were no legal alcohol or bars during the Depression but because no inebriate could have climbed Mt. Lee, let alone the ladder to the top of the H. In “Meg” this fiction does, however, give Rock Hudson something to do: in the role of bartender, he not only serves Meg a drink but tells her how to get to the Sign. The directions, it should be noted, are accurate.
For Peg Entwistle’s actual story, as well as photos and artifacts, here are links to my film, documentaries and book:
April 21, 2020 § Leave a comment
Curious about the documentaries that inspired this blog? Here’s a good chance to see them at a bargain price. Beginning today, each purchase of a full-length documentary on DVD will include a free companion documentary. Each order of “Under the Hollywood Sign” will come with “Peg Entwistle: The Life and Death of an Actress”, while each order of “Jim Thompson, Silk King, 2015 Edition” will come with “The Jim Thompson House and Art Collection.”
This offer does not apply to digital downloads and will end as soon as the lockdown ends in Los Angeles. To order, please go to: http://www.hopeandersonproductions.com/dvds/
April 13, 2020 § Leave a comment
I first met Kate Johnson in 1999, shortly after I returned from Thailand with the raw footage for my first two documentaries–a suitcase full of BetaSP tapes that logged in at more than seventy hours. Documentaries are made in the editing room, and the time spent editing far exceeds the time spent shooting, writing and researching. Thus over the next sixteen years we spent countless days working side by side, and the resulting films were a collaborative effort. Weaving together interviews, footage, archival film and stills, music, sound effects and graphics is like making a giant tapestry, and Kate always kept track of the thousands of strands.
Kate edited both “Jim Thompson, Silk King” and its companion piece, “The Jim Thompson House and Art Collection.” Then came “Under the Hollywood Sign,” and its short feature, “Peg Entwistle’s Last Walk,” which I later spun off into a separate film. Our last project was the reissue of of “Jim Thompson, Silk King,” which by 2014 had to be remastered because the original software was obsolete. For the new version, I filled the gaps in the score with new music that Kate composed and performed; it complemented the Thai classical music seamlessly. I also made two new shorts as DVD extras: one on Jim Thompson’s pre-Thailand architectural career and the other on developments on his disappearance since the release of the original documentary in 2002.
Throughout our time together, Kate was an invaluable source of ideas and guidance, providing the critical eye I needed. The fact that she was the only editor I’ve worked with says a great deal about her immense talent and range. Since she did it all, I never needed a sound editor, graphic artist or visual effects person, and only once did I use an outside composer.
In addition to editing my work and that of others, Kate was a filmmaker in her own right, and in 2015 won an Emmy for “Mia: A Dancer’s Journey.” Somehow she also found time to be a professor of Digital Media at Otis College of Art and Design, passing on her skills to a new generation of visual artists.
Because most of what I do is solitary, I found in Kate Johnson the longest and most significant working relationship of my career. My struggle to accept her passing includes the stark realization that I will never have a comparable collaboration, either in importance or duration. Brilliant and unique, she was also, for me, irreplaceable.
July 23, 2019 § 1 Comment
There’s a lot to love about “Remember My Name,” the fascinating new documentary directed by A.J. Eaton and produced by Cameron Crowe. David Crosby is a great raconteur, and the fact that he’s having a late career renaissance–four new albums in as many years–makes this a far more dynamic film than the recent “Echo in the Canyon.” (Interestingly, Crosby enlivens that one too.) His eloquence and candor are evident throughout, and Eaton, an excellent interviewer, helps to organize the stories and put them in historical context.
We learn about Crosby’s family life–his father, Floyd, was an Oscar-winning cinematographer who shot some of the most important aerial footage of World War II, while his mother, Aliph, loved music–and his introduction to guitar via his older brother, Ethan. Success came early via the Byrds, but when Crosby was fired from that band he went on to even greater heights with Crosby, Stills and Nash, the first supergroup. After Neil Young joined the trio in 1969, CSNY’s debut performance at Woodstock was a high point of the festival.
Crosby recounts the heady days of his career as entertainingly and insightfully as we’d expect. And when things turn bad, beginning in the 1970’s–with his worsening drug addiction, the tragic death of his adored girlfriend Christine Hinton and the breakup of CSNY–he’s just as frank. But about one of his defining traits–a talent for alienating those closest to him, including the bandmates who stood by him in his darkest hours–he’s less open. Though Crosby says it can’t be a coincidence that none of his musical colleagues will speak to him, he’s vague on the reasons, aside from those that broke up the Byrds (speeches from the stage about the Kennedy assasination conspiracy theories, for starters). It’s striking that a man who’s wise enough to write an advice column has a blind spot about his character, apart from his acknowledgment that he’s “an asshole”.
Then there’s Crosby’s penchant for petty, permanent grudge-holding. Passing by Ciro’s, he recounts meeting Jim Morrison there and developing an instant hatred for him. Why? Because Morrison took off his sunglasses, saying, “You can’t hide from me.” Beyond the fact that this incident took place in a dark club more a half century ago, it should be noted that that Morrison has been dead for 48 years and never made it past the age of 27. But Crosby isn’t done with him yet. At his next stop, the Canyon Country Store, he eyes a photo of The Doors and says “I didn’t like those guys”, adding, “Morrison–what a dork.” In a final, mind-boggling slam, Crosby says, “I don’t think they ever lived [in Laurel Canyon]”–though he could have thrown a stone and hit Jim Morrison’s house from where he stood.
Things get better with a lengthy, photo-filled segment on Joni Mitchell, his girlfriend circa 1968-1969, in which she finally gets the attention “Echo in the Canyon” denied her. Still, there are some digs. Though Crosby praises Mitchell to the skies–“she’s the best songwriter and musician of all of us”–he also grouses about her ingratitude for his contacts in the music business, as if she really needed him to open doors for her. When he recalls how Mitchell broke up with him via a new song (probably “For the Roses,” though he doesn’t say) that she performed–twice–at a dinner party, we understand her reasons.
In light of his obnoxious, self-destructive tendencies, David Crosby is a lucky man, and he knows it. After serving four years in Federal prison for an assortment of drug-related charges, including running from the law, he married his longtime girlfriend Jan, had a son, and got a new liver (paid for by Phil Collins, though he doesn’t mention that generous gift). Despite professed financial problems, Crosby now lives with his family, dogs and horses on a ranch in the lovely Santa Ynez Valley. In light of his tumultuous, drug-fueled life, surviving to tell the tale for posterity would be feat enough. Instead, at 77, an age when most of his fellow musicians are retired or dead, Crosby is touring and recording new songs, unstoppable in his musicianship.
July 18, 2019 § Leave a comment
Since seeing the newly restored version of “The Doors,” I’ve been on a deep dive into the band’s music, interviews, reviews and concert footage. I was a child during The Doors’ heyday and clearly remember first hearing “Light My Fire” on the radio: it was thrilling, a song like no other. I was particularly impressed by the second verse: “The time to hesitate is through/No time to wallow in the mire/Try now we can only lose/And our love become a funeral pyre.” Though I didn’t know then that these lines were Jim Morrison’s contribution to Robby Krieger’s first-ever song, I recognized that rhyming mire and pyre with fire was genius.
Later I would learn why The Doors’ music sounded so different from other bands’. The bass lines played by Ray Manzarek’s keyboard instead of a bass guitar were one reason. Robby Krieger’s bottleneck, pick-less guitar playing and flamenco background were others. John Densmore’s jazz influences set him apart from other rock drummers. Finally, the Latin, jazz and blues roots of all three musicians came through in The Doors’ sound.
Then there’s Jim Morrison, frontman for the ages. If no other band has successfully imitated The Doors, it’s safe to say that most rock singers have tried to imitate Morrison, whose wild, immersive performances set a high bar. In Tom DiCillo’s 2009 documentary “When You’re Strange” (Netflix), there’s stunning sequence at the 22 minute mark: footage (set to “Love Me Two Times”) in which Morrison leaps, writhes and flails his way through a series of increasingly chaotic concerts. Timeless in his leather pants, boots and Dionysian curls, Morrison fearlessly connects with his audiences, fighting his way through police lines to hold them in his thrall. Ray Manzarek often compared him to a shaman, and there is a touch of the divine in his Native American-inspired movements and trance-like writhing. Though he considered himself a writer first and foremost, Jim Morrison understood stagecraft as few other singers have. His all-out performances, enabled by copious drinking and drugging, no doubt contributed to his death at 27.
Then there’s his voice, a doomy baritone that was much-criticized in the band’s heyday but which seemed, even to the childhood me, perfect for songs that were often in minor key. Both Morrison and the rest of The Doors worried that he wasn’t a good enough singer, and his purported lack of musical talent led his father, Rear Admiral George S. Morrison, to write a disparaging letter that caused a permanent rift between them. Yet from 1970s onward, his vocal influence is everywhere in rock. Iggy Pop, Ian Curtis, Ian McCulloch, Dave Gahan and Trent Rezner are just a few of the singers who owe Jim Morrison an enormous debt. And don’t get me started about his leather pants.
June 1, 2019 § 3 Comments
Though Laurel Canyon has been home to musicians for more than a century, its musical reputation peaked in the mid-to late-1960’s, when the Byrds, The Mamas and the Papas, Frank Zappa, Carol King, Buffalo Springfield, Canned Heat, John Mayal, Neil Young and The Doors all lived there. The Canyon gave these musicians the perfect atmosphere for collaboration and creative ferment: close proximity to one another, a casual drop-in policy and sanctuary from urban distractions. The resulting songs have become classics.
Andrew Slater’s new documentary “Echo in the Canyon” is a chronicle of that heady time that features, among others, Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, Brian Wilson and Michelle Phillips. But the heart of the project is Jakob Dylan, who skillfully conducts the interviews, plays versions of the songs with his excellent band and, according to the Q&A after the screening, secured the licensing of songs that otherwise would have been prohibitively expensive, if not unavailable. Born in 1969, Dylan is not only the bridge between older and younger musicians but rock-and-royal royalty and a true heir to the California sound. Perceptive and humble throughout, he also provides the biggest laugh of the film. When David Crosby recounts, “Dylan was there,” Jakob says, “You have to be more specific.” Crosby smiles. “Bob was there,” he says, instead of the obvious “Your dad.”
Even for those familiar with the musicians and their work, “Echo in the Canyon” offers some surprises. I learned that the Byrds were the center of everything, influencing, and being influenced by, Eric Clapton and the Beatles, among many others. According to Ringo Starr, the Byrds were the Beatles’ favorite band, and Roger McGuinn confirms that the Beatles were the Byrds’. Seeing Brian Wilson, Eric Clapton and Steven Stills laying down tracks for new versions of their songs was another highlight. And Michelle Phillips’ delight at the new version of “Go Where You Wanna Go,” was heartwarming, much as I would have preferred her to sing it.
But “Echo in the Canyon” has notable problems. The structure is haphazard, and interviews are juxtaposed with long shots of Jakob Dylan driving around Hollywood and the Sunset Strip, cut with mysterious footage of a young man walking the same streets in the late-1960’s. Though the source of the archival footage isn’t revealed until later in the documentary, it’s “Model Shop,”a 1969 film by Jacques Demy starring Gary Lockwood and Anouk Aimee. In The New Yorker, Richard Brody describes the film:
…George follows [Lola’s] car throughout the city—and Demy daringly films that pursuit, and a wide range of George’s other jaunts by auto through Los Angeles, in the cinematic interest of showing not George but L.A. The movie is a virtual documentary about the city, a visual love poem to Demy’s new world.
While nostalgic, “Model Shop” has nothing to do with the music of its era, and its inclusion is merely atmospheric padding. Another drawback is some of Dylan’s choices of singers. Fiona Apple, Regina Specktor and Cat Power lack the style–and in the case of Power, the range–to sing these songs well. Beck is ill at ease singing harmonies, though he rallies on the solos. Apart from Jakob Dylan, a superb cover artist, only Jade Castrinos, who delivers the soaring high notes of “Go Where You Wanna Go,” succeeds in capturing the California Sound.
Then there are the film’s omissions. Jim Morrison, the most notorious Laurel Canyon denizen, goes entirely unmentioned, along with the rest of The Doors. While it’s true that The Doors’ music didn’t influence that of their musical neighbors, their absence is striking. A far more egregious omission is Joni Mitchell, who not only lived in Laurel Canyon during its heyday but is the only one of its musicians whose stature is still growing. (Among the myriad artists who’ve cited her influence on their music are Elvis Costello and Prince.) Yet Mitchell isn’t mentioned even by her ex-partner Graham Nash, a less important musician who contributes one of “Echo”‘s least interesting interviews. The fact that Nash’s most famous song, “Our House,” memorializes his and Mitchell’s domestic life in Laurel Canyon only makes matters worse.
After the screening and the Q & A, Jakob Dylan and his band, including Jade Castrinos, put on an excellent performance of songs from the film. (The soundtrack of the same name was released concurrently.) But the real surprise was the appearance of Steven Stills and Roger McGuinn, who performed with gusto. As Stills launched into a smoking rendition of “Questions,” my jaw hit the floor; I never would have expected to see him live, let alone for free. Unfortunately, my fellow Angelenos were less impressed: a sizeable number left before and during the concert, apparently too jaded to appreciate such a rare gift.
May 21, 2019 § Leave a comment
Note: This post contains plot spoilers.
Normally I see scores of movies in theaters each year, so it was odd to realize I didn’t remember the last time I’d seen one on a big screen. Comfort and convenience were part of my reason for staying in, but mainly there was nothing I wanted to see. Superhero movies bore me; horror isn’t my thing, and the rest of the offerings were far less compelling than HBO’s “Barry,” or any number of shows streaming on Netflix and Amazon.
ArcLight Hollywood, for many years my second home, apparently took note of my absence. In March I got an email reading, “We notice that you haven’t used your ArcLight membership recently,” but their offer of a discount in the cafe wasn’t inducement enough to return when there was nothing to see.
Then last week, as I was beginning to wonder whether I would ever go to the movies again, a film opened that actually interested me. Joanna Hogg’s “The Souvenir,” about a doomed first relationship, is a romance like no other, an autobiographical story layered with documentary footage and stills, historical and cultural markers and echos of earlier psychological dramas. The result is a far richer and more complex film than the well-trod story line–naive young woman gets involved with older, troubled man–would suggest. Days later, I’m still thinking about it.
Set in England in the early to mid-1980’s, “The Souvenir” follows Julie, a privileged, unworldly young film student, through a multi-year affair with Anthony, a worldly, decade older art historian (and Foreign Office employee, or so he says) who casts himself as her intellectual and sexual mentor. Anthony is pompous toff imbued with the confidence of a first-class education (Cambridge and, before that, Christ’s Hospital, a boarding school whose silver-buttoned blue uniform coat he ostentatiously wears as a robe around Julie’s fancy Knightsbridge flat). Despite his generally condescending attitude, Julie is smitten.
As weekend visits to their families make clear, Julie’s background is considerably wealthier than Anthony’s, but her lack of confidence and sophistication make her his social inferior. Though 21 or 22, Julie is so green that she tries to make a film about a subject she knows nothing about: an impoverished, soon-to-be orphaned boy in Sunderland, a northern city hollowed out by the demise of its shipbuilding industry. Her cluelessness extends to Anthony, whose deceit and drug addiction Julie fails to notice even after seeing track marks on his arm. Not until a friend of Anthony’s explicitly says so does Julie realize her boyfriend is a heroin addict, and even then she seems in need of a diagram.
From that point, things go from bad to worse before reaching a predictable conclusion, but Julie and Anthony’s dysfunctional love story is not what makes “The Souvenir” remarkable. Rather, it’s the details: snippets of radio broadcasts that firmly place the film in the Thatcher years; the archival footage and stills of London and Sunderland, shot by Hogg herself; Julie’s brief punk rock interruption of Anthony’s classical music; the IRA bombing of Harrod’s, whose lighted facade Julie can see from her window. At other times, “The Souvenir” skillfully evokes past eras: in London Julie and Anthony dine among older couples in elegant rooms untouched by time, and travel to Venice by train. In the beautiful Venetian sequence–which Hitchcock would have loved–Julie wears a custom-made silk travel suit and a taffeta ballgown straight out of the 1930’s.
The other reason to see “The Souvenir” is the acting. Though Tom Burke is excellent as Anthony, he’s outshone by Honor Swinton Byrne, who plays Julie in a watchful, nuanced way that is all the more impressive given her lack of previous acting experience. While it’s true that she is Tilda Swinton’s daughter, Swinton Byrne doesn’t resemble her mother physically or technically. She is distinct, and it will be exciting to see what she does next.
Yet the greatest revelation of “The Souvenir” is Tilda Swinton, who plays Julie’s mother Rosalind. When I last saw her, in “Suspiria,” Swinton played three major roles: a Pina Bausch-like dance teacher, an elderly male psychiatrist and the monstrous un-dead founder of the German dance company where the story takes place. In the latter two roles she was completely unrecognizable, but in “The Souvenir” Swinton plays a character from her own aristocratic world: a wealthy wife and mother with beautiful manners, a large country house and a London pied-à-terre. She’s kind of woman who, when she comes up to London to visit her daughter, casually brings along one of her dogs. With her ladylike voice, gently curled grey hair, cashmere sweaters and tartan skirts, Swinton transforms herself into someone we haven’t seen her play before: the woman she was brought up to be, and whom she rejected. In a career full of acting feats, Rosalind might be one of Swinton’s greatest creations.
February 21, 2019 § Leave a comment
This week marks the tenth anniversary of this blog, which I started to promote my third documentary feature film, Under the Hollywood Sign. At that point, UTHS was in post-production, and my editor Kate Johnson and I were shaping scores of interviews, around eighty hours of footage and hundreds of archival images into a cultural history of Beachwood Canyon.
Wanting to explore the film’s many topics in greater depth, I wrote about the Theosophists, film stars and oddball characters who populated the Canyon in the early 20th century. I described Beachwood’s natural beauty and wildlife, and the California holly that blooms in the hills each December. I detailed the creation of Hollywoodland, California’s oldest hillside planned community, from its granite walls, gates and stairs to its most famous features: the Hollywood Sign and Lake Hollywood.
After exhausting Beachwood Canyon’s history, I moved on to present-day matters. By then neighborhood was becoming a mecca for GPS-guided tourism, and between 2010 and 2015 the number of visitors in search of the Hollywood Sign surged. Crowds overwhelmed the narrow streets, eroded the trails and drove the wildlife back into Griffith Park. Hollywoodland’s narrow streets, tricky to navigate in the best conditions, became chaotic and frequently gridlocked. Until permit parking was instituted a couple of years ago, residents were frequently trapped in or out of their houses by vehicular and pedestrian traffic that also blocked emergency vehicles. Writing about these issues brought me a slew of hostile comments, the gist of which was our right to use your neighborhood for recreation trumps your right to live here. Long after I stopped writing about local issues, angry and even threatening letters continued to roll in.
These days I write mostly about film–not mine but other people’s. I also write about Japan, where I grew up and whose history and culture I’ve studied for most of my life. As for documentary filmmaking, I’ve stopped. I’ll explain why in my next post.
December 30, 2018 § 1 Comment
Recently I was invited to see “The Other Side of the Wind,” the long-awaited final film from Orson Welles. Though it’s streaming on Netflix, I was eager to see it as Welles had intended, and where better than at Netflix’s beautiful headquarters in Hollywood?
Netflix’s pride in “The Other Side of the Wind,” was clear from the moment I set foot in the lobby, which is dominated by a giant lighted screen of its poster (as well as a wall dedicated to the season’s other prestige project, “Roma”). If someone had told me a year ago that two of the most anticipated movies of 2018 would be black-and-white art films, I wouldn’t have believed it, but it’s true.
Those who bemoan Netflix’s growing clout in movie production should try to imagine any of the old-line Hollywood studios backing a largely unedited forty-year-old experimental film shot on different film stocks in both black-and-white and color. Oh, and with faulty and at times nonexistent sound. None of them would have touched the hundred hours of raw footage with a barge pole, let alone sunk millions of dollars into fashioning it into a film. That project–which took a comparatively fast two years–is detailed in a companion documentary, “A Final Cut for Orson: 40 Years in the Making.” I found as fascinating as the movie itself, and recommend seeing it beforehand.
“The Other Side of the Wind” was described by Welles as a painting with a frame around it. The painting is the film directed by the central character, Jake Hannaford (John Huston), while the frame is Hannaford’s 70th birthday party, attended by his cast, crew and a group of journalists who attempt to interview Hannaford while filming the goings-on. The cast includes many filmmakers. Some, like Claud Chabrol and Paul Mazursky, play themselves; others, like John Huston and Peter Bogdanovich, have leading roles. The film-within-a-film is silent and plotless but beautifully shot in 35mm Technicolor by Gary Graver, Welles’s DP during the 1970’s, who didn’t live to see his best work on the screen. Jake’s story is shot in black-and-white, and the juxtaposition makes “The Other Side of the Wind” seem as if it’s set in different eras. While Jake’s project is an Antonioni-like art film, Jake’s party is vintage Welles: conversations about mortality and sexuality, crowded rooms, shots fired, and–at the end–a death.
Welles was fifty-five when he started filming “The Other Side of the Wind,” but it’s a young man’s movie: messy, brash and uneven. For every gorgeous moment there’s one that doesn’t work, but this inconsistency gives the film a certain charm. I was thrilled to see John Huston on the screen again; I’d forgotten what a great actor he was. But the film’s biggest revelation is Welles himself, a director so ahead of his time that he needed technology that didn’t exist to finish his film. If he were alive today, Orson Welles would find Netflix the perfect home for his imagination and ambitions.
March 7, 2018 § Leave a comment
For me, the highlight of this year’s Academy Award ceremony was the awarding of the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature to “Icarus.” Timely, compelling and suspenseful, the film has something for everyone, and the fact that it’s on Netflix should ensure the wide audience it deserves.
Because its subject is Russian doping in the Olympics Games, I expected “Icarus” to be a straightforward exposé in the style of most “issue” documentaries: talking heads, incriminating footage and generous voiceover analysis. Though “Icarus” has all these elements, it manages to be far more: a personal film, a sports documentary, a mystery and, ultimately, a devastating portrait of our geopolitical past, present and future.
At first the director Bryan Fogel, an elite cyclist, sets out to prove that drug testing for athletes is “bullshit.” In deciding to make himself a test case for doping, he consults with Don Catlin, who founded the Olympic lab at UCLA and devised much of the drug testing that Lance Armstrong managed to beat. Says Catlin about athletes, “They’re all doping. Every single one of them.” He agrees to advise Fogel on his cheating regimen for the Haute Route, a 7-day bicycle race that follows the hardest section of the Tour de France. Having previously come in 14th, Fogel plans to inject himself with HGH and testosterone to boost his performance.
The phlegmatic Catlin soon bows out, fearing for his reputation. This turns out to be the best gift Fogel could have received as a filmmaker, for Catlin’s replacement advisor is Grigory Rodchenko, the Russian chemist who directed the Olympic lab at Sochi and Catlin’s polar opposite in personality. As charming and charismatic as Catlin is dull, Rodchenko becomes the instant star of “Icarus.” His first appearance–via Skype–goes like this:
Rodchenko: What is your ultimate purpose? You would like to beat doping test? You would like to start your hormonal program? Then give sample, prove negative.
Rodchenko: Hahaha. You need a very serious advisor because there are a lot of traps.
Like a spy novel, “Icarus” hurtles along from that point on. Rodchenko smuggles Fogel’s urine samples back to his lab and tests them; he passes. Fogel reaps the benefits of doping in the Haute Route until a bicycle malfunction ruins his performance; still, he evades all the drug tests. Meanwhile, Rodchenko’s situation in Russia grows more perilous: fearing for his life, he enlists Fogel’s help in getting out. He returns to Los Angeles and, once there, can’t return: the death of his friend and boss Nikita Kamaev, the former head of Russia’s anti-doping agency, of a sudden and suspicious heart attack, seals his fate as a political refugee. He reveals the methods used by Russia’s FSB (Federal Security Service) in switching athletes’ urine samples during the Sochi Olympics to the New York Times, is subpoenaed by a Federal grand jury, and provides the information leading to Russia’s ban from this year’s Winter Olympics.
Like the view in a kaleidoscope, “Icarus” begins as a small and intricate pattern, then morphs and expands in countless fascinating ways. If you haven’t already seen it, you should.