Sunday, March 02, 2008

The League Watches: Confessions of a Superhero

I had planned to try to see "Confessions of a Superhero" a while back. I think we'd planned to go with CB, but something came up.

Anyhoo... It showed up from Netflix today, and as I'm a bit under the weather, I popped it in and watched.

A long time ago, I recall some joke about the best way to get the respect of your peers in film school was to go shoot footgae of a neighborhood hobo in black and white for a few hours, get the person to tell you a sad story and then call it "Umbrellas Under Sadness". Or something of the sort. If anyone knows the exact quote, please share. But, ultimately, the idea kind of describes how I feel about a lot of "character" based documentary. Up close, everyone comes off as bizarre, and so its kind of an easy trick, especially when you can get someone living outside of normal expectations to talk to you, and a director and editor making a narrative from the whole cloth of a life.

It goes without saying that people who make a living by standing in front of Grauman's Chinese Theater dressed as Superman, etc... have, at some point, taken the path less traveled. Yes, these subjects have a story to tell, but it's never really clear if this is a new story we haven't heard before, even without the superhero angle. The documentary points out somewhat unintentionally "Going to Hollywood and maintaining a delusion of impending stardom when all Signs Point to No makes for a kind of pathetic story". And it's a story most people already know or we'd all be in LA wondering when we were going to get our break as a leading man or lady.

The movie is mostly about the shattered lives of four Hollywood wanna-be's, and seems to be trying to use the costumes of superheroes as a symbol of their hope, but only occasionally. Unfortunately, the movie fails to answer too many questions, and so whatever message they were trying to say, what the movie winds up conveying is "these people are off their nut, and they have no marketable skills. Also, 3 of 4 of these people is certifiable, and number 4 is working her way toward some bitter disappointment."

Folks who see the movie and who know me will, no doubt, wonder about my reaction to Christopher Dennis, the movie's Superman. Mr. Dennis seems like an affable enough guy. And while I admire his collection of Superman memoribilia (which easily dwarfs my own), he's a fan who has chosen to follow his obsession to the exclusion of everything else. The fact that he has found love is, to this viewer, not a surprise. He's found someone who finds him endlessly fascinating and who has accepted him as he's accepted her (she seems to have her own quirks). The Dennis segments are an unintentional cautionary tale for folks like myself, I guess. I did appreciate the advice he gave "Ghost Rider" about what behavior is acceptable when in costume/ character. But the film also demonstrates why I never want to go to the Superman Festival in Metropolis, Illinois.

The biggest issue was that the movie raised literally dozens of serious questions about the subjects of the film, and then does nothing to resolve those questions. In effect, you feel almost as if you know less about the subjects at the conclusion of the film than you did at the beginning, and its a frustrating way to view a documentary.

The film's subjects somewhat casually tell stories which demand follow up, but the film never does the work for the viewer. Our Batman tells tales of working in the Italian mob, killing the family of a former lover, and acting as an enforcer. Superman claims to be the child of actress Sandy Dennis, while Ms. Dennis's family claims she never had any children. Our Hulk discusses being homeless, but we're never told why. And Wonder Woman isn't much of a mystery, but we never get why she and her husband split, but the fact that they married two weeks after meeting sort of suggests what may have happened.

The film's creators spend entirely too much time on cinematography and still photos and almost none actually crafting the story. They mostly take the folks involved at their word, even when their spouses are saying "you can only believe 50% of what he says." The fact that the producers didn't chase these clues down (possibly to reveal that the guy playing Batman was responsible for the deaths of many people) goes beyond laziness and into outright irresponsibility. If Batman was lying or believes what he says, he needs help. And so they send him to the shrink in a full Batman outfit.

There's never a question of where the money came from for the costumes in the first place. There's never a question of why the subjetcs chose the character they did, or what they actually know about the character (pretty clearly in the case of Dennis: a lot). Heck, there's never even a question of "is dressing as a superhero on Hollywood Boulevard the best investment of your time if you want to be a serious actor?" Like so many Hollywood producers who've generated so many bad, bad super-hero movies, to the documentarians, the costumes are just a prop on the way to a paycheck. But I suspect that's a complaint only a comic nerd like myself might have.

The documentary seems to want for the audience to root for and support the characters, but there's simply no reason given as to "why"? If they aren't putting on the costumes to make the world a better place, but for self-promotion, and this is the step they've taken toward their goals of money and power, why should I care if they fail or succeed?

Part of this, I suspect, is that the filmmakers are in line with the platitudes provided by the film's subjects regarding the movie industry's placement of value on fame and money. Perhaps the film is intended to indict this idea, but it seems to be cheerleading the subjects.

The omissions of the film act as a huge distraction and mostly point out that, aside from long, lingering views of Dennis's Superman memoribilia-rich apartment, they just don't have much to show. A quick trip to Wonder Woman's hometown suggest she had a mother who indulged her every whim and may hvae chosen poorly when she gave up an iron grip on a town of 2000 for asking for tips for dressing as Wonder Woman.

Interesting characters, perhaps... but perhaps the movie could have spent less time on musical interludes of the Hulk in litter strewn alleys and more asking him "Hey, four years on the street? How did that happen? And why didn't you just go home to North Carolina?"

The sad answer to a lot of these questions is probably: the person is crazy or not-all-there. And absolutely no evidence is given to the contrary.

In short, I can't really recommend the film. My hope was that it would be more about the histories of the subjects, but instead the producers chose to just focus on the present tense of the situation, half of which seems to be a steady stream of fabrications.


J.S. said...

Once again, you may have put considerably more thought into this film during your review of it than the director put into it in the first place.

J.S. said...

You know what I think would make a much more interesting documentary? Find a bunch of successful, grounded, intelligent people who occupy normal (or even relatively "important" positions) in society, but who still love comic books and/or superheroes. Interview these people about who their favorite characters are, why they continue to find comic books fascinating, and examine the role that comic books play in their lives. I wanna know why Jerry Seinfeld and Shaq love Superman. I wanna know if anyone on the White House cabinet ever collected comic books, and if so, which ones they collected.
I'm much more interested in finding out about the hidden reading habits of America's "closet" comic book readers than I am curious about the habits of the crazies who dress up as superheroes for tips. And I bet there are a lot more of them out there than the average person might guess.

I just think that if you really want to explore why comic books are important, you need to see how they've impacted the general public. Focusing on the nutjobs just makes comic books seem less important, more bizarre, and trivial (something just enjoyed by a marginalized fringe group).

Just one man's opinion.

Steven said...

Laur and I caught this last year at the former location of the Alamo during SXSW and we found it oddly compelling.

The cinematog. was really great, it captured that eye-blanchingly white sunshine of SoCal and the still shot segments done a la PictureViewers was a conceit that I thought really worked.

I would have loved to get a psychiatrist in there to talk about some of the needs these people were getting address by not just having a job as a waitress / stripper / etc., but by dressing up, what is it about that act that is transcendent for them.

Speaking of certifiable, the Chris Dennis marrying a PhD in psychology twist was really interesting, like, really, you're marrying your lab rat and research topic, that's interesting.

Incidentally, I heard that Batman started an altercation when in town during SXSW for the promo as he menaced some caller and, I believe, the KLBJ staff when they made to eject him from the premises.

My favorite was the Hulk, he had a great personality, showed a great sense of intelligence and savvy, and looked like he might be able to move into the B movies ( e.g. his dress-up scene as an afro'd Huggy Bear type ).

The League said...

Unfortunately, steven, I felt that the cinemtography was all the movie had going for it. And did you catch how old the Hulk was? If he came out during the riots, he's in his mid to late 30's. As positive as he seemed, I'm not sure if he was as savvy or knew when, unlike the other subjects, to shut up.

I sort of got the feeling that Superman and Batman felt that sense of transdence (certainly Dennis more than Batman), but WW and Hulk were just glad to be making some scratch. And I think that difference would have been a good one to explore. For the WW, I felt it was because, really, she didn't want to work a whole lot and be available for auditions. Really, exploring ANYTHING would have been nice.

As per Jason's comment: that's a documentary that might be interesting. I agree that movie like Confessions of a Superhero don't delve deeper because the producers assume that adults + superheroes = freaks. Had they moved beyond that equation, there might have been a bit more to the movie.

Michael Corley said...

I'm glad to read your review. I suspected this to be a depressing, sad movie which I would never so much as glance at if the main characters were not in costume. You just saved me the cost of a movie rental.

Anonymous said...

I think you are a bit off base your viewpoint and have no idea about filmmaking. This movie is not about comics or costumes; in fact it has nothing to do with it. It's about wanting to be someone of importance. And movies, like any other artform, shouldn't be half as transparent as you wish they were; because if they were, movies would suck. If you were to watch a movie and have everything laid out easily for you to understand, or, the movie doesn't inspire your imagination, or stimulate thought - then you shouldn't be watching movies. You make a lot of assumptions purely based on your perception of reality.

The League said...

If it helps, I do have a degree in filmmaking/ studies.

I don't think a movie should be easy to understand, and I don't think the density of the subject matter was my issue with this movie. I did understand that these subjects thought they were trying to do something important. I thought the filmmakers did a poor job of conveying the significance of the subjects' dreams.

Moreover, the movie follows four people who dress as superheroes, and includes the word "superhero" in the title. And then did absolutely nothing to follow up on the connection between each subject and their "role". So, it does, in fact, have something to do with superheroes.

And, yes... I do make a lot of assumptions based upon my perception of reality. That's just how I roll.