Netflix digs in on original releases, but it only takes one magnificent documentary to justify their process.
No sense in burying the lede: 13th might be the most important documentary an American will ever watch. Yet its existence is itself a miracle; it’s the product of Netflix’s unique business model, best described as “throwing money at talented people.” Ted Sarandos and co. have made the conscious decision to direct their copious resources to original programming instead of licensing (word is, the goal within the next few years is for their library to be 50% in-house), and Ava DuVernay (Selma) is the latest beneficiary. 13th is the best example yet of how brilliantly Netflix’s strategy can pay off, even if the rest of their productions are hit-or-miss.
Approached with the opportunity to make a documentary on any subject she chose, the multitasking DuVernay took a deep dive into the prison-industrial complex, and the results are searing. In one sense, the raw facts speak for themselves, the statistics building on each other like cinderblocks. The United States has 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of its prisoners. 40% of those prisoners are black. 1 in 3 black men will spend time behind bars. And why? To answer, DuVernay does the impossible: drawing a straight line from slavery to Jim Crow to the War on Drugs to Black Lives Matter with intellectual rigor and righteous anger.
The linchpin of this compelling argument is the 13th Amendment of the title, which banned slavery with one simple exception: “except as a punishment or for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” And thus, as interviews with historians, civil rights leaders, and politicians — even Newt Gingrich! — eloquently detail, the post-war South had their loophole to imprison freed slaves on small charges (or, more frequently, fake charges). The myth of black criminality rises through fear-mongering and propaganda (D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation being a more noxious example), as the decades pass and generation after generation of black families have their men, their youth, and their leaders put behind bars or simply executed, a never-ending, self-defeating cycle that leaves entire communities powerless.
DuVernay’s use of archive footage, from photos of lynched freedmen to the film of the protests (and white backlash) of the 1960s, is frequently harrowing; it’s an immersion in the darkest, most shameful episodes in American history, and all the more troubling as we continue into recent history to learn that it’s not the attitudes that have changed, just the code words we use to describe them. “Law and Order,” Nixon’s pet phrase now appropriated by Donald Trump, is revealed as the dog whistle many have always known it to be, fostered and enabled by feckless legislators (even the Clintons are not immune, as 1994’s omnibus crime bill was responsible for an almost 500% growth in the prison population, most for low-level drug charges) and a public that would rather not give prisons any thought. Another target is ALEC, the lobbying arm of the corporations that keep private prisons running, with seemingly the only goal of keeping as many people locked up as possible. The scope and breadth would be disorienting without DuVernay’s keen eye for pacing, detail, the right music cue, and the right devastating sound bite.
The stories of Emmitt Till, Angela Davis (one of the most powerful interview subjects), Trayvon Martin, and countless others snap together in DuVernay’s mosaic, the chorus of voices and raw footage hitting with full force in the film’s closing sequence, a powerful masterclass in juxtaposition that is already making the rounds on social media. Yet to reduce 13th to those incendiary two minutes is to still avoid confronting the true enormity of the problem, and our own complicity. 13th comes as close to “required viewing” as anything ever has. It needs to be seen, absorbed, and discussed by everyone you know, and as soon as possible.
But what happens when a filmmaker doesn’t really have anything new to say, and a content-hungry studio is nevertheless willing to back up the armored truck of cash so they can just play the hits? There’s probably no worse example of this than Amazon’s Woody Allen series Crisis in Six Scenes, an mind-numbing exercise in “give the people what they want” that satisfies no one and nothing, especially not Allen’s own, well-documented disdain for television as an art form.
Mascots, the first mockumentary from Christopher Guest since 2003’s A Mighty Wind (and his first film, period, in ten years), skirts dangerously close to this line, yet is pulled back from the brink of ignominious failure on the strength of its cast and the evident warmth Guest has for his oddball subjects. The film’s structure is as well-worn and comfortable as an old shoe: we get to know the kooky members of a niche field (community theater, dog shows, folk music) on the road to a performance/competition that takes up the film’s final third. This time, it’s the Fluffy Awards, touted as the Super Bowl of mascot competitions, with entrants coming as far as India, Israel, and Indiana.
Though there’s a notable Eugene Levy & Catherine O’Hara-sized hole at the film’s heart, Guest’s repertory company has expanded to include heavy hitters like Chris O’Dowd (Guest & HBO’s Family Tree), Zach Woods (Silicon Valley) and Susan Yeagley (Parks & Recreation). O’Dowd plays “The Fist,” a frequently-suspended hockey mascot; Woods and Sarah Baker are a squabbling couple repping a minor league baseball team; Christopher Moynihan hopes the Fluffys will be the big break for his plumber character; Englishman Tom Bennett chafes at the traditionalist routine his father has mandated. There are jokes about political correctness, little people, public access television, and micropenises. A little stale, and more dryly amusing than laugh-out-loud funny…at least until we get to the actual routines, which are a grab bag of controlled chaos and double entendres.
Alongside Guest regulars Jane Lynch, Ed Begley, Jr., Fred Willard, Parker Posey (who develops a defiantly art-house routine for her roadkill armadillo character), and other familiar faces, Mascots takes on the air of an improv troupe’s reunion tour. Is that why it doesn’t feel vital? Even a cameo from Guest himself as Waiting For Guffman’s Corky St. Clair doesn’t inject energy but awkwardness, a strained reminder of how fun and groundbreaking these movies felt when the performers didn’t need to please anyone but themselves.
And then there’s ARQ, a piece of high-concept, low-budget science fiction from writer/director Tony Elliot (Orphan Black). The central conceit is lifted from Edge of Tomorrow, which itself was lifted from Groundhog Day: a mysterious piece of tech keeps a military engineer named Renton (Robbie Amell, The Flash) re-playing the same three hours over and over again. He and Hannah, an ally/old flame (Rachael Taylor, Jessica Jones) in this particular near-future dystopia, are rudely awakened by a group of housebreakers who are after…some stuff, only for Renton’s perpetual energy machine to reset his timeline after he gets killed (which happens a lot, at first).
The cast is adequate if bland, and the subtle special effects work well. Where it gets dinged, inevitably, is on originality and the simple task of viewer engagement. ARQ keeps the action to one location and six characters, but the story’s repetition (by design) begins to drag as allegiances shift with every iteration and each new revelation makes less sense than what came before. It’s efficiently established that there’s an evil, faceless corporation called Torus and a rebellion called The Block, but the story does nothing with those musty ideas except repeat that one is bad and one is good, or maybe less good. The ending is not only telegraphed a half hour before, but is the kind of inconclusive gimmickry we’ve seen dozens of times.
In the pre-Netflix world, this would have been difficult to make as a full feature — Elliot’s only other directing credits are for shorts, as this project certainly originally was. But the studio at least deserves credit for taking a flyer on a cheap, intellectually stimulating idea like this one, though it doesn’t ultimately gel into a coherent whole. Elliot has fun with throwing unforeseen complications into Renton’s perfect plan, and watching him fail only to try again. And though I’m usually a sucker for films that play with time (EoT, Looper, Primer, etc.) I wish ARQ was more fun for me.