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There’s Smelly and then there’s smelly

Chris Bell (left) in Bigger, Stronger, Faster

“Is it still cheating if everyone’s doing it?”, the tagline for Chris Bell’s Bigger, Stronger, Faster asks. Bell, despite being against using steroids himself, appears to think it isn’t. The thought that kept running through my mind as I watched his film was, “Boy, somebody around here sure has watched a lotta Michael Moore films!” And, honestly, I enjoyed Bell’s film as much as I enjoy most Moore films, so it’s not necessarily a knock against him. It is, then, a first-person documentary that uses wit and irony to deliver its message–which is that steroid use amongst pro athletes is rampant, has been going on for years, has negatively affected only a tiny percentage of users, and has no proven longterm health effects. Like Moore, his opinion is made pretty clear. His thesis is that steroid use is the American thang to do–with “win at all costs” being the way he believes Americans feel. He manages to find some less-than-stellar representatives for the other side of the argument (like the amazingly clueless California Rep. Henry Waxman, who is one leading the anti-roid charge but knows less about the subject than his unseen offscreen assistant does) but–that said–he does also let his steroid-using brothers (nick’d “Mad Dog” and “Smelly”) stand as representatives of those who are pro-roid even though the Bell boys are not necessarily positive role models (nor are many of the other pro athletes he looks at). And it all revolves around him. Very moorish. Still, it’s quite entertaining and the crowd loved it. As an aside, after I’d picked up my ticket for the screening and got in line to get into the Bloor Cinema, I noticed, beside me and off to the side of the lineup, a very familiar-looking face. Ben Johnson. (Briefly) The World’s Fastest Man. I decided against asking him for advice on how I could improve my own plodding running pace.

Eugenia Lester's home in My Mother's Garden

Cynthia Lester’s My Mother’s Garden feels like a companion piece to last year’s 7 Dumpsters and a Corpse, made with considerably less charm and wit. Like that film and Bell’s, it is also a first-person documentary but egregiously so. It is meant to be a portrait of her mother, who suffers from a hoarding disorder that means her bungalow in L.A. has so much stuff (read: garbage) in it that you have to climb in through a window and there is no floor to walk on inside–you walk on the piles of garbage that appear to be at least a couple feet deep in places. There are rats–living and dead. Old toys, clothes she bought at garage sales, rotten food. It is appalling, yes. In fact, action has to be taken because her long-suffering neighbours have finally called the city. So Eugenia Lester’s four children–who lived with their mother’s eccentricities when they were growing up and who each bear the psychological scars–return to their childhood home to start the spadework to dung the place out so that their mother isn’t evicted. What I don’t like about this film is Cynthia’s habit of training her hand-held camera on herself. I was put off by it, frankly. Her mother’s condition is difficult to witness and the inability to get treatment for her is heartbreaking, and her daughter’s reaction to the events of the film could better be delivered, I think, in voiceover (if necessary at all… which is debatable). I also think she is grasping too far for an explanation for her mother’s condition–blaming consumer-driven society, at least in part, for her mother’s disorder. I don’t buy that. So to speak.

Bozo, in Carny

Now, I don’t walk out of films very often, but an hour or so into the midnight screening of Alison Murray’s Carny, I gave up and, clutching my jacket and bag to my chest, slunk out the door. I wasn’t the first to leave. You’d think that if you were going to make a documentary about travelling carnival workers, you’d manage to find a few actually interesting characters to focus on.

→ originally published 2008-04-22

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