Unusual Characters: Documentaries reviewed: And Everything is Going Fine, The Story of Furious Pete, The Canal Street Madam, Inventing Dr Nakamats, Sex Magic: Manifesting Maya

Today I’m going to look at a particular form of documentary that’s at this year’s Hotdocs, and talk about some of the movies screening there.

Right now, and through the weekend, Hotdocs Festival in Toronto is showing over a hundred new documentaries. There are history documentaries, there are social issues, there are global disasters, there are political movements, current affairs, competition, true crime, and personal triumphs. This year, Hotdocs has brought in not just the filmmakers, but a number of documentary subjects themselves – the people the movies are about.

These days, everyone downtown is looking funny at everyone else: is that woman in a movie? I think he’s sort of famous! On Sunday, I chatted with a pair of Teletubbies in Yorkville. Still not sure whether they were there as part of a movie or if they just liked dressing in fuzzy yellow and red costumes. I guess I’ll never know. The festival is full of unusual documentaries with all sorts of unique, off-beat characters. Here are a few I liked.

And Everything is Going Fine

Dir: Steven Soderbergh

Spalding Gray was a fantastic storyteller and monologist who used his own life and encounters as the raw materials for his talks. He would sit at a plain wooden desk, with some papers in front of him – stage props, he never looked at them — maybe a glass of water, and just talk to the audience in a brilliant, multifaceted monologue.

His stories were really captivating, hilarious, always surprising, and all about himself. He talked about sex, about his mother’s suicide, about psychiatry, sex, war, travel, more sex, acting, performing, his wife, and death. He committed suicide a few years ago, and Stephen Soderbergh has put together footage from some of his past shows, TV appearances, and interviews. “And Everything is Going Fine”, gives a partial biography of Spalding Gray’s life, told in his own words, by him.

It’s a great collection of his past works, seamlessly stitched together into a single script. My only criticism is that Soderbergh skewed the focus of Spalding Gray’s talks into a sort of a living epitaph, as if his words were a clear prediction of his eventual, inevitable suicide. I don’t think it was predestined at all… it just, sadly, happened. And I hope his narrative won’t be recast in the public memory as the guy who killed himself. But I do recommend this movie, both for people who have seen him, and those who have never heard of him.

The Story of Furious Pete, Directed by George Tsioutsioulis is about Peter Czerwinski, a Canadian competitive eater, who at a much earlier age, was hospitalized for anorexia. So, a guy who used to barely eat at all, is now a buff body-builder who scoops up chunks of food in official competitions and chows down, like a vicious velociraptor, at whatever is put in front of him. Schnitzels, steak, obscenely massive sandwiches, everything, that is, except the legendary Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog eating contest in Coney Island. We follow him traveling around North America competing as a pro eater, his hair died red and white to look like the Canadian flag.

As a movie, it’s half fun to watch, half disgusting. The parts about his personal life don’t come through as clearly as the competition scenes, which are truly remarkable examples of high-speed zombie-style gorging. Sometimes the documentary feels borderline infomercial, with that “exciting” pounding sports TV music, and the flashing chrome fonts it uses. I guess that’s to make it look like a sports show. Maybe it is a sports show… And there are lots of product placements and logos for the companies that sponsor him, so the tone is noticeably different from most of the films at hotdocs. But it still kept me interested, and rooting for him to win as he stuffs barbecued ribs into his bulging cheeks. He even appeared live, at the screening, in an impromptu orgy of competitive watermelon gluttony, the latest chapter in the ongoing Story of Furious Pete.

In The Canal Street Madam, directed by Cameron Yates, Jeanette Maier runs a brothel on Canal St in New Orleans that attracts famous clients – politicians, journalists, businessmen.

But in 2004, after a year of wiretapping, the FBI holds a major raid, throwing Jeanette, her mom, and her daughter in jail. Three generations in the same profession. The courts close down her livelihood. The people working there go to jail, the well heeled clients split without charge.

This movie shows Jeanette’s gradual change from a rich madam to a politically active sex trade worker, who isn’t ashamed, isn’t afraid, and is willing to stand up for her rights. The government has no place in the bedrooms of the nation, including consensual paid sex. She says she has now moved from “politricking” to politicking. Though the movie sometimes drifts into reality show-style confessionals, it is a moving, respectful, and fascinating profile of Jeanette’s public persona and her private family life.

“Inventing Dr Nakamats”, directed by Danish filmmaker Kaspar Schroder shows an eccentric Japanese man who holds the patent to over 3000 devices. Dr Nakamatsu has a number of theories he lives by. He keeps track of every meal he eats (one meal a day at 8 pm sharp), to follow the nutrients. He’s driven by efficiency – how many minutes will something take, how much, how many, how long. He has determined that the best new ideas happen underwater, so of course he invents a waterproof pen and paper so he can write an idea down in the swimming pool as soon as he thinks of it. You get to see him sniffing a camera – he believes you can judge a new camera by its smell.

The filmmaker follows him around for a month recording everything leading up to his 80th birthday, when he plans to release his latest invention, a push-up bra. He comes across as egotistical and tyrannical – he castigates a hotel toady for refusing to name a room after him – but his off-beat creativity, combined with prolific scientific brilliance and brazen self-promotion show a unique guy. This movie is a lot of fun.

I have my own encounter with Dr Nakamatsu a few days ago at a lecture. I see him sitting at a table with his wife. I go over to acknowledge his work. He says “Latin America”? I say no, I’m Canadian. He explains. He is heading for the Latin America documentary reception, as am I. How many minutes? he wants to know. I don’t know… 10-15 minutes? OK, he says, let’s go, where’s your car? My car? No I’m taking the subway, right across the street.

Mood change. Dr Nalamatsu dismisses me. They’ll be going without me.

Later, at the party, we meet again. How many minutes did it take me? His method, by taxi, was faster. We are near a tray of tortilla chips and salsa. What is that? he wants to know, ever the nutritional scientist. I explain. But he wants the ingredients. Um corn… Oil? Salt? And that, he says, pointing to the dip. Tomatoes, onions, pepper, spices… pause. Dr Nakamatsu deliberates. Dr Nakamatsu photographs the tray. Then… he nods his approval. Chips and salsa will constitute his once-a-day meal. And in his head, he’s probably inventing a new, better, Japanese taco chip. All’s well with the world.

Sex Magic: Manifesting Maya Directed by Eric Liebman and Jonathan Schell.

His name is Desert, but you can call him Dez. Dez lives in Sedona, Arizona with Maya. They hold big spiritual meetings. Baba Dez (who attended the screening) – an old-school surfer-dude-looking guy, with long hair and a yoga physique – is a tantric, polyamorous shaman. Tantric as in tantric yoga, tantric sex; polyamorous meaning he has sex with various women other than his lover; and shamanistic, meaning… well that was never quite clear, but I think it’s about him playing a wooden flute on the side of a hill. Maya dumps him cause he’s too polyamorous for her tastes. He spends most of the movie trying to get her back.

Dez says we all have yin and yang, a lingam and yoni, deep inside of us. And the key is to find the union of your masculine and feminine sides, (not the bullies and the victims, the good masculine and feminine), in order to find inner calm and sexual satisfaction.

He helps one woman find her orgasm by saying “OM” just as she reaches nirvana. He’s a “hands-on” kinda guy…

Dez is frequently nekkid, (as are many of the people in this movie) so you get to see a lot of him. Whatever his tantric beliefs are, at his consciousness raising ashrams Dez is always quick to spot the prettiest women and to try to make contact with them. Dez, Dez, Dez… you dirty dog. We know what you’re all about.

We see him impressing women in Hawaii by showing them a giant, all-natural, lava rock vagina inside a cave (sort of like the Virgin Mary appearing on a tortilla). Aw, Dez…

Then, just when you think nothing will surprise you, in another scene, he’s kneeling beside a woman he’s saying something spiritual to. She’s lying naked on her back, and he’s – wait a minute, is that his…? It appears that Dez has gingerly displayed his junk across her thigh.

Anyway, this is a movie like none you’ve ever seen (hopefully), sort of soft-core tantric porn, but it’s also a really good documentary, and very entertaining. And you know what? The people in the movie all seem happy with what’s going on, so who can argue with that? Even though nothing Dez says makes any sense.

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