Armchair Cinephile 

DOCUMENTARIES STRANGER THAN FICTION Sick, Stevie, and Mr. Death (Lions Gate)
Brother's Keeper (Docurama)
Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (Columbia/TriStar)
Home Movie (Home Vision Entertainment) I really didn't think I would make it all the way through Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist. Hours later, my stomach is still clenched. I squirmed and hid my face, winced and had to remind myself to breathe normally. But I watched until the credits, and I'm glad I did. "Supermasochist" barely does justice to Flanagan, a man who thrives on vile experiences. Pierced, pounded, strangled, and scalded, the scrawny guy spends much of his time naked in front of an ever-vigilant camera. In the documentary's most notorious scene, the director watches in close-up as (parents, hide your children!) Bob hammers a nail straight through his penis. OK, he's an unbelievable pervert. But he is also startlingly candid and good-humored about his fetish for punishment, which is tangled up with another, completely involuntary pain; Flanagan has cystic fibrosis, and during the film's production, had already lived two decades longer than expected with the agonizing disease. For him, S/M is a bizarre form of therapy, and his relationship with his long-term girlfriend/tormentor is surprisingly tender. By the end of this grueling but oddly life-affirming film, it's hard not to feel a kind of respect for the man. Frankness is Sick's redeeming virtue, but it's the opposite that makes Stevie compelling: Its namesake, an unpredictable man with a troubled past, never seems to tell the truth about crimes he probably committed, and filmmaker Steve James can't be straight (with himself or with us) about his motivations in filming him. James has a personal history with Stevie, having been his "Big Brother" years ago, but only seems to renew his interest in the kid's life when his former buddy has a trailer full of dirty laundry to expose. Revolving around child molestation, mental illness, and poverty, it's the feel-bad hit of the summer - but it's a very difficult film to ignore. Another mysterious crime, this one a murder, is at the heart of Brother's Keeper, and its circumstances are even more foreign. Four extremely odd brothers have lived in a shack together for decades, and one may or may not have killed another who shared his bed. Delbert Ward confesses, but he literally is so dumb you don't know whether to believe him or not; while investigating, filmmakers Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger (who went on to document another disturbing true-crime scene in Paradise Lost) let us get to know some of the strangest people ever put on celluloid. Odd in a much more accessible and fun way, the four stars of Fast, Cheap & Out of Control are experts in fields few of us ever dabble in. One is a topiary gardener, pruning hedges into giant animals, one builds robots, one tames lions, and another studies hairless mole rats. The subjects are endlessly entertaining - nerdily obsessive, casually macho, or stoically driven to perfection - and any one could be the focus of a movie geared to his interests. But Errol Morris is a documentarian capable of unexpected quantum leaps; in these four men, he sees epic struggles of humankind against a constantly puzzling and challenging world. These men study, train, carve and tame what is wild, unhindered by concerns about what other people will think. Without narration, Morris juxtaposes their interviews in ways that add new layers of meaning, one man unknowingly explaining what the other is doing. The director was already understood to be in a class by himself after Gates of Heaven and The Thin Blue Line, but Out of Control is his masterpiece. Morris' follow-up, Mr. Death, studies the multiple facets of one man instead of the single-minded enthusiasm of four: Fred Leuchter is a professional expert in the various methods of putting criminals to death, and in his spare time he works to dispel what he believes are myths about the Jewish Holocaust. (He's not necessarily saying that Nazis didn't exterminate Jews, but he definitely does not believe it happened the way we have been told - and there is something very icky about his conviction.) Unlike the Fast, Cheap fellas, Fred is not a guy you would like to have over for dinner, but the contradictions inside his head are more than enough fodder for a movie. Chris Smith made a name for himself with the hilarious and somewhat mean-spirited American Movie, but the recently released Home Movie feels like an attempt to wear Errol Morris' shoes. The film visits five people with extraordinary living spaces: a houseboat, a missile silo, a tree house, a (literal) cathouse, and a robot-patrolled dwelling of the future. The people are likable and their environments are truly curious, but the disparate pieces don't gel - despite the theme linking them - in the way they do in Out of Control. They are nice places to visit, but you probably wouldn't want to live there. •

More by John DeFore



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