Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Being Evel & People Places Things

I caught two films at the Little Roxie in late August.

Being Evel; documentary; directed by Daniel Junge; (2015) - Official Website
People Places Things starring Jemaine Clement; directed by James C. Strouse; (2015) - Official Website

Daniel Junge is an Oscar wining documentarian.  When the subject of a documentary is 1970s daredevil icon Evel Knievel, the story kind of tells itself but Junge's touch can be seen in this endlessly fascinating film.  I guess it is only endlessly fascinating for people who remember Knievel.  For people of a certain age like Junge, Johnny Knoxville (the film's producer) and myself, Knievel's name brings back memories of our youth in the 1970s.

For those of a younger age or those who found his stunts uninteresting, Knievel was the foremost practitioner of an occupation which barely exists anymore.  Knievel performed live stunts (mainly jumping his motorcycle over objects) which risked his life and limb.  He jumped (or tried to jump) buses, cars, trucks, the fountains at Caesars Palace, the Snake River and live sharks.  In hindsight, it seems ridiculous although Knoxville has made a career out of doing the same thing on a smaller scale.

Just the preparation for the jumps and resulting footage was fascinating for me but Junge delves into Evel's personal.  As a boy under the age of 10, I could certainly sense that Evel was a hellraiser but his transgression go much worse than that.  Unfaithful & a wife beater, uncontrolled violent outbursts, convicted for felony assault & shady business practices, Knievel didn't seem like a person I would like to have associated with.

However, in the 1970s Knievel's image was everywhere a boy could look - lunchboxes, T-shirts, toys, pinball machines, bicycles, etc.  So it was definitely through the lens of nostalgia that I watched this film.  Junge deconstructs Knievel's image in a way I never thought of.  Not so much because it was too sophisticated for me to originate or grasp but because Knievel has faded from my memory (and likely the American public's collective memory).  Knievel is like disco music, bell bottom jeans & pet rocks - unabashedly 1970s.  Junge posits that Knievel represented a weary American spirit that was in tune with the times.  Battered by 1960s social unrest, Vietnam & Watergate, the American public identified with Knievel because he embodied the brash sense of American ambitions.  For a country that had defeated the Nazi, was at the height of its global power & sent men to the moon, Knievel's stunts harkened back to better days when we dreamed large & achieved large.  His failures reminded the viewers of America's current troubles but his repeated comebacks from crashes gave the viewers a sense that America could come back as well.

When I hear theories like this, there are times I believe it and times when it seems like academic sophistry.  This theory seems to fall somewhere in the middle.  During the period, I was too young to be aware of Vietnam, Kent State, etc. so Knievel's exploits must have struck a more basic even primal chord with me.  Knievel called himself the Last Gladiator & I think that gets more to gist of the matter.  Much like today's NASCAR races, people wanted to see the spectacle and the specter of a fatal crash.  Knievel gave the public what they wanted and parlayed it into lucrative merchandising and enhanced his own brand with flashy clothes and even flashier behavior.  In these ways, Knievel's hypermasculinity may have subconsciously struck a nerve with American tired of quiche eaters to borrow from a popular book a few years after Knievel's heyday.

Powered by a terrific soundtrack of rock & rockabilly (my favorite was If You're Gonna Be Dumb You Gotta Be Tough), Being Evel was very satisfying film for me.


People Places Things was an indie film which seemed like mumblecore but may not have been.  It was a favorite of the jury at Sundance.  I'm typically mild about these films and People Places Things was no exceptions.  By these type of films, I mean artsy Brooklynites having life issues.  In this case, Will (Jemaine Clement) finds that his girlfriend and mother of his twin daughters having an affair in flagrante delicto.  The rest of the film is set one year later as Will juggles his teaching job, sharing custody of his daughters, his ex girlfriend's exasperating behavior and his attraction to one of his student's mother.  It has some funny moments as Clement is able to deadpan a one-liner but I can't remember how it ended.

People Places Things is the type of film which was mildly entertaining while I watched it but quickly forgotten.  That's not to say it was bad but just wasn't able to distinguish itself in my memory.


Evel Knievel performing in San Francisco in November 1967
Herbst Theater on the left & Asian Art Museum
(then San Francisco Public Library) on the right

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