In a South American jungle a determined director struggles to complete his masterpiece despite the outbursts of a frequently unhinged starring actor. Such is the scenario of Les Blank’s “Burden of Dreams” (1982) about Werner Herzog’s collaboration with Klaus Kinski in the making of “Fitzcarraldo” (1982). It is also that of Mo Scarpelli’s fiery, challenging “El Father Plays Himself” (2021) but with a couple of meta-twists: the director and actor are father and son, the story filmed is an episode in the father’s life, and the director of the documentary is the filmmaker’s wife. So you could say it also partakes of elements of “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse” (1991), co-directed by Eleanor Coppola about her husband, Francis’s, misadventures making “Apocalypse Now” (1979). Call it “Burden of Memes.”
Jorge Thielen Armand is the director of “La Fortaleza” (2020), the film made-within-the-film about his father, Jorge Roque Thielen, working in the illegal gold and drug trade in the Venezuelan jungles in the 1990s. His father’s drunken rages and rampages disrupt the production, but they are also the substance of the film. Because once in front of the camera Roque Thielen transforms his bad behavior into great cinema. Clearly he enjoys the attention and the narcissistic thrill of raging and laughing and pounding his fist until he breaks a finger, causing his son to wince and look away.
He also might want to reconcile with his son through this collaborative act of self-mythmaking. Asked by a member of the crew what kind of father he was, he says ruefully that he was the kind that did everything you’re not supposed to do. But videos of Jorge’s father playing with him as a kid suggest otherwise, and the most moving part of both Scarpelli and Armand’s films is when Roque Thielen, alone and desolate, bellows into a cellphone his love for his son.
“El Father Plays Himself” screens at the Brattle Theatre as part of the DocYard series on March 7 at 7 p.m. followed by a live Q & A with the filmmaker. Go to thedocyard.com/screenings/el-father-plays-himself.
Manias and acquisitions
What is it about people in Australia that makes them such overheated fans of sci-fi and superhero movies? Last month the Boston SciFi Film Festival showed Eddie Beyrouthy’s “Beyond the Wasteland” (2021), a documentary about an annual Mad Max convention in the Outback and the mad cosplayers who attend it. This week will see the online debut of Michael Wayne’s “Batman and Me” (2020), a plunge into the mind of former Bat memorabilia collector Darren “Dags” Maxwell, of Melbourne.
Back when “Star Wars” (1977) came out, Maxwell was just your regular geek, buying a few collectibles and talking shop with fellow obsessives. But Tim Burton’s 1989 blockbuster, “Batman,” touched something deep and dark inside him; and he started seriously buying the tawdry Bat-products churned out by the multi-billion-dollar merchandising industry. One day he bought a Batman board game, opened it, and played it (it was a terrible game, he recalls). Immediately he was swept by the horrific feeling like the had committed a blasphemy. He should never have opened the box! It was the packaging he revered, he realized, not the product.
Then began his manic quest to buy every new item of Batman ephemera and store it away pristine and unsealed in his secret Batman room. This addiction only ended in 1997, with Joel Schumacher’s execrable “Batman & Robin” (remember the Batsuit with nipples? Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze? my condolences). Then he realized, as did millions of others, that he hated that movie, hated what Batman had become, and could not buy any more merchandising connected to something he utterly despised.
And so he has locked away his meticulously ordered collection in a room with a Batman insignia over the door. He says he’s kicked the habit, but will the new franchise reboot, Matt Reeves’s “The Batman,” push him off the wagon and send him hunting on eBay again?
“Batman and Me” can be streamed on digital HD and On Demand beginning March 8. Go to www.blu-ray.com/Freestyle-Digital-Media/1283424.
‘Is there a quicker way to die?’
Romanian director Radu Jude scored an international hit with his raunchy, ribald satire, “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn,” winner of the 2021 Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and a favorite among critics. Far different in tone, subject, and style is “The Exit of the Trains,” his 2020 documentary about the murder of 13,000 Jews in the Romanian city of Iași, in June 1941. The perpetrators were Nazi troops and Romanian soldiers and police -- and also civilians, the Gentile neighbors with whom the victims once lived in peace.
Resembling Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah” (1985), with its litany of horrific crimes, the three-hour film begins with a 2 1/2-hour montage of photos of victims – family photos or passport snapshots -- backed by voiceover readings of the testimony of survivors taken during a 1946 war crimes trial.
They tell variations of the same story. Victims dragged from their homes and beaten and killed as they were herded to the police station. There most of the women and children were allowed to return to homes that had been looted and ransacked. But the men and boys were packed into the sealed wagons of the “Death Train” and taken away to labor camps. Almost all suffocated along the way. One who survived recalls how a victim kept asking, “Is there a quicker way to die?”
The testimony in the first part of the film is followed by a half-hour coda. It is a silent series of photographs of the massacre – bodies sprawled on the streets, disgorged from trains, piled in heaps: images from a past nightmare that now doesn’t seem so long ago.
“The Exit of the Trains” can be streamed beginning March 10 on the Criterion Channel. Go to www.criterionchannel.com/the-exit-of-the-trains.
Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.