Toronto: Morgan Spurlock's Comic-Con documentary is a blast of geek love. Nick Broomfield's 'Sarah Palin -- You Betcha!' will only deepen your hate
When I heard that Morgan Spurlock had a documentary at Toronto called Comic-Con: Episode IV — A Fan’s Hope, I knew I wanted to go, and I thought I had a good idea of what I was in for: Spurlock, with his Gen X Michael Moore wisenheimer prankishness, showing up at Comic-Con to interview droolers in shiny white Star Wars stormtrooper armor with an affectionate camera- ready wink of “Can you believe this?” condescension.
The first surprise of Comic-Con: Episode IV is that it’s the first Morgan Spurlock movie that Spurlock isn’t in. The second surprise is that it’s the most entertaining, generous-spirited geek lovefest since Trekkies. Spurlock knows well that on an earth the geeks have already inherited, it’s foolish — and really rather dated — to chortle at the obsessiveness of people who value comic books, sci-fi and fantasy movies, videogames, droids and Hobbits and Vulcans and zombies and avatars more than they do their own lives. Spurlock does something hipper and more honest: He takes Comic-Con seriously and shows us, beyond the blockbuster movie panels and celebrity show-pony rituals, what a lot of the people who attend are really doing there. They’re staking their lives on a dream.
Spurlock interviews Kevin Smith, Eli Roth, Harry Knowles, and other famous grownup geeks, but mostly he follows a handful of people who are looking to pass through the fan/professional looking glass, to carve out a place for themselves in the industry of fantasy, or to hold onto the place they already have. Two of them, Eric Henson and Skip Harvey, are aspiring comic-book artists, and as they show their portfolios around (one has the chops; the other — maybe, maybe not), we see what it takes to draw with real vision. Then there’s Chuck Rozanski, the grizzled R. Crumb hippie owner of Mile High Comics, a legendary establishment that’s struggling to sustain itself in the era when comic-book culture has trumped comic books themselves. Rozanski takes his most prized comics out of the vault, including his holy grail, the first Red Raven comic (published in 1940), which he values at $500,000. He’s looking for a buyer, but the fascinating thing is, he doesn’t have his heart in finding one. He’ll be more solvent if he does, but that book is like an unburied treasure. It’s part of him. He might almost be selling one of his limbs.
The irony that comic books are no longer the biggest part of Comic-Con is noted without any major show of regret. After all, the enthusiasm that fans have for superhero movies or Joss Whedon is just as avid and pure. One of Spurlock’s subjects is a young woman, Holly Conrad, who builds costumes to replicate the characters of her favorite girl-power combat videogame; she has even built home-made animatronics into a Jabba the Hutt-knockoff avenger. One young couple, James Darling and Se Young Kang, have come just as fans, and Darling plans to pop the question to Kang, complete with a customized Lord of the Rings engagement ring, while standing at the mic in a packed auditorium during an “Ask Kevin Smith” session. When he finally does, it’s funny and improbably moving. It’s something you don’t see every day, real geek chutzpah.
To me, the revelation of Comic-Con: Episode IV — A Fan’s Hope is that it shows us what our ever-expanding American cult of fantasy addiction is really all about. It’s not exactly news that people who seem to devote their entire existence to Star Wars or Neil Gaiman, turning their bedrooms into shrines and living for the holy communion of the Con, are creating an alternate religion. But what Spurlock’s film reveals is that whatever the movie, whatever the comic book, whatever the characters, whatever the medium, the religion is always the same. It’s not the worship of Luke Skywalker or Iron Man or Buffy or Master Chief. It’s the worship of the idea that you can be somebody else. That you are somebody else. Reality? Fuggedaboudit.
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I love the films of Nick Broomfield, the one-man band of documentary muckraking. After all these years, I still enjoy the comical matter-of-factness of his pearly British voiceovers, the way he hauls his signature boom mic around, the way he gets all up-close-and-in-your-pores with subjects that most filmmakers would keep at arm’s length (Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, Biggie and Tupac, Kurt & Courtney). So it sounded like it would be a grand kick to see him take on Sarah Palin in Sarah Palin — You Betcha! Actually, it’s a pretty minor kick. But it left me a little more shuddery at how close we really came to having Sarah Palin a heartbeat away from the presidency.
Broomfield spends much of the movie in Palin’s now-famous home town of Wasilla, Alaska, interviewing everyone he can find who knows her (mostly enemies, but also her parents, and a few more neutral colleagues). Since so many reporters went up to Wasilla a few years ago and found a great deal of dirt about how petty and vindictive Palin could be (Troopergate, etc.), a lot of what Broomfield uncovers seems like old news. Yet he’s so dogged, so captivated by the telling detail, that he begins to stitch together a portrait of Palin that’s richer, less jokey in its insight, than most of what we’ve seen. He chronicles the terrifying remorselessness of her feuding, vindictive nature, and how bored she was with being governor — and how derelict she was at it — when she wasn’t settling scores. Broomfield, ambushing Palin at book signings, tries to land an interview with her, which never seems very likely to happen (it doesn’t). But what he captures, over and over again, is the thing that she never shows the lamestream media anyway: her compulsive need to destroy anyone who crosses her. She’s the Richard Nixon of Heathers.
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Sarah Palin: You Betcha!