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Country Music

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Though he’s been at work way since the coining of the term, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns is the very definition of the “deep dive.” Famed and acclaimed for his exhaustive, no-stone-left-unturned investigations into various aspects of American history, sport and popular culture, Burns’ plainly and definitively titled TV series The Civil War (1990), Jazz (2001), The War (2007), Baseball (1994-2010) and The Vietnam War (2017) are widely regarded as the pinnacle of television documentary. Burns now turns his scrutineer’s eye to a deeply American art form with Country Music, which documents the long and wildly winding road of, yes, country music.

With reams (and reams, and reams, and reams) of historical footage and photographs, along with astute, informed and impassioned talking head interviews from a long list of music historians and A-list musicians and performers (Kris Kristofferson, Dolly Parton, Garth Brooks, Merle Haggard, Marty Stuart and Roseanne Cash, just to name a few), Ken Burns begins at the very beginning (the exporting of English folk songs to the Americas, and their slow, gradual, eventual morphing into something truly peculiar to The New World), and then moves with studied assurance through pretty much every chapter of what would become “country music” since. Yep, it’s all here: the emergence of Ground Zero pioneers, The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers; game-changers like Hank Williams; the birth of Texas Swing; the melding of country and rock’n’roll; the “outlaw” movement; the ascendance of country stars to popular international stardom; and the different pockets and variants of country music that bubbled away in disparate parts of the US.

Nothing short of an at-home, on-screen university course, Country Music is a lengthy learning exercise that provides swinging door access into an often misunderstood, maligned and misrepresented music form. But don’t mistake this exhaustive brand of investigation for some kind of dusty, musty form of televisual academia: Country Music is engaging, entertaining and alive at every turn, popping and fizzing with humour, warmth and wonderful anecdotes told by natural born storytellers. Get ready to go deep…

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Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story

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It’s impossible to overstate the impact of The Ren & Stimpy Show when it dropped in 1991. American animation, that dorkiest of mediums, had long languished in a low-imagination swamp of banality, used mainly to sell toys or sugary breakfast cereal. Then, along came the adventures of a brain damaged cat and a sociopathic chihuahua and it blew the bloody doors off! Funny, weird, profane, surreal and oddly affecting, The Ren & Stimpy Show was a huge hit for Nickelodeon and creator John Kricfalusi.

A year later, with the show’s popularity reaching dizzy new heights, Kricfalusi would be fired from his own creation. Was this a case of corporate overreach, where money men couldn’t handle genius when they saw it? Well, partially. But as documentary Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story shows, the real villain of the piece was the tainted ego, the wilful hubris and the despicable behaviour of Kricfalusi himself.

The doco, directed by Ron Cicero and Kimo Easterwood, begins ordinarily enough. Talking heads interspersed with footage of the bonkers animation, giving historical context and behind the scenes tidbits. However, it soon becomes clear that Kricfalusi was, at best, an overly passionate boss and at worse, an abusive tyrant. Should the producers have worked harder to accommodate his vision? Possibly, but when he was making pronouncements like “I will no longer be taking notes” to an increasingly concerned Nickelodeon, it’s not hard to see why he was given the shaft.

The show continued until 1995 sans ‘John K’, but was never as good as the original block of episodes. Kricfalusi himself was given control of his characters again in 2003, with Ren & Stimpy: Adult Party Cartoon, a largely joyless slog that relied on shock tactics and lacked most of the warmth and humour that defined the original shows. Then, of course, the accusations against Kricfalusi of grooming teenage girls and sexual abuse surfaced, and the legacy of Ren & Stimpy was forever tainted.

It’s to the credit of this overlong but fascinating documentary that one of the victims of Kricfalusi, Robyn Byrd, is allowed to give her story in a frank and disturbing way. Byrd tells the audience that they don’t need to abandon the show they loved as kids and to separate the art from the artist. It’s a nice notion, and perhaps accommodations can be made over time, but it’s hard to embrace the innocent whimsy of that silly cartoon in quite the same way.

Most good things are eventually ruined by the actions of one dodgy wanker or another. The irony that Happy Happy Joy Joy illustrates so well, is that the dodgy wanker that sunk Ren & Stimpy is the very same person who created it.

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Feels Good Man

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The separation of art and artist is a part of the artistic conversation that only seems to be ramping up. But most of that conversation involves reconciling the entertainment value of a work of art with the… let’s say, indiscretions of the person(s) that made it. But there’s a different side of that debate, where an artist bears witness to their art being co-opted, altered, and utilised in ways that they never intended. David Fincher went through it with Fight Club, the Wachowskis are still going through it with The Matrix, and in this documentary, we see Pepe The Frog’s creator Matt Furie wrestle with that same dilemma.

Watching this is akin to most things involving the internet; it starts from an inconspicuous and even innocent place but then turns into a slow-mo tumble down the rabbit hole. Through filmmaker Arthur Jones’ framing (and some excellently trippy animated sequences), the film takes the role of meme anthropologist, studying the image of Pepe from his comic book origins, to 4chan, to the political sphere, to areas of cryptocurrency and even chaos magic. It’s a commendable deep dive, not unlike a higher-budget version of a Fredrik Knudsen video, immersing itself in the subject throughout its many, many twists and turns.

While a fair amount of the set-up can feel like Memes For Dummies, the way it gets into the power of memes and symbology as a whole, makes for captivating stuff. Showing Pepe as an abstraction of real life personalities, whether it’s Furie’s post-college lifestyle or personifying online sad bois, it’s an eerie and surreal look at the internet as irony carwash, with the many-folded face of the frog changing so many hands that, for Furie, what is out there in the world barely resembles what he created; like watching your child grow into a literal monster.

As much as the wild cluster of subject matters tackled in the film threaten to overwhelm Furie himself, mirroring his connection to the character itself, the artist at the ostensible center of this web of activity gives the film an overall optimistic tone. In keeping with the examinations of the power of images and how concentrated intent has the potential to alter reality (a fitting observation for these post-truth times), his attempts to turn it into something less toxic, if not retrieve the character entirely, pit him as the pure soul up against the murky depths of the net.

Feels Good Man doesn’t pull punches on how naïve Matt Furie’s understanding of all this was when he started (he’s the kind of guy who says “twisted my noodles” unironically), but it also doesn’t disparage the idea of a more W H O L E S O M E Pepe. It’s just a matter of what gets poured into it, and after soaking in the darkness for so long, maybe it’s time to let the sunshine in.

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#Unfit: The Psychology of Donald Trump

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The intersection of mental health and politics is dicey at best, especially in modern discourse. It can be weaponised just as easily as it can succumb to Schrödinger logic, where it’s either non-existent or a profoundly serious concern, depending on the vibe. It is with this in mind that the entire idea behind this documentary – one that seeks to clinically examine the psyche of the man in one of the world’s most powerful seats of office – could easily fall into the kind of self-sabotaging sensationalism that would render it useless, even to those it’s meant to appeal to. But thankfully, director Dan Partland shows enough aptitude to avoid such a fate.

#Unfit: The Psychology of Donald Trump sets out to hold President Trump up to the same scrutiny as those in the US military who have a fraction of his access to the American nuclear arsenal, framing itself as genuine psychological analysis beyond the armchair variety favoured by social media and mass media pundits.

It starts out on solid footing, emphasising how much psych frameworks like DSM are based on observational data, the difference between garden-variety narcissism and malignant narcissism, dipping into sports and even animal psychology to add the necessary layers, and even how mental health issues don’t automatically equate to ‘unfit’, using the classic example of Abraham Lincoln’s battles with depression. It’s just that, much like the difference between malignant and benign tumours, when it’s malignant, it has a tendency to not only get worse but spread.

The documentary also cuts through the caricaturing of Trump by ‘The Left’, as it highlights how behind all that meme armour and ‘lol triggered’ appeal within his fanbase, there is a reason why people voted for him in the first place. Showing that psychology at this scale is far from isolated, how Trump’s psyche informs his policies, his connections with other world leaders, and his presentation towards his support base, brings out the film’s insistence on it being malignant, with working-class voters having their ugly sides brought out by someone playing Mark Antony in this absurdist’s rendition of Julius Caesar.

While there are moments of cheeky partisan fun to be had, in particular from Anthony Scaramucci’s deliciously-descriptive words about Trump as politician and businessman, the film as a whole treats the rhetoric of a man who basically managed to “Yes, and…” his way into the White House with refreshing seriousness. And by showing the cold and cunning mechanics behind his actions and mannerisms, it helps to make a bit more sense out of how his ascendence marked the start of a dark collective mood, with the cultivation of vindictive social tumours creating an ever-widening political divide.

With voting for the next election underway in the US, one can only hope that this showing of good faith psychiatric duty and bipartisan analysis will cut through the usual line-drawing that accompanies political docos, and help push against this malignancy to Make Empathy Great Again.