Cropsey (2009)

Back in junior high in Norfolk, Nebraska, the other kids used to talk about how the old mental asylum was haunted. Never mind, the building was still operational and remodeled. It was on the edge of town, back in the woods and, well, seemed creepy. One fall night, we got into an older kids car and drove out there to look for ghosts. I remember being a bit scared. At the time, I read a lot of haunted house books and was really into it. Amityville Horror was my favorite book. I got twenty feet from the car when an older kid jumped out and scared me, I might have spent the rest of the evening in the car. Nobody even got close the the hospital.

I’m not really sure. Memory, especially mine, is a fuzzy affair. I don’t even know where the legend that the mental hospital was haunted and why. I never got any details on the story. I probably made up a few new details.
Every town has haunted spots filled with legends and mis-remembered ‘facts’ about why it’s haunted. It’s just in our nature to fill in the blanks in our knowledge with something, anything.

Cropsey is a documentary about an urban legend that becomes real then spins back out into folklore.

Staten Island is a dumping ground—for NYC’s garbage, for mob bodies and for a short time in the 70’s and 80’s for mentally challenged dead children.

Parents used the all-purpose boogeyman Cropsey to keep kids away from Staten Island’s wooded areas and abandoned buildings. Cropsey took kids. Teenagers ran with the story and Cropsey became a man with a hook or a mental patient or homeless man. He may have set any number of fires or belonged to the Satanic Church. A local boy scout group spread the legend up and down the Eastern seaboard. A lot of towns have their own Cropsey legend, but few have an actual person to pin the legend on.

Albert Rand was picked up in 1987 in connection with the disappearance of Jennifer, an adorable 10 year old girl with Down Syndrome. Suddenly, Albert Rand, a homeless man who lived in the woods near Willowbroook, an abandoned mental institution for children, suddenly became the real Cropsey. There was never any physical evidence tying Rand to the girl, but there were lots of stories. And when Jennifer turned up dead, after he was in custody, Rand eventually went to prison for kidnapping (but not murdering) the girl. And Cropsey’s legend spun out to the disappearance of up 12 other children, mostly mentally handicapped, over a 15 year span. And Rand became tied to many of them, even though there was no physical evidence.

The documentarian couple who originally set out to research the Cropsey legend then turned their focus to trying to find out the truth against a real life man. Quickly, their problem became evaluating what is true and what is not. And it’s a problem that just never will be solved. Too much time has past, people’s memories change, too many people have worked on the various missing child cases and they all have their own ideas, ideas that become facts to others and still, there’s just nothing concrete. Plus, Albert Rand isn’t helping, he’s bananas, both proclaiming his innocence, but using the power he obtained from pretending (or actually having) the secrets of the case.
During the filming, just two years ago, Rand is brought up again on a missing girl case. Once again, it’s all thirty year old witness testimony from alcoholics and drug users and no physical evidence. I won’t tell you the results, but it’s not surprising.

To the documentarian’s credit, they don’t come out fully for or against Rand. This may be frustrating for the crime docu junkies where guilt (almost always) or innocence is spelled out in a tidy 48 minutes. Admittedly, at the end of the movie, I felt a bit gypped by the “you decide” stance on Rand’s guilt or innocence. There was no bombshell. In fact, their exclusive jailhouse talk with Rand fell through. But that’s the way life just is sometimes. You just can’t know. And that’s the real point of the film, you sometimes just can’t know.

I certainly can see why many parents would want to hang the disappearance of their child on Rand, but the truth is, they’ll never probably know the truth. It’s heartbreaking.

I’m fascinated by how people fill in the gaps in their knowledge and then how they justify this gap as actual truth. Urban legends are fueled by this line of thinking. As is religion. And politics. And emotions.

Technically, the documentary is a mix of the straight ahead crime docs you see on basic cable mixed with a few touches of the more personal, documentarian as participant-style of most indie documentaries. Narratively, the movie is a bit scatter-shot, casting a wide net to emphasize the broadness of the urban legend and Rand’s case. The effect is that there always seems to be something left out, some piece of tying information that would bring the case in sharp focus. Sadly, there just isn’t. There is just interview after interview of people speculating what they think actually happened, much of which just plain has to be untrue because of all the inconsistencies and errors in the case and other people’s stories. Someone could easily come along, omit a bunch of testimony, and make a movie proclaiming Rand a Satanic worshipper who sacrificed children or as a completely innocent man.

One of the most interesting parts of the film was clips from a 1972 Willowbrook documentary from a young rising star, Geraldo Rivera. The shots of the severely mentally handicapped kids, naked and covered in their own shit, warehoused in a gigantic crumbling facility were downright haunting. It was so bad that when Rand was shown the tape (he was an intern there in the ’60’s), he becomes practically catatonic. I guess I have to give Rivera a pass next time he does something sensational and stupid.

Cropsey is on Netflix Streaming and while it has a few narrative flaws is an interesting look at a time and place and how emotion and circumstantial evidence can become accepted truth, how the nightmare duel of urban legends can ignite with some spark of real life.

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Casino Jack and the United States of Money (2010)

In November of 2008, I developed a sort of political amnesia. All of the bad stuff of the past 8 years somehow just seemed forgiven and in the past. It wasn’t because I thought the new Obama administration would be extremely good, he was just Not Bush. He’s the political equivalent of the rebound girlfriend. America just needed two or three bland presidents to reset the stage.

One trope about life, especially American life, is that you can always have a fresh start, completely re-invent yourself if you want. Well, remnants of the past are always there, lurking in the back ground. You may spend a life dodging the past as the past worms it’s way out in strange ways. Our political system is ripe with old corruption and problems that are not only systemic, but encouraged by not only the wealthy, but the unwitting public who’s bought into the free market myth.

Casino Jack and the United States of Money, the new documentary from the guys who did Enron, The Smartest Guys in the Room, follows the rise and fall of uber-lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The film connects him to all the major Republican power players of the last thirty years, but more importantly reinforces the point that lobbyists are the real legislation engines running the country.
This isn’t a wonky film, but a breezy one, clearly laying out a life of small corruption unchecked until he was finally caught and what his capture and modis operandi means for American politics. It’s a spy movie masquerading as a political documentary. While many on the right would call it a polemic, I didn’t find Casino Jack to be overtly politically bias toward the right, they were just the current set of douchebags in power.
If you followed the news, you probably know about Jack Abramoff bilking Indian Casinos in the mid-2000’s. However, it’s the story before that one that’s so interesting. Abramoff represented the Russian mob and sweatshop owners in a tiny American pacific island country. He basically got legislators to rubber stamp illegal Chinese immigrant abuses in sweatshops on US soil. That’s the value of the true free market.

The documentary is mostly comprised of Republican interviews, some who saw no harm and others who do have regret. Abramoff helped to create the revolving door of politics and lobbyists in the last thirty years. He truly believed government can and should be bought. It’s pretty horrifying.

See this film. It, oddly, isn’t a downer nor a polemic, but does highlight a problem-the lobbyist problem and how it buys access to power. Obama last week was complaining about the anonymous 503 PAC groups giving to the Republican party. This is how lobbyist control candidates. A modern politician is nothing but a 24/7 fundraising machine to keep his campaign alive. These PACS outspend Democrat by a measure of four to one, but Democrats are not immune. They just aren’t as successful as Republicans at raising money.

I have a simple voting rule. If an issue is on the ballot and one side carpet bombs the TV with ads and there’s almost nothing on the other side, I cote for the side that didn’t spend money. If someone has to spend that much money to convince me, it’s probably not in my best interest to vote for it. The same goes for candidates. We could fix the political system in 20 years if we eliminated money from the process, but that just ain’t gonna happen. For every Abramoff that’s caught, another hundred lobbyist are working within the law doing 90 percent of the unethical crap he did.

Now, I know why I developed political amnesia. It’s just plain better for my day to day happiness.

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I Think We’re Alone Now (2008)

Obsession, true obsession, distorts your reality.
Think back to that first childhood crush. Crushes are crushes because we fill in the vast missing information about the crush object with our own desires. We project our dreams like wet clay onto people who may not not even know we exist. We mold a reality that doesn’t exist into the crushes’ world. Pushing the clay metaphor farther, we create a Golem of the person, a Golem that does our bidding for a while, then eventually storms out of our fantasy castle into the real world to smash and break elements of our actual world.
The effort of maintaining an illusion of a person eventually becomes harder than reconciling the truth about our relationship with the crush object. We either give up or go crazy.
You get what I’m saying, right?

Love is a drug, love is a fantasy, obsession, obsession….

I Think We’re Alone Now is a documentary following two obsessed Tiffany fans. Yea, Tiffany fans.
Jeff, pictured above, has a good 20 years on Tiffany and in 1989, Tiffany went to court to get a restraining order against him after an instance where he tried to give her a Katana and six chrysanthemums after an old Japanese custom. He expected her to marry him. Jeff is a brilliant man who lives on disability because he has Ausbergers’ disease. This makes him socially awkward, but like a child. He’s only concerned about his obsessions and thinks everyone around him is just as interested. His dad died in Vietnam and his tragedies and disabilities have kept him from growing up and moving on. He’s good-natured and optimistic and believes himself to be fighting against the fascist world holding him and others back. He’s a brilliant conspiracy theorist.
But he sees reality much different than most. He built a helmet to talk to Tiffany spiritually. He talks of her as his best friend. He, at least, doesn’t think she’ll marry him anymore. He sees her at a lot of public events and to his and Tiffany’s credit, both are very friendly to each other and he doesn’t cross any boundaries with her. That said, he believes Tiffany hired security to protect her from him.
The other focus of the documentary is obsessed fan Kelly who’s much younger and about Tiffany’s age. He was born a hermaphrodite or ‘intersexual.’ Kelly identifies as a woman. At 16 in 1987, Kelly was in a bike accident that put her in a coma. In the coma, Kelly had a vision of some who looked like Tiffany whom she had never seen before. The first song she heard out of the coma was I Think We’re Alone Now, Tiffany’s biggest pop hit. That sealed it, she became obsessed.
Kelly is also very poor living on disability, her dad also died when she was young and she describes herself as having PTSD. Like Jeff, she is fiercely loyal, like a child emotionally, an outsider and has a positive outlook on life. Kelly, like Jeff, also has other obsessions, in her case it’s physical fitness. In many ways, Kelly is a sadder figure because of the strange hand nature gave her. Also, she’s not as far down the road to recovery as Jeff is. Kelly still believes Tiffany will marry her. She even says the difference between her and stalkers like Jeff is that she really loves Tiffany, unlike everyone else.
Both Jeff and Kelly are sad, sympathetic, creepy and likable characters. And that’s due to the filmmakers skill and home-made style of filmmaking. The credits are scraps of paper and there’s a lo-fi, ramshackle feel to the film. Some of the music cues are off and the editing often feels sloppy instead of intimate, but over-all the documentary stays with the subjects cutting back and forth between the two, slowly expanding each of their worlds.
So, why Tiffany? The question is really moot. Tiffany could be substituted for any number of celebrity obsessions. It’s just a matter of timing, dumb luck, mental illness and tragedy.
Tiffany’s in the movie peripherally, alway nice and pleasant and consistent. Even at the porn convention she goes to because of posing nude in Playboy, Tiffany’s professional to Jeff and others. Images of Tiffany certainly cover Jeff and Kelly’s walls, but that’s how she’s best used, as an image for Jeff and Kelly to project their neuroses. In looking over some other press of the movie, Tiffany’s manager has seen the film, but not Tiffany. And that’s probably best for her sanity.
The only misstep of the documentary is the producers kind of manufacture a meeting between Jeff and Kelly. I’m sure this was done to give the film some internal plot, but imposing plot in a documentary feels cheap and unneeded. Jeff introduces Kelly to Tiffany in Las Vegas, as Kelly has never had a one-to-one meeting with Tiffany. It goes as any fan meeting would. Kelly describes at as one of the biggest moments of her life, even though Tiffany didn’t go back to Denver with her. The only interesting part was seeing Jeff and Kelly talk past each other in discussing their shared interest. They both were downright rude to each other, however unintentional.
I think the producers realized that their manufactured ‘ending’ to the movie was a dud because the film ends about a year after their meeting to catch up on their lives. The good news is both Jeff and Kelly seemed to be in better places and happier. The filming must have helped each of them exorcise some of their problems.
Even Jeff, when asked if he’d like to marry Tiffany, said he prefers Allyssa Millano. He then holds up the God-Awful Embrace of the Vampire (which I assure you no ones ever seen in it’s entirety as they’ve just fast forwarded to Allyssa’s full-frontal nudity. I did.).

Some obsessions don’t die, they just change addresses. And like Allyssa’s nudity in Embrace, crushes are held in amber.

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The Art of the Steal (2009)

Many people want a life after death, to be remembered throughout the ages. We build monuments, write books, make art or work in the sciences.
Truth is most of us won’t live much beyond our grand children in memories. I’m pretty sure that after my death, any true nature of my being, philosophy, etc will die with my theoretical grand children. We’re not much of an oral society anymore. Maybe I’ll get a game published or something else, but that’ll just be a name on a box. Sure, everything I’ve ever written on the Internet will still be available, but with the churn and mulch nature of online life this pretty much ensures any creative output on the Internet a) has so much more noise to cut through and b) is forgotten the next day.
Dramatic Prairie Dogs don’t live forever. Everyone’s 15 minutes is sliced up ten million ways and consumed like wieners at a hot dog eating contest.

I’m not too interested in a legacy, don’t build a monument to me. I’ll be good if my ideas only help those I care about. Plus, I’m not rich enough to manufacture an effect on the world. Poor men can’t build pyramids for their tombs.
That’s okay. I’ll be dead. Wouldn’t even be able to enjoy it. So, What’cha gonna do?
You try and enjoy those people, both personal and public, that change your life for the better. Today.

But what happens to those ideas you create that actually do change the world? The idea or creative endeavor that has legs and actually effects the world writ large. The Mona Lisa, The Shakespeare, The Beatles, The Bible.

Sadly, the curse of the gifted is a misappropriation, misuse, and misunderstanding of their legacy. It’s almost unavoidable as people’s views and values change and as this changes, so does our relationship to the past.

Look at the Bible, the New Testament. Some have estimated that the unchangeable word of God had been altered tens of thousands of times in it’s 1900 year history. They recently unearthed the oldest bible in existence, circa 400 AD, and it doesn’t bear even the slightest resemblance to the one in today’s church pews. It’s the subject of many books and really the topic of another essay. (It’s just a pet peeve of mine)

The documentary The Art of the Steal is the story of how one man’s legacy is stolen and his ideas on Art become corrupted by monied and powerful interests.
Alfred Barnes grew up poor, boxed to pay for college and became rich young by inventing a vaccine to prevent VD in infants. With his money, he traveled and just as an interested outsider collected the artists he liked and met. He became friends with the artists. Monet, Cezanne, Mattisse, Picasso, Van Gogh and many other Post-Industrial painters. These artists weren’t valuable at the time, but today his collection is worth upwards of 35 billion dollars. 35 billion brings a lot of hungry wolves to the door.
In 1922, Barnes set up a school for his collection outside Philadephia. He didn’t arrange his paintings like a museum and kept viewings of the art to a minimum. As a school, he could ensure the value of the ideas of the painting were kept alive, that the pieces didn’t become a commodity.
Barnes hated museums as a rule. I sympathize. I’m not a fan myself, not because I don’t like art, but because it seems to me most museums turn art into artifact. The pieces are part of collection, put on a pedestal that glorifies not the art (although there is an air of forced reverence), but the museum showing the piece. It isn’t about the ideas inside the frame, but about the cost and categorization and cattle call of tourism dollars. I’ve been to many famous museums and have enjoyed the art only to be soured by the experience of elitism (even at small museums) and the notion that these ideas and artwork are owned by another, so I couldn’t even understand if I wanted. No wonder everyone hates those Art World fuckers and especially the businessmen and politicians greasing the wheels.

I’m a populist (philistine!), as is everyone else who doesn’t run the world.

Barnes didn’t like the Philidephia establishment because they used art as a commodity and tourism lure. He set-up in his will that his art was never to leave his school’s walls and that the school would never become a museum. He didn’t even arrange the art work by category. His prodigious African-American art collection was mixed with the post-industrialists. I’m categorizing the art more than he did, feeling a bit slimy about doing so.

The bulk of the documentary shows how Barnes Art collection was stolen after his death. Shouldn’t everyone on earth have greater access to these great works? That’s the basis of the argument of the villains of the film. They’re villains because their motivation is greed, pure and simple, even if the the stated outcome meant more could see the works.
At it’s heart, The Art of the Steal is a crime movie. The theft of a legacy, a will’s intent and an idea about art and art presentation.
But like most crimes for people above a certain income, it isn’t a crime if you change the playing field to make something that was illegal to do (in this case, breaking a man’s clear and legal will) into something legal.
Time and money and power heals all good intentions.
I won’t go into the specific nature of how this crime is carried out. The film is well-constructed, gorgeous (HD on Netflix Streaming) in presentation of the art pieces and the films players, and gripping. Of course, as the documentary takes a stance as do all these days, the movie can be a bit of a polemic. However, the opposing side is well-represented, even the films first villain, attorney Robert Gandon, comes out cleaner than how he started.

See it, humanities peeps. You could probably even show it in a class.

It’s funny, all of this notion of Art as artifact and commodity. I think through time, even some of these negative motivations, will fade. We live in an age were almost all art can be free to the common man with the Internet. Do we steal? Yea, we’re a nation of thieves. The weird result may be that the ideas of this ‘free’ art can propagate freely as ideas unburdened with the baggage of class or elitism.
The downsides, we consume so much art that the ideas get lost. Also, many people evaluate ideas solely on their worth. It’s an important idea because other important people think so, because it is worth a lot of money, because of popularity.

One more side note about criticism, as I’m fully aware how badly I’m unpacking this suitcase of thought, I don’t want to write about what I see others writing about or what the critics find important. I only want to write about what spawns ideas in my view of the world, in my thinking. It’s why I like to write about odd Italian horror films. I like to make jokes and I enjoy the personal dream-like nature of the films. What others often find important, I find boring, passionless and obvious.

Like I said, a populist.

But hey, junk is still junk.

What? Huh? Once again I’ve devolved into incoherence. Back it up, Cezanne.

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