Grotesque & artful in the manner of a tale by Edgar Allen Poe, obviously most people are going to hate this film, as they would hate anything that gets round to talking about smelly pus-dripping sores or watching their mother give BJs to johns.
I found the biographical documentary about Rockets Redglare (2003) awesomely honest, & gorgeously repulsive. The offspring of a teenage heroin addict, Rockets nee Michael Morra was addicted in utero, & literally had to deal with substance abuse his entire life, from before he was even born.
I got this documentary because Rockets always stood out for me in the handful of independent films I'd seen him in (notably in James Jarmusch films) & I always wished I could see more of him as a character actor. People who worked with him, like Jarmusch, Matt Dillon, Willem Dafoe, Steve Buscemi, offer their commentaries during the film.
I'd had no clue he was this weird, but I think the film captures with honest affection how someone could be this dysfunctional & yet so greatly loved by so many people, & so sincerely missed.
There is also a guerilla-warfare filmmaker heroism about de la Reguera having put together such a startling document of a life with no budget. As director & musician Luis Fernandez de la Reguera has himself since died tragically young (from a motorcycle accident in 2006), the biography of Rockets stands in memorial of two eccentric geniuses.
Academy Award-winning documentary Thoth (2001) is a tad under three-quarters of an hour length, of angst & artistry, documenting a unique individual who many regard as strange for his wild non-comformity.
But if he were a mountain ascetic in the Himalayas instead of a street performer in New York City, no one would think Thoth strange. They would think him holy.
Documentarian Sarah Kernochan has a previous Oscar for her co-directed documentary Marjoe (1972). Her output, more as screenwriter than director, has since then been limited, & she has otherwise kept busy as a singer-songwriter, novelist, & all-round artistic type.
We first see Thoth, dreadlocks tied back, clad like some Egyptian mystic & singing a hymn in falsetto in a pedestrian underpass in Central Park, the vocalization building to increased sacredness, as if a choral hymn echoing in a cathedral, as Thoth gazes upward, rapt, holding his violin at ready.
He creates an array of voices, dancing as he sings in a language he has invented, adding the violin in the manner of another voice. He seems like an aboriginal shaman doing a magical performance for the preservation of the world, & has no trouble whatsoever holding an audience of adults & children rapt.
Though some of the vocalizations are sacredly melodic, others are like tragic injured wailing as of an alien priest begging divine beings to nurture the world.
A magazine headline tells us "Ancient Gold Plays Central Park." The audience members are interviewed, & we see the audience interviewing him. Everyone's amazement in him is clear. "Can you levitate or something?" asks a young black woman. He says, "Yes."
Stephan Kaufman by birth, he became S. K. Thoth, after the messenger god, as he was becoming a messenger of art & beauty & emotional, spiritual concern.
He lives with his mom. "But I consider myself homeless." His mom defines herself as "a tympanist," now retired. She played in the New York City Orchestra, & was the first black woman to play with the New York Philharmonic. We see her playing her drums with her son on violin, a sweet bond between them.
But Toth is pushing fifty when this film is made, & even his beautiful mother, who feels deplorably alone, admits she wonders of Stephan, as of any mother's child, "When will they ever grow up? Then maybe I can have a date or two." For his part, he does have long periods of guilt, gloom, doubt, questioning whether a life of "pray-formance" & bare subsistance while inventing his own language & culture is sufficient work for a grown man.
We get a highlite-biography of the family. His father had been an activist for equality, a white Jewish doctor whose family sent an announcement of his death to their wedding as they sat shiva. They never had anything to do with him again.
Their history as a mixed-race family was sometimes painful, & the racism experienced growing up clearly had a harmful effect on a bright child's emotions. He withdrew into a fantasy world, more or less inspired by Lord of the Rings, for which he developed maps, an opera, an entire culture.
This was very common among kids who would eventually grow out of their obsession with Lord of the Rings, Dungeons & Dragons, or the Wizards role-playing card games. But some few never grew out of it. Thoth continues to act out elements of that fantasy world as a street entertainer.
One of the traumas of childhood was his father's abandonment of the family when he was only ten. The last day he saw his father, they were in a car together when a child was struck & killed due to speeding through an intersection trying to speed beat the yellow light. In front of the boy his dad told the police the light was green when the child stepped out. "The most moral man I knew -- & he lied." There's a good chance that shame was the reason he never again had contact with his family.
His mother's musical career ended due to racism when Stephan was in college. Already prone to depressions, he came close to suicide while away at school. It was then that he decided to remake hiimself as a living manifestation of art, in time becoming the musician acting out in his "opera," his female side, his warrior side, his psychotic side, his holy side, his mixed heritage, his murky sexuality, his mental health, & what I would assess as his spiritual beauty.
"It takes a lot of courage to just be," a reasonable observation. "I would love to be in the tunnel forever."
When asked if he does this to help people (like some New Age crackpot pseudo-physician), he humbly, realistically says he does it to help himself, & by so doing, he hopes it helps others. For a guy who lives half in another world, he's very realistic & levelheaded.
In opposition to those who respond to Toth as artist, shaman, ancient god, or magical phyisican, there are others who think he's a nutter. One member of the audience interviewed by the documentarian in all seriousness wondered if he was retarded. My personal sentiment is he's more normal than people who live in graver, far more harmful disguise as businessmen or tycoons.
All too often our culture measures value in dollars & sense. If Thoth had high-paying gigs & a penthouse overlooking Manhattan, he'd be merely an artist, no more eccentric than many artists happen to be. But he lives from street performances reliant on his mother for a place to live, so it's easier to consider him a loony in a loin cloth. Ability to generate money is a very sorry measure for the soul.
In sum, "The Festad" is his personal Middle Earth. He began this imaginative creation when age-aappropriate for it, but made it so much a part of his life that he entered middle age "walking the streets in a loin cloth" performing music about the myths of that world for this world.
Frankly I loved the guy though it seems shameful such an artist should have to live so marginally. He should have a musical production on Broadway & a new HBO special about every eighteen months. But I suppose if everything uniquely great was coopted by the money machine, it would cease to be unique.
As I write this review in 2009, he's still "pray-forming" in the Angel Tunnel & other places in the New York streets, so the attention brought him internationally through this award-winning documentary did not greatly change the life he lives. Check out his schedule at www.skthoth.com -- where you can listen to some of his music, read his short stories & stuff about the land of the Festad, & buy one of his CDs.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl