The crowning moment of Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s Weiner comes courtesy of MSNBC. Anthony Weiner, flailing in the second wave of sexting revelations that utterly ruined his campaign for the mayoralty of New York City, went on The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell for his final interview before the election. Their conversation will live on in internet infamy for its awkward, confrontational race to the bottom. This is the interview that began with O’Donnell asking Weiner, point blank, “What is wrong with you?”
But what many New Yorkers may not remember about this particular landmark in TV history is the fact that the MSNBC host wasn’t in New York that night. For some reason, he was hosting remotely from Washington, DC. The interview was conducted via videoconference. This little detail defines the scene, allowing for a sensational use of the incredible access Kriegman and Steinberg were given to the campaign’s backstage.
The sequence alternates between the segment as it aired on TV and the footage that the directors captured themselves. We see Weiner at a desk in the Last Word studio, utterly alone. We don’t hear O’Donnell, because Weiner is listening to him via earpiece. We don’t see him, either, because Kriegman (who also served as the project’s cinematographer) chose to leave him out. Instead, we watch a fallen Democratic idol argue with air. Perhaps no film, documentary or otherwise, has ever captured such an abject moment of political rock bottom.
Of course, that’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of moments in Weiner with almost as much wince-inducing power. There are countless shots of rooms full of tortured staffers, visibly overcome with a sense of frustrated betrayal. We see Weiner arguing with voters, giving the finger to reporters, and running away from his mistakes, sometimes literally. There are more cringe-worthy situations than can be easily counted, and to list more of them would likely just invite accusations of spoilers.
Which, of course, isn’t a common problem with documentaries. This isn’t a Hollywood comedy, after all, with an accompanying mandate of “don’t ruin the jokes.” Yet here we are. In this way, Weiner is more akin to In the Loop or Veep than Primary or The War Room. It’s at least partially edited around its gags, its structure taken just as much from scripted comedies as from the classics of political nonfiction. It also has the visceral quality of awkward humor, those laughs that come even as we cover our eyes in embarrassment. And this cringe appeal is going to drive people to see it, particularly those New Yorkers who lived through the debacle the first time. People will buy tickets to Weiner for that rush of simultaneous giggling and squirming that came from every profane pun on the cover of the New York Post and every brash joke from Stephen Colbert or John Oliver.
That’s as good a reason to see a movie as any, even if we’re not used to it when it comes to docs. So much of documentary criticism is about praising movies for restoring dignity to marginalized groups of people, elevating and humanizing those who society hates or ignores. That’s part of the success of Pervert Park, for example, a tender portrait of Florida sex offenders that also opens this weekend. It’s the philosophical crux of Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s new film as well. Unlocking the Cage follows the legal struggle to grant personhood to chimpanzees, many of whom formerly served as unwilling comedians of film and television. Their mission is quite literally to expand the legal rights of those who were once little more than the butts of jokes. It’s hard to imagine a project more exactly the opposite of Weiner.
Of course, Kriegman and Steinberg didn’t just direct a crash reel. It’s also a film about the O’Donnells and New York Posts of the world, the media whirlwind that latches onto something like sexting and doesn’t let go until it’s rubbed out every last drop of scandal. It plays out like a communal farce, in which the resurgent dignity that allowed Weiner to run for mayor is dismantled by everyone involved. We watch in bemused pain as he tries to get even a single journalist to ask him about anything other than the infamous sexts and the women who received them. Weiner asks us to be both giddy and thoughtful, inspiring frustration with our media’s obsessions and encouraging a guilty conscience for enjoying every minute of it.
Yet the film stops short of pity. Kriegman and Steinberg make a very fine point of underlining Weiner’s own role in his collapse. After all, he’s a better student of politics than anyone, even in this new media landscape. It should not be forgotten that Twitter, while the smoking gun of his dick pic downfall, was also an integral part of his rise as an irreverent darling of the young and the Left. He makes it perfectly clear that he’s seen all the relevant movies, including The War Room. He frequently, loudly acknowledges his mistakes almost immediately upon making them. He’s too smart to pity himself, and we’re totally free to cackle at his misfortune.
This can be a jarring thing for the documentary landscape, a film whose appeal comes at the expense of its subject yet is in no way an expose or a hit piece. This confusion, like most things, is maybe best understood in the context of another movie. Weiner makes for a fascinating double feature with a very different portrait of the porous border between American private and public life that also opens this weekend. Roberto Minervini’s The Other Side is a loose portrait of life in rural Louisiana, a region crippled by poverty and drug use. Yet its subjects are just as political as Weiner, just as hobbled by their addictions, and just as confident.
Minervini’s film is essentially cleft in two. The first half follows Mark, a drug dealer recently out of prison. The camera follows him from deal to deal, into his troubled relationship with his girlfriend and through the window as he breaks into a local school. Minervini presents this without the mediation of statistical or political context, refusing to hold the audience’s hand as we watch a progression of ever-more troubling images of the American South. The low point is, perhaps, a scene in which Mark helps a pregnant dancer at a local strip club shoot up the heroin he has just sold to her, in a quintessentially crimson-lit bathroom. Each cringe leads us closer to rock bottom. This nadir has all of the gasps but none of the laughs of Weiner’s similarly inexorable descent.
Those used to watching “humanizing,” glossy portraits of American poverty may have some trouble with this presentation. Minervini doesn’t touch up Mark’s image in the interest of lending him some extra dignity, and whatever goodwill may emerge is quickly knocked down a peg by some appallingly racist comments about President Obama. The easy way out for the audience is simply to turn up the dial on our pity, focus on the evident ignorance and despair in this community and respond as if yet another filmmaker has shone a light on the unfortunates who lurk in the corners of our society to the aesthetic benefit of us all. It’s a condescending message, even if it does emphasize the “beauty” and “honor” of the subject. Peter Debruge at Variety even compared The Other Side to Beasts of the Southern Wild, essentially the poster child for the narrative version of this particularly fraught dialog between stylized depictions of poverty and the determinedly sympathetic audience.
Yet the second half of the film makes it pretty clear that Minervini wants no part in this pitiful exchange. He cranks up the volume and lays waste to the sort of tone that critics like to call “lyrical.” Leaving Mark behind, he turns to a community of local militia. These young, paranoid, gun-toting paramilitary volunteers are preparing for the apparently inevitable end to American freedom, whether due to the Jade Helm conspiracy or something even more unknowably absurd. We watch them crack beers and train for the coming apocalypse. Any residual sympathy that Mark may have inspired in the audience is now full of bullet holes.
Then they celebrate, inviting Minervini to a crazier party than you might possibly imagine. The scene is akin to what Hieronymous Bosch’s “Last Judgment” would look like if he were a Democratic Party fundraiser from a quiet New Hampshire town. As was the case for Weiner, it would be unfair to reveal every last image, but let one suffice. A group of revelers gather round a woman on her knees. She wears a rubber Obama mask. As they cheer, it becomes immediately apparent what the game is. In a visceral, word-made-flesh manifestation of the racist rhetoric that Minervini speckles throughout the film, this stand-in for the hated president offers her mouth to members of the chanting, cheering crowd.
So no, this isn’t a movie about unearthing the beauty a forgotten population or restoring dignity to those underserved by society. Documentaries don’t need to accept a dichotomy between humanizing and vilifying those they place in front of the audience. Instead, Minervini rejects objectivity and aligns himself with his subjects’ own self-perception. The Other Side does this, in a similar manner to last year’s gonzo documentary short Buffalo Juggalos. The subjects are well aware of what they present. This isn’t a “gotcha” project for Minervini, nor is it a mondo film that inspires accusations of staged spectacle. It’s no accident that the film opens with a shot of Mark walking stark naked down a country road. Minervini doesn’t use his directorial authority over the material to hide anything unseemly or confrontational about his subjects. Instead, he foregrounds it.
Which, of course, is essentially why Weiner’s appearance on The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell is so crucial. Confidence in his own ability to present himself and his message is why he ran for office in the first place, and it’s likely why he agreed to give Kriegman and Steinberg so much access. It’s also why he giddily watches the O’Donnell interview over and over again after it’s aired, convinced that it was a huge success. Time and again, he thinks that all he needs to do to succeed is honestly represent himself. Just put him on TV, or in front of a crowd of voters, and he’ll fix everything. He thinks he can talk his way out of it, that his genuine character on issues of policy is all that matters.
Obviously this is absurd. At the same time, however, it’s kind of inspiring. Once the scandal broke for the second time, Weiner was essentially naked before the public. He had nothing left to hide, and so Kriegman and Steinberg get to show us everything there is to show. Weiner, like The Other Side, is a blunt portrait of an entire person, with extra emphasis placed on everything ugly or extreme. And so we cringe, the inevitable result of a film that assaults the audience with images, rather than building a safely distant rapport with aesthetic pleasure and quiet “humanizing” redemption. Sometimes it’s well worth it to walk out of a theater all shook up.
This post was originally published on May 20, 2016.