Kung Fu Elliot
Put a little star next to this one because there is still a chance for you to see "Kung Fu Elliot" this week at Hot Docs. Here is a special movie that fits neatly within the adage "You just can't write this stuff" when it comes to the strange twists and turns of certain documentaries. It starts out as one kind of movie until it gradually reveals itself to be working on a much deeper level.
Elliot Scott, aka "White Lightning," is a decorated martial arts champion on Canada's east coast of Nova Scotia. He dreams of filling a curious Canadian void as his country's first bona fide cinematic action hero. Asia has Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li. America has Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Willis. Elliot fancies himself more on the level of Van Damme and Chuck Norris, the two favorites from his youth.
The first half hour plays like the Canadian version of Chris Smith's wonderful 1999 doc American Movie
, the very funny and engaging look at Wisconsin indie filmmaker and slacker Mark Borchardt's attempt to finally complete his own low budget horror flick. Like that film, this one offers the quirky and enigmatic Elliot, his girlfriend Linda, and his actor buddy, Blake.
It never escapes us that a doc of the making of a schlocky picture is often more entertaining than the actual movie our subjects are trying to make. Elliot's acting style can best be described as downbeat buffoonery. Blake takes acting more seriously, holding up his Stella Adler book on method acting, emphasizing that if he keeps practicing, maybe he can touch upon some of the things that Robert De Niro is capable of. Uh-huh.
Linda's the unsung hero of the pic, wearing the hats of girlfriend, camera operator, editor, caterer, driver, and script supervisor, while in front of the camera she is used in one thankless role after another as either a stooge or a foil.
On its immediate level, the film works well enough as a special interest piece until it sneaks up on us that the whole enterprise has turned into a great big game of confidence and dueling perspectives as Linda becomes more central to the narrative than we might have guessed at first. What began as a making-of comedy reveals deeper layers when the focus becomes a study of Elliot's shifty character as well as the distance between our fantasies and reality.
Here's a short feature (clocking in at an efficient 52 minutes) but a goodie. I imagine it will kick around popular streaming sites and cable in the near future as one of those experiences where you mean to change the channel but are lucky you didn't in this fascinating examination of the mug shot. You really can make a good doc about anything.
Culling together archival footage of thousands of mug shots throughout history as well as testimony from law enforcement officials, historians, the news media and artists, "Mugshot" is spell-binding for viewers who love people-watching and are interested in human behavior.
We learn that Canadian laws are among the strictest when it comes to the publication of a mug shot. You probably have not been able to escape Justin Bieber or Rob Ford's mug shots when they were arrested in the U.S., but the reason why we've never seen a Canadian version is that privacy laws in Canada are such that mug shots can only be released exactly 100 years after they are first taken. The idea in Canada is that published mug shots risk falling into the hands of vigilantes and other bounty hunters who work outside the law, something that is common to the U.S. and their very open laws that deem mug shots a right of the public.
The most fascinating shots we see come from shortly after the Deguerreotype Process began in earnest in 1839 Paris. When you think of a mug shot, you think of a colorized modern shot of people who are not looking at their best. Today we think of them as entertainment, and indeed the publisher of Slammer magazine in Ohio admits that perhaps the greatest curiosity of published mug shots is the idea that we can feel a sense of superiority looking at these disheveled and unfortunate people. But what a revelation it is to take in those old, crystal clear black & white shots of the late 19th century in Europe, and then a treasure trove discovered from California from around the same time. One historian notes how much information the shots and their accompanying files tell us about our history, since the information gathered from people is more comprehensive than even the births of these same people. If not for their mug shot, thousands of marginalized people would be completely forgotten by history since there would have been no other reason for them at the time to have their picture taken.
What is it that my eyes kept looking for in all these pictures? A law enforcement official notes, "We study these photos for some clue inside the criminal mind, something which can not be seen". That's exactly it. We're looking for a tell or some indication of what these people have done. "Mugshot" does a great job of covering all the bases, from those who argue for more privacy for the accused, to those who insist that mug shots are art.
"Mugshot" is a compelling watch.