Boiled Angels: The Trial of Mike DianaReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/20/18 03:33:27
SCREENED AT THE 2018 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Boiled Angels: The Trial of Mike Diana" is the sort of documentary that, in its home stretch, casually reveals how it could have been a much more interesting movie had it changed its focus a bit rather than mostly serving as an overview of a broader issue. Yes, the history of underground comics and censorship is important, but most of this film's audience will know that; it's the details beyond Mike Diana being the only artist to be convicted of obscenity in America that make this a good story and would make it into an interesting movie.For those not familiar with the case, Diana was in his early twenties when police arrested him for producing and distributing issues #7 and #8 of his "Boiled Angels" zine, publications with print runs of maybe 300 copies packed full of grotesque material, often involving sexual violence against children (though, it should be noted, in stories shown in the film as displaying his rage against the perpetrators rather than implying any sort of personal desire for such gratification). He got on the radar of the Pinellas County, Florida police and prosecutors during their investigation of a 1990 serial killer, and though found to have no connection, his work was considered so objectionable that they felt they had to do something.
There is, I suspect, a great docudrama to be made out of this material, and maybe even a good documentary, but Frank Henenlotter is probably not the right guy to do it; his own gross-out tendencies are close enough to Diana's that he may not be able to examine them closely, he lost a lot of credibility as a voice of the artist by making the tremendously ill-advised Chasing Banksy, and he's just not a very good storyteller in general. Take what comes across as a shocking climax, when the judge interrupts the defense's closing arguments for a recess - highly unusual and prejudicial, but until that very moment, you wouldn't know the judge was any sort of factor in the story at all. Henenlotter spends a huge amount of time on the history of the medium and the sorts of freedoms at stake, which is a vital part of the story, but as a film about the trial itself, and even what came before and after, it's undramatic and inert, an intriguing story merely hinted at.
Similarly, Diana comes off as sphinx-like, with only the barest minimum effort made to get inside his head. He and Henenlotter never talk about his work, treating this ugly, violent art like it's something that just happens rather than reflecting themes or imagery that he's passionate about. Others talk about his seeming disconnection from what was going on around him during the trial, but only casually and after the fact, but between Diana not being good on camera and the filmmakers only being willing to dig so deep lest he be presented as something other than a naive outsider artist, there's a void there. There's a strong argument to be made that Diana and other artists like him don't have to explain their choices - that freedom of speech is as close to absolute as it can be in America for a reason - but the filmmakers should at least articulate that assumption if they are going to be working from it.
It's a mixed bag in other ways, too. Most of the comics people interviewed are interesting if not always well-deployed. The filmmakers occasionally lean on other people's comics about the trial to tell the story better than they can, and often have an ironic, sneering detachment in other areas. It's got one of the worst narrator voices I can remember hearing, and the samples of Diana's comics are kind of excruciating, both in their inherent ugliness and in how they're deployed."Boiled Angels" is a classic example of how good, worthy material only gets you so far - you've got to figure out how to tell the story. Henenlotter can throw the basics up there, and we get what he's talking about, but he can't make what should seem like inherently fascinating material into a truly compelling film.
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