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Documentary Now! questions the sanctity of the tortured male artist

Image: Documentary Now! (IFC)
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Episodes of Documentary Now! naturally stand on their own as self-contained installments, connected to the original work they send up but not necessarily to each other. And yet, there are some clear throughlines in this third season, whether intentional or not. Many of these episodes have a subtle underlying theme that challenges celebrated men, challenges the notion of documentary filmmaking and the narratives it often privileges.

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Last week’s “Searching For Mr. Larson” and tonight’s “Long Gone”—an homage to the gorgeous but mostly empty 1988 Bruce Weber documentary Let’s Get Lost about jazz legend Chet Baker—in particular ask questions about who gets to make big-budget documentaries and how the genre often puts men from history on pedestals. “Waiting For The Artist” similarly touched on how media frames female artists in comparison to men. It would, of course, be nice if Documentary Now! embodied some of the ethos it puts forth in these mockumentaries in its own production; the show is still made entirely by men. But nonetheless, it manages to say a lot about sexism and power structures behind some of the best known documentaries of the past few decades, and “Long Gone” is a solid example of that.

The original documentary, Let’s Get Lost, undeniably puts Chet Baker on a pedestal in a way that goes largely unchallenged. Through its style and chill, jazzy tone, it makes him out to be cool as hell, aloof, a tortured artist. He’s a complicated man, and yet he’s presented in an uncomplicated way. “Long Gone” hits those same notes but pushes it even further. Its standin for Chet is Rex Logan, a distant jerk who is nonetheless celebrated as a legend in the jazz world. Much like last week’s Armisen character, he is so immersed in his art that he abandons his own family. His drug use is presented in a casual, matter-of-fact way, as if these are just quirky anecdotes and not a dark tale of addiction.

Documentary Now! pushes the bit further by taking a sudden, absurd twist: Rex Logan somehow ends up entwined in a fascist regime in Europe, his indifference to domestic life taking a sharp, dark turn. It injects some life into the episode, which is borderline monotonous in its pretty but languid style. The original film seems poised to say something insightful and never really does, and the same could be said of “Long Gone,” but in this case, that’s the point. We’re no closer to knowing who Rex is at episode’s end, and even the mystery that shrouds him seems more boring than it does profound.

It’s another vehicle for a killer Armisen performance, but it’s also another instance of Documentary Now! pulling in wildly good guest stars, this time with Natasha Lyonne. She plays Rex’s lover Carla, the forgotten mother of his children who also idealizes him, becoming deferential to his supposed genius while also clearly having talent of her own. Lyonne gives a subtle but striking performance, playing into the doc’s muted tones. She feels like a very real person, which is another part of Documentary Now!’s surprising depth; it makes its characters more than punching bags, breathing life into them even as it pokes fun at them. This isn’t the funniest episode of the season, but Lyonne certainly owns its best jokes. The somber tone is more incisive in her hands, and she brings a much needed specificity to the narrative, which at times hinges too much on the joke of Rex being such an extreme embodiment of a too-cool-for-school bad/sad boy.

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Stray observations

  • More original music! That has to be one of the most impressive things about Documentary Now!; the original song lyrics the writers come up with are always so good.
  • Even the Sondheim parody fits in with some of the themes I’m talking about. Sondheim was kind of a dick in the original documentary—all in the name of genius, of course. The John Mulaney character brings some of that more starkly to the surface.
  • Once again, the technical details of this episode are so precise and thoughtful.
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