Something bad happened.
Every year, the International Documentary Association (IDA) – one of the most upstanding groups of movie people in Hollywood – gets together to honor the year’s best docs, and I’m pleased to say, this year, I was part of the nominating committee. Over the course of several months, the committee watched close to a hundred documentaries, met regularly over take-out, and hashed out the good from the bad, the liberal from the not liberal enough. Most of the time we were even cordial to one another.
As is to be expected with these things, there were several films that split the group right up the middle, but none engendered fiercer debate, or launched more satay skewers, than Anvil! The Story of Anvil.
Right off the bat, I should say that no one was outright opposed the movie. Even those who ultimately came down on behalf of other, more depressing, more politically righteous docs, admitted that the reach-for-the-stars story of Robb Reiner and Steve “Lips” Kudlow, Anvil!’s creaky, middle-aged heavy-metalers, was too much fun to be written off entirely. They were pleasantly surprised, they said, to find themselves rooting for these two lovable putzes (despite hating their music, which includes an extended guitar riff with a dildo), and they would definitely recommend the movie to their kids. But would they – could they – call Anvil! The Story of Anvil the best documentary of the year? No way.
I wasn’t shocked. Next to, say, an equally well-made documentary about Iraq or Hurricane Katrina, there’s no denying that Anvil! looks a little slight. Robb and Lips certainly don’t suffer any great injustice, nor do they, like Michael Moore, stalk Washington with a camera, forcing political criminals to confront their lies. But that doesn’t make their own humanitarian crusade – to have a career playing the music they love – less viable.
Since when does a film’s depiction of moral excellence in the face of human suffering become the sole criterion by which we evaluate documentaries? Judging by the Oscars awarded annually for Best Documentary, quite a long time. Even last year’s winner, Man on Wire (2008), about a daredevil crossing of the Twin Towers on tightrope, was well-positioned with the proper slant. I don’t mean to imply that the recent winners, or even nominees, are undeserving, but only to point out that too often, a film is honored less for its cinematic merit than it’s content or upstanding political orientation.
The thwarting of Anvil! The Story of Anvil is case in point. On November 19th, the New York Times reported that Anvil!, along with a handful of other terrific documentaries, was held back for 2009 Oscar contention. The reason for this is simple; the list of eligible docs, hundreds of titles long, had to be narrowed down somehow. So, the viewing committee viewed, and the viewing committee voted. What could be more democratic than that?
Unfortunately, this year’s democracy has excluded what may very well be the best film of the year – documentary or otherwise.
The truth of it is, Anvil! is not just about Robb and Lips and their madcap dream of rock stardom. They’re just stand-ins for the inner-Salieri that twists and turns inside those of us – most of us – who push up against a crowded world of more-talenteds and more-successfuls. Robb and Lips can’t pay the bills, they can’t get their loved ones to care anymore, and on the great human radar, I’m sure they’d be the first ones to admit they’re nothing but a blip. And yet, like idiots, like Quixote, they go on. No matter how preposterous, their lunatic yearning makes their mediocrity seem somehow glorious. In one unforgettable scene, near the end, when Lips has had just about too much, the glory is so pervasive, even the white spittle collecting at the corners of his mouth registers as nobler than the rabid froth of a crazy person; it’s an expression of that wild, baseless drive to become nothing less than exactly what he wants to be. Watching that scene, I realized that Anvil! was Moby Dick, but with a tadpole the size of a whale.
But amazing things do happen. Maybe I threw just the right amount of satay, or maybe I had more allies than I thought, but to my total, slack-jawed shock and awe, Anvil! won at the IDA Awards.
And now that Anvil!, and its producer/director, Sacha Gervasi is out of the Oscar race for Best Doc, he has become a kind of Ahab in hot pursuit of (hopefully) Best Picture of the Year, the whitest whale around. It’s a Hail Mary, I know, but I’m not alone in thinking he has an outside shot at a nomination. Hoping to leverage whatever advantage they could, the film’s distributor took pains to ensure that Anvil! was the first DVD of 2009 to arrive in Academy mailboxes. Whether that will earn Robb, Lipps, and Gervasi any more support is hard to say. But amazing things do happen.