DOC NYC 2014: ‘Enquiring Minds’ + ‘The Last Impresario’

Two documentaries about surprising success stories: the men behind the National Enquirer and Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Enquiring Minds: The Untold Story of the Man Behind the National Enquirer

Director: Ric Burns
Cast: Generoso Pope Jr.
Rated: NR
Studio: Steeplechase Films
Year: 2014
US date: 2014-11-15 (DOC NYC 2014)

The Last Impresario

Director: Gracie Otto
Cast: Michael White, Naomi Watts, John Cleese, Kate Moss, Gracie Otto
Rated: NR
Studio: Dogwoof Pictures
Year: 2014
US date: 2014-11-20 (DOC NYC 2014)

It’s hard to remember now, but there was a time when Americans argued passionately over whether or not the National Enquirer and other sources of salacious, libel-prone gossip was bad for the country. Today, the tabloid style has spread from outliers like TMZ and Perez Hilton to nearly all the major media channels. There's barely a news website out there that dares not keep at least one eye cocked at what the Kardashians or various Real Housewives are up to. This could be blamed on the general decay of the culture. Or it could be laid at the feet of one ruthlessly driven, highly intelligent, dictatorial media mogul, Generoso Pope Jr., the owner and publisher of The National Enquirer.

As Ric Burns tells it in his gripping, if single-minded film, Enquiring Minds, which screened at DOC NYC, Pope was a seminal figure in the landscape of American media; the Henry Luce or Ben Bradlee of the checkout lane. A graduate of MIT at the age of 19 and briefly employed by the CIA, Pope was the youngest son of Generoso Pope Sr. A dirt-poor Italian immigrant in New York who quickly went from construction worker to Mob-connected magnate (dapper Mafioso Frank Costello was Jr.’s actual godfather), Sr. also used his Italian American newspaper as a propaganda trumpet for Mussolini. Jr., forced to make his own way after being disinherited during a nasty family feud, wasn’t so interested in politics. In 1952, with $75,000, Jr. bought the New York Enquirer, a disreputable little tabloid that he was pretty sure could use a little more blood and cheesecake.

In the film's version of the following 36 years, the paper titillates a growing number of New York readers with its classically down-market mix of bosomy starlets, cute kids and pets, and puke-in-your-cereal gore. But although variations of that formula would remain baked into the publication, Pope kept innovating. Once the returns from the carnage leveled out, in the '60s, he moved on to heavy coverage of TV celebrities, an untilled field at the time, and placed sales racks by the checkout lanes in the new supermarkets springing up everywhere. By the time he moved the whole operation down to Florida in 1971, the driven and "dictatorial" Pope had become master of one of the century’s most stunning and reviled journalistic successes.

While fascinating throughout, the film falls off a bit in its research once Sr. leaves the scene. This isn’t surprising, as few documentarians can top Ric Burns when it comes to the history of New York. Once the film turns to the ever-upward trajectory of the National Enquirer, it relies too heavily on current and previous Pope employees to tell the story. At some point the relentless cheerleading becomes cloying. One interviewee after another revels in tales of their guerrilla coverage (riding helicopters to get shots of celebrity weddings, using "checkbook journalism" to gain access), while at the same time seeming frustrated that mainstream journalism never took them seriously.

It’s a tension that the film never quite resolves, to its detriment. A history of American journalism would not be complete without the story of the National Enquirer. But a film that wants to pay breathless homage to its acknowledged coups -- the first photo of Elvis in his coffin! Gary Hart’s affair!! John Edwards’ affair!!! -- doesn’t quite do its subject justice by ignoring all those stories about UFOs.

Michael White with Kate Moss in The Last Impresario (2014)

Another film at DOC NYC, The Last Impresario, tells another story of surprising success. When actress Gracie Otto set out to make a film about producer Michael White, "the most famous person you’ve never heard of," she apparently had no problem getting people to show up on camera. The Last Impresario is a highlight reel of highly talented and famous people (John Cleese, Wallace Shawn, Anna Wintour) saying very nice things. This is not a bad thing on its face, but there are limits to how far it can go.

White was born into a successful Glaswegian family of Jewish immigrants. Sent off to boarding school in Switzerland at age seven, he developed an internationalist mindset early on. How and why he developed a love of the theater is left a mystery, but once out of school, he was apprenticing in the New York theater scene. Setting up in London in the early '60s, White was instrumental in seeding the town’s theater community with attention-getting avant-garde spectacles like the Living Theater, Merce Cunningham and John Cage, Yoko Ono, and the all-naked Oh, Calcutta!

In between a busy roundelay of parties, lunches, dinners, and flirtations, he also produced Monty Python and the Holy Grail and My Dinner with Andre, and took The Rocky Horror Picture Show from a tiny little revue to a seven-years-running smash. The groundbreaking works were balanced off with bigger productions like Annie and A Chorus Line that kept the lights on.

After the '70s, White’s track record became a little spottier, though he still helped out cutting edge artists like the Comic Strip and backed a respected film like White Mischief. At the same time, the business changed, as jet-setting maverick gamblers were replaced by deeper-pocketed corporate entities. Otto’s friendly but shallow film, which alternates between video postcards from his collaborators and friends (particularly the models and actresses he cultivated) and footage of an old and somewhat frail-looking White, tries to argue that he was the last of a breed without providing any definitional context.

The movie sometimes comes close to resembling one of those endless producer tributes designed for already tedious awards shows, where actors line up to kiss the ring of the elderly man who bankrolled their early projects and whom nobody watching recognizes. At the very least, Otto makes an argument that White is a different kind of producer than most, an actual impresario who wanted to create a particular kind of art and took risks. And yes, obeisance must be paid to the man who midwifed Holy Grail and Rocky Horror into existence.

But there is maybe only so much to be said about the holder of the checkbook, as opposed to the artists involved. If Otto had devoted more screen time to examining White’s contributions on a creative level, instead of tracking his restless socializing, the film would have had some staying power.

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