Film

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)
Website

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)
Website
Trailer

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.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Music

The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.