The Filth and The Fury & One Day In September



UK 2000
director – Julien Temple
documentary – edited by Niven Howie
108 minutes
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US 1999
director – Kevin MacDonald
documentary – edited by Justine Wright
94 minutes

The Filth and the Fury (henceforth Filth) and One Day In September (henceforth September) are examples of that rare species, feature-length documentaries made with cinema exhibition in mind. Although I see dozens and dozens of films on the big screen each year, perhaps three or four of these will be documentaries. So, while I do catch up a bit when these documentaries are eventually given a TV screening, I’m aware that I’m nowhere near as well critically equipped to discuss non-fiction films as I am fictional works – nevertheless, I think the basic rules of critical thumb still apply. Namely: 1) would I recommend this film to a friend, if asked (if so: three stars), 2) would I not only go and watch this film again, but also go out of my way to recommend this film to a friend, regardless of whether they’d asked my opinion or not (four stars) and 3) is this a great film which I could watch repeatedly and feel the need to spread the word about (five stars).

The only five-star feature documentary I’ve ever seen is D A Pennebaker’s Bob Dylan sixties tour movie Don’t Look Back – although I’m not a Dylan fan by any means, I thought it was terrific the first time I saw it, on TV, then when I got to see it in a cinema I found it an absolutely electrifying experience. Neither Filth nor September comes close to that level, but the two films provide a useful illustration of what documentaries can do, and the distinction between a really good documentary – Filth – and an OK one – September. The element that makes the former special and the latter less so is the same mystery ingredient that distinguishes a very good fiction film from the general run of pictures – it’s about being cinematic – about needing to be a film (rather than work of TV, literature, theatre or whatever), and about taking full advantage of film’s unique qualities.

Filth and September explore events at different ends of the 1970s. Filth is the story of the Sex Pistols’ roughly 1975-8 career, mixing together present-day interviews with surviving band members, original TV and concert footage, plus contemporary background news reports and clips from Temple’s early-80s semi-fictional treatment of the same material, The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle – a film which, in contrast to Filth, told the tale largely from the perspective of the band’s manager Malcolm MacLaren.

The September in the title of One Day In September is that of 1972 – Black September, as it came to be known, from the name of the Palestinian organisation which invaded the Olympic village in Munich and held hostage members of the Israeli athletic squad. September also uses modern-day interviews with ‘survivors’ of the event – in a major coup, these include the sole surviving member of Black September, who speaks for the first time about what went on during the siege and its disastrous aftermath at Munich airport.

Both Kevin MacDonald and Julien Temple have the advantage of starting off with intriguing subject matter, not to mention intriguing and voluble interviewees – in Temple’s film each of the Pistols is given sufficient time to air their opinions and grievances, most notably a garrulous and caustic John “Johnny Rotten” Lydon and, in footage filmed by Temple in the late seventies, the late Sid Vicious. MacDonald’s main source is the widow of one of the Black September victims, and he does full justice to the gravity and dignity of her situation and attitude.

So, what is it about Filth that means I’d have no hesitation in recommending it above September – which did, incidentally, win the Oscar for Best Feature Documentary of 1999. Well, I think that Julien Temple has a greater knack at presenting his material than MacDonald, who is often guilty of overdoing his effects. When Temple cuts between the Pistols in action, the Queen on horseback, Olivier as Richard III, and back again, his timing is spot on, his juxtapositions just right. There’s a ferociously energetic rhythm to his manipulation of different images and sounds that both mirrors and adds to the Pistols’ own ferocious rhythms.

MacDonald, on the other hand, is more concerned with conscientiously recounting events rather than doing anything particularly original or daring – which is fair enough. But there are numerous moments when his use of background music – and it’s very familiar background music, as almost all of it has been used countless times in TV documentaries and feature films – is distractingly heavy-handed. And when MacDonald tries to cut together montage sequences using 1972 music, the results are only so-so – in fact, the movie’s trailer was edited with much more brio and panache. Michael Douglas does a solid job of his voiceover, but again there are plenty of occasions when you get the distinct impression that MacDonald feels the need to underline his points with a thick marker pen, just in case there’s anybody in the audience who’s incapable of piecing together the evidence and forming their own conclusions.

Not that these criticisms should put anybody off September – the tension builds effectively to the devastating climax, with several poignant moments along the way. Though the political considerations of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict are presented even-handedly, the film never holds back from acting as a savage indictment of the way the whole crisis was handled by the authorities in Germany and by the International Olympic Committee. As a painstaking documentary, September is hard to fault. But Filth is a better film, even it leaves numerous gaps – we are never informed what happened to the various Pistols following the break-up of the band, for instance, and in fact we never even see what they look like now, as their interviews are done in satirical window-side silhouette.

But this is one of many interesting, challenging and valid artistic decisions by Temple. He knows the people and the material inside out, and this allows him the leeway to play the story a little loose at times, with illuminating digressions – such as the Richard III stuff – slotting neatly into the more conventional biopic elements of the movie. Filth is, like September, often surprisingly touching – you feel as though you’ve got to know Sid Vicious sufficiently well that the tragic events at the end of his life seem all the more pointless and depressing – although there are many more comic moments, such as the notorious Bill Grundy TV interview which is expertly dissected by the Pistol participants.

Because there are so few of them, the average standard of feature documentaries is considerably higher than that of fiction films. There are plenty of bad movies shown in cinemas, but very few bad documentaries – I think it’s fair to say that it’s a case of the floor being higher and the ceiling lower. The quality of documentaries depends on two main factors – the subject matter and the directorial input. There’s nothing between Filth and September on the former, but there’s plenty between them on the latter. MacDonald tells his story well enough, but Temple goes a step beyond, integrating his way of telling the story with the story itself – using a flashy, confrontational, ragged style to explore a flashy, confrontational, ragged phenomenon. I think Sid Vicious would have approved.

by Neil Young
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