Directed by Todd Phillips
By J.R. Jones
Bittersweet Motel, a polished and entertaining documentary on the multimillion-dollar jam band Phish, has the misfortune of opening here this week across town from one of the greatest rock films ever--This Is Spinal Tap, which has been rereleased for a limited run to promote a new DVD edition. Now that this satire of rock cinema verite is as mercilessly quoted as Monty Python and the Holy Grail, we might forget what a delicious put-on it actually was when it opened in spring 1984. Seeing it then, an unsuspecting friend watched incredulously for about ten minutes and finally whispered to me, "Are these guys for real?" Of course they weren't--they were veteran sketch comedians posing as an aging British metal band. Then again, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer have released albums and toured as Spinal Tap. If that doesn't make them "for real," what does?
The smudged line between documentary and fiction proved irresistible to blase filmmakers in the 90s, generating numerous "mockumentaries" and finally the superior dramatic entertainment of The Blair Witch Project. Meanwhile "reality-based" TV has evolved from home-video melanges to a staged survival drama, with the local dailies fulfilling their own prophecies of the show's cultural importance by reporting heavily on it as news. In his 1998 cultural critique Life: The Movie, Neal Gabler wondered whether our endless hunger for entertainment was transforming not only our media, our government, and our institutions but also our shared human awareness. "Where we had once measured the movies by life," he wrote, "we now measured life by how well it satisfied the narrative expectations created by the movies." That may explain why I found Bittersweet Motel so agreeable, even though I don't much care for Phish's fuzzy-headed tunes. These dudes all grew up on the same rock films as I did--Monterey Pop, The Last Waltz, The Kids Are Alright, The Song Remains the Same--and seem eager to supply director Todd Phillips with a verite we'll all recognize and enjoy.
In an interview with former Rolling Stone senior editor Parke Puterbaugh conducted for the film's press kit, Phillips explains how the band flew him to Chicago to discuss the project. "I'm thinking to myself, 'Who the fuck are these guys? How do they have money to make a movie and fly me out to Chicago?' I literally didn't know." Phillips caught their show here and was astonished by the band's following. "I was talking with Trey [Anastasio, guitarist] and Page [McConnell, keyboardist] and I honestly said, 'Look, I don't really know much about you guys. I'm not going to lie to you and say I was a fan before, but I can make the movie, so let's do it.' To their credit, they were looking for a more outsider point of view on this whole thing." The band, he says, bankrolled the film but gave him carte blanche. "When you see them backstage in a tiny room in Barcelona and Trey's a little bit drunk and he's playing around with his guitar--it's so real. It's not an act, whereas with some of these other personalities we're talking about [they've just been discussing Madonna's Truth or Dare] it always feels like they're acting and it just never feels real."
Strangely enough, Phish recruited Phillips after seeing his 1993 documentary Hated, a stomach-turning profile of sociopathic punk rocker GG Allin (who was born in Concord, Vermont, about 50 miles from Phish's native Burlington). Phillips began the film as an undergrad at New York University but dropped out of school to complete it; two days after the premiere Allin was dead of a heroin overdose, and Hated went on to play the U.S. and 40 cities abroad. Some viewers found it a bit too real: in one scene, videotaped by someone at a party, Allin lies on the floor while a woman squats over him, pissing into his mouth; he vomits a recent meal up onto his own face and then returns to gulping down her urine.
This is worlds away from the Bittersweet Motel, a film handcrafted for the laid-back Phish heads that are sure to be its core audience. Phillips lets Anastasio carp about the band's critics and rhapsodize about the pleasures of playing music for a living, but none of these guys really has anything interesting to say, so mostly he shows them doing what they do best. Excerpts from 23 rehearsals and performances are woven through the nattering, and Phillips excels with a small camera crew, concentrating on the featured player and framing his face and hands well. A New Year's Eve performance at Madison Square Garden is colorful and animated: as giant balloons released from above waft onto the stage, engulfing the band, Anastasio bursts them with the steel strings sticking out from his headstock. The numerous backstage rehearsal sequences capture the easy interaction of the longtime friends--at one point Anastasio needles McConnell with a mocking song about his new shirt.
Anyone familiar with Phillips as an underground producer would have a hard time imagining him as the custodian of this big-screen advertorial. After finishing Hated, he founded the production and distribution company Stranger Than Fiction Films with Andrew Gurland, a young filmmaker who'd done commercials for Walt Disney Studios. In 1994 Gurland and Phillips launched the New York Underground Film Festival, where they whipped up a controversy with one of their releases, Adi Sideman's documentary about the North American Man/Boy Love Association, Chicken Hawk. In 1996 they coproduced Screwed, about Screw magazine publisher Al Goldstein.
But the pivotal project in Phillips's career was Frat House, an exposé of fraternity hazing. Backed by HBO, he and Gurland persuaded a fraternity at East Carolina University to let them visit from rush week to hell week. But after the filmmakers showed up unexpectedly and found the actives threatening blindfolded pledges with branding, the brothers ran them off campus. Determined to salvage the project, they got permission to go through the pledging process of the Alpha Tau Omega chapter at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania. In one scene Phillips crouches in a dog cage while brothers splatter him with hot sauce, tobacco spit, and beer, but his suffering was rewarded: Frat House shared the prize for best documentary at Sundance in 1998.
By August of that year, however, HBO had canned the movie. According to articles in the Cornell Daily Sun and Entertainment Weekly, representatives of ATž stepped forward, claiming the hell week sequence at the end of the film had been staged in the spring with full-fledged fraternity brothers (rush takes place in the fall) and that Phillips and Gurland had offered the chapter $1,500 and brothers $50 apiece to take part in a comedy about two guys trying to get into a fraternity. "They said they were trying to make the 90s Animal House," said David Boelker, president of the chapter. "We didn't know they were funded by HBO....For all I knew, it was for a class."
Phillips and Gurland denied that they'd staged any shots and argue that the fraternity was simply trying to shut down the film to protect its reputation. According to Link, a national magazine for college students, after the pledge master from the East Carolina fraternity learned of the ATž campaign, his mother threatened a suit, claiming the first half had also been staged. HBO had the filmmakers log all their outtakes and questioned them about discrepancies before deciding not to show the film. Sheila Nevins, the HBO exec who'd green-lighted the project, said the filmmakers "find all this funny....To them it's publicity, and all publicity is good." (Parke Puterbaugh sidesteps the whole issue, except to note that the "underground classic...never aired because of the threat of lawsuits.")
Phillips still hopes to release Frat House on video, but it's no longer a high priority--despite the postfestival fuss, he's ridden the Sundance express to Hollywood. As Phillips told Calendarlive.com, a young man at a festival forum asked him why he made Frat House. "I said, 'This movie is an homage to these 80s comedies that Andrew and I grew up on.' We had this idea of remaking 80s comedies as documentaries. Frat House was Animal House. We were also going to do Stripes." Unbeknownst to Phillips, the young man quizzing him was Jason Reitman, whose father, Ivan Reitman, had produced Animal House and directed Stripes. Before long Phillips was writing and directing a college comedy for Reitman; the director made his dramatic debut (unless you count Frat House) with Road Trip, this summer's champion collegiate gross-out comedy.
To promote the film, Phillips sat for an interview with Reitman and comedian Tom Green, the demented deadpan presence who provides the movie's most unhinged and idiosyncratic laughs. (Green recently produced a comic documentary for MTV about his treatment for testicular cancer.) "What I like about Ivan and Tom's take on comedy is that it's based in reality, which is where I come from in documentaries," said Phillips. "If you look at the first 20 minutes of Stripes, it's so real. Once it's real and your characters are founded in reality, you can go anywhere. That's where Tom comes in. He takes that to the extreme: uber-realism."
When a schooled documentarian cites a shticky Bill Murray comedy as a touchstone for realism, the line between life and entertainment is no longer blurred--it's gone altogether. In some ways Bittersweet Motel, commercial as it may be, fits neatly into Phillips's worldview. In one of the funnier sequences, he follows Anastasio and company into a gun shop in Spain, where the guitarist strikes a few poses with a Magnum, screaming, "Freeze, motherfucker!" This is one of those "real" moments Phillips savors--but centered in the frame is a guy acting out a scene from a movie. What's the point of cinema verite if the only verities we know come from cinema?
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/C. Taylor Crothers.