Documentaries are an odd thing for me. I love them while I’m watching them, but I’m always reluctant to turn one on. I think it’s because, no matter how interesting the subject is, I never really enjoy them, in that they don’t fill me with the same kind of emotions a fiction film gives me. Documentaries can fill you with hope and sorrow and happiness and any other emotion. Often they fill me with rage, but that’s mostly because of the kinds I watch. There’s something magic about the imagined realities though, and I’ll always prefer them for the ways they change me. The ways they absorb me.
That being said, I watched two documentaries this week that I think are worth discussing, if only because of my attachment to the people who are the subjects.
Which, by the way, is probably the main thing that I push back against in documentaries. I don’t really like the hyper focus on a single person. It’s the same reason why I don’t really dig autobiographies, biographies, or memoirs. There are exceptions, of course, but I generally just don’t care enough about a person’s personal life to want to watch a film about them. I don’t even know if I’d want to watch a documentary about my friends or future wife.
It’s just not for me, in a lot of ways.
Anyrate, I watched documentaries about Dan Harmon, who’s probably most famous from Community, which is one of my favorite television shows to ever be made.
The other was on Roger Ebert, and I don’t even think there’s a reason to justify why I watched this.
We’ll do Harmontown first.
You’ll probably only watch this if you’re a fan of Dan Harmon already, and it’s made for that purpose. If you’re not someone who raged over the many threats to Community‘s existence or how Dan Harmon was fired from his own show, then this probably won’t matter to you at all. It’s for fans is what I mean.
This film deals with him as a person but it’s also a tour documentary. See, Dan Harmon began a podcast after he got fired, which is part unscripted comedy, ranting, confessional, and D&D campaign. Honestly, I never got into it, mostly because it’s hard for me to keep up with any podcast. The second I turn on something that only occupies my ears I also start using my hands and eyes for different things and the sound becomes white noise until I click back into it and realise I have no idea what’s going on.
I know. I know.
But Dan Harmon decided to take this podcast on the road and the documentary covers that journey.
So while most of us know him as the creator of Community, whether through his work or the public feuds he had with people like Chevy Chase, this digs into the man as a human, rather than as a pure creator. And it’s an interesting look at mental anguish, brilliance, and his longing for human connection.
This is his purpose for the tour. The podcast has become a success, as far as podcasts go, and his show was a success, so loved by fans that they saved it from cancellation a few times. But all of that is kind of abstract. Someone can tell you that they love what you do or even write emails or start campaigns to save your work–that’s an immense feeling–but, for Harmon, it was all abstract. He wanted to look people in the face, go across the country and see and touch the people who actually cared enough about the words he wrote to keep it going.
What follows is parts tragedy and comedy and romance and also a classic hero’s journey, though the hero isn’t who we assume it will be at the beginning of the documentary, but we’ll get to that part.
The comedy is the pure joy of watching the documentary, which is very funny. The romance is between the man and his work, which is sometimes a dark and horrifying love, which leads to the tragic elements of the film.
One thing the film does is intercut the present with the past. So we see Harmon and his friends and colleagues doing the whole facetalking into the camera, but we also get archival footage of his work with Sarah Silverman and Ben Stiller and others. We get glimpses into his past and we hear how he was both a genius and a madman. How he was the best part of a show but also an intolerable part of it. This is best illustrated by Sarah Silverman’s relationship with him. She describes herself as his biggest fan, but she had to fire him.
Not because of his work.
But because of who he is.
As a person. As a human.
We see this same difficulty happening in the present between him and his girlfriend, though in a much more limited way.
Harmon is a man of intense intelligence and verbal dexterity. He feels disconnected from most humans but he understands them. This is what makes him so funny.
It’s also what gives him an incredibly ability to be cruel. Or at least that’s how the people who know him describe him. When he turns on you, it’s like earning the spite of a petty and jealous and cruel god. He will verbally cripple you, leave you writhing, and he takes a perverse relish in the pain he can inflict. This is why Sarah Silverman fired him. He wrote the best jokes, but he also terrorised her mentally.
In these moments, we cut to Harmon who describes the abuse he received from his parents. He talks about belts and slaps. He talks about his experiences as a kid in school and how he was a nerd with few friends. For him, verbal viciousness was his only defense, and when he feels attacked, he unleashes on those around him.
It sounds like he feels attacked often, which is just too bad, but it explains his outbursts that have been seen in the media and all over the internet.
But Harmontown, the podcast, gives him an outlet. A way for him to spill his heart to a crowd who loves him. I don’t think it began with salvation as the goal, but I think that’s sort of what it becomes.
And I think this is a difficult thing for him to understand, and it’s what the documentary maybe captures best. His inability to accept or understand the love people have for him. He sees it as almost confrontational but over the course of the tour he learns to give himself to the audience, rather than build a sturdier wall.
It’s an interesting documentary, but, once again, it’s really only for the already converted.
But the best part of the documentary is Spencer, the Dungeon Master. He’s not an actor or comedian or anything like that. He’s just a guy who listened to the Harmontown podcast as they played D&D and decided he wanted to play with Dan Harmon.
Spencer has a great deal of D&D knowledge and expertise and when Dan Harmon asked the audience if anyone knew anything about D&D, he raised his hand and was brought on stage to be the Dungeon Master.
And that became his new job. So brilliantly does he inhabit the role of Dungeon Master that Harmon brought him on tour, where Spencer discovers his own fans.
Spencer is not a fame seeker. In fact, it seems almost horrifying to him that he has fans.
We’ve all known kids like Spencer. Deep into D&D or insert any other niche nerd culture. We walked past him in the hallway. He was large and didn’t try to look handsome or conform to the styles people actually wore. He was intensely shy and reluctant to stand near other people. He lived alone, in his own world that was forced to push against ours.
In Harmontown we see him grow. We see him start as an adult who lives in his mother’s basement. Shy and awkward but also hilarious, and oddly captivating when performing his DM role. But we watch him come to terms with the fact that people he doesn’t know like him. That they feel connected to him. That he makes them feel okay about who they are. It’s really something worth seeing for yourself. Spencer is a hero in many ways. He even has an almost D&D or classic fantasy kind of storyline. A boy from nowhere with skills that no one values comes to find himself the center of an epic journey for the fates of thousands of lives.
This is mirrored by Harmon’s own experience, where people tell him that Abed saved their life.
And these two together go on a very specific journey where they come to terms with the world around them.
But Spencer’s the hero. He realises the need for human interaction and contact. He comes out of this tour a transformed person in a way that’s potentially remarkable. No such salvation or transformation is evident in Harmon himself, and we see this in the way he fails to even finish one of the scripts he’s been hired to write, even as we get to celebrate with him as he is rehired by Community. The man feels unchanged, in many ways. He will continue to battle with himself and with the world, but maybe he’ll find that the many voices on his side are really there out of love.
For Spencer, I think we see how love has changed him or has at least opened up the world to him in a way he never saw before.
This documentary is, in many ways, a love letter to the misfits and the weirdos, the outcasts and the nerds. I mean, that’s what Community is, at its most basic. It’s an open invitation to find acceptance, all your oddities included. And that’s what this tour that Harmontown follows. It’s Harmon looking for acceptance in the people who already love him. He’s looking for real human connection.
This is a brilliant documentary, but only because of its subject. Roger Ebert is a towering figure and one of the most important humans of the last half century.
I would say that just about everyone in the US knows who he was. Even if they never read a review, they know that his voice matters. Even if they don’t know where the ‘Two Thumbs Up’ comes from, they know that designation mattered.
Honestly, before this film, I didn’t know much about his life beyond what he shared on Twitter and Facebook. I remember watching him and Siskel debate films on television, though. I watched it often, even knowing I would probably never get to see the films they discussed. I mean, I’ve seen many of them now, but as a kid, being five or ten or whatever, I knew I wasn’t going to be heading to the theatre to see what they talked about, much as I might want to. It would be a gross overstatement to say that he ignited my interest in films, but he was an important figure to me for a number of reasons.
He was probably the greatest critic who ever lived. I’m sure many would disagree with this, but I don’t think a film or book or music critic has ever or will ever come close to who and what Ebert was. There may be those who write more eloquently about their subject or who get deeper into their topics, but no one does or did what Ebert did for decades.
Part of what makes him so great and so important is that he refused snobbery. He was a populist, in many ways. Sure, his personal tastes were about what you would expect from a man who devoted his life to the art of film. There are few people who can dissect a film the way he could or who understand the language of cinema so well. And all of that is incredibly valuable, and I learnt a lot from reading and watching him.
But what he did was review films for what they are, not what he wished or wanted them to be.
This is something critics have always struggled with and I believe it’s only getting worse, with the proliferation of selfimportance on the internet, where people don’t engage with others to listen or learn or discuss. They engage with others to have those others tell them that they’re right. We see it with the reviews for Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant right now, but we see it with countless other works of art. Just go to Pitchfork and read a few reviews. Those are critics so deep up their own asses that it makes my eyes hurt.
But Ebert saw films for what they were. It’s why he could give The Campaign a better score than Full Metal Jacket. If you could ask him, I’m sure he’d tell you that Full Metal Jacket is a film far more worth your time, intellectually and emotionally, but that doesn’t mean it deserves a better score. The criteria for every film should be fluid. You discuss a film for what it wants to be, what it’s trying to be, how it succeeds at that, and how it fails. If you look at all films through the same lens, then you’re never really talking about film. You’re talking about your taste, which is fine, but don’t pretend it’s anything else.
The film goes well beyond his work as a critic, and I think most of us also know him as more than just a critical voice. He was an important human voice. His hope and intellect were aimed at more than just this week’s newest films. He discussed his life, his Death, politics, and on and on. He was a person who I felt connected to despite never meeting. Roger Ebert was simply a tremendous figure who mattered, and not because he knew a lot about film.
Sure, that’s what gave him the platform, but he used that platform to bring people together.
The film digs into his life as well. I knew none of this stuff, so it was exceptionally interesting. We learn about his alcoholism, his marriage, his relationship with Siskel, his longtime rival and companion. We learn about how important he was to his friends and family. He wasn’t only a towering figure in media, but he was a beloved friend, lover, and father with an insatiable curiosity and love of life.
But we see him here in his final days. I knew he could no longer speak, but it was quite another thing to see him, his lips and chin hanging loose from his face because he no longer had a full jaw. He uses his computer and pen and body language to speak for him. It’s also clear that when the documentary began shooting, there wasn’t meant to be footage from his funeral, but that’s the way life spins.
This film is a celebration, pure and simple, of Roger Ebert, the man and figure. In this way, it’s brilliant. In this way, it’s perfect.
It’s difficult to watch at times and it’ll bring tears to your eyes. You get to see, intimately, what his life was near the end, and you come to understand the love he had for his wife, and the love she has for him.
How she saved his life and he filled her life with so much hope and love.
Roger Ebert lived a good life as a good human. He’s an example to us all and this film is a testament to who he was and how he will be remembered by friends, lovers, family, and even the public at large.
Part of why I wanted to discuss these films together is because of how they work together. Harmontown is a film about a man desperately searching for human connection. Life Itself is about a man who brought humans together and connected them through his voice. Which, ultimately, is what Dan Harmon is and has been trying to do his whole career.
It’s what we’re all trying to do.
I see myself in both of these men. My sometimes crippling depression and how it ruins me and lashes out at those around me. My insatiable hunger to do and be more. My desire for human connection and my sometimes reluctance to accept it. How I write not only out of love and joy, but to understand myself and the world and my and our place in it, with it.
So these films hit me deeply and I hope you watch them and find something worth carrying with you after they end.