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September 09, 2004

Some Documentaries: "Snapped"; "If I Should Fall From Grace With God"; "Building a Skyscraper"; "Lost in La Mancha"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Some documentaries that are out there to be enjoyed:

  • Snapped. This Oxygen Network true-crime series about women who have killed their mates is a hoot, though one that the sexes are likely to enjoy in different ways. The show takes the basic "American Justice"/"City Confidential" true-crime template, shrinks it to 30 minutes, and then bathes it in Oxygen, er, estrogen. The graphics are party-colored; the narration is by an offscreen Laura San Giacomo; and the stories are awash in a tide of psychobabble from psychotherapist-experts, all of it aimed at trying to understand the feelings of the woman killers. Not a word about how the hubbies might have felt about being murdered.

    The Wife watches "Snapped" clucking happily, the way she does when yakking with girlfriends about women and their bad choices. Me, I find the combo of female mate-killers and female p-o-v absolutely, positively terrifying: Can this really be what goes on inside women? It doesn't seem to make any sense at all!!! -- and my experience of total and utter woman-incomprehension scares me far more deeply than the case studies onscreen do. Perhaps the most frightening thing about the shows I've seen so far has been the way all of the killers -- prior to the moment they "snapped" -- had been devotedly "working on their relationships." Do women really think in these terms?

    The show is broadcast numerous times in the course of the week. You can check out the scedule at Oxygen's "Snapped" page, here. I can't resist copying and pasting this passage from Oxygen's own p-r material:

    Let's be honest: we've all had at least one moment in which we felt as though we could snap. Even if you're in the "perfect relationship", chances are, you've probably said (or even just fleetingly thought) "I'm going to kill my husband!"

    So what separates those of us who do, from those who don't? Why can some women cope with the everyday - or even not-so-everyday - stresses of married life without ever resorting to violence, while others "snap" and murder their mates?

    Oxygen's newest half-hour, true crime series, Snapped, aims to answer this very question: what causes a woman to kill her mate?

    That's a pretty accurate representation of what the show's like. To which I respond: Eeeeek!

    Thanks to GNXP's Godless (here), who recently linked to an interesting study showing that female and male brains start to organize themselves differently even before the onset of puberty.

  • If I Should Fall From Grace: The Shane MacGowan Story. I found this documentary about Shane MacGowan, the onetime lead singer for the Irish punk band The Pogues, fascinating and moving despite the fact that, as musicians, Shane and The Pogues never meant much to me.

    The Pogues made their mark by setting traditional Irish sounds to wildman punk beats; Shane was infamous for being one of the most self-destructive performers ever -- during one long stretch, he was using heroin and drinking a quart of gin before going onstage. The documentary, made by an Irish TV director named Sarah Share, tells Shane's story via the usual mixture of archival footage, and interviews with friends, family, and subject. But the director's most eloquent move is to spend a lot of time cutting back and forth between present-day Shane -- for whom the term "burnt-out husk of a man" might have been invented -- and footage of his sassy, exultant and witty younger self.

    It's quite a horrifying contrast; I've seen residents of nursing homes who are in better shape than the bleary, shambling present-day Shane -- and at the time of filming, he was only in his early 40s. I read somewhere that Shane initiated the project: how did he imagine he'd come across? As it happens, some small, cackling-all-the-way-to-hell spark still burns in him, and he carries himself with a touching, if pathetic, dignity. He gives the impression of having lived through many rough lifetimes, and of still feeling the wounds from each and every one of them. These days, he seems content to be coddled by family and girlfriend, to show up at the occasional gig, and to stagger around Ireland graciously accepting elder-statesman and established-legend status. Despite the toll that misbehavior has taken on his body, Shane is still rarely without a cigarette and a drink, even if his determination to play the carouser has come to seem pretty pro forma.

    FvB has reminded me what a dangerous archetype the tortured Romantic artist is, and I couldn't agree with him more about this; we need to resist encouraging anyone to go and do likewise. But sometimes these burn-it-all-down talents come along anyway, and why not at least take in what they manage to accomplish, and the kinds of lives they lead? The spectacle of MacGowan may be sad, but the image the film conveys of him has a ruined grandeur that I found very moving. Still: kids -- do not take Shane MacGowan as a role model! Your 40th birthday will be here before you know it, and when it does arrive you'll appreciate whatever braincells you've managed to conserve. I confess that I generally have a limited appetite for enactments of the Irish thing -- my shortcoming, I know. But when the Irish do get to me, they really get to me, and "If I Should Fall From Grace" got to me bigtime. The film devotes a generous amount of footage to performances by The Pogues from the long-ago days when everyone was getting along, and what a riotously good band they could be. The film is buyable here, Netflixable here.

    Now that I think about it, I haven't enjoyed many of the movies that have been made about the punk scene -- "Sid and Nancy," puh-leeze. (I came to NYC during the punk years, and though I was no scenester I did spend a lot of evenings tagging along with devoted-punk friends.) Most of these films have seemed to me to miss the spirit of the scene, which was hectic, funny, DIY-amateurish, rude, annoying, and sexy -- one of the interviewees in "If I Should Fall From Grace" talks about how the great thing about punk was that, for a few minutes, pop music had a human face. That's a good way of summing the scene's appeal up. But I liked "If I Should Fall From Grace" a lot. Hey, another film about the punk years that struck me as getting the punk spirit right was Michael Winterbottom's "24 Hour Party People," buyable here and Netflixable here.

    Shane MacGowan's website is here. The Pogues' website is here. (Shane and The Pogues broke up acrimoniously.) Here's a page about "If I Should Fall From Grace."

  • Modern Marvels: Building a Skyscraper. The title of this four-part History Channel series is a bit of a cheat, given that the building being erected is only 13 stories tall. But it's a fascinating and informative series about large-scale building anyway. The filmmaking team followed the construction of the new L.A. CalTrans headquarters during the entire course of its two-year gestation, and it's staggering to witness the amount of work and talent that go into creating a big building. 55 subcontractors! 13,000 tons of steel! 36,000 cubic yards of concrete! Enough wire and cables to stretch from New York City to Boston!

    Though I dislike the CalTrans building's design (by the outfit known as Morphosis), the show's emphasis is on the practicalities of construction: the heroes here aren't architects, they're structural engineers, head contractors, and work-guys of many sorts. The show also delivers lots of construction-business lore, and takes helpful breaks for excursions into skyscraper-construction history. I found all four of the show's hour-long episodes very absorbing.

    The series isn't scheduled to be rebroadcast in the near future, but the History Channel is forever recycling its content, so building and engineering fans may want to keep their eyes open for repeats -- the Modern Marvels website is here. You can eyeball a photo of the CalTrans building here. California residents: that's the kind of architecture your tax dollars are supporting these days. Here's the kind of architecture your tax dollars used to support. I know which style I like better.

  • Lost in La Mancha. IFC will be showing this good documentary a number of times in the coming month. Its subject is the director Terry Gilliam's doomed attempt to make a Fellini-esque film of "Don Quixote." A while back, I wrote a long-ish posting about the film here.

    Here are the show's dates, all EST:

    * Friday, Sep 10 2004 6:30 PM
    * Saturday, Sep 11 2004 10:30 AM
    * Monday, Sep 27 2004 10:00 AM
    * Monday, Sep 27 2004 4:30 PM
    * Tuesday, Sep 28 2004 8:00 AM

    And of course you can always buy the DVD (here), or rent it (here).



posted by Michael at September 9, 2004


Dear Michael,

Allow me to present a short collection of excerpts from your own recent writing in order to answer you question "Can this really be what's going on inside a women?"

... Chloe starts to look like it's all she can do to hold on for the ride. There's some clatter and grunting ... Chloe looks bug-eyed and sweaty ...Still, something the scene deserves credit for is conveying what a violent, forceful thing it must sometimes be for a girl to give a guy a blowjob -- delicate tissues, those, for handling what can obviously be a rough experience. I admit I never thought about blowjobs in quite this way before...

[To which I respond: Eeeeek! - Exactly-TE]

...Perhaps the most frightening thing about the shows I've seen so far has been the way all of the killers -- prior to the moment they "snapped" -- had been devotedly "working on their relationships." Do women really think in these terms?

I think you've already answered your question, Michael.

Posted by: Tatyana on September 10, 2004 3:48 PM

I think you're right!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 10, 2004 3:50 PM

One deliriously anarchic punk doc is probably enough for most people's tastes, but my personal fave is Julien Temple's The Filth & The Fury. Avoid Sid & Nancy and reach for this, instead.

Posted by: Whisky Prajer on September 10, 2004 4:56 PM

Completely agree, though I also recommend a double bill with The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle, not least because of the huge overlap in terms of footage.

It's an object lesson in how the same material can be shaped to tell radically different stories purely by adopting someone else's point of view - in Filth's case the band's, in Swindle's their erstwhile manager.

I'm not sure which order to suggest watching them in - probably Swindle first, as the other film was partly an attempt at setting its decidedly faulty record straight.

Posted by: Michael Brooke on September 10, 2004 5:36 PM

For the true punk documentary experience, I recommend Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies:

GG was quite the suave and debonair fellow, as the link implies. It pretty much cleared the room when I last showed it. Wimps.

Posted by: Maureen on September 10, 2004 11:45 PM

You can't go wrong with Modern Marvels.

Posted by: David Sucher on September 10, 2004 11:55 PM

My ... "Snapped" ... I'm trying to think of what could have made me kill my ex-husband instead of divorce him. I'm thinking that if he had been a violent man, which he wasn't. And if I had taken years of physical abuse, which I wouldn't. Then possibly, if I "snapped," I mean a total out of body mental breakdown, I could have considered murder.

Or maybe if I had lived as a child with a lot of abuse or ... geez, this is so sad. Often when I hear of this sort of situation, I try to figure that we humans, we aren't all that different.

Posted by: laurel on September 11, 2004 6:59 AM

The female of the species is ruthless.

She'll work on him and work on him and work on him (the relationship, that is) until she realizes he's hopeless. Then she'll kill him.

Perfect sense.
To her, that is.

Michael, you didn't know that?!

Posted by: ricpic on September 11, 2004 7:46 AM

Oh puh-leeze. Someone's got issues ...

(Now where's my gun? I gotta job to do on ricpic.)


Posted by: laurel on September 11, 2004 9:02 AM

please read the following action alert about "Snapped" -- from people who know a thing or two about the topic:

Tell Oxygen Media to cancel Snapped!

Contact Oxygen Media today to tell them to cancel Snapped, the new "true crime" television show that profiles women who killed their intimate partners.

* Because Snapped perpetuates harmful myths and misconceptions about women who kill their partners
* Because publicity about Snapped falsely suggests that women who are empowered are to be feared
* Because Snapped minimizes and exploits the devastating experiences of real battered women who have survived abuse, defended themselves, and are serving time in prisons
* Because instead of this trash, we want to see programming about real female empowerment

Here's what Oxygen says about Snapped at

While all of Snapped's subjects have murder in common, their backgrounds
are exceptionally diverse. From millionaire brides with everything to
lose to small-town sweethearts who should simply know better, their
shocking but true stories turn common assumptions about crime and
criminals upside down, conclusively proving that there's often something
far more sinister to the fairer sex than "sugar and spice and everything

"Identify the killer and get a free candle"?
As if the language describing the show isn't bad enough, the website
then trivializes the painful reality of such cases, making a game out of
it with a gimmick that shows the faces of eight women and asks the
viewer to guess which is the killer. Warning you that "Women killers
look like you and me," Oxygen invites you to get a free candle if you
click the photo of the killer.

"Fresh"? or Foul?
Oxygen Media, co-founded by Oprah Winfrey and Geraldine Laybourne,
claims that their television network "puts a fresh spin on television
for women." But through Snapped and other shows, they are presenting
women and women's issues in an archaic and offensive manner.

Tell Oxygen & Oprah that you object to their programming:
* Go to to send a free fax to Oxygen Media telling them to cancel Snapped
* Send Oxygen an email at
* Go to to print out a letter to send to Oxygen Media
* Call Oxygen at (212) 651-2000 to voice your objections
* Send Oprah an email via her website (
-- click "E-Mail Us" to provide feedback

This action alert is a joint effort of the National Clearinghouse for
the Defense of Battered Women (125 S. 9th Street, Suite 302,
Philadelphia, PA 19107; 800-903-0111 ext. 3) and Free Battered Women.

Posted by: sandy on September 21, 2004 2:34 PM

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