Wednesday, September 16, 2009

cinema obscura: Walon Green and Ed Spiegel's "The Hellstrom Chronicle" (1971)

Walon Green and Ed Spiegel's "The Hellstrom Chronicle" (1971) was something of a sensation in its day.

It was sold as - as described by critic as - a "quasi-documentary." But, point in fact, "Hellstrom" was the first faux documentary as we know it today - although not a comedic one such as Albert Brooks' "Real Life" (1979) and Rob Reiner's "This Is Spinal Tap" (1984) which came later.

Lawrence Pressman had his best screen role as the fictional Dr. Hellstrom, an esteemed entomologist who provides us with vivid illustrations delineating the silent war that insects have declared on humankind. Pressman is brilliant, alternately attractive and scary, drawing us in with his accessible, unsettling lecture and graphics - and handily instilling fear in the audience. "Microsomos," the 1996 French documentary by Claude Nuridsany and Marie Perennou, would appropriate - and exploit - many of the ideas here but in a less frightening, more artful way.

Still, Green and Spiegel's film remains compulsively watchable.

Despite its "faux" status, "The Hellstrom Chronicle" was the winner of the 1971 Oscar for Best Documentary, beating out Marcel Ophul's towering "The Sorrow and the Pity." And that's approximately when the cinéphiles' collective love affair with it came to an abrupt end. It was then demonized, ostracized and forgotten, subsequently relegated to only left-handed references.

That's when its title is invoked at all.


Tom said...

"The Hellstrom Chronicle" was something of New Cinema back in its day. It broke new ground. It was inventive, informative, entertaining and scary as hell. It deserved its Oscar and deserves to be remembered.

jbryant said...

Would love to see this again. I saw it when I was about 13 and can't remember much.