Touched by the Devil

The most Python-esque movie on Netflix right now is a documentary about a Dutch painter who’s been dead for 500 years. Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil is 90 minutes of great TV. Even if it peters out as a film with a single narrative thrust, who doesn’t want to hear Bosch scholars going off script about what they see in his paintings?

I think of Monty Python first, not just because of Bosch’s obvious influence on Terry Gilliam, but because the comic levity in Touched by the Devil (written and directed by Pieter van Huystee) comes from the straight-laced curators poring over the minutest details of a painter with a head full of superstition and hallucinatory ch-cha-cha, reminiscent of John Cleese playing the prim foil to the surrealism unfolding around him.

Bosch detail one

Like a good adventure film, we meet the A team early on: the conservator, the photographer, the dendrologist, the infra-red specialist, et cetera. With the nerdily handsome Matthijs Ilsink as its leader, the Dutch team visits museums trying to make deals to borrow the major works of Bosch for a commemorative show in his hometown, Den Bosch, for the quincentennial of his death in 2016.

But how do you identify a true Bosch? The team has so much digital technology at its disposal, including infra-red photos that show the drawings underneath the paint – apparently Bosch “took notes” like anyone – that they’re able to speculate on which specific assistant helped draw which composition, and which revisions “the master” himself painted.

While a part of me wants to protest that this kind of history lacks poetic imagination, the defenders of a more intuitive approach to art history in Touched by the Devil are the duo from The Prado, who seem like real jerks. “You either have an eye for it or you don’t,” one says about her eye for identification. It seems like a cover for snobbery, or fear of what we might find out, what assumptions we might have to throw away.

Bosch detail two

You have to admit, though, that the jerks from The Prado raise a fair question: Are we really willing to stop seeing “a Bosch” as the work of a singular mind? Is it a modern prejudice, to believe in “a master” making an artistic (or religious) statement? Can we really know what that person, Bosch – Jheronimus van Aken, El Bosco, Jerry from Bosch – was trying to say? It’s something we who love old art have to think about – or maybe, resign ourselves to giving up on.

The conflict Touched by the Devil prepares you for is whether or not The Prado, which has the most Bosches of any museum, agrees to lend them back to the Dutch for the quincentennial show in his small town museum. Spoiler alert: They co-operated, except for the one piece Ilsink and the Dutch really wanted, Bosch’s most complete masterpiece, The Garden of Earthly Delights. Like the British Museum refusing to lend the statuary taken from The Parthenon back to Greece for the 2004 Olympics, some masterpieces just look so perfect right where they are, adored by people who can truly appreciate them.

Writer-director van Huystee is of course Dutch, and his sympathies are clear. You get the sense, partly from his interaction with John Hand, the U.S. National Gallery curator who delivers his historically nuanced opinions about Bosch with a Trumanesque twang, that there’s an affinity between Dutch and American people.

It’s a fitting conclusion when Ilsink, who’s spent much of the film busting curators’ bubbles, figures out with scientific certainty that a painting of Saint Jerome in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City is actually a true Bosch. The pride with which that curator comes to Den Bosch to present the painting resolves the dramatic problem presented by The Prado.

Rarely do I see a feature documentary and wish it were a TV series, but I’d have watched hours more of this.

Shep Gordon, Supermensch

There’s so much more to SuperMensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon than just old tabloid fodder, though it’s rich in that that too. My first time watching it, I was so dazzled by the anecdotes, I didn’t see what a thematically tight, and uniquely structured film it is.

You can forgive me for that, with stories like how Shep became a rock and roll manager: He woke up in a motel after a night of doing acid and saw Jimi Hendrix and Janice Joplin poolside, and Jimi asked him, “Are you Jewish? You should be a manager.” Or how Shep’s long-time client Alice Cooper befriended an elderly Groucho Marx and used to tuck him in at night – Groucho, according to Shep, understood Cooper’s act as vaudeville – until he learned how disastrous Groucho’s finances were, and so he hooked him up with his own manager, Shep, who helped make his final years comfortable and worry-free, without charging him. Or how he got on his knees and begged John Lennon and Harry Nilsson to come get their photo taken with Anne Murray, which made her career. Or his epic three-day drug binge with Teddy Pendergrass that sealed their business relationship.

Shep Gordon: Supermensch.

Shep Gordon: Supermensch.

Watching it a second time (It’s still streaming on Neflix.) you realize the whole rock and roll story is literally half the film. At minute 45 it’s done. You move on to chapters of semi-retired Shep’s life, his entertaining, his work with the Dalai Lama, and his search for a family. Following a heart attack, he says, “ I’d spent my whole life making people famous, but there’s nothing about fame that I’ve ever seen that’s healthy. It’s something that’s very hard to survive, and has no intrinsic value unto itself.”

Mike Myers, who directed the film and appears in a few interview snippets, tells a story of how Shep leveraged a difficult position Myers was in during production of Wayne’s World to get a new Alice Cooper song in it, and turned it into a “win-win,” if you’ll pardon another ’90s catchphrase. You get the impression there are many more, less flattering stories you’re not hearing. Let’s just say that, in addition to the many stars who gush about what a mensch Shep is, you can put together an A List from just the people who have prominent roles in all the Shep stories but never go on camera for Myers.

While on tour back in the ’70s Shep used to wear a tee shirt that read “No head, no back stage pass.” Everyone on camera makes it clear that he was a womanizer, but of a specific time and place: the mid-century Jewish-American male id that also got released via Philip Roth and Woody Allen. Shep, it seems, road the crest of the counterculture for his own gratification longer and higher than the other guys did. You wonder whether the lengths he went to make Anne Murray’s career were some peace offering, some proof that he could think of women as good for something other than sex.

All that, and he made a name as a legendary manager whose business model was simple: Take care of your friends! I was most moved by the fact that Shep and Alice Cooper have never had a written contract in their 43 years working together. The basis of his business practice is relationships, not contracts.

I am a better person than Shep Gordon is…if you need someone to give your 17-year-old daughter a safe ride home, that is. One way I’m clearly not is on account of the times I’ve let friends down by second-guessing the quality of their work. Once, back when I was a film critic for a weekly paper, an old friend of a friend hustled to deliver a short film to me before a deadline. It was part of a shorts showcase at a film festival. I think it was on VHS, even. Working late, I watched it once and didn’t like it. I was on the spot, do I do right by my old acquaintance, or do I listen to the prig inside who feels some responsibility to the readers? I went with the prig. Readers read copy and forget about it all the time, but friends have long memories. That old acquaintance, and the friend who introduced us too, never forgot me, nor have they spoken to me.

Shep, I venture to say, would never have done that. Oh, another reason I like Supermensch, my friend Joseph Krings edited it, but it bears repeated viewing whether you know Joe or not.