Both PRESCRIPTION THUGS AND TRANSFATTY LIVES are about crippling diseases—one voluntary, one not—and both are intensely personal, given how these afflictions affect both directors themselves. TRANSFATTY LIVES, the slightly better of the two films, played on Wednesday, while PRESCRIPTION THUGS was shown on Thursday and will play again Saturday at 6:30 PM at Chelsea’s Bow Tie Cinemas.
Chris Bell’s PRESCRIPTION THUGS is a sort-of sequel to his 2008 doc BIGGER, STRONGER, FASTER, which examined the heavy steroid abuse plaguing his pro-wrestler brother, Mike “Mad Dog” Bell, and other athletes. That same year, Mike Bell died of what turned out to be a long-time addiction to painkillers and prescription drugs. The most moving parts of PRESCRIPTION THUGS are the final recorded conversations between the two brothers, as well as their father, in which Mike Bell pledges to enter rehab—which he did, to no avail—and cleanse his habit.
But the most lasting impression is left by Chris Bell’s own self-deception. Midway through the film, he admits to being addicted to anti-depressants and anti-anxiety meds himself. And late in the film, after he has revealed to a stunned California senator Ted Lieu that prescription drugs are regularly, cheaply sold on Craiglist—and yielding California and Nevada legislation against these practices—he acknowledges that he continued using, leading to a near fatal overdose.
Bell is a likable figure——like his late brother, quite soft-spoken for such a roly-poly jock——and remains so despite the immeasurable sadness his habit brings to his still-mourning relatives. There are a few vivid revelations in PRESCRIPTION THUGS, most chiefly that, despite Big Pharma and crass advertising ploys playing a big part in nationwide over-the-counter drug addiction, the fault lies mainly in those that are innately imbued with, as Mike Bell puts it, an overwhelming fear of being average and of not being happy all the time. Depression and negativity, as one child psychologist interviewee states, is a fundamental part of life and shouldn’t be chased away with quick-fix drugs. Bell also gets some pretty macho-looking wrestlers, former and current ones, to open up on camera about their lowest drug-induced moments (including a bout of ringside diarrhea).
Less trenchant is his reliance on standard overzealous documentary tropes. These include: inserted shots of money, needle injections and cheesy old medical film footage whenever hot topics are mentioned, as if the viewer needs constant visual aids; plenty of unnecessary faux-shock in the narration (i.e., “how could doctors be the bad guys?”); and prolonged discussion of stats and figures we’ve long ago discovered for ourselves.
These flaws, however, make it all the more commendable that Bell reaches some thought-provoking conclusions of his own. Even if, as we all hope, Bell kicks his addiction, his next film should turn the camera more on himself; PRESCRIPTION THUGS would have been far more powerful had Bell left less of his suffering off-screen.
No one, however, could count an absence of on-camera suffering to be among the shortcomings of TRANSFATTY LIVES. In 2005, Patrick O’Brien, the kooky, often naked director of and performer in willfully trashy short films, was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease and given a two-to-five-year life expectancy.
Never one to sit around and mope, O’Brien did what he did best: he made a movie, one as boldly detailed in its examination of his inevitable deterioration as it is astonishingly devoid of self-pity and sentiment. At first, O’Brien experiences bouts of leg twitching. He’s still able to stay afloat in a pool, his head perched on foam noodles, and make sharp, self-effacing jokes about drowning. It isn’t long before the rather large O’Brien needs three-man teams to hold him upright during a shower, before he needs assistance undressing and before his speech rate slows fourfold. His jokes continue, though, mostly about his unwaning sexual prowess (O’Brien is somehow able to conceive a child during the course of the filmmaking), and he’s adept at cracking his relatives and caretakers up on a regular basis, even through their tears.
Not surprisingly, O’Brien achieves many devastating scenes which stick in the memory even as you fight their unbearable sadness away. His face sinks in disgust when he plays back the first audio tape of his damaged speech. During a painful operation, he forces his bawling sister to turn the camera on herself—the first and only time he expresses shame in the picture. He makes sure that we see every tube being inserted, every uncontrolled spasm, every humiliating procedure. Only sex and shitting are left off-camera—and in the latter case, we still see his anguished face during the act, superimposed over clips of bombs and ticking clocks and nefarious countdowns, as well as O’Brien’s own “life-flashing-before-the-eyes” flashbacks. He never relents. He never loses his mental capacity for poetry—some of it wrenching, some of it Hallmark dreck, but all inspiringly optimistic. Amazingly, he also never dies.
The decision to start the film with O’Brien’s current computerized voice system—as he narrates a letter to his toddler son—and then work back to the various stages of his natural speech declining is searing and frightening and tragic. And it’s rare that a film about fatal diseases makes you so envy the stoicism and strength of its victims. O’Brien even goes so far as to call the disease itself “beautiful,” as it has made him stop worrying over minutiae.
My problems with TRANSFATTY LIVES are the same problems I would have with any O’Brien film. He’s flashy. He cross-cuts too often. Some of the visual metaphors meant to parallel his self-destruction are obvious. And he’s a techno music superfan, which means the empty levity of the soundtrack sometimes overwhelms the severity and poignancy of O’Brien’s story. But it’s doubtful you’ve ever seen a documentary this personal. It’s also doubtful you’ll bear to watch it again.