Legal Download: Autobiography on demand

The world of film is changing. For one thing, there’s not much actual film anymore. The future is digital; more and more, it’s streaming on our computers, too. Every week in Legal Download, we survey the landscape of online movies to bring you a snapshot of what’s available. This week, the camera is a mirror for our survey of autobiographical films.

THIS WEEK’S THEME: Autobiography

“Write what you know.” It’s the oldest screenwriting axiom; not quite a hard-and-fast rule — or at least we hope it’s not, otherwise we have a few questions for the dude who wrote THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS — but a boon to the hundreds of filmmakers, fiction and documentary alike, who have used themselves as their subject. Here’s a brief look at a few of the autobiographical titles currently available for legal download or streaming. Watching them may inspire you to find more; you can even enjoy them while you have an old friend over for dinner.

On SundanceNow
Directed by Jonathan Caouette
$6.99 to stream or download

Jonathan Caouette’s debut, 2003′s TARNATION, was an intensely personal movie autobiography; a tiny jewel of a documentary, made on a shoestring and edited on a Mac in one of the earliest versions of iMovie, about growing up gay with a mother who suffered from a variety of mental disorders. Now nine years later, Caouette returns with a sort of sequel to TARNATION called WALK AWAY RENEE, which reintroduces us to the filmmaker’s life and his complicated relationship with his mother, Renee, which is tested once more during a road trip to move her from an assisted living facility in Houston to one near his home in New York. Things get more complicated when the duo lose Renee’s mood-stabilizing medication along the way. As in TARNATION, Caouette blends new footage and old home movies to create a unique collage of past and present, personal history and eccentric vision.

On Netflix
Directed by Guy Maddin
Free for streaming plan members

Commissioned by The Documentary Channel to make a movie about his hometown, Guy Maddin wound up with MY WINNIPEG, less a documentary of an actual place than a fever-dreamed lover letter to an imagined ideal. Stories of Winnipeg’s past, some real, some invented, blend with stories of Maddin’s own past — a few real, most invented. The city and the man are revealed as inexorably intertwined: Maddin claims to have been born in Winnipeg Arena during a game between the local Maroons and the Trail Smoke Eaters; when the Arena is torn down decades later by shortsighted civic leaders, Maddin mourns the loss of his “male parent.” For all Maddin’s critiques of Winnipeg’s flaws and quirks, and particularly of its government’s poor decisions, he can’t shake his affection for the place; like the film’s central motif, a sleeping man on a train on a perpetual (but unsuccessful) journey out of the city, Maddin never escapes his past. MY WINNIPEG may have very little to do with the real Canadian place, but it has everything to do with Maddin’s.

Directed by Ross McElwee
Free for streaming plan members

For more than thirty years, Ross McElwee has been making essay films — essentially incredibly insightful and artful home movies — about his life. A home movie of another, more unusual sort is one of the subjects of McElwee’s BRIGHT LEAVES, in which the director discovers the existence of BRIGHT LEAF, a 1950s Hollywood melodrama about a war between competing tobacco farmers in 1800s North Carolina. As it turns out, BRIGHT LEAF’s hero might be based on McElwee’s great-grandfather, John Harvey McElwee, who was bankrupted by his rivalry with another tobacco tycoon, George Washington Duke. McElwee’s research into the film offers him a forum to express his complicated feelings about his family’s history, from jealousy over the Dukes’ wealth to relief that he needn’t feel responsible for the deaths of millions from tobacco-related illness. By the way, if BRIGHT LEAVES makes you want to turn over a new leaf in your own viewing choices, McElwee’s SHERMAN’S MARCH and TIME INDEFINITE are also available on Netflix Watch Instantly.

On Hulu Plus
CLERKS (1994)
Directed by Kevin Smith
Free for Hulu Plus members

Whiling away the hours in a Central New Jersey convenience store, film-school dropout Kevin Smith decided the best way to truly educate himself on directing was to make a movie of his own. Armed with $27,000 he scrounged from maxed-out credit cards, and permitted to shoot at his place of employment after hours, he crafted a brilliant piece of autobiographical fiction, a tedious day in the life of two retail clerks who while away the hours in a Central New Jersey convenience store talking about popular culture, badmouthing the customers and moaning about their love lives. Almost 20 years later, CLERKS looks better than its reputation as a clever-but-ugly bromantic comedy; the black and white photography emphasizes the lack of color in the characters’ lives and the static camerawork amplifies the air of claustrophobia and the sense that our slacker heroes are purgatorially trapped in their dead-end jobs. With the success of CLERKS, Smith was able to escape the retail life — but he’s returned to it repeatedly for an animated series and a sequel, 2006′s CLERKS II.

On YouTube
Directed by Morgan Spurlock
$2.99 to rent

His subjects change — fast food diets, Osama bin Laden — but the star of Morgan Spurlock‘s documentaries remains the same: Morgan Spurlock, filmmaker, family man and father. In this entertaining look behind the scenes of movie financing, Spurlock sets out to make a documentary about the world of product placement, funded entirely by product placement. While Spurlock pokes fun at some of the more egregious examples of in-movie advertising, he also acknowledges the increasingly difficult financial situation facing modern filmmakers, particularly independent ones. Given all their budgetary headaches, what’s the harm in a little airline advertising between friends? Who gets hurt if your movie receives a little visibility boost from a series of collectors’ cups? Or a title that is, technically speaking, POM WONDERFUL PRESENTS THE GREATEST MOVIE EVER SOLD? Spurlock seeks to answer those questions while maintaining his creative autonomy, even as he serves an increasingly large list of corporate masters.