The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Documentary heaven at HBO

June 6, 2008 |  1:15 pm

   by Patrick Goldstein   

Sheila Nevins vividly recalls her first reaction to "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired," Marina Zenovich's new documentary about the controversial Oscar-winning filmmaker that debuted on HBO Monday night. Fifteen minutes into the film, Nevins' heart was pounding.

   "It's always a good sign when my heart is beating fast when I'm watching something," says Nevins, the president of HBO Documentary Films. "I kept thinking--that man is so interesting. Marina took something that was an old story and made it into what you always want from a documentary--something vibrant, vital and necessary."

      With its line-up of high-profile series behind schedule because of the writer's strike, HBO has found a new way to make a programming spash--it has launched a summer-long weekly series entirely devoted to documentaries. The network is airing a new documentary every Monday night through August 25th, embracing a wide range of subjects, including profiles of self-destructive artists, drug trafffickers, Baghdad teenagers, Hollywood madams and stolen children in China.

   The subject matter is often sensational, which is just the way Nevins likes it. She touts documentaries the way Oprah promotes books. With HBO's deep pockets and reservoir of 35 million-plus subscribers, Nevins is easily the most powerful woman in Documentaryland, her films having earned dozens of Emmy and Peabody awards as well as 19 Academy Awards during her three-decade long tenure at HBO. Her often confounding combination of high and low-brow tastes have long been hotly debated in doc circles, but she remains an unapologetic believer that documentaries should be viewer friendly.

"We've launched this series to spotlight how HBO has helped created a new kind of documentary,'' she told me Friday. "The good news is that docus"--her preferred word for the form--"are no longer a dirty word. They don't have to be exposes about famine and pestilence or a cerebral look at something you'd find on the front page of the New York Times. They can be about real people who are stuck in some kind of extraordinary predicament."

  The new series reflects Nevin's catholic tastes. One of the most gripping films is "The Recruiter," airing July 28th, which focuses on a military recruiter as he sells high-schoolers in a Louisiana town on the merits of joining the Army at the height of the war in Iraq. However, that film is preceded, on July 21, by "Heidi Fleiss: The Would-Be Madam of Crystal," a warts-and-all portrait of the infamous Hollywood madam.

    It's a sign of Nevins' impatience with convention that when things weren't going well on the documentary--Fleiss had stopped speaking to filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato--Nevins stepped in and did the interviews herself. "I simply wasn't going to let that film die," she explains. "Fenton and Randy know how much I respect them. But Heidi is temperamental, and I think she just needed a woman to talk to her."

  Nevins sees the episode as typical of the angst that grows out of the documentary process. "She walked away," she says of Fleiss. "But doesn't everyone walk away when they're revealing who they really are?"

  It's telling that Nevins views the series' two most controversial subjects--Fleiss and Polanski--in much the same light, as people in the sexual spotlight who got a bad rap. "I'm sure Marina will be criticized for being a woman, making a film about a man who had sex with an under-age girl," she says. "But there's so much more to what happened to Polanski than that. It's an endlessly complex story."

  The documentary, which airs on HBO throughout the week, works so well because it goes beyond the ample drama in Polanski's stranger-than-fiction life. The focus is on the legal wrangling that ensued after Polanski was arrested for having sex with Samantha Geimer, then 13, in 1977. The film takes the form of a legal thriller, with Polanski, a man used to creating his own reality through his films, ensnared in the web of a judge, Laurence Rittenband, who appears far more concerned with his own image than legal impartiality. Zenovich intersperses the documentary footage with clips of Polanski acting his in movies, which serves to illustrate her theme: "All along I saw this as Roman Polanski stuck in a Roman Polanski movie, but directed by the judge."

  Zenovich says that when she first approached Polanski's agent, Jeff Berg, he tried to steer her away. "He said, 'Everyone knows the story,' she recalls. "And I said, 'No, you know the story. But it has a great understory. We all know Polanski fled the country, but I was interested in why he fled."

  Polanski never agreed to talk, though Zenovich did have lunch with him in Paris after she'd finished the film. She found a revealing interview Polanski did with Clive James in 1984 that sets the tone for the picture. Polanski, the world-weary European fatalist, admits liking young women, saying "I think most of men do too," prompting James to reply: "But the question turns on how young, doesn't it?"

Zenovich's film ultimately turns on an unsettling twist. Polanski had become a star in the 1960s as the roguiesh bad-boy creator of such dark, twisted films as "Knife in the Water" and "Repulsion," yet that same image was used against him after his actions transformed him from bad-boy artist to villainous predator. Some will say Zenovich is too sympathetic to him, or at least too non-judgemental. She says "my opinion of him went back and forth, but he's still the most interesting character in the film."

  "Wanted and Desired" will have a theatrical release in July from Think FIlms. But it's a sign of the times that Zenovich opted for an HBO debut. Although enthusiasm for documentaries has never been greater, if you're not Michael Moore or Al Gore, finding a sizeable theatrical audience for your film has never been more problematic. Even after receiving generous media attention, Errol Morris' ``Standard Operating Procedure'' barely did $165,000 after a month in theatrical release--the kind of business a throwaway Hollywood comedy does in St. Louis on a Sunday afternoon.

     Nevins believes the happiest home for a good documentary is in the living room in front of a big flat-screen TV tuned to HBO. "We're entering an on-demand universe," she says. "We do great box office with our docus. It's just that our box office is in your home where you don't have to drive, pay money for gas, find a place to park or buy popcorn. For years, I've had people come into my office, desperate to sit in an empty theater and watch their documentary play on the big screen. I think what we have to offer is better."

"The Big Picture" appears Tuesday in Calendar. Email questions or criticism to patrick.goldstein@latimes.com.

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