10 Great Documentaries about Weirdos, Outsiders, and Eccentrics

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So . . . this is life after S-Town — the podcast that everyone and their mother is listening to right now, but you probably binged in a few days. Since then, you’ve scoured the internet for photos of (spoiler alert) John B. McLemore’s insane tattoo and stunning hedge maze. You’ve reconsidered moving to a small town or decided to become a clockmaker. And you’ve refreshed the Serial and This American Life websites looking for more, concluding that the producers are some kind of super geniuses with crazy mind powers. When that gets tired, try these documentaries about similar eccentrics, weirdos, and outsiders.

Marwencol

A victim of violence creates a 1/6th scale World War II-era town in his backyard called Marwencol. Jeff Malmberg’s film provokes more questions than answers, particularly regarding the commodification of something that was most likely never meant to be “art.” From the Hollywood Reporter:

A part-time restaurant worker in the upstate New York burg of Kingston, Hogancamp had to learn to walk and talk again at 38 after five men beat him to a pulp. He also had to construct a bridge to his former life via photographs, journals, the recollections of friends and, not least, his “drunk journals,” filled with accomplished illustrations and the rants of an angry, unreliable and rudderless man. “It was like reading something that Stephen King wrote,” the chain-smoking Hogancamp recalls. Having lost the motor control to draw as he once did, and with his Medicaid-covered therapy cut off, Hogancamp explored new sections of the art-supply store and began constructing Marwencol in his backyard. It’s unclear whether he intended the pursuit as a substitute therapy or merely followed an urge. Either way, his efforts transcend their DIY aesthetic, packing a dime-novel/B-movie punch that is, as one art-minded observer notes, free of postmodern irony.

Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist

Why would a man hammer a nail through his penis? From Roger Ebert:

“Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist” is one of the most agonizing films I have ever seen. It tells the story of a man who was born with cystic fibrosis, a disease that fills the lungs with thick, sticky mucus, so that breathing is hard and painful, and an early death is the prognosis. He was in pain all of his life, and in a gesture of defiance he fought the pain with more pain. With Sheree Rose as his partner, he became a performance artist, using his own body as a canvas for museum shows, gallery exhibits, lectures and performances. He was the literal embodiment of the joke about the man who liked to hit himself with a hammer because it felt so good when he stopped.

Grey Gardens

The eccentric and reclusive aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis are captured in their crumbling mansion in East Hampton. From the Guardian:

They came to the Maysles’s attention after a local news item in 1971 described “two cousins of Jacqueline Kennedy” living in “a garbage-infested, filthy, 28-room house with eight cats, fleas, cobwebs and no running water – conditions so unsanitary that the Suffolk County Health Dept has ordered them to clean up or face eviction”. Jackie (by then Jackie O) came to the rescue with a $32,000 donation and a clean-up crew who removed 1,000 bags of trash from the premises. That’s the thing I always forget about Grey Gardens: the squalor that the pair live in – cats peeing behind portraits, crapping on every available surface, raccoons rampant beyond the drywall – is how the place looked after the cleanup. New York Times reporter Gail Sheehy, who visited the place at the high tide of its awfulness in 1971, remembered encrusted cat shit underfoot and being given “a chilling version of Jackie Kennedy’s famous White House tour” by Little Edie. The Maysles spent a year getting to know the Edies and then set about capturing their strange little castaway universe of ecstatic nostalgia and present-day ruination.

Albert and David Maysles were accused of exploiting “Big” and “Little” Edie Bouvier Beale. According to TCM:

Over the years, Grey Gardens has been scrutinized, over-analyzed and viewed repeatedly by fervent fans. But for detractors of the movie, the most common criticism has been that it is nothing more than exploitation and in bad taste. In many cases, the Maysles were accused of taking advantage of two sad, deluded women. One critic, complained about the Maysles’ disregard for the Beales’s privacy or personal dignity, “Like the shots of ‘Little’ Edith Bouvier Beale, a large 56-year-old, taken from below as she climbs upstairs in a miniskirt, rambling to herself; or ‘Big’ Edith, the demanding 79-year-old mother, with her towel falling off her withered, naked body.” What the Maysles realized in most of these attacks was that the reviewer was reflecting his own fears of aging and death. Viewers with any empathy for the human condition, however, can see moments of truth and beauty in Grey Gardens. While it is important to note that although the Beales were certainly playing to the camera to a degree, their interaction with each other accurately mirrored their day-to-day existence. Albert Maysles confirmed this when he described the filming process: “Each day we would pause nearby, get out of our car to change our clothes or whatever, we could hear their conversations in the distance and it was the same statements of love and resentment and arguing and so forth – exactly the same character we got on film.”

I Think We’re Alone Now

Eighties pop princess Tiffany, who spent a career singing to teens in malls and vying for front-page real estate with fellow singer Debbie Gibson, is the object of obsession in Sean Donnelly’s 2008 doc. From Fandor:

I Think We’re Alone Now is a documentary that focuses on two individuals: Jeff and Kelly, who claim to be in love with the 1980s pop singer Tiffany. Jeff Turner, a 52-year-old man from Santa Cruz, California, has attended Tiffany concerts since 1988. Diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, Jeff lives alone off of government checks and has never had a girlfriend. Jeff spends his days hanging out on the streets of Santa Cruz, striking up conversations with anyone who has a moment to spare about conspiracy theories, God and Tiffany. Kelly McCormick is a 35-year-old intersex sports fanatic from Denver, Colorado, who claims to have been friends with Tiffany as a teenager. She credits Tiffany as the shining star who has motivated her to do everything in her life. Through both humorous and heartbreakingly sensitive scenes, the film takes a look at Jeff and Kelly’s lives, revealing the source of their clinging obsessions.

In the Realms of the Unreal

Jessica Yu’s documentary about outsider artist Henry Darger combines animation and interviews about the reclusive artist. From the AV Club:

Henry Darger was the kind of urban eccentric inevitably described by neighbors as “living in his own little world,” but Darger’s case put truth to that cliché. When he died in 1973, Darger left a Chicago apartment filled with old children’s books and stacks of artwork and journals; when his neighbors started sorting through it all, they discovered that this shy, short nobody—a hospital janitor for most of his 81 years—had penned a 5,000-page autobiography, as well as a 15,000-page fantasy novel about a revolution led by two preteen sisters whose cruel upbringing resembled Darger’s. All of this work was accompanied by vivid illustrations, using astonishing self-taught reproduction techniques that took images from comic strips and catalogs and rearranged them into surreal battle tableaux, populated by naked little girls with tiny penises.

The Devil and Daniel Johnston

More on Jeff Feuerzeig’s documentary about lo-fi musician/cult outsider artist Daniel Johnston. From the BBC:

If the Outsider Music doc really is becoming a genre all its own, then The Devil And Daniel Johnston deserves to be the standard bearer. Jeff Feuerzeig’s richly constructed film charts the life of the titular troubled genius from childhood to the present day. Rock ‘n’ roll’s capacity for recycling legend means the stories of Johnston’s life, and the way in which they’re told, could easily fall into cliché. Instead they are original, engrossing and sometimes heartbreaking.

Married to the Eiffel Tower

“Objectophiliac” is one name for a person who feels sexual attraction and/or love for an inanimate object. One of the women in Married to the Eiffel Tower really did wed the Paris-based iron tower. More from the Telegraph:

There are around 40 people in the world who have declared themselves OS, all of them women and many of them also Asperger’s Syndrome sufferers.

The OS term was first coined by Eija-Riitta Berliner-Mauer, a 54-year-old woman who has been “married” to the Berlin Wall for 29 years.

Before returning to Paris for her first wedding anniversary, Mrs La Tour Eiffel visits the Berlin Wall, where her affection for what many Germans see as a symbol of repression leads to an uncomfortable encounter with a member of the staff at the Checkpoint Charlie museum. “I just don’t understand how some people can bring someone into the world like a child – an object – and then not love them,” she said.

The Source Family

Hippies living the dream in their self-made ‘70s utopia or exploited members of a cult? From the New York Times:

For anyone looking to teach a master class in brainwashing techniques, “The Source Family” might be an excellent place to start. Documenting the hippy-dippy lifestyle and hedonistic principles of Hollywood’s favorite 1970s cult — led by the self-professed guru and suspected bank robber Jim Baker, a k a Father Yod — Maria Demopoulos and Jodi Wille’s disturbing film is an object lesson in psychological manipulation. Working a powerful combo of personal magnetism and easy-to-digest philosophies — what young person doesn’t want to hear that marijuana-enhanced sex is the purest route to enlightenment?

The Imposter

The Imposter follows the 1997 case of a French confidence man who impersonates a missing Texas boy. From Rolling Stone:

Don’t let people, especially annoying critics, tell you too much about this true story that plays like a gripping psychological thriller. The facts are these: Nicholas Barclay, 13, went missing from his Texas home in 1994. Nearly four years later, Frédéric Bourdin, 23, shows up in Spain claiming to be Nicholas. So begins a story that nearly takes your head off with a series of amazements. British director Bart Layton combines interviews with Barclay family members and dramatic re-enactments to create a movie that offers hard speculation and harder truths. You won’t be able to get it out of your head.

Finding Vivian Maier

From Chicago nanny to acclaimed photographer. More on Vivian Maier from the New York Times:

An exciting electric current of discovery runs through “Finding Vivian Maier,” a documentary about a street photographer who never exhibited her work. She scarcely shared it even with those who knew her. Then again, many of her acquaintances when she was taking some of her remarkable images, particularly in and around Chicago in the 1950s and ’60s, were the children she cared for while working as a nanny. Later in her life, some of those children took care of her in turn, first by moving her into an apartment and then the nursing home where she died in 2009. What rotten timing: She was on the verge of being discovered, first as a curiosity and then as a social-media sensation and a mystery. It’s no surprise that Maier is now the subject of a documentary, given the quality of her work, the nominal exoticism of her life and the secrets that still drift around her. She’s a terrific story — part Mary Poppins, part Weegee — who was at once emancipated and in service. She was introduced to the world, as it were, by John Maloof, one of this movie’s directors, who bought a box of her negatives at a Chicago auction in 2007 for about $400.