City Paper is not for tourists
At the Georgetown Independent Film Festival Theatre Oct. 25 and 26
Tupac Shakur, aka 2Pac, aka Makaveli. Christopher Wallace, aka Biggie Smalls, aka Notorious B.I.G. For the uninitiated, the names are little more than alphabet soup. For hiphop fans, they’re the stuff of Shakespearean tragedy—and bottomless conspiracy theories. The two rappers, friends turned protagonists in a nasty bicoastal feud that has helped sell a lot of records and fatten a shameful number of bank accounts, were shot and killed in twin incidents: Shakur in Las Vegas on Sept. 13, 1996, and Wallace in Los Angeles six months later. At the time of his death, Shakur, who had branched out into a successful acting career, was 25. Wallace was 24. There are still plenty of hiphop heads who claim that one or the other of the pair was the greatest rapper who ever lived. There are also plenty who claim that Tupac faked his murder and is hiding out somewhere, waiting to make a triumphant return.
This fall has brought a flurry of new material on their rivalry and their killings. Last month, Los Angeles Times reporter Chuck Philips published a two-part series, the culmination of a year’s research, that claims to lay out conclusive evidence backing up what had always been the rumor on the street: That it was Biggie—in a rage at his rival for claiming to have slept with his then-wife, R&B singer Faith Evans—who set up the hit on Tupac on the night of the Mike Tyson-Bruce Seldon fight at the MGM Grand.
At the same time, a former LAPD detective named Russell Poole has been peddling a much different story: That Compton-bred football-player-turned-thuggish-music-executive Marion “Suge” Knight was the one who arranged Tupac’s murder, after learning that the rapper wanted to slip out of his contract at Knight’s record company, Death Row. This theory also implicates a number of allegedly corrupt L.A. cops in the killing, in addition to suggesting that the FBI was involved in sowing seeds of dissension within the hiphop recording industry. Unsurprisingly, Poole’s more sensationalist take forms the basis of two other new investigations of the murders: A recent book by Randall Sullivan called Labyrinth and Biggie & Tupac, a documentary by the disheveled court jester of investigative filmmaking, Nick Broomfield.
Broomfield’s work has car-wreck charisma: Watching makes you a little nauseated and a little fascinated at the same time. In his two best-known documentaries, 1998’s Kurt & Courtney and 1995’s Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam, he dragged himself around Seattle and L.A., respectively, interviewing a collection of confused and strung-out “sources” whose credibility the WWE would have serious problems with. In each case, Broomfield was canny about his goals and his methods: He never came right out and claimed that he had scored one journalistic coup or another. He always let his subjects, some of whom he paid for their interviews, do it for him.
In Biggie & Tupac, the British-born filmmaker piles up coincidences, half-truths, and less-than-impartial speculation until the viewer begins to soften to his point of view out of sheer fatigue at the prospect of untangling the towering mess. The problem is that Broomfield himself seems to lack the energy and the discipline to do that sort of work, which should sit right at the top of his job description as a documentary filmmaker. Instead, like a laconic Michael Moore, he’s much more interested in making sure that at least half of his head appears in every scene.
To his credit, Broomfield has uncovered some chilling footage, including unbelievable video of the crowds that came out to see Biggie’s casket on the day it rolled through his old neighborhood in Brooklyn. But the film hits rock bottom in two typically shapeless scenes. The first is an interview with the former girlfriend of one of the implicated cops. While Broomfield, wearing his usual onscreen uniform of T-shirt, jeans, and unruly hair, practically drools on the boom mike, the woman talks at length about the “crazy sex” she claims she had with the cop and one of his partners on the force while her lawyer bizarrely eggs her on. It’s good theater, but it’s nothing you can’t see on Springer. The other low point arrives when Broomfield scores an audience with an inmate—known cryptically as “The Bookkeeper” and said to suffer from Tourette’s syndrome—who, as an interview subject, brings to mind not so much Deep Throat as Richard Jewell, a sad and lonely hanger-on desperate for a few seconds in the limelight.
Knight makes a convenient villain, and it doesn’t take much prodding for us to believe that he might be capable of murder. From the start, Broomfield sets up a too-tidy contrast between Knight, all darkness and malice, and Biggie’s mother, Voletta Wallace, all sweetness and truth-telling. Knight, in fact, casts such a long shadow over the documentary that when Broomfield finally scores an interview, on the grounds of a California prison where the record executive is in the middle of a nine-year sentence for a parole violation, it seems like a triumph: Satan agrees to talk!
It takes a couple of minutes to realize that Knight has refused to discuss the murders of Tupac and Biggie, and instead is interested in vaguely promoting his work with “the kids,” along with his growing feud with Snoop Dogg. Once again, the scene is somehow riveting—but it adds virtually nothing to our understanding of why either rapper was killed. Despite Broomfield’s efforts to put everything on Knight’s head, by the end of Biggie & Tupac, he’s introduced so many suspicious characters and left so many loose ends that the question is less whodunit than who didn’t.
Luckily for Broomfield, there is another documentary in town this week that makes his work look like the gorgeous offspring of Albert Maysles and Lesley Stahl. Called Curve, it’s a 50-minute overview of the so-called plus-size modeling industry—which, we learn, is finally coming into its own after decades of alienation from the mainstream fashion world. The industry’s best-known star, Emme, not only has acquired single-name celebrity status but also is now hawking a doll for little girls in her own hourglass image.
Made by the brother-and-sister team of Constantine and Christina Valhouli, Curve is such an outburst of feel-good affirmation for what one of its subjects calls “women of size” that it feels downright mean-spirited to mention too many of its flaws. So I’ll concentrate on one: The movie has no style. Given that its thesis—repeated by one feisty, heavily made-up talking head after another—is that big women want to wear chic clothes as much as thin ones do, Curve would have helped its cause immeasurably by having a little flair of its own. Instead, visually and journalistically, it’s desperately short on sophistication. A sequence of runway shots near the end, part of what’s billed as “New York’s first plus-size modeling show”—an event that appears to have been arranged by the filmmakers themselves—has all the panache of a middle-school graduation ceremony.
OK, I lied. There is one other problem I’d like to mention: The movie has no guts, either. Everyone onscreen, from Kathy Najimy to Barney’s Creative Director Simon Doonan, is smilingly, 100 percent in favor of the notion that fashion houses blatantly discriminate against ample women—and you know what, it absolutely has to stop! But nobody thinks of tracking down fashion’s worst offenders and sticking a camera and a microphone in their faces. It wouldn’t have been hard to find juicy targets. Just for starters, what about Oscar de la Renta? He once explained his aversion to starting a plus-size line with this comment: “I’m a designer. I don’t upholster sofas.” CP