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SXSW 2022: Nothing Lasts Forever, The Pez Outlaw, The Thief Collector

This SXSW featured a wealth of stories that concerned value, and how that changes depending on who is in possession of an item. The best example of that comes from “Nothing Lasts Forever,” a documentary that completely melts the story that has been told and retold about the value of the engagement ring, making it such an expensive institution. The movie brings so many jaw-dropping secrets about diamond industry to light, while opening up a larger discussion about subjects as heavy as value and reality.

Directed by Jason Kohn, the doc goes into the history of the earth-grown diamond business, while showing the new enterprise that makes exact copies—synthetic diamonds, grown in labs. It’s nearly impossible to tell them apart, and yet if synthetic diamonds (which are much cheaper) were to become all the more popular, it would force the regular diamond industry to change their focus. They’d have to tell a different story. 

“Nothing Lasts Forever” is full of juicy information, delivered by its experts like jeweler Aja Raden, who continually debunks the business with a giant grin on her face, walking us through a story that’s “a lie inside a lie inside a lie inside a lie.” It’s a global scam, one that the industry has flourished from for years, and one that Kohn takes apart piece by piece with excellent journalism. Kohn allows a lot of the interviewers to speak for themselves, like diamond expert Martin Rapaport, whose concept about the diamond’s value always goes back to personal. If you make the diamond cheap, then the engagement will feel cheap. 

Meanwhile, there's an underdog gemologist named Dusan Simic, who labors in solitude to create an entirely undistinguishable diamond. Kohn’s editing does a great job in showing the future that the diamond industry clings too, along with the notion that they are special. "Nothing Lasts Forever" shows how one fantasy is no match for the truth, so long as the viewer is ready to stomach it. The film comes to Showtime later this year, and I hope it becomes the diamond industry menace that it deserves to be. 

Another unforgettable David vs. Goliath story can be found in Amy Bandlien Storkel and Bryan Storkel's “The Pez Outlaw,” a documentary that immerses you in the serious drama of a subculture that on the outside only seems funny. Its name comes from the nickname for Michigander Steve Glew, a legendary Pez collector who realized the money that could be made from selling Pez dispensers made and sold only in Europe to different American collectors. “I’ve been wanting to tell this story for 20 years” says Glew, as he unravels an amazing adventure that had him smuggle new PEZ dispensers by the thousands, and become the scourge of Pez America, including President Scott McWhinnie. By giving serious attention to Glew’s story and the scandals he caused in the PEZ scene, the movie establishes its own rich, thematic world-building. 

Many films like “The Pez Outlaw” try to spruce things up with their reenactments. But this movie clearly has fun with it, in part because Glew plays himself from the ‘90s. In the documentary’s narrative of showing how this man put himself on this adventure, it comes with the stylized presentation of a noir and a mystery, but with colorful Pez dispensers. Not for nothing, it’s all actually funny; the light-hearted, underdog thriller that Hollywood wish they had thought of before. 

And while “The Pez Outlaw” could have been content to stay with its eccentricities, it has an impressive emotional scope in that it also focuses on Steve’s OCD and bipolar diagnosis, his loving marriage with his “therapist” Kathy, and the entire scene of Pez mania, all with an even-handed tone. You leave the documentary understanding more about the Pez business, and further appreciative there are shit-stirrers just like Steve—even in the little big world of candy dispensers.  

The intrigue of Allison Otto's “The Thief Collector” starts with the discovery of a stolen Willem de Kooning paining, which had missing for over 30 years, and became valued at hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s found framed behind a door in an New Mexico home belonging that belonged to the Alters, a married couple with many other eccentric pieces of art on their lawn, and in their home. They’re enigmatic to put it lightly, and the discovery of this painting brings up a larger question—why did they steal it from the Arizona museum it was displayed in years ago, only to just hang it behind a door? 

Otto’s film looks at the painting as part of a larger question, though it does give plenty of time to the truly touching story of the painting’s theft and recovery, showing the people who came together to "save" it (and even giving time to muse about the subjectivity of such art). The mystery is deepened by the stories of strange behavior concerning the Alters, as told by family members of strange behavior, and also a book that Rick later wrote. It's all somewhere between a fantasy and a confession. We’ll never know.

That mystery can be interesting to learn about—and the sense of who the  Alters were changes throughout. At some points, like after listening to the stories of their adventures that might have involved watching games of death, inserted pictures of the Alters looking happy and smiling appear almost demonic. But the movie is limited by this appeal; it can only offer tedious speculation about what was true in Rick’s stories, and what they might have been capable of. Did they rob more museums? Did the murder a handyman? Were their international adventures more insidious than we know? Feeding off the adrenaline junky nature of the Alters, the documentary is all about the rush of intrigue. It says a lot more about how ravenous we are for true-crime story than it does the Alters, and tests whether we’re still interested if all we can get is a shrug. 

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the Senior Editor at RogerEbert.com and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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