Boiled Angels: The Trial Of Mike Diana


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Boiled Angels: The Trial Of Mike Diana
"Biafra brings real energy and passion to the job, helping to make this a film that’s consistently gripping and never gets dry even when dealing with legal details." | Photo: Fantasia Film Festival

Mike Diana was a kid from New York City, raised in Florida, who liked to draw. Unlike other children who liked drawing sorts games, parties or days at the beach, Mike was always drawn to the monstrous, the extreme. As a teenager he started making zines to share his increasingly challenging art with like-minded friends. Then in 1991, at the age of 22, he was charged with obscenity.

Diana’s trial is now remembered as a landmark in American legal history – the first time an artist was ever convicted on such grounds. It outraged the artistic community every bit as much as Mike’s zines outraged the public, and the penalty Diana faced as a result was even more worrying. This documentary by horror legend Frank Henenlotter looks back on the trial, interviews key figures including Diana himself, and considers what its impact has been.

It’s narrated by Jello Biafra, who was himself prosecuted in 1986 for using art by HR Giger on the cover of a Dead Kennedy’s Album, though with a different result. Biafra brings real energy and passion to the job, helping to make this a film that’s consistently gripping and never gets dry even when dealing with legal details. He also balances out the shyness and self-deprecation of Diana, who still seems fundamentally puzzled about the whole business. “I’m the obscene one,” said his girlfriend at the time of the trial, faced with concern trolling over her supposed vulnerability. There are still people out there who believe that Diana, who once had his blood tested as part of the search for a serial killer who was later apprehended, must be a murderer.

What about the art? No doubt some viewers will find it upsetting. It’s meant to be – it deals with subjects that ought to upset people, but that seems to have escaped most of its critics and even some of its defenders. Depictions of child abuse are clearly not intended to titillate and serve as comment on the early stages of the breaking scandal about abuse in the Catholic Church. It’s this kind of context that is raised here to demonstrate how the law was applied incorrectly in this case (as, in the US, obscenity requires that a work have no artistic merit – in effect, no message), but it’s also plain that many people made up their minds without ever seeing what Diana drew. He had long hair. He wore black. He must either be a minion of Satan or – as one interviewee keeps insisting in spite of his calm protestations – a tragic victim of child abuse unable to confront the truth of what was done to him.

In a manner that seems all the more pertinent in today’s climate, the presumed truth about Diana is written and rewritten, but we have always been at war with Eastasia. Prosecution figures admit that they’d do things differently today but never admit that they might have been wrong. Neil Gaiman is among those sharing their perspectives as artists, and his praise for the US’ First Amendment and what it’s supposed to signify highlights the difference between the country’s idea of itself and the reality.

Seen in its time as a test case for obscenity law, the Diana trial ultimately proved less influential than many feared, but the precedent it set remains significant and in an era when US justice is once again being heavily influenced by public opinion, this film – selected by Fantasia 2018 - is an important piece of work.

Reviewed on: 15 Jul 2018
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A look at the politics and courtroom shenanigans behind the first ever US conviction of an artist for obscenity.

Director: Frank Henenlotter

Writer: Frank Henenlotter

Starring: Peter Bagge, Stephen Bissette, Mike Diana, Neil Gaiman

Year: 2018

Runtime: 106 minutes

Country: US


Fantasia 2018

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