Documentary exposé “Rocking the Couch” examines a forgotten piece of Hollywood’s history of harassment and assault

The Me Too movement found its beginnings in 2006 when activist Tarana Burke began using the hashtag #metoo as a way to spread awareness of sexual assault. Nearly a decade later, actress/activist Alyssa Milano asked people to respond with that same phrase if they, too, had been victims of sexual assault. Over 30,000 people responded in a few hours. The stories of Burke, Milano, and others are dissimilar, yet unique. Each individual went through an experience which they’ll carry for the remainder of their lives. Since the start of the movement, former studio head Harvey Weinstein, actor Kevin Spacey, and more have faced or are facing legal charges for their actions, some of which took place over decades. There’s a certain amount of shock that goes through the average person when hearing about the seeming pervasiveness of assault in the entertainment industry, causing some to ask why it wasn’t stopped sooner. Investigating this question is the intent of director Minh Collins’s documentary Rocking the Couch, an exposé which uses the 1992 Wallace Kaye case as a fulcrum for examining the studio system at large.

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Actress Alana Crow.

It’s quickly evident that Rocking the Couch possesses a very specific perspective. Opening with a news montage focused on Bill Cosby, Weinstein, Spacey, Matt Lauer, and others, there’s an immediate sense that Collins plans to swing big and swing hard during every bit of the 65-minute runtime. The opening of the film gets right to the point, making it clear what Rocking plans to examine. After the opening, however, Rocking shows that it is unsure of its own focus as the audience is treated to an explanation of the term “casting couch,” given a brief lesson about early Hollywood, and provided an overview of the assault case between silent film actors Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Virginia Rappe. From here, it then jumps to actresses Natalie Wood and Tonja Walker with the running thread being the lack of support the actresses received from law enforcement, in the early days, and, more currently, from official actor organizations Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA). This seems to be Collins’s target: to hold SAG/AFTRA responsible for their inaction and the damage their passivity caused.

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Actress/Chef Carrie Mitchum.

Unfortunately, the manner in which Collins makes this case is more likely to bolster the believers and push away those on the fence. Much of this is due to two specific areas of execution. The first is narrative structure. After the opening, Rocking jumps back and forth in time so that different stories may be told. Some are from victims, some from Hollywood insiders, and some from members of law enforcement. Up to and around the portion focused on the Wallace Kaye case, the stories are as diverse as they are disconnected from each other. Separately, they are powerful stories of individuals who were taken advantage of by someone in a position of power. Taken together, they are just a randomly assembled collection of stories. Whereas structuring them to unveil a new layer of the Kaye story, or, perhaps, just a new, less-common tale of Hollywood corruption, would have built to a payoff, their somewhat haphazard arrangement removes any chance of residual emotional punch. There’s no rising tension or build-up as a collective. They’re merely stories of abuse put forth for the viewer to listen to and to use to judge for themselves.

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Retired Lieutenant Susan Kay of the Glendale Police Department.

The second area of execution that causes struggles is visual style. Due to the nature of the material, Collins wisely reduces emotional tension during some of the stories by intercutting the interviews with either still images or reenactments. When discussing the Kaye case, Collins uses what appears to be various sketches from the official courtroom artist. This is incredibly effective at conveying the emotion of the room during both the trial, as both the prosecuting and defense attorneys in the case take turns laying out the details, and the announcement of the verdict. Though two women involved in the case are interviewed in Rocking (one victim, one undercover officer), Collins’s approach to using the attorneys lowers the shock value, enabling the information to come through more easily. Another method of expressing the stories is through dramatic reenactment. Unfortunately, where the stories as told from those involved in the events (Kaye or otherwise) are undeniably gripping, the reenactments distract from the stories themselves, often appearing as attempts to make the stories more salacious when the interviewees do an incredible job of that themselves. There’s also a strange green screen placed behind several of the interviewees which, upon noticing, can’t be unnoticed. In contrast, when the only additives are historical photos, evidence, and other real-world artifacts, Rocking is deeply moving and unsettling.

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LA Defense Attorney Pete Scalisi.

Even if the approach hurts how the documentary may be received, Collins’s point is valid. As unions of performers for performers, SAG/AFTRA played an instrumental part in why complaints of harassment or reports of sexual assault went without follow-up or investigation. It would be absolutely naïve to think that these unions weren’t worried about the push-back from sticking up for their own. Even today, the Writer’s Guild of America is attempting to dispute how the big four management agencies manage their clients and The Wire’s David Simon has some choice thoughts on the matter (warning: NSFW language). Nevertheless, it’s the role of the unions to look after their members and Collins’s questions in regard to a deliberate failure to do so raises more alarms than the revelations of what Weinstein and his ilk perpetrated for one reason: it will happen again if we allow it. SAG/AFTRA are intended to be the gatekeepers, but where were they? Will they be that now? Unfortunately, Rocking the Couch only asks these questions and provides no solid answers, but as more stories from the past come to light of what was permitted to happen time and again, these are questions worth asking.

Available for streaming now via Amazon Prime.

Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.

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Categories: Reviews, streaming

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