In the 1970s, journalists for the National Geographic magazine stumbled into a small, seemingly deserted theater in Death Valley. Inside was a woman of old age dressed in costume, performing ballet for an empty room. Surrounding the stage and empty seats was her artwork, a mural done over the course of a few seasons that resembles an audience of nobles and royalty. These journalists found the woman, Marta Becket, to be extraordinary. They interviewed her, trying to understand how an aged New York ballerina found her way to the desert, and what she hopes to accomplish. They discovered that she was reclusive, a woman used to being alone and yet only wanted love and understanding from human beings. When this simple desire conflicted with her quest to become a devoted artist, she turned to the desert and one of its ghost towns for solace. Amargosa attempts to chronicle her life, both in the limelight and in Death Valley.
Marta Becket started dancing at 14, which she states was a late start. Her mother nourished and supported her efforts to sing, dance, and paint, while her father remained a skeptic until his death. She made it to Broadway, dancing for years and developing beautiful relationships with dancing partners and associates. She married in her 30s and thought she had finally settled into life, until something seemed to tug at her conscience. She saw a fortune teller, but couldn't figure out what the prophecy meant. After riding through the desert with her husband, they got a flat tire and began looking for help. Nearby was a small white theater, deserted and literally falling apart. Upon discovering the theater, Becket presented her find to her husband and inquired about its ownership. The town was mostly uninhabited and in desperate need of repairs, so Becket was offered the theater for practically nothing in exchange for fixing it up. The decision to move to the desert and start a new life was done with a haste and assuredness that wasn't matched by her husband. They two split after years of an already difficult marriage, and Becket settled into the idea of truly being alone. She renamed the theater Amargosa, which is Spanish for “bitter” and was the former name of Death Valley Junction, where the theater stands.Continue Reading
The title of this documentary makes me angry. Of course you know why; here are these “bad girls” who swear and are neurotic loud-mouths who shouldn't display themselves so gracelessly. The director of these four documentaries should have known better, seeing as how she directed smut, but forgiveness can be given based on her choice of subjects. Director Monika Treut dips into the lives of four women who couldn't be more different than the average woman, and yet offer some amazing lessons in life. Camille Paglia, true-feminist and all-time eccentric, opens the documentary by revealing the fickle and dishonest reality of American feminism and gives her two cents on what is right and wrong with our view of women and their bodies. Camille's segment is followed by a short documentary on Annie Sprinkle, a notorious '80s porn star who worked with the likes of Jennifer Welles and now has a doctorate in human sexuality. Following Annie is a short on bondage, and one woman in particular whose life was forever changed by its introduction into her life. This particular short is a bit more on the experimental side, with less interview time and more artsy shots of skin against leather, etc. Following that is a documentary on Max, who's going through the expense and social hostility of a female to male sex change.
The first segment on Camille really blew my mind. As a woman who considered herself a feminist, I always found the idea of feminist theory as a whole to be very restrictive and a little contradictory. Camille is a fast-talking woman who always had issues with her sexuality. She flips from bisexual to asexual on a daily basis and could never understand why it was so difficult to find someone compatible. Her biggest issues come with women in the lesbian community who, for the most part, frown upon the idea of a partner who is still interested in men. I'm not sure if this reality is one that threatens their comfort or appears to be a false claim, but it's not unheard of for people in the gay community to disassociate themselves from those who leave the issue open. Camille also offers a more radical stance on feminism because she is pro-pornography and doesn't see it as something degrading for a woman, or a man. Many of her beliefs are compared to Freud and early masochistic arguments. This, along with her many other rants, have led many feminists to see her as the anti-feminist, or more amusing, the “Stalin of feminism.” Despite all of the negative criticism toward her, she's taught at and attended several prestigious universities and her book, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, broke publishing records for scholastic literature. While I didn't agree with her entirely, I enjoyed her fervor and engaging arguments. If you're a woman who could never understand why productions like The Vagina Monologues had such huge success, you'll enjoy listening to Camille's interviews.Continue Reading
Roger & Me
Forgetting Michael Moore’s politics, his sometimes annoying personality, and his questionable fact-checking skills, the guy has done more than any other director to bring the art form of documentary filmmaking into the mainstream. His first film, Roger & Me, is still probably his best film. It caused a major stir in the world of documentaries, established the format he has continued to use for decades, and has since been ripped-off and copied by numerous other documentary makers. No documentary before Roger & Me instantly gave its maker such a strong brand name.
Before the breakthrough of Roger & Me in 1989, the documentary field was mostly dominated by concert films, nature, travelogue, and straight political docs, or film theory class usual-suspects like the works of Frederick Wiseman (Titicut Follies). Though there were a number of important documentarians on the scene with vital careers like Albert and David Maysles (Grey Gardens), Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, USA), D.A. Pennebaker (Don’t Look Back), Rob Epstein (The Times Of Harvey Milk), and even Michael Apted with his ongoing Up Series for British television. Then in the mid '80s Errol Morris really broke through with his minimalist true-crime saga, The Thin Blue Line, as did Ross McElwee with his very personal history lesson, Sherman’s March. They all led the way for Michael Moore to infuse blue-collar liberal politics with his personal and humorous slant.Continue Reading
Sleeker and more satisfying than any fictional era-reproduction in cinema, Primitive London, the follow up to London in the Raw, gives viewers the pleasure of revisiting London's diverse '60s pop culture. Touching on the divide of its affluent and poverty-stricken society following the depression, the film begins by zooming in on London's adolescents.
Starting with mod culture, the film describes those involved in it as having an identity with no class boundaries. Regardless of where you came from, the flashy and colorful clothing of this scene could transform you into a character worthy of fickle respect. There's also an explanation for the effeminate male clothing, which apparently derived from the abundance of womens textiles when many would-be male patrons were killed in two world wars. Outfits that would have been seen as amoral for a man became acceptable.Continue Reading
The Kid Stays In The Picture
The autobiography The Kid Stays In The Picture by one time hot-shot studio head and producer Robert Evans may be the only book to have gained a cult following with its audio recording. Evans reads from his own pages, and his cool persona as a guy with a lot of regret and a lot of amazing memories are quite entertaining. The film version uses those audio recordings for narration and a lot of archive footage, film clips, and most creatively still pictures with a 3-D effect to tell this rather astounding story of Evans' miraculous Hollywood rise and then devastating fall.
At first Evans was in the clothing business in New York with his brother. And then one lucky break after another happened for the tanned haberdasher. Famously, on a business trip to Los Angeles he was “discovered” by Norma Shearer while lounging by the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel. He was thrust into a minor acting career playing Irving Thalberg in the Lon Chaney bio A Man Of A Thousand Faces and then Pedro the bullfighter in The Sun Also Rises. That was the peak as an actor but he soon became an independent producer developing The Detective with Frank Sinatra. With Gulf & Western taking over Paramount Pictures out of seemingly nowhere Evans was made the Head of Production.Continue Reading
One thing you can say with some certainty about Fran Lebowitz is that, above all else, she is fantastic company. She may have stopped writing decades ago and she may be known more now for her photos popping up in pretty much every issue of Vanity Fair at whatever gala Graydon Carter invited her to than for anything else, but her wit is enduring and it has kept her around even as her writing career has mummified into something from another era. She has fallen into a trap common to the aesthete. Her cultural criticism is so sharp that it has rendered her ability to capture it pointless because it will never live up to her own expectations. She won’t write much but she will talk, and talk is what Public Speaking, Martin Scorsese’s documentary about her, has in spades. It is so pleasurable to listen to this woman talk. She sizes up what’s wrong with so many aspects of contemporary American life, whether it’s the cultural homogenization of New York or her mystification over how gay rights has become a battle over an institution she can’t imagine why anyone would insist on joining.
Lebowitz can be brutal in her criticism but she isn’t cruel. Perhaps this is owed to how self deprecating she is. She occupies a place on a very small stage of public intellectuals in America —the ones who might actually get booked for a spot on Letterman. But I don’t think she has much in common with people like Christopher Hitchens or Camille Paglia. She doesn’t go for the jugular like they do. This is not to say that she can’t be provocative. One of the most interesting things she has to say is that the first generation of gay men whom we lost to AIDS was superior to the gay men who survived them because it was the ones who died who were "getting laid" and living life to the fullest. It’s an odd but poignant eulogy.Continue Reading
RFK Must Die: The Assassination of Bobby Kennedy
As a hardcore JFK assassination buff (what red-blooded American kid didn’t go through that phase and read Mark Lane’s amazing book Rush To Judgment?), I have to admit, I generally thought that it was kind of a given that Sirhan Sirhan was the lone gunman in brother Bobby’s murder. There have been some swirling conspiracy theories in the back of my head but I never acknowledged them, thinking the assassination of RFK was pretty much an open and shut case. But Shane O’Sullivan's documentary on everything you could ever want to know about the case is very persuasive in making its claim that there is more than meets the eye. Like the JFK case, what makes it more suspicious is the effort that was put forth by law enforcement (LAPD and the FBI) to convince witnesses that they didn’t actually see or experience what they think they saw and experienced. RFK Must Die: The Assassination of Bobby Kennedy may be the quintessential document on the case with some stunning information and footage that I had no idea was available to the public.
Director O’Sullivan proves to be a smart unbiased filmmaker; he lets some of his dramatic conclusions contradict themselves when they don’t fully add up as neatly as a Hollywood story. He’s not fully sure where the information will take him so therefore he does not appear to be driving the story in one direction. The material just so happens to lead to the conclusion that something odd happened that night at the Ambassador Hotel.Continue Reading
D.W. Griffith: Father of Film
I am somewhat ashamed to admit that, just like presumably every person born after 1928, I have a hard time sitting through a silent film. From the still surviving fragments showcasing a variety of short film subjects (train robbers to bathing beauties) to the masterworks from the twilight years of the silent film era by Josef von Sternberg it’s all similarly a bit hard to follow. This is what I would consider to be an annoyingly self-created barrier to my cinematic education because silent film is a whole exciting, if challenging, world unto itself and a vital tool through which to examine American history. Perhaps no American director presents such possibilities for revelatory discovery and, crucially, the worst kind of enduring cultural embarrassment as one D.W. Griffith, the “father of film.” Kevin Brownlow, the esteemed British film historian and recent honorary Oscar winner, directed this 3-part documentary on Griffith and it offers the quickest route to understanding the man as icon and tragic victim of his own belligerent hubris without having to sit through the entirety of his films.
Griffith was the proud son of a Kentucky Civil War colonel and a prolific short film director who worked for Biograph Studios in New York. Following the lead of DeMille and other film industry pioneers he headed west. Though he amassed a huge body of work as both a short and full-length film director he is singularly important for his film The Birth of a Nation (1915). Its dual legacy as both a pioneering work of film art and a grotesquely racist misunderstanding of the origins and aftermath of the Civil War will never truly be resolved. He is, in some ways, the American Leni Riefenstahl. Out of a shocking naiveté or a pathetically primitive world view he did not foresee the problems that would stem from his assault on the dignity of African American Southerners as lazy and childlike people who were better off as slaves under the care of their benign white masters. Just to put this in perspective, the heroes who ride in at the end are members of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s almost impossible to watch these scenes and keep in mind the ways in which The Birth of a Nation, with its inventive use of crosscutting, changed the art of filmmaking forever. Mostly one just cringes and thinks, “How much worse can this get?”
Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey
Kevin Clash grew up in a sizable family of humble means. He began watching Sesame Street as a young boy, which led to watching The Muppet Show. His ravenous interest in creating and performing his own puppet characters grew. He started performing for children at his mother’s day care center, which led him down a path that would ultimately blossom into a promising career as a puppeteer. But not just any puppeteer. He would ultimately become one of children’s most beloved icons, a little red fury monster named… Elmo! Not too shabby for a shy boy from the suburbs of Baltimore.
The Up Series
Imagine what it would be like to have a visual journal of your life from childhood to middle-age. Would you find the footage painful or nostalgic? Now imagine that this footage is aired on a yearly program in your nation and later available for purchase across the world. Many of us cannot begin to fathom what that would be like, even with the rise in reality television, but for a small group of Brits, it's been a reality for decades.
In 1964, directors Paul Almond and Michael Apted started a program for BBC called Seven Up!. The project was part of the World in Action series. Apted, along with Gordan McDougall, chose 14 children from different socioeconomic backgrounds, many offering extremes within the range. The motto of the project is “give me the child until he is seven, and I will give you the man,” based on a quotation from Ignatius Loyola. Given the harshness of the U.K. class system, those involved predicted that the children featured would more or less follow paths that could be expected of them, based on their background. The children range from illegitimate orphans to the extremely pampered, and in order to expose them to children from different class groups, they threw them together in a field trip and studied their behavior through contrast. Following this trip were in-depth interviews with each child and their close peers. This longitudinal study is then repeated every 7 years. The programs are as follows: Seven Up!, 7 Plus Seven, 21 Up, 28 Up, 35 Up, 42 Up, 49 Up, and a rumored 56 Up is to be aired in 2012.