The story of the Civil Rights Movement was almost made for television. It was done in front of TV cameras and acted out for the the television news audience. Much of the time the goal was shining a light on the abuse black Americans were suffering at the hands of the racist Southern political structure. Unfortunately, unlike say, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement does not have a very long list of important films about it. There have been solidly crafted films like Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning, but like most of them it’s actually about white people (the FBI v.s. the KKK. Now remind me again, which side are we supposed to root for?). Ironically, the best film inspired by the American Civil Rights Movement is a foreign one, Bloody Sunday, the Paul Greengrass docudrama about the massacre of Irish protesters by British troops.
The epic PBS documentary series, Eyes On The Prize, has become the bible of everything you could ever want to know about the Civil Rights Movement, but unfortunately due to licensing and rights issues, it has gone out of print on VHS and is only now available for educators. Luckily two of its producers, Orlando Bagwell and Noland Walker, also wrote and directed Citizen King for the PBS series, American Experience. And at under two hours it manages to tell a lot of the Martin Luther King, Jr. story with the perfect mix of archive footage and talking heads.Continue Reading
The only magic I believe in is the magic of documentaries like this. It had the power to reach deep down into my soul and turn on a switch in a room that’s been dark for years. Honestly, it is the most beautiful love story that I have seen to date—a love of life, animals, dance, God, and intimacy.
Ron and Joy Holiday were two childhood friends who set out to make a name for themselves in the dance world, more specifically adagio ballet. Ron’s first few stories of Joy are small and candid, mainly circulating around her Catholic upbringing. One in particular that is essential to their future together comes from Joy visiting a Mother Superior with the uncertainty of whether she should continue her future in dance after college or become a nun. "Go to New York and dance for God," was the answer she received, and it was after that story that I knew this documentary had much in store.Continue Reading
Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974
Ever wish you could meet a strong-willed Japanese feminist from the '70s? Now's your chance. Director Kazuo Hara introduces us to a woman named Miyuki Takeda—his former lover, and one of the most impressive subjects to ever be captured on film. After leaving him and taking their child to travel from mainland Japan to Okinawa, Hara decides that the only way to stay connected with her and understand what happened in their relationship is to document her and those who enter her life after their time together. So from 1972 to 1974, Hara frequents Okinawa to film her, doing so with grace and capturing some amazing footage of locals as well.
In 1972, Miyuki begins a new relationship with a woman named Sugako. His presence throughout this segment caused tension and unease with the couple as their disoriented and sometimes abusive relationship unfolds onscreen. In this section of the documentary we are able to see an enormous transformation with Miyuki. Not only has she decided to abandon all aspects of her personality that would classify her as a "good wife," but also everything and anything that could prevent her or her son from becoming anything short of radical.Continue Reading
Dancing Outlaw is the first of two films by director Jacob Young that follow the comical and sometimes endearing daily rituals of Jesco White—a young man with a few different personalities who has followed his father’s footsteps in attempting to become the greatest living mountain dancer in the Appalachians. He lives in Boone County, West Virginia—a place where everyone seems to have either gone mad or suffers from some kind of gentile and permanent cabin fever.
His wife Norma Jean describes him in by far the most amusing and unflinching way, claiming that he is the most beautiful person that she’s ever met, but also the Devil himself. Through fluid interviews, she sort of forewarns the audience of Jesco’s three personalities: there’s Jesse, the son of his father who has a healthy beard and enjoys digging into his hillbilly roots and growing into a stronger tap dancer; Jesco, the man who wears grungy metal clothing, talks simple, and tells stories of sniffing glue and gasoline, among other things; and finally, there’s Elvis—Jesco’s personality at home, where his entire house is literally filled with an overwhelming amount of Elvis memorabilia. Aside from his home being stuffed with everything with “The King’s” face on it, he also slicks back his hair, wears fancy clothes, shaves his beard, sculpts his brows, and records himself singing along to Elvis records in his bedroom.Continue Reading
Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers & Their Times
It drives me crazy when people say that Los Angeles has no history. I have no idea what that means because I don’t think I’ve ever been to an American city as steeped in its illustrious glittering and haunted past as L.A. It’s a history that is certainly taken for granted and poorly managed—it seems every year brings with it another historic landmark that bites the dust here—but the city (and really the entire country) have been so shaped by L.A.’s past that you will never be able to exorcise all the ghosts here. There are too many of them. And the people who ran the city from its inception made decisions whose results we are still burdened with today.
The Chandler family and their paper, The Los Angeles Times, are a good example of this. From the very beginning the paper was designed as a mouthpiece for the voice of Harrison Gray Otis, an ardent capitalist who used the paper to prop up his friends in the business community and attack his enemies from the world of labor. By using The Los Angeles Times as a forum for attacking unions Otis helped ensure that L.A. would have a cheap supply of labor without threat of these workers organizing. When a group of union members bombed the L.A. Times building and killed scores of Times employees Otis became that much more virulent in his crusade against organized labor. (You can see a monument to the workers who died in the blast erected just after it happened in Hollywood Forever Cemetery.)Continue Reading
It Came From Kuchar
I'm not sure how to begin this, so I'll try to make it linear, though the documentary is nothing but. George and Mike Kuchar are two twin brothers, born in Manhattan and raised in the Bronx. I can imagine their birth to be extraordinary; a lighting bolt striking their mother and producing these two electrifying individuals. That didn't really happen, but that's how it plays out in my imagination. At the age of eleven, the two were given consumer-grade 8mm cameras as gifts, but what would later become of those tools is nothing short of spectacular.
This documentary spans across generations of filmmakers and artists, mainly in the New York and San Francisco underground scenes. The interviews consist of those from the two brothers and the various "stars" of their B-movie delights, as well as people like John Waters and Christopher Coppola (brother of Nick Cage), who claim that the Kuchar brothers and their films were their first sources of inspiration. Other clips include archive footage of New York and San Francisco from the '50s to present day, as well as photos and/or interviews of various influential artists, such as Andy Warhol, Guy Maddin, and cartoonists Bill Griffith and Robert Crumb.Continue Reading
The tough-minded vision of a master filmmaker fighting the odds to bring his vision to the screen has made for some truly memorable documentaries over the years. The almost mad mavericks Francis Ford Coppola directing Apocalypse Now in Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmakers Apocalypse and Werner Herzog’s epic struggle to make Fitzcarraldo in Burden Of Dreams - the documentaries are almost as good as the films themselves. Another interesting film is Lost In La Mancha which chronicles Terry Gilliam's attempt to get the unbearable looking The Man Who Killed Don Quixote started and completed, the latter never happened. These are three men devoted to filmmaking with grand goals. The documentary Overnight is about another filmmaker, Troy Duffy, trying to get his first film, The Boondock Saints, made. Unfortunately for this maniacal egomaniac his visions are mostly about himself and how cool his sunglasses are.
Back in the '90s Harvey Weinstein and his film company, Miramax Pictures, were riding a wave of good fortune and good will after making an overnight sensation out of a video store clerk turned happening director/screenwriter, Quentin Tarantino. Suddenly everybody had a script ready to go and were ready to be discovered by Weinstein. Unfortunately, it also made Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction two of the most imitated films of their day. Hip dudes spewing cool dialog and then nonchalantly taking part in extreme violence and gunplay. (Does anyone want to sit through Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead, Very Bad Things, Love & A .45, The Salton Sea or 2 Days In The Valley again?) One of the worst Tarantino clones was The Boondock Saints. Overnight is the story of how The Boondock Saints' production was hot, then cold, and then barely got made.Continue Reading
The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters
Going back to Grey Gardens in 1975, so many successful and fascinating documentaries have been about misfits in their exotic sub-culture world. Through Gates Of Heaven, The Cruise, American Movie, and Hell House the viewers are given a glimpse into a unique world that they may not have otherwise known exists. Not only do these often oddball worlds exist, but the people who live in them are completely passionate or even obsessed with maintaining their status in them. One such "world" is the competitive classic arcade game scene. It started - and maybe peaked - in the '80s but according to the fascinating documentary, The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters, it still continues and the nerds who occupy this world are obsessed with it.
Like many amazing documentaries, The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters has a plot so complete and ready-made, with a clear hero and a villain, it gives the impression that it could only have been concocted by a screenwriter. But no folks, it’s real.Continue Reading
8: The Mormon Proposition
I don’t think I’ve ever been as angry about a political issue in my lifetime as the issue of how Proposition 8 came to be law in the state of California. I’ve been mildly politically engaged for most of my life. I grew up in a house full of good liberals and I marched in a couple of Iraq war protests, but I’ve never really put anything on the line for a cause I believe in. Prop 8, the 2008 ballot initiative that defined marriage in California as solely between a man and a woman, made me really mad and I got involved in the fight against it. It confirmed my mostly cynical take on politics because everything about the way it played out seemed so frustratingly predictable.
I absolutely knew it was going to pass when I was listening to NPR one day in my car and heard a Yes On 8 spokeswoman say that if gay marriage was legal than kindergartners would be forced to learn how to gay marry one another. The NPR host, the comically awful and journalistically toothless Larry Mantle, had no follow up question and there was no one from No On 8 or any informed listener who bothered to call in and state that that particular allegation was completely made up. But listener after listener called in to instead say that while they had nothing against gay people it just wasn’t right to teach that in schools. It couldn’t have been planned any better for Yes On 8 if they had scripted it. It was a classic bait-and-switch strategy by the architects of their campaign and it worked like a charm.Continue Reading
Yellow Brick Road
When you're walking past all the asphalt and gleaming metal of the city, you forget how to feel sometimes. That never seemed to happen when you were a child. You were in tune with everything—you felt everything and wanted so much to please. Then you grew older and you noticed that the world had plans for you. If you felt something very powerful, or loved something fiercely, you learned to keep it to yourself. It hurts to contain it sometimes, but you do it all the same. For the group of disabled actors in the A.N.C.H.O.R drama program of Long Island, that is simply not a reality. What the human race has fallen out of touch with, these children and adults practice with bliss.
Every year, drama director Sandy Braun gathers the same eager actors in the program and puts on a wonderful performance with little support from outside sources. Most of the members are young adults and the disabilities range from Down syndrome as the majority, and others spanning from paralysis to several mild forms. This documentary follows the trials and tribulations of the group as it tries to pull off the best Wizard of Oz they can muster. They all gather in an auditorium and the drama director announces who received what part. I literally burst into tears when I saw their glee and satisfaction, particularly from one girl who becomes overwhelmed. The Wizard is played by a man named Josh, who is modest and pleased with the news. Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and the Wicked Witch are played by Trisha, Danny, and Elizabeth. The star of the program, John Stare, has the role of the Cowardly Lion. Another favorite in the group is David, who plays the Tin Man.Continue Reading