A "Ken Burns joint" may be brushed off by some as academic homework, but a deeper inspection reveals not just a great historian, but an important filmmaker (albeit usually for the small screen). The guy’s body of work is astounding, almost always with documentaries airing on PBS (and usually as part of their brilliant American Experience series). In the '80s he was responsible for a half dozen memorable films including The Brooklyn Bridge, The Statue of Liberty and Thomas Heart Benton. But it was in the ’90 that he really exploded with his nine-part Civil War documentary, a subject that even when not appealing managed to be totally compelling with just photographs and voiceover narration. All of his very long-form pieces since have been about more recent subjects, allowing him to move beyond archival still photos and include actual moving film. His work has become the benchmark and the ultimate chronicle of the American twentieth century, with a number of masterpieces including Jazz, Unforgettable Blackness: The Rise of Jack Johnson, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, Prohibition, The Dust Bowl and what may be his best, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. (And also his one theatrical documentary, the brilliant The Central Park Five). He’s apparently working on a ten episode history of the Vietnam War. I can’t wait.
With Baseball in ’94 Burns made the most all-encompassing chronicle of any sport ever committed to film. Two of the ten episodes had a major emphasis on the first black player to he hired by the then all-white major leagues; now with his 240 minute Jackie Robinson he gives the ball payer his own series. Made with credited co-directors Sarah Burns and David McMahon, Jackie Robinson is as interesting as anything he has ever made before.Continue Reading
Man With A Movie Camera
When I took home Man With A Movie Camera on DVD I was offered a chance to see Russia in late '20s. Yes, there is very amazing motion picture evidence of the newly established USSR. Feature films at this length were in their infancy. Man With A Movie Camera is presented as an experiment in three reels (68 minutes). It is avant-garde in style with visual effects that are pure innovation. As far as narrative, it moves seamlessly through vignettes of pain, joy & the beautifully mundane. Many filming techniques are masterfully executed here such as double exposure, fast motion, slow motion, freeze frames, jump cuts, split screens, stop-motion, etc. Our only reoccurring characters are a man with a camera and the editor of the film. We are given a psychedelic and hysterically voyeuristic perspective of daily life in the urban sprawl of 1920s Russia. Refer to the Soviet Union's complicated history at this time: Stalin had consolidated power the very year of the film's release. The government up until then was forming in the wake of communist leader Vladimir Lenin's death.
One must lament the film's director, Dziga Vertov. He was never able to experience his film the way we can now with a Kino DVD release featuring an awesome score by Michael Nyman. The quality of this soundtrack would be understated if I didn't mention it is among the finest I've ever heard. Man With A Movie Camera offers a climax of sights and sound. Photography this poetic speaks at volumes that cannot accurately be labeled "silent film."Continue Reading
Bodysong is what I'd like to call a docu-hybrid. In the world of documentaries are essay films and these are classified as works that are existential and transgressive. Some notable examples would be Baraka, Chronos and the Qatsi trilogy. Then you have films like That's Entertainment, which visually cite themes or trends within cinema and pop culture. I suppose they're called compilation films or perhaps historical anthologies. The effectiveness of both of these is accomplished by the editing of the film, which presents each scene in conjunction with others that lead or take the same direction. An example would be one person sitting in a chair juxtaposed by someone sitting or rising from one. The lyrical elements of the films are maintained by the score, which are usually of great depth and done by artists like Phillip Glass.
What then makes Bodysong such an enjoyable alternative is the mashup of using home, documentary and educational videos throughout history and splicing them with those of similar themes in cinematic history. All of these images are set against an experimental score done by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood which, for people such as myself, is a welcome diversion from the typical accompaniment of an essay film.Continue Reading
A lot of people end up finding what they think is a kindred spirit in an icon, and perhaps just as many find it in someone who is prophetic or a poet. The icon can bring comfort in embracing the wonder and beauty of art, while the poet can expose the haunting and sometimes transgressive side of things. Sometimes you can find both these qualities in the same person. It's the only thing that can explain the popularity of Bukowski and Allen Ginsberg, for example. Benjamin Smoke is a documentary that does just that, but for someone who never got the chance to assimilate ... and he maybe never would have, anyway.
Born Robert Dickerson and called only Benjamin, his voice and lyrics brings to mind that of Tom Waits or Nick Cave. The band he fronted, Smoke, was infamous in Cabbagetown, GA, a town that, as Benjamin explains, was always separate from Atlanta, where it rests, riddled with poverty. This poverty allowed for all the good and wonderful things in life, he states: “hustlers, inter-breeding, drugs and sniffing glue.” The documentary, one soon realizes, didn't need more than to put up a camera to Benjamin in an empty room in order to make a bold impression, but thanks to the truly masterful direction and awe-inspiring editing by Nancy Roach and the directors, something quite miraculous was captured. As a result, a small legend had his story told.Continue Reading
Come on Children
It didn't occur to me until a few years ago that “teenage” is a concept that's not all that old. I'm sure that there are places in the world where is doesn't, and never did, exist. For most cultures, there has always been a sort of initiation into adulthood by way of customary or religious celebration. A way to make the change less mundane. Perhaps intended to alleviate or lessen the pangs of transitioning into an adult, the identity of a teenager gave and continues to give people a kind of social weaning. A time where it is allowed and expected for one to experiment with new ideas and figure out just what they want to do in their passively thought-of futures. I'm not sure that much consideration or weight has been given to the results of this. Parents are often sited as ones we cannot identify with, specifically when we are teens. That stance seems reasonable; the times play a huge role in the social construct of a teenager, and times are always a-changin'.
Come on Children is a modest documentary on the subject of a teenage disillusionment and its effects. Director Allan King (A Married Couple, Warrendale) and colleagues grew intrigued at the amount of regurgitated complaints from teens that seemed certain that their lives would be much more enjoyable if it weren't for their nagging parents, cops and teachers. So, they gathered twelve youths from the suburbs of Toronto, ages 13 to 19, and took them to a farm without supervision. The youngsters were all from the same middle-class background, with attentive families and, even in their home life, a considerable amount of freedom. One of the group is 9 months pregnant and stays on the farm with the newborn, another is a father already but estranged from his former girlfriend. There's a puppy and two cats and plenty of beer, pot, acid and cigarettes to go around. Even a bit speed, brought by the most boisterous participant, John Hamilton.Continue Reading
No Direction Home: Bob Dylan
Obviously Martin Scorsese is one of the most accomplished filmmakers of his generation, now into his sixth decade with a fairly diverse body of work. He has his great masterpiece, Goodfellas, and his next tier of classics: Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and maybe even The King of Comedy. All five of those are with his methody, then alter-ego, Robert De Niro; though not as extraordinary but still of note is his later Leonardo DiCaprio period. Interestingly, between all these films Scorsese has also unleashed many notable documentaries. After being one of many editors on Woodstock, he started with shorts, including a great bio/interview of a druggy hustler (who played the gun dealer in Taxi Driver) called American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince. But since his feature-length docs have mostly been made for television (with subjects ranging from film history to the New York Review of Books to Elia Kazan), his best have been about music. From his first feature doc, the concert film The Last Waltz, through the mini-series The Blues to his more recent outstanding George Harrison: Living in the Material World, the guy proves he loves and understands the world of musicians. It’s his respect for the little details and the big picture that make No Direction Home: Bob Dylan his true documentary masterpiece, and maybe secretly as great as anything he has directed (or at least right under Goodfellas).
Made for PBS’ American Masters series (the source of so many brilliant documentaries of the last thirty years), the film clocks in at over 200 minutes and was shown in two parts. Instead of his famous, show-offy visual flair, more than anything else he has ever done, No Direction Home shows off his storytelling skills. All of the footage was shot before he came on board, so in some ways his role as director was really that of lead editor (though the actual editor job is credited to David Tedeschi, who later was promoted to co-director with Scorsese on his NY Review of Books doc, The 50 Year Argument). Besides the incredible plethora of material (film footage and music, much not even of Dylan), the great choice Scorsese made is that instead of an entire overview of Bob Dylan’s life, he kept it small. After a quick run-through of Dylan’s childhood in Minnesota, the film ONLY really details his New York years from 1961 when he first hit Greenwich Village, until his famous motorcycle accident in ’66 (which let to a brief retirement and then a career reboot). But what an amazing five years that was. The film is also about the other music that was happening at the time that influenced Dylan (and which he would go on to influence) and really works as a history of folk music as well.Continue Reading
Stories We Tell
They say history belongs to the victors, and right or wrong, the person who tells the story gets to make up their own version of history. Actress and filmmaker Sarah Polley’s brilliant (and frankly ingenious) documentary Stories We Tell uses fragments and pieces of memory to tell her own and her parents' story, but without giving away too much, there are many surprises and twists. With the opening narration by her father, actor Michael Polley (of the Canadian TV series Slings and Arrows), you think the film is through his eyes, but eventually you come to realize he may be reading from a text written by Sarah. He tells the story of his relationship with Sarah’s mother Diane, also an actress (who passed away when Sarah was eleven), which fully comes to life, aided by wonderfully edited-in apparent home movies. But as other family members and family friends tell the same stories from different points of view, you also come to realize nothing is as it seems. Everyone has different memories and different points of view, some only coming in fragments. What starts out as a complicated tribute to an artistic family eventually becomes almost a mystery as major family bombs go off. In the end, Stories We Tell becomes one of the most gripping and unique personal documentaries ever made.
Growing up, everyone thought Diane was a “good time Charlie”--an attractive life-of-the-party, a loving free spirit--even though she had two young children from a previous marriage. Michael was a dynamic young British actor on stage, but off, more of an introvert. He was private and she was outwardly showy. Looking back, Michael is convinced Diane fell in love with the characters he played on stage, and was disappointed with who he really was. Nevertheless, the two got married and raised a family. But after some years the marriage grew stale, especially as Diane grew more frustrated with Michael’s lack of career ambition. To both of their relief, Diane was offered a play in Montreal, while Michael stayed back in Toronto with the kids. After a long separation, the two were reunited and were able to rekindle the romance briefly, even having another child together, who turned out to be Sarah. After Diane’s death from cancer, Michael fell into depression, but was forced to raise his little daughter alone. It’s about at this point in the documentary that it starts to come out through different memories that Sarah must have been conceived while Diane was in Montreal and that dear old Michael might not be her biological father. And here Sarah begins to track down all the men who conceivably may have had an affair with her mother while she was away. And then the film takes a big new turn....Continue Reading
Eyes on the Prize
The greatest documentary series in PBS history (or television history, for that matter) does not belong to Ken Burns (though arguably he would easily place a couple in the top ten). It belongs to the 1987 production Eyes On the Prize. The term "television landmark" may get overused, but this story of America’s mid-century Civil Rights Movement truly deserves that distinction. Produced for PBS by a little-known production company called Blackside Inc., the series can be broken down into two seasons: the original six episode masterpiece Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years 1954-1965 and then its less earth-shattering but still relevant follow-up Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965-1985 with eight episodes in 1980. With no credited director, it feels it like it directed itself, as if the world needed it and it sprang up (though Blackside founder Henry Hampton is credited as Executive Producer). The film is made up with talking heads of witness and historians and an avalanche of archival and news footage. There have been a number of significant documentaries about the Civil Rights Movement, including two other PBS docs, Citizen King and Freedom Riders, as well as the Spike Lee directed 4 Little Girls, but Eyes on the Prize is the official starting point, the all-encompassing encyclopedia on the subject.
Though there was an accompanying Eyes on the Prize book, the more in depth paper version would be Taylor Branch’s extra thick “America in the King Years” trilogy of histories. Like a book, Eyes on the Prize is made up of chapters (episodes) that unfold, building on each other and creating suspense and outrage. The first chapter, "Awakenings," is where the modern movement started with the Montgomery bus boycott (which in turn introduced the world to Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.) and the murder of a young boy, Emmett Till, which stirred the conscious of so many. Episode Two, "Fighting Back," takes place after the Brown v. Board of Education decision and the battle of Southern school integration. Episode Three, "Ain’t Scared Of Your Jails," details the student takeover of the movement with their creation of The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the lunch counter sits-ins and the freedom rides. Episode Four, "No Easy Walk," sees King back in the leadership position as marches in Albany and Birmingham are finally met with the historic March on Washington. Episode Five, "Mississippi: Is This America?," focuses on activists trying to bring voting rights to the state; with the murder of the three civil rights workers and the assassination of Medgar Evers, peaceful activists are met with extreme violence. And finally "Bridge To Freedom," after King wins the Nobel Peace Prize, the fight moves to the streets of Selma and the back rooms of Washington, DC with the passage of the Voting Rights Act.Continue Reading
Like the documentary Lost in La Mancha, which tell the tale of Terry Gilliam’s never finished film adaptation of Don Quixote, Jodorowsky’s Dune appears to be a much more enjoyable ride as a lost film rather had it actually been made. After the midnight circuit cult success of his bizarro lo-fi films El Topo and Holy Mountain, Chilean filmmaker and all around artsy guru Alejandro Jodorowsky set out to adapt Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel Dune to the big screen. He assembled a a group of holy warrior artists intent on helping him realize his vision, leading them like a prophet. The entire enterprise eventually collapsed when the need for Hollywood big money entered the story. But while his ideas could have been visually fascinating (much of it is too ahead of its time), the overall metaphysical philosophies he was cramming into the story might have only made it another cult curio. Certainly for my taste, the story of the making-of is much more watchable than what might have ended up on the screen. On the other hand, with Jodorowsky’s charismatic storytelling skills it’s hard not to root for his mad-man belief in his dream and for that passion to go beyond mere storytelling to world changing.
Jodorowsky's background in experimental and avant-garde theater in both Paris and Mexico led to an even more unlikely film career. His surrealist and druggy early films found admirers in the midnight filmgoers as well as in French producer Michel Seydoux, who asked the director what he would like to do next. Jodorowsky said Dune and then begun putting together a creative dream team. For his FX Supervisor he failed to convince Douglas Trumbull (2001 and Silent Running) to join the carnival (not a spiritual warrior), but instead landed Dan O'Bannon (fresh off of Dark Star with John Carpenter). He would also convince comic book artist Jean Giraud (Mœbius), the surrealist Swiss painter H.R. Giger and British science fiction book cover illustrator Chris Foss to join the fun. As Jodorowsky apparently worked out the script, he also worked out his visions for the characters and sets with his artists. The ideas came to him in dreams and the talented group came up with some truly astounding art work for what the film would look like. He also supposedly got major rock act Pink Floyd to work on some of the score (as well as goofy French prog rock band Magma). For the cast he managed to gather Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger and Orson Welles (who besides his fee was also sold on the project by being guaranteed a free meal at his favorite French cafe every day of the shoot). The young hero of the film would be played by Jodorowsky‘s adolescent son Brontis (who at the age of seven was prominently featured in El Topo); he would take on around-the-clock sword and combat training for over a year in preparation. The documentary features many of the storyboards that were put in a large coffee table type of book to help sell the project to would-be investors. Needless to say, that book of art now looks like the ultimate Christmas present for any sci-fi geek.Continue Reading
The canon of films (both documentary and dramatic) about the legendary boxer Muhammad Ali continues to grow and has to be richer than that of any other athlete in history. It helps that Ali had such a fascinating, controversial and (eventually) revered life. The list would start with Ali playing himself in the 1977 film The Greatest. Then, a curiosity: the TV movie Freedom Road, which Ali starred in as an ex-slave who became a senator. Ali even provided his own voice for the short-lived Saturday morning cartoon series I Am the Greatest: The Adventures of Muhammad Ali. Will Smith played him in the underrated Michael Mann bio Ali. And on TV, Terrence Howard took his swing in King of the World, as did David Ramsey (a college classmate of mine) in Ali: An American Hero. Actors also pop up playing him in supporting roles in Don King: Only in America and Phantom Punch, while he is only talked about in the more recent Stephen Fears film Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight (as his fight with the United States over his draft status for the Vietnam war is decided by the Supreme Court). The documentary front has too many films to list, going at least as far back as 1970 with AKA Cassius Clay. Other highlights include Muhammad Ali: The Whole Story, Muhammad Ali: Through the Eyes of the World and The Trials of Muhammad Ali from earlier this year. And of course, the greatest of all is still the Academy Award-winning When We Were Kings. And just about every documentary on the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements usually has a chapter on the guy.
Finding a different angle on telling the whole Ali story is Facing Ali from 2009. Director Pete McCormack interviews Ali’s boxing opponents and surprisingly creates about as all-encompassing a documentary as there has been on the man. Whereas When We Were Kings really centers on the Ali/ George Foreman “Rumble In The Jungle” bout and veers off occasionally for backstory, Facing Ali moves back and forth on the timeline and manages to include all his historical highlights: winning the gold in the 1960 Olympics, the mega upset against Sonny Liston, joining the Nation of Islam, changing his name from Cassius Clay and infuriating the white press and boxing establishment, and of course, his heroic battle against the Vietnam draft (which put his career on hold for many years during his peak). But where the movie goes that can really excite a budding Ali-phile are the details of the non-historic fights, especially after his return in the '70s when he re-won and then lost the title of champ and then won it back.Continue Reading