When We Were Kings
More than just a documentary about boxing or a boxer or a fight, Leon Gast’s astoundingly epic documentary When We Were Kings captures a fascinating period of history and tells the story of how a cocky young fighter named Cassius Clay became the worldwide icon known as Muhammad Ali. The biggest event in boxing history—and maybe the biggest event of the decade—was when boxing promoter Don King got the latest champ, the hard-hitting monster George Foreman, to take on the supposedly washed up 33-year-old ex-champ Ali in Zaire in ’74, in the event known as “the rumble in the jungle.”
Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!
While Peter Weir and Fred Schepisi were putting Australian cinema on the map in the 1970s with films like Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Devil’s Playground, an amazing underworld of exploitation cinema was also happening Down Under full of sex and violence, exuberantly captured by director Mark Hartley in his slam bang documentary Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! Like his more recent ode to Filipino exploitation flicks, Machete Maidens Unleashed, Hartley has found the perfect formula for honoring the less honorable world cinema. Tracing Australia’s growth from sexploitation through stuntploitation and finally peaking with George Miller’s masterful Mad Max and Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (known in the U.S. as The Road Warrior). With a plethora of wall-to-wall clips and both informative and entertaining talking heads telling the story including Quentin Tarantino, George Lazenby, Brian Trenchard-Smith, John Waters, and Richard Franklin, this movie is an absolute blast.
While films were filmed in and about Australia, they were usually films like Wake in Fright and Walkabout that were made by foreigners; originally Australia’s most popular film exports were soft porny sex comedies with such titles as The Naked Bunyip, Alvin Rides Again, and Again! And Again! And Again! and The Sex Therapist. While Australians were enjoying idiotic homemade comedies with the “Ocker” films (which crudely made fun of Australian hick values) like Alvin Purple, Stork, and The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (directed by Bruce Beresford who would eventually go more high brow with his Australian masterpiece Braker Morant).
For over thirty years director Errol Morris has been redefining the visionary guidelines of what a documentary is and can be. He brought a deeper understanding of visual and sound construction techniques that pushed the documentary into a more compelling medium than the films that preceded his work. In the ‘80s, his film The Thin Blue Line helped get a guy off death row, but maybe more importantly, it brought the documentary genre into the mainstream and helped expose a lot of audience members and future filmmakers to the new possibilities that documentaries can achieve both socially and technically. Where many of the acclaimed filmmakers of his generation have lost their golden touch, every few years he keeps turning out a new film and he may of peaked with his last one, Tabloid, an insanely epic story of love and loss and the seedy nature of our voyeuristic society.
Morris, at his best, finds grand stories of people who live on the fringe of our culture with twisted obsessions, whether pet cemeteries (Gates of Heaven), holocaust denying (Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.) or mole rats and trapezes (Fast, Cheap & Out of Control). Morris has a canny ability to park his camera inside the brains of these kooks and come to understand or appreciate their causes. His best films have been his eccentric bios, also usually about a sort of obsession that eats at his subjects like Stephen Hawking (A Brief History of Time) and Robert S. McNamara (The Fog of War). Tabloid is almost an accumulation of his life’s work, combining all of what he does best and turning the dial up. It’s a bio of a former beauty queen named Joyce McKinney who sits on camera and tells her crazy and kinky story, aided by other talking heads and archive footage and a lot of press clippings. Without moralizing or taking sides, this is Morris’s most creatively laid-out spectacle, yet the quirkiness and perversion never outweigh the filmmaking.
After the success of student lunch counter sit-ins, anti-segregation forces, led by a little know group called CORE (Committee of Racial Equality), decided to push the envelope in an attempt to secure their rights and bring attention to the discrimination of black Americans in the psychotically racist American South. PBS’s American Experience does it again! Freedom Riders is another historical masterpiece; with spectacular archive footage and engaging talking heads, director Stanley Nelson perfectly lays out this dangerous and complicated story. Along with the epic Eyes on the Prize, Freedom Riders is essential viewing for anyone interested in the civil rights movement or just a fascinating and entertaining slice of brutal American history.
In a post-World War II America, blacks were experiencing new gains both economically and socially in much of the country. By the mid-50s the Supreme Court decision on Brown v. Board of Education brought a new promise for equal rights in schools, but the South was doing everything it could to stifle integration in education leading to a number of famous conflicts. In Montgomery a young pastor named Martin Luther King became an international superstar of peace leading their city’s bus boycotts. By 1960 black Southern college students took up the call first in Greensboro and then Nashville, doing lunch counter sit-ins to desegregate the powerful downtown department store restaurants. This all led to a discussion by a bi-racial Northern group called CORE to test the limits of a federal order to desegregate interstate bus travel including Southern bus station waiting rooms, cafeterias, and bathrooms that still had signs declaring “white” and “colored.” The South was not going to let the Federal Government tell them to change their culture and Kennedy’s White House had no interest in getting involved and alienating Southern white Democrats.
On April, 8, 2000, Mark Hogancamp was brutally attacked in a bar in Kingston, New York. His attackers were five teenagers, and the damage done was horrific. Plastic surgery was needed in order to repair his face and he was in a coma for nine days. When he came to, his memory and motor skills had been erased. He was hospitalized for 40 days until his medical insurance could no longer pay for his treatment and he was released. At 38 and without a means of income, he had to build his life from scratch.
This documentary is separated into ten chapters which chronicle Mark's outstanding efforts to reclaim his life and latch on to the only thing that wasn't taken away by his attackers: his imagination. Chapter 1 is titled “The Attack” and it introduces us to many people in Mark's life. The first is his attorney, but it’s an introduction that is far from ordinary. Standing still is Emmanuel Nneji, his attorney, and to the right of the screen is a 1/6 scale toy figure in his likeness. Nneji presents us with the facts of the case and, occasionally, video clips of the bar and photos of Mark's disfigured appearance after the accident.
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.
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?”
Exit Through the Gift Shop
Most of the talk surrounding Exit Through the Gift Shop was regarding whether it was a hoax or all real. But what was lost in the hoopla was what an incredibly entertaining and utterly fascinating film this documentary-within-a-
Part conman, part art enthusiast, Guetta is like a bloated Pepe Le Pew. He has a bunch of kids and owns a Melrose vintage clothing store, and he constantly has a camera filming every aspect of his life. While visiting France he begins filming his cousin, a famous graffiti artist known as Invader. So begins an obsession for Guetta. Back in Hollywood he hooks up with another famous artist, Shepard Fairey (who later would become famous for his Obama “Hope” posters) and then meets loads more. He goes with them and takes part in their illegal night painting activities. When the legendary Bansky (whose real identity has never been revealed) comes to town, Guetta becomes his wingman and films all of his illegal art installations. Guetta then travels with him to London and back to LA where he serves as lookout for a stunt Banksy pulls in Disneyland. Eventually Bansky gives him the assignment to finally take all that footage and edit it into a film about street art. But what he puts together, a hodgepodge of images he calls Life Remote Control, it’s a total unwatchable mess.
The Psycho Legacy
With so many books and documentaries made over the decades covering every aspect of Alfred Hitchcock’s amazing career and more specifically his masterpiece Psycho, what more can possibly be said about the subject? Director Robert V. Galluzzo manages to find a new and surprisingly fresh angle— instead of mulling over the influences on Hitchcock, we are reminded of the massive influence Psycho had. With an interesting group of talking heads, all obvious enthusiasts, they first contemplate the mythology that Psycho brought to cinema, but quickly they get to what makes the documentary most unique which is the study of the Psycho film sequels that sprung up some years later. Though not as commercially successful as many current horror film series, Galluzzo’s posse does manage to convince that they are worth a look.
Though the documentary only uses quick muted clips from the films, the stills and the talking heads are engaging enough that you may not even notice. It mentions early on, briefly, that William Castle spent a decade trying to rip-off Psycho (Straight-Jacket, Homicidal, etc.), but the dozens of French thrillers and Italian horror flicks that were directly influenced by Hitchcock are ignored. Hell, if you want to talk about Psycho’s legacy (and Hitchcock’s) Brian De Palma’s had a whole career doing bad Hitchcock (until later when he discovered other genres to steal from). The Psycho Legacy also avoids Gus Van Sant’s pointless scene-for-scene remake and the short-lived Bud Court TV Series The Bates Motel. No, the Psycho legacy these guys are itching to rap about are the three “sequels.”
LBJ (The American Experience)
Whether it’s the Kennedys, Nixon, or FDR you can’t go wrong with any of the thoroughly epic political biographies produced by PBS for their American Experience television series. To understand the turbulent sixties no documentary gives a better overview than the exhausting, yet exuberant, Lyndon Johnson bio called, simply enough, LBJ. Johnson’s life was full of both contradictions and surprises; in the end he both represents and played a major hand in both the best and worst legacies of the decade.
The film unfolds in four hour-long chapters. Episodes one and two cover a lot of ground: LBJ’s early years as the son of a Texas politician, his marriage to Ladybird, and his wins and losses in the rough world of Texas politics. He became a grand deal-making charmer first in the House of Representatives and then in the Senate. His humbling run as JFK’s vice president ended after those gunshots rang out in Dallas simultaneously throwing history a curve ball and making Johnson the president. Finishing Kennedy’s term he out-Kennedyed the Kennedys by passing loads of important legislation and was overwhelmingly reelected by the American people. And that’s when the second half kicks in, covering those disastrous last four years and beyond as his amazing social triumphs were overshadowed by the escalating war in Vietnam—a war which he inherited but naively continued to send the country deeper into.