D.W. Griffith: Father of Film

Dir: Kevin Brownlow, David Gill, 1993. Documentaries.

DW Griffith The Father of FilmI 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?”  

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Oct 4, 2011 9:16am

Exit Through the Gift Shop

Dir: Banksy, 2010. Documentaries.

Exit Through the Gift ShopMost 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-documentary documentary is. The controversial British graffiti street artist known as Bansky is credited as director and the film is edited down from hundred of hours of film shot by a Frenchman living in Los Angeles named Thierry Guetta.  Guetta began following local artists as they secretly left their art all over LA. After an encounter with the legendary Bansky he found a new muse to shoot and continually documented his work. Eventually Guetta started doing his own street art under the name Mr. Brainwash which led to a giant Hollywood art show. Like many great documentaries the issue of where the story goes and how it gets there is more unbelievable then anything a screenwriter could concoct. As both a big-money art world statement and as the ultimate document about graffiti art, Exit Through the Gift Shop is so incredible that perhaps viewers could only take it as a put-on.

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.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Sep 23, 2011 4:41pm

The Psycho Legacy

Dir: Robert V. Galluzzo, 2010. Documentary

Psycho LegacyWith 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.”

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Sep 15, 2011 9:43am

LBJ (The American Experience)

Dir: David Grubin, 1991. Starring: Lyndon B. Johnson. Documentaries.

LBJWhether 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.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Aug 24, 2011 6:11pm

RFK Must Die: The Assassination of Bobby Kennedy

Dir: Shane O’Sullivan, 2007. Documentary.

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.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jun 22, 2011 1:06pm

Public Speaking

Directed by Martin Scorsese. Starring: Fran Lebowitz, Truman Capote, Pablo Casals, Candy Darling. Documentary.

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.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Jun 21, 2011 5:23pm

The Kid Stays In The Picture

Dir: Nanette Burstein, Brett Morgen, 2002. Starring: Robert Evans. Documentary.

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.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jun 6, 2011 8:28pm

Primitive London

Dir: Arnold L. Miller, 1967. Documentary.

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.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
May 27, 2011 1:34pm

Roger & Me

Dir: Michael Moore, 1989. Documentary.

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.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
May 25, 2011 5:08pm

Female Misbehavior

Dir: Monika Treut, 1992. Starring: Camille Paglia, Annie Sprinkle. Documentary.

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.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
May 4, 2011 2:05pm
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