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.
CORE’s leader James Farmer put together a motley mixed-race, mixed-sex crew of pacifists, liberals, and college students (including Nashville student sit-in veteran John Lewis, who would become one of the movement’s most visible leaders) to test the laws. Mixed-race groups, known as Freedom Riders, would sit together on the buses (illegal in most of the South) and then test the limits of the restroom racial laws. They put two groups on two buses setting out from Washington, DC heading to New Orleans. They would travel through the milder Eastern South and then hit Alabama and Mississippi, two quasi-police states, where violence against activists was sanctioned by all levels of their state governments. If any violence came to them, they hoped that it would force Washington to enforce federal laws.
As soon as the buses hit Alabama the violence ignited. One bus was burned down as the passengers were attacked out on a country road. The other bus arrived in Birmingham and the Freedom Riders were attacked by a massive mob out for blood. Even a Kennedy Administration official, John Seigenthaler, (who was keeping tabs on the riders) was attacked and ended up in a hospital after getting hit by a pipe. The beaten, bruised, and defeated Freedom Riders eventually were taken by plane out of Alabama as no bus driver would drive them, fearing more violence (their airplane was threatened by bomb threats delaying their journey even longer).
As it began to look as though extreme violence was the only way to stop the movement, Lewis and his Nashville colleagues, lead by the courageous Diane Nash, came down to Birmingham and took over the Freedom Rides, bringing an even bigger spotlight to the action and an even bigger threat of violence to the new recruits. They wanted the country to know that no matter how much pain was inflicted, the movement couldn’t be stopped. Martin Luther King, The Kennedys, Alabama Governor John Patterson, and the state military all became players in an ever growing story. They saw the jails fill up as more and more people came south to join the Freedom Ride and eventually brought an end to Jim Crow for interstate bus travelers.
The Freedom Riders may be the single top accomplishment for the fledgling Civil Rights Movement. It’s about the last time that a quick direct action would pull the nation together and force the government to act. The next few years would see the movement change its focus to voter rights in the South. It would be a long-suffering struggle that depended on a slow bureaucratic process to create and enact new laws culminating in a more symbolic than actual accomplishment. The Freedom Rides also created a new generation of full-time activists who were no longer afraid of going to jail in the name of human rights. The young people spread out with the creation of their own organization, SNCC, which continued to train students in activism. This is where many of the anti-Vietnam War leaders first got a taste of rebellion and America would never be the same.
The PBS American Experience series of documentaries, most available on DVD, has become the best archive of 20th century American life and Freedom Riders is no exception. All the available witnesses and performers in this real-life drama are present on camera to reflect and tell their side of history. These include Farmer, Lewis, Nash, Seigenthaler, and even Patterson who, in an effort to cover his own diabolical politics, now seems to claim that segregation was not about race or racism, but was instead a state’s rights issue. It should be stressed that watching Freedom Riders is not a dull homework assignment but an enjoyable fast ride—a ride I would recommend and urge everyone to take.
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.
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
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