A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies

Dir: Martin Scorsese, Michael Henry Wilson, 1995. Documentary.

I’ve always mistrusted the adulation that greets Martin Scorsese whenever he makes a new movie. I wasn’t around for the glory days of the New Hollywood generation of film directors making their mark in the 1970s, of which he was, of course, a principle member. His reputation as a master of gritty poetic realism was built on films like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Mean Streets and I can understand their importance to American cinema of the 1970s and '80s. But what has always bugged me is his media-appointed status and de facto role as America’s Greatest Living Film Director. I just find such a distinction to be inherently suspicious. He’s a relatively apolitical filmmaker who, in his most successful films glorifies (whatever his intentions) a criminal underclass that is meant to embody the aspirational drive of Americans for success and material wealth whatever the cost. Goodfellas is a seamless rush of images and sound. It’s a great film, but I’ve always felt that some of the greatness accorded it by critics and audiences (and his other films like it) is based in part on an obvious celebration of his one dimensional psychopathic characters. What are we really celebrating when we call him America’s Greatest Living Film Director? I’m not totally sure.

That said, the man knows a lot about movies—he is almost as famous for his films as he is for boasting an encyclopedic knowledge of film history and the way a film’s subtext is made manifest through directorial technique. He also has excellent taste. Scorsese is the perfect guide to the world of American film and this BFI-produced documentary, in which he shares with us some of his favorite films, is a pleasure to watch for its three hour duration. He starts out by saying that this is a project for him to talk about his favorite films and that he can only vouch for their importance to him as part of the formative experiences that shaped him as a film director.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Feb 25, 2011 6:13pm

I Think We're Alone Now

Dir: Sean Donnelly, 2008. Documentary.

You've always heard stories of stalkers and people who honestly believe that they are seriously destined to be with certain celebrities. In a sense, our culture has encouraged such activities. Since the beginning of the film industry and, in the last century with musicians, celebrities in the performing arts have been followed by paparazzi and fans with little escape from the public eye. In almost every grocer there are magazines filled with false or accurate news of some star. The biggest market seems to be teen magazines and their readers who can become more involved by sending in fan mail, etc. This kind of activity eventually fades and these young people stop being fixated. I Think We're Alone Now follows two individuals who became obsessed with a singer way past their youths, and despite their oddness, quite organically.

Tiffany Darwish, referred to as simply Tiffany, had a singing career in the '80s and was a pop icon, though her popularity fizzled out within a few years. Some of her songs still receive radio play and are known by just about everybody. The title of this documentary shares the name of perhaps her most popular song, a cover of Tommy James & The Shondells, and one that is of great importance to one of the subjects in the film.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Feb 25, 2011 12:36pm

Flight from Death: The Quest for Immortality

Dir: Patrick Shen, 2003. Documentary.

This compelling documentary, narrated by Gabriel Byrne, uncovers the bittersweet consequences of our efforts as humans to try to avoid death for the longest time possible. It begins by explaining the phenomena on a more scientific level, touching on animal instincts to survive and pointing out that we are the only species that carries a "burden of anxiety" in terms of our own death. All other animals live only in present danger when confronted by their fears, and we do as well when directly threatened. But unlike other animals, we are aware that we will one day die. Not only do we take precautions avoiding death, but we perform various efforts to try and leave a lasting impression before we go.

Experimental social psychologists Sheldon Solomon and Jeff Greenberg are introduced in this documentary, along with several other professors of humanities, ranging from religion to psychoanalysis. Many of them have formed their ideas on "death denial" from the studies done by Ernest Becker, a Pulitzer Prize winning author who worked exclusively on the concept. With these investigations, they have tried to find a way to unravel the positive and negative effects of death denial. You’d be surprised to find out which areas they believe this denial reaches in our subconscious, and what it causes us to do.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Nov 24, 2010 11:49am

Squatterpunk

Dir: Khavn, 2007. Documentary.

This documentary, shot in a day and following the rambunctious pastimes of a young boy named Hapon, left me in the middle of two unsettling thoughts. Maybe they were impulses, and perhaps in a week I'll feel differently. I haven’t quite recovered from the moral confusion. The first thought was to reject the glorification of the slums and squatters in the Philippines that are documented here. The film follows Hapon and a large amount of children who sort of see him as an icon. The back of the DVD compares the film to seeing children playing at a car crash. Believe me, it's much worse. The beach they swim in is overflowing with garbage and debris; the toddlers roam the dusty streets without diapers and relieve themselves in alleyways. Hapon prances around with his distinguished Mohawk like a king, and yet his open sores have flies hovering over them. The film has no dialogue. It's set against punk music, shot in black and white, with the edgy quality of a skate film. And it shows confident children, satisfied with their play and overjoyed at the thought of someone wanting to document their existence. Hapon and his friends, while malnourished and left unattended, carry a familiar spirit. They are tiny anarchists who enjoy being enveloped in anarchy—no rules, no enforcement, and absolutely no parental control. My second thought following a short-lived disgust is that I'd envy this free-spirited childhood, were it not for the realization that I would have to be happy with the fact that I might not reach adulthood.

The adults are certainly not getting along any better, and like the children, they don't seem to care. They sit in shacks playing cards or sing karaoke in bars—some chagrined, but most very confident. Another jarring aspect of daily life in this city is the commingling of children and adults. There is a shot of a bar where a man is passed out at the counter, and next to an empty pitcher of malt-liquor is a bored toddler. Age seems to have no relevance at all, as minors and elders share the same fate. While the adults have their alcohol, the young children sit underneath a pier and huff chemicals out of plastic bags. The lack of culture was also startling. Like most other countries that have had a relationship with America, citizens of Manila are highly westernized. They have the donated hand-me-downs of the West, and those small "treasures" are seemingly enough. It gives the impression that one must be able to afford culture, or at the very least have the means to hang onto it. The shantytown is filled with American garbage, from bicycles and Mickey Mouse t-shirts and every other useless thing in between. You begin to wonder what the city used to look like, and how quickly it fell into despair.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Nov 18, 2010 6:07pm

Sound and Fury

Dir: Josh Aronson, 2000. Documentary.

I feel as though children are often approached by adults without respect and deprived of some very rewarding chances in life. Sound and Fury deals with the introduction of new technologies within deaf communities and the controversy it has sprouted. Two brothers, Chris and Peter, are dealing with a family crisis. Chris has healthy hearing, while his brother Peter was born deaf. Each is married with children. Peter and his wife Nita have a son and daughter who are deaf, and one of Chris's infant twin sons is also deaf. Chris and his wife Mari have decided to go through a surgical procedure to give their son a cochlear implant—a device that can restore hearing. Peter's daughter Heather becomes aware of the procedure and its advantages and asks her parents if she can also have the procedure performed.

The families have relatives and friends who are deaf and have come to see their deafness as a culture. For them, being deaf gives them a sense of community and a peaceful, dramatic way of communicating that others don't experience. But for those in the family, especially Heather's grandmother who is not deaf, the procedure can offer a world of endless possibilities for Heather. Peter and Nita, however, feel that their daughter is perfect the way she is and that changing her view of the world with sound might separate her from their community, and from them.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Nov 17, 2010 5:28pm

I’m Still Here

Dir: Casey Affleck, 2010. Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Sean Combs, Edward James Olmos. Documentary.

It’s hard to categorize the film I’m Still Here. Simply put, it plays as a documentary that illustrates a man in free fall. To suggest, however, that it is a true documentation of such only serves to perpetuate the myth (as well as the egos of its makers) behind the film itself. On the other hand, the suggestion of truth is what makes this film possible within the ether of today’s stagnant and highly unentertaining… well… entertainment. It’s pointless to over-analyze Casey Affleck’s directorial debut, as in doing so would only allow yourself to be hoodwinked by two very talented satirists who have set out to do just that: orchestrate an elaborate hoax intended to turn the mirror on the Hollywood machine and also shed light on America’s obsession with celebrity.

I’m Still Here is the fictional account of Joaquin Phoenix’s decent into madness. The film opens with Phoenix pacing around the front yard of his Hollywood Hills home while the city glimmers below. The stage is set as Phoenix declares, "I’m living in a self-imposed prison." What we see here within the first three or four minutes of the film is someone who is lost and is trying desperately to find his true identity. That identity comes in the form of J.P., the alter ego and hip-hop artist formerly known as the actor, Joaquin Phoenix.

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Posted by:
Travis King
Nov 4, 2010 3:12pm

Yellow Brick Road

Dir: Matthew Makar, Keith Rondinelli. 2005. Documentary.

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.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Nov 2, 2010 6:18pm

8: The Mormon Proposition

Dirs: Reed Cowan and Steven Greenstreet, 2010. Narrated by: Dustin Lance Black. Documentary.

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.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Oct 27, 2010 5:02pm

The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters

Dir: Seth Gordon, 2007. Starring: Steve Sanders, Steve Wiebe, Billy Mitchell. Documentary.

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.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Sep 20, 2010 4:17pm

Overnight

Dirs: Tony Montana and Mark Brian Smith, 2003. Documentary.

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.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Aug 4, 2010 11:40am
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