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

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

African American Lives

Dir: Graham Judd. 2006. Starring: Dr. Ben Carson, Whoopi Goldberg, Bishop T.D. Jakes. English. Documentary/Black Cinema

This is a great documentary that uses history, genealogy, and new technologies to retrace the violently and deliberately erased ancestral histories of a group of participants, all of African ancestry whose relatives were, for the most part, brought over involuntarily from Africa. The answers it provides are often thought-provoking in ways that most discussions about race aren't.

The host is Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr, a W.E.B. DuBois professor of the Humanities and the Chair of African and African-American Studies at Harvard University. I’d seen Gates in Wonders of the African World where he seemed to feign ignorance about everything he learned on his travels in Africa. I mean, he’s got some pretty big credentials and yet he’d continually act like he had no idea about the realities of his chosen subject of expertise until his interviewees revealed it to him. It seemed like he felt that pretending that everything was new to him would make him more identifiable to us, the presumably ignorant viewers. In this documentary, unfortunately, he does the same schtik which is just about the only shortcoming of the documentary, although it can be sort of funny. For example, he “guesses” that, given his appearance, his ancestors came from the East African kingdom of Nubia (huh?!), despite the fact that nearly all slaves in the U.S. came from the West Coast slave centers built centuries earlier, not by Europeans, but by other Africans. Of course it turns out that 0% of slaves were Nubian. His surprise at his DNA results seems genuine though when they reveal that his matrilineal line goes back to Ireland.

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Posted by:
Eric Brightwell
Feb 2, 2008 4:04pm

Amargosa

Dir: Todd Robinson, 2000. Documentary.

In the 1970s, journalists for the National Geographic magazine stumbled into a small, seemingly deserted theater in Death Valley. Inside was a woman of old age dressed in costume, performing ballet for an empty room. Surrounding the stage and empty seats was her artwork, a mural done over the course of a few seasons that resembles an audience of nobles and royalty. These journalists found the woman, Marta Becket, to be extraordinary. They interviewed her, trying to understand how an aged New York ballerina found her way to the desert, and what she hopes to accomplish. They discovered that she was reclusive, a woman used to being alone and yet only wanted love and understanding from human beings. When this simple desire conflicted with her quest to become a devoted artist, she turned to the desert and one of its ghost towns for solace. Amargosa attempts to chronicle her life, both in the limelight and in Death Valley.

Marta Becket started dancing at 14, which she states was a late start. Her mother nourished and supported her efforts to sing, dance, and paint, while her father remained a skeptic until his death. She made it to Broadway, dancing for years and developing beautiful relationships with dancing partners and associates. She married in her 30s and thought she had finally settled into life, until something seemed to tug at her conscience. She saw a fortune teller, but couldn't figure out what the prophecy meant. After riding through the desert with her husband, they got a flat tire and began looking for help. Nearby was a small white theater, deserted and literally falling apart. Upon discovering the theater, Becket presented her find to her husband and inquired about its ownership. The town was mostly uninhabited and in desperate need of repairs, so Becket was offered the theater for practically nothing in exchange for fixing it up. The decision to move to the desert and start a new life was done with a haste and assuredness that wasn't matched by her husband. They two split after years of an already difficult marriage, and Becket settled into the idea of truly being alone. She renamed the theater Amargosa, which is Spanish for “bitter” and was the former name of Death Valley Junction, where the theater stands.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Mar 25, 2011 12:38pm

Benjamin Smoke

Dir: Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen, 2000. Documentary.

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.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Nov 25, 2015 4:45pm

Billy the Kid

Dir: Jennifer Venditti, 2008. Starring: Billy Price. Documentary.

"I know I’m unique. I don’t let it go to my head, though. I’m just someone who was born different than others. I’m not black, not white, not foreign. I’m just different in the mind."

Meet Billy Price. Not your average 15 year-old high school-student. Everyone knows Billy, but no one really knows him. Billy is the guy that sits in the cafeteria by himself. He’s the one that looks a little bit funny. He talks funny. Billy has dreams of becoming the Terminator or even Gene Simmons. Most would consider Billy to be overly sensitive or even a bit socially inept. Personally, I think he’s just misunderstood.

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Posted by:
Travis King
Apr 16, 2009 2:33pm

Bodysong

Dir: Simon Pummell, 2003. Documentary.

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.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Feb 4, 2016 12:44pm

Cat Dancers

Dir: Harris Fishman, 2008. Documentary.

The only magic I believe in is the magic of documentaries like this. It had the power to reach deep down into my soul and turn on a switch in a room that’s been dark for years. Honestly, it is the most beautiful love story that I have seen to date—a love of life, animals, dance, God, and intimacy.

Ron and Joy Holiday were two childhood friends who set out to make a name for themselves in the dance world, more specifically adagio ballet. Ron’s first few stories of Joy are small and candid, mainly circulating around her Catholic upbringing. One in particular that is essential to their future together comes from Joy visiting a Mother Superior with the uncertainty of whether she should continue her future in dance after college or become a nun. "Go to New York and dance for God," was the answer she received, and it was after that story that I knew this documentary had much in store.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Apr 5, 2010 3:30pm

Citizen King

Dir: Orlando Bagwell and Noland Walker, 2004. Documentary.

The story of the Civil Rights Movement was almost made for television. It was done in front of TV cameras and acted out for the the television news audience. Much of the time the goal was shining a light on the abuse black Americans were suffering at the hands of the racist Southern political structure. Unfortunately, unlike say, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement does not have a very long list of important films about it. There have been solidly crafted films like Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning, but like most of them it’s actually about white people (the FBI v.s. the KKK. Now remind me again, which side are we supposed to root for?). Ironically, the best film inspired by the American Civil Rights Movement is a foreign one, Bloody Sunday, the Paul Greengrass docudrama about the massacre of Irish protesters by British troops.

The epic PBS documentary series, Eyes On The Prize, has become the bible of everything you could ever want to know about the Civil Rights Movement, but unfortunately due to licensing and rights issues, it has gone out of print on VHS and is only now available for educators. Luckily two of its producers, Orlando Bagwell and Noland Walker, also wrote and directed Citizen King for the PBS series, American Experience. And at under two hours it manages to tell a lot of the Martin Luther King, Jr. story with the perfect mix of archive footage and talking heads.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Mar 16, 2010 2:09pm

Come on Children

Dir: Allan King, 1972. Documentary.

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.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Oct 6, 2015 2:18pm
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