8: The Mormon Proposition
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.Continue Reading
A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies
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.Continue Reading
African American Lives
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.Continue Reading
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.Continue Reading
Billy the Kid
"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.Continue Reading
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.Continue Reading
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.Continue Reading
Dancing Outlaw is the first of two films by director Jacob Young that follow the comical and sometimes endearing daily rituals of Jesco White—a young man with a few different personalities who has followed his father’s footsteps in attempting to become the greatest living mountain dancer in the Appalachians. He lives in Boone County, West Virginia—a place where everyone seems to have either gone mad or suffers from some kind of gentile and permanent cabin fever.
His wife Norma Jean describes him in by far the most amusing and unflinching way, claiming that he is the most beautiful person that she’s ever met, but also the Devil himself. Through fluid interviews, she sort of forewarns the audience of Jesco’s three personalities: there’s Jesse, the son of his father who has a healthy beard and enjoys digging into his hillbilly roots and growing into a stronger tap dancer; Jesco, the man who wears grungy metal clothing, talks simple, and tells stories of sniffing glue and gasoline, among other things; and finally, there’s Elvis—Jesco’s personality at home, where his entire house is literally filled with an overwhelming amount of Elvis memorabilia. Aside from his home being stuffed with everything with “The King’s” face on it, he also slicks back his hair, wears fancy clothes, shaves his beard, sculpts his brows, and records himself singing along to Elvis records in his bedroom.Continue Reading
Deliver Us From Evil
You don’t have to have or understand religion in order to understand spirituality. Most everyone has a source of reason or a spirit of life that feeds our quest for a healthy existence and is the foundation of our morals. Whether it comes from deities or an inner muse, every person who decided to remain a part of this world has their own way of defining purpose. Deliver Us From Evil deals with the corruption of such spirituality in the Catholic Church.
This is a brave and gut-wrenching documentary about the corruption of faith among the youth and families of several parishes in California. It touches on a sickening truth - that some years ago, the Catholic Church re-formed its guidelines which allowed a priest to get married and have children, as the resulting male sons would inherit his assets instead of the church. Now removed from the option of finding romantic adult peers, an alarming number of Catholic hierarchy, many of whom were sexually abused in childhood, now see children as their sexual peers.Continue Reading
Encounters at the End of the World
It’s an uncontestable fact that Werner Herzog is the greatest living director. His latest documentary Encounters at the End of the World may not be as cathartic or controversial as his dramatic features, but it validates Herzog’s ability to personalize every film that he directs with the creation of hypnotic, surreal images, images that despite their otherworldliness symbolize a litany of urgent, undeniable truths. The most famous of these are the 360-ton steamship being pulled over a hill in the Amazon rainforest in Fitzcarraldo, as well as the dancing chicken and interminable ski-lift ride in the finale of Stroszek. People who have seen multiple Herzog films walk away with images they hold personally to them, like amulets; for me it’s Kaspar Hauser standing immobile in the village square clutching a letter that he can’t read. Only a director like Herzog could go to edge of the planet and make a film that is idiosyncratic.
Herzog and his cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger (his DP for the majority of his films since Gesualdo) received a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists and Writers Program to travel to Antarctica for several months to shoot footage for a documentary. The director seems to express ambivalence at the beginning of the film about his suitability for the subject, saying that he’s not interested in making a movie about “fluffy penguins.” Ironically, he ends up shooting some of the cutest baby and mommy seal footage I’ve ever seen. It eventually becomes apparent that Herzog’s focus is not so much the landscape as it is the modern day explorers who have come to study the frozen continent. The bleak landmass has become a magnet to a millenarian mixture of scientists, engineers, cooks, survival experts, and ice terrain vehicle drivers who believe that the secret of the earth’s future, and perhaps demise, is hidden in the landscape and wildlife of this frozen desert. Herzog compares these people driven to the end of the map by their dreams to adventurers like Ernest Shackleton and Roald Admundsen, forsaking comfort and civilization to be near the Unnameable.Continue Reading