Dig!

Dir: Ondi Timoner, 2004. Starring: Anton Newcombe, Courtney Taylor-Taylor, Joel Gion. Documentaries.

Dig! Movie posterDig! is a completely unreliable documentary about two rock bands who were around in the late 1990s -the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre. You do not have to be fans of these bands to find this movie entertaining. I didn’t believe for a second that what I was watching was anything more than some amateur footage of two bands with a clumsy narrative about success, art, commerce and “selling out” (one of the really quaint concepts that shows you how different things are now) grafted on, but it’s worthwhile because it’s a film with some genuine characters – goofballs, sleazy good time Charlies, and actually some really good music. Part of the charm of these bands is how little they had in common with the music scene at the time.

I present a recap:

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Jun 4, 2013 7:56pm

Encounters at the End of the World

Dir: Werner Herzog, 2007. Starring: Scientists, ice, Antarctic wildlife, Werner Herzog’s distinctive narration. English. Documentary.

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.

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Posted by:
Gillian Horvat
Dec 10, 2008 9:41pm

Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974

Dir: Kazuo Hara. Documentary. Japanese.

Ever wish you could meet a strong-willed Japanese feminist from the '70s? Now's your chance. Director Kazuo Hara introduces us to a woman named Miyuki Takeda—his former lover, and one of the most impressive subjects to ever be captured on film. After leaving him and taking their child to travel from mainland Japan to Okinawa, Hara decides that the only way to stay connected with her and understand what happened in their relationship is to document her and those who enter her life after their time together. So from 1972 to 1974, Hara frequents Okinawa to film her, doing so with grace and capturing some amazing footage of locals as well.

In 1972, Miyuki begins a new relationship with a woman named Sugako. His presence throughout this segment caused tension and unease with the couple as their disoriented and sometimes abusive relationship unfolds onscreen. In this section of the documentary we are able to see an enormous transformation with Miyuki. Not only has she decided to abandon all aspects of her personality that would classify her as a "good wife," but also everything and anything that could prevent her or her son from becoming anything short of radical.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Jun 1, 2010 8:29pm

Eyes on the Prize

Executive Produced by Henry Hampton 1987. Documentary.

The greatest documentary series in PBS history (or television history, for that matter) does not belong to Ken Burns (though arguably he would easily place a couple in the top ten). It belongs to the 1987 production Eyes On the Prize. The term "television landmark" may get overused, but this story of America’s mid-century Civil Rights Movement truly deserves that distinction. Produced for PBS by a little-known production company called Blackside Inc., the series can be broken down into two seasons: the original six episode masterpiece Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years 1954-1965 and then its less earth-shattering but still relevant follow-up Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965-1985 with eight episodes in 1980. With no credited director, it feels it like it directed itself, as if the world needed it and it sprang up (though Blackside founder Henry Hampton is credited as Executive Producer). The film is made up with talking heads of witness and historians and an avalanche of archival and news footage. There have been a number of significant documentaries about the Civil Rights Movement, including two other PBS docs, Citizen King and Freedom Riders, as well as the Spike Lee directed 4 Little Girls, but Eyes on the Prize is the official starting point, the all-encompassing encyclopedia on the subject.

Though there was an accompanying Eyes on the Prize book, the more in depth paper version would be Taylor Branch’s extra thick “America in the King Years” trilogy of histories. Like a book, Eyes on the Prize is made up of chapters (episodes) that unfold, building on each other and creating suspense and outrage. The first chapter, "Awakenings," is where the modern movement started with the Montgomery bus boycott (which in turn introduced the world to Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.) and the murder of a young boy, Emmett Till, which stirred the conscious of so many. Episode Two, "Fighting Back," takes place after the Brown v. Board of Education decision and the battle of Southern school integration. Episode Three, "Ain’t Scared Of Your Jails," details the student takeover of the movement with their creation of The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the lunch counter sits-ins and the freedom rides. Episode Four, "No Easy Walk," sees King back in the leadership position as marches in Albany and Birmingham are finally met with the historic March on Washington. Episode Five, "Mississippi: Is This America?," focuses on activists trying to bring voting rights to the state; with the murder of the three civil rights workers and the assassination of Medgar Evers, peaceful activists are met with extreme violence. And finally "Bridge To Freedom," after King wins the Nobel Peace Prize, the fight moves to the streets of Selma and the back rooms of Washington, DC with the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
May 19, 2015 11:32am

Facing Ali

Dir: Pete McCormack, 2009.

The canon of films (both documentary and dramatic) about the legendary boxer Muhammad Ali continues to grow and has to be richer than that of any other athlete in history. It helps that Ali had such a fascinating, controversial and (eventually) revered life. The list would start with Ali playing himself in the 1977 film The Greatest. Then, a curiosity: the TV movie Freedom Road, which Ali starred in as an ex-slave who became a senator. Ali even provided his own voice for the short-lived Saturday morning cartoon series I Am the Greatest: The Adventures of Muhammad Ali. Will Smith played him in the underrated Michael Mann bio Ali. And on TV, Terrence Howard took his swing in King of the World, as did David Ramsey (a college classmate of mine) in Ali: An American Hero. Actors also pop up playing him in supporting roles in Don King: Only in America and Phantom Punch, while he is only talked about in the more recent Stephen Fears film Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight (as his fight with the United States over his draft status for the Vietnam war is decided by the Supreme Court). The documentary front has too many films to list, going at least as far back as 1970 with AKA Cassius Clay. Other highlights include Muhammad Ali: The Whole Story, Muhammad Ali: Through the Eyes of the World and The Trials of Muhammad Ali from earlier this year. And of course, the greatest of all is still the Academy Award-winning When We Were Kings. And just about every documentary on the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements usually has a chapter on the guy.

Finding a different angle on telling the whole Ali story is Facing Ali from 2009. Director Pete McCormack interviews Ali’s boxing opponents and surprisingly creates about as all-encompassing a documentary as there has been on the man. Whereas When We Were Kings really centers on the Ali/ George Foreman “Rumble In The Jungle” bout and veers off occasionally for backstory, Facing Ali moves back and forth on the timeline and manages to include all his historical highlights: winning the gold in the 1960 Olympics, the mega upset against Sonny Liston, joining the Nation of Islam, changing his name from Cassius Clay and infuriating the white press and boxing establishment, and of course, his heroic battle against the Vietnam draft (which put his career on hold for many years during his peak). But where the movie goes that can really excite a budding Ali-phile are the details of the non-historic fights, especially after his return in the '70s when he re-won and then lost the title of champ and then won it back.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Aug 14, 2014 10:16am

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

Fetishes

Dir: Nick Broomfield, 1996. Documentary.

Nick Broomfield is a London-born director known for his minimalist approach with various subjects. His style is similar to the cinéma vérité techniques that many English filmmakers have adopted, allowing the eccentric or sometimes dangerous lifestyles of his subjects to overshadow any techniques used. His most popular works include Kurt & Courtney, Biggie and Tupac, and Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer.

With Fetishes, Broomfield travels to Manhattan in order to interview and film the women and clients of Pandora's Box—an upscale S & M parlor of pleasure and bondage for those wishing to be dominated by a mistress. The documentary is separated into eight chapters: slaves, mistresses, rubber fetish, wrestling fetish, corporal punishment, masochism, infantilism, and socio-political fetishes.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Mar 18, 2011 11:07am

Five Obstructions

Dir: Jørgen Leth. 2003. Starring: Jørgen Leth, Lars Von Trier. English with some Danish/French/Spanish. Documentaries.

In Five Obstructions Lars Von Trier challenges one of his idols, Jørgen Leth, to remake his 1967 Danish short film, The Perfect Human, five times with certain restrictions. This film documents the conversations between the two directors, footage of the new short films, behind the scenes and on-location footage, interspersed with footage of the original Perfect Human. Each film is in a different location with some different styles. The result is a look into the creative process and demonstrates creativity flourishing even under the shadow of restriction.

At the beginning of the film you get the impression that Von Trier is a mad scientist and Leth is the subject for some gruesome experiment. During the conversational segments, Von Trier sets up rules, or obstructions for Leth. Many of the rules presented as a means of punishment, with the expectation that the resulting film will be a disaster, and that Leth will suffer during the process. Von Trier does little to hide his intent to make the process hell for Leth. For the second film Leth is even sent to the worst place on earth he’s ever been, while not showing any of the atrocities seen there. To further the mad scientist image, Von Trier even seems upset that Leth isn’t suffering enough during the production of these films. Throughout the film Von Trier acts as if he isn’t getting what he wants despite the fact that the resulting films are quite successful. The underlying reasoning for Von Trier's attempts to torture Leth would seem to be to get him to learn something new and challenge him. At the end of the film there is a sense that Von Trier is being cryptic and deceitful about how he feels the experiment pans out. Throughout the film Jørgen Leth maintains a relatively positive attitude and achieves incredible results in spite of each obstruction. At times he seems hesitant. When he is told to make a cartoon, he expresses hate for cartoons. He makes a cartoon anyways and it looks amazing. Each of the films Leth creates is quite innovative and progressive, leaving the viewer desiring to see the next one. Leth illustrates a willingness to go with anything. The end result is that Leth seems to be the one in control, not the other way around.

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Posted by:
Amoebite
Apr 5, 2008 4:22pm

Flag Wars

Directors: Linda Goode Bryant, Laura Poitras. 2003. English. Black Cinema/Documentaries

Set in Columbus, OH and filmed over 4 years, Flag Wars is not only a film about gentrification, but also of racism, homophobia, and privilege. Throughout the film, you will follow Linda Mitchell as she fights for both her home and her life, Chief Baba Olugbala Shango Obadena as he struggles to keep a simple sign with his name above his door, and Jim Yoder and Nina Masseria as they face hate crimes and resistance from their neighbors. You will meet African-American families who have lived in their homes for 40 years and now face the fear of losing them to a wave of mainly white, gay professionals looking to rehab properties and better the neighborhood. While one side strides toward change, the other enjoys a life established long ago. Flag Wars shows us, quite literally, the middle of the road where the two sides meet....

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Posted by:
Amoebite
Feb 23, 2008 3:33pm

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
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