Dancing Outlaw

Dir: Jacob Young, 1991. Documentary.

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.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Jul 5, 2010 12:36pm

Deliver Us From Evil

Dir: Amy Berg, 2006. Documentary.

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.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Mar 16, 2010 3:52pm

Detropia

Dir: Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady, 2012. Documentaries.

Detropia PosterRecently I had to re-watch Michael Moore's muckraking sort-of masterpiece Roger & Me (1989) a film that would mark the start of Moore's ascendency to deified portly prince of the Left. Roger & Me was effective as a scathing satire of Reaganomics but also full of fabrications and inaccuracies, which were entirely unnecessary. He had a great story but, much like his lardy lad appetite for tasty sweets, he could not help himself and had to greedily embellish details to make his story that much more shocking. It was a dumb thing to do because it distracted from the important stuff his film addresses.

Still, no one doubts that Moore shined a light on important issues for an audience that could never be reached by The Nation or Mother Jones. He is probably right that professional jealousy accounts for at least some of the sour grapes that his adversaries on the left have been sucking on for some time. But I submit to you that they have a point. (Check out Manufacturing Dissent – a leftist critique of Moore – available illegally, I think, on YouTube.) For all his success it is true that he has dumbed down the discourse surrounding issues of systemic inequality embedded in a classist, white privilege-based society such as ours. He makes his films all about him and like a Leftist Charles Foster Kane he sounds paranoid and overly reactionary about anyone who dares criticize him or his methods.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Jul 22, 2013 1:25pm

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
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