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.Continue Reading
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....Continue Reading
Flight from Death: The Quest for Immortality
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.Continue Reading
Frederick Wiseman (various films)
Frederick Wiseman is one of those great filmmakers whose entire body of work has been virtually unseen by the fast majority of film lovers, even documentary nerds. That’s because for nearly 30 years, Wiseman has been “unsure” of the marketing of his films to the public. I was lucky enough to see two of Wiseman’s classics, Titicut Follies and High School at my local college library - they had a terrible VHS duplicate made from an old 16mm print. Even in these poor conditions, I was sure that Wiseman was one of my favorite filmmakers and that these films were two of the greatest documentaries I had seen or would ever see.
Titicut Follies is definitely the most well known and controversial of Wiseman’s films. Shot in 1967, the film explores the lives and living conditions of inmates at the State Prison for the Criminally Insane in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. The film was banned for nearly 25 years because of state privacy laws enforced by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Apparently, psychiatrists and social workers frowned upon seeing themselves on the silver screen humiliating, torturing, and straight up bullying the mentally insane and catatonic.Continue Reading
After the success of student lunch counter sit-ins, anti-segregation forces, led by a little know group called CORE (Committee of Racial Equality), decided to push the envelope in an attempt to secure their rights and bring attention to the discrimination of black Americans in the psychotically racist American South. PBS’s American Experience does it again! Freedom Riders is another historical masterpiece; with spectacular archive footage and engaging talking heads, director Stanley Nelson perfectly lays out this dangerous and complicated story. Along with the epic Eyes on the Prize, Freedom Riders is essential viewing for anyone interested in the civil rights movement or just a fascinating and entertaining slice of brutal American history.
In a post-World War II America, blacks were experiencing new gains both economically and socially in much of the country. By the mid-'50s the Supreme Court decision on Brown v. Board of Education brought a new promise for equal rights in schools, but the South was doing everything it could to stifle integration in education leading to a number of famous conflicts. In Montgomery a young pastor named Martin Luther King became an international superstar of peace leading their city’s bus boycotts. By 1960 black Southern college students took up the call first in Greensboro and then Nashville, doing lunch counter sit-ins to desegregate the powerful downtown department store restaurants. This all led to a discussion by a bi-racial Northern group called CORE to test the limits of a federal order to desegregate interstate bus travel including Southern bus station waiting rooms, cafeterias, and bathrooms that still had signs declaring “white” and “colored.” The South was not going to let the Federal Government tell them to change their culture and Kennedy’s White House had no interest in getting involved and alienating Souther...
Though this documentary has a subject that is extremely compelling and brave, it was unfortunately poorly made. Somehow I don't believe that the fault was at the hands of the directors or producers, but simply the lack of cooperation and substantial footage. The fact that I still took away a lot of information and was able to truly sympathize with all the victims and their stories was enough to make me see the film as something well-worth everyone's time.
In April 2003, Vanity Fair printed their Hollywood Issue. Inside was a story titled, “It Happened One Night...at MGM,” which gave a detailed account of a massive cover up by MGM that has to do with the rape of Patricia Douglas. In 1937, MGM decided to organize a large convention for all of its sales employees and producers who, I should add, were all men. These conventions were seen as a sort of holiday among the participants, where lodging, food, entertainment, and a lot of alcohol were provided to ensure that everyone had a good time and felt that they were essential to the company. The entertainment for one of these conventions would come in the form of over one hundred female dancers, most of whom were under-aged girls. Before the big party of the convention happened, a casting call was made by MGM in which these girls were told that they would be dancing in a movie and needed to be fitted for cowgirl costumes, then report to a barn on Hal Roach's ranch. On the casting call list, one of these girls had her name in bold and underlined: Girl 27, Pat Douglas, who was 17 at the time. The movie the girls were supposed to be dancing in turned out to be a stag party for all of the MGM employees, one of whom was presumably made to feel as though he had one of the many girls all to himself. That man was producer David Ross and the girl he was pushed toward was Patricia Douglas.Continue Reading
Hearts of Darkness
Francis Ford Coppola said of Apocalypse Now at its 1979 premiere in Cannes, “The way we made it was very much like the way the Americans were in Vietnam. We were in the jungle. There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little we went insane.” That madness is what you see in Hearts of Darkness, an extraordinary documentary about the film’s torturous, quixotic shoot.
With her own crew, Coppola’s wife Eleanor documented her husband’s protracted struggle to complete his epic about the Vietnam War; her footage is the basis of Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper’s feature. She came away with an intimate picture of the feature’s near-catastrophic progress, or lack thereof. Shooting in the Phillipines, Coppola replaced a lead actor after filming began; saw helicopters on loan from Ferdinand Marcos’ army diverted to fight rebels in a real civil war; witnessed the destruction of a main set in a ruinous typhoon; and was forced to halt production when one of his key players suffered a near-fatal heart attack. And then the volatile Marlon Brando showed up, overweight and unprepared for his role as the monstrous Colonel Kurtz.Continue Reading
I Think We're Alone Now
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.Continue Reading
"A guerrilla war is an intimate affair, fought not merely with weapons but fought in the minds of the men in the villages and in the hills, fought by the spirit and policy of those who run the local government."
--W.W. Rostow, address to the first graduating class at the U.S. Army Warfare School, Fort Bragg, June 1961 This documentary should be seen by everyone. In my opinion, it is one of the best documentaries to expose the roots behind the global economic crisis of 2008. It should be seen, analyzed, and discussed by as many people as possible. While I don’t agree with some of the conclusions made in the film—for example, minimizing the structural crisis inherent within capitalism while overemphasizing the lack of government financial regulations as a major source of the crisis—it convincingly demonstrates the real-life horror when the Milton Friedmans of the world take over: socialism for the rich, free enterprise for the rest. One only needs to look at Wisconsin right now to see this at work. Having won an Oscar for Best Documentary this year, Charles Ferguson’s film builds and yet departs from previous documentaries on the topic: Casino Jack and the United States of Money (directed by Alex Gibney, 2010) and Collapse (directed by Chris Smith, 2010). There is so much to say about Inside Job. However, for me, the most interesting part of the film is the section where Ferguson challenges some of the professors involved in the “inside job” that created the global financial meltdown at a cost over $20 trillion, resulted in millions losing their jobs, homes, etc. He interviews people like Professor Frederic Mishkin at Columbia Business School, and its Dean, Glenn Hubbard; Martin Feldstein, a Professor of Economics at Harvard University; and many more. (Larry Summers and Laura Tyson both declined to...Continue Reading
Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers & Their Times
It drives me crazy when people say that Los Angeles has no history. I have no idea what that means because I don’t think I’ve ever been to an American city as steeped in its illustrious glittering and haunted past as L.A. It’s a history that is certainly taken for granted and poorly managed—it seems every year brings with it another historic landmark that bites the dust here—but the city (and really the entire country) have been so shaped by L.A.’s past that you will never be able to exorcise all the ghosts here. There are too many of them. And the people who ran the city from its inception made decisions whose results we are still burdened with today.
The Chandler family and their paper, The Los Angeles Times, are a good example of this. From the very beginning the paper was designed as a mouthpiece for the voice of Harrison Gray Otis, an ardent capitalist who used the paper to prop up his friends in the business community and attack his enemies from the world of labor. By using The Los Angeles Times as a forum for attacking unions Otis helped ensure that L.A. would have a cheap supply of labor without threat of these workers organizing. When a group of union members bombed the L.A. Times building and killed scores of Times employees Otis became that much more virulent in his crusade against organized labor. (You can see a monument to the workers who died in the blast erected just after it happened in Hollywood Forever Cemetery.)Continue Reading