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 Southern white Democrats.
CORE’s leader James Farmer put together a motley mixed-race, mixed-sex crew of pacifists, liberals, and college students (including Nashville student sit-in veteran John Lewis, who would become one of the movement’s most visible leaders) to test the laws. Mixed-race groups, known as Freedom Riders, would sit together on the buses (illegal in most of the South) and then test the limits of the restroom racial laws. They put two groups on two buses setting out from Washington, DC heading to New Orleans. They would travel through the milder Eastern South and then hit Alabama and Mississippi, two quasi-police states, where violence against activists was sanctioned by all levels of their state governments. If any violence came to them, they hoped that it would force Washington to enforce federal laws.
As soon as the buses hit Alabama the violence ignited. One bus was burned down as the passengers were attacked out on a country road. The other bus arrived in Birmingham and the Freedom Riders were attacked by a massive mob out for blood. Even a Kennedy Administration official, John Seigenthaler, (who was keeping tabs on the riders) was attacked and ended up in a hospital after getting hit by a pipe. The beaten, bruised, and defeated Freedom Riders eventually were taken by plane out of Alabama as no bus driver would drive them, fearing more violence (their airplane was threatened by bomb threats delaying their journey even longer).
As it began to look as though extreme violence was the only way to stop the movement, Lewis and his Nashville colleagues, lead by the courageous Diane Nash, came down to Birmingham and took over the Freedom Rides, bringing an even bigger spotlight to the action and an even bigger threat of violence to the new recruits. They wanted the country to know that no matter how much pain was inflicted, the movement couldn’t be stopped. Martin Luther King, The Kennedys, Alabama Governor John Patterson, and the state military all became players in an ever growing story. They saw the jails fill up as more and more people came south to join the Freedom Ride and eventually brought an end to Jim Crow for interstate bus travelers.
The Freedom Riders may be the single top accomplishment for the fledgling Civil Rights Movement. It’s about the last time that a quick direct action would pull the nation together and force the government to act. The next few years would see the movement change its focus to voter rights in the South. It would be a long-suffering struggle that depended on a slow bureaucratic process to create and enact new laws culminating in a more symbolic than actual accomplishment. The Freedom Rides also created a new generation of full-time activists who were no longer afraid of going to jail in the name of human rights. The young people spread out with the creation of their own organization, SNCC, which continued to train students in activism. This is where many of the anti-Vietnam War leaders first got a taste of rebellion and America would never be the same.
The PBS American Experience series of documentaries, most available on DVD, has become the best archive of 20th century American life and Freedom Riders is no exception. All the available witnesses and performers in this real-life drama are present on camera to reflect and tell their side of history. These include Farmer, Lewis, Nash, Seigenthaler, and even Patterson who, in an effort to cover his own diabolical politics, now seems to claim that segregation was not about race or racism, but was instead a state’s rights issue. It should be stressed that watching Freedom Riders is not a dull homework assignment but an enjoyable fast ride—a ride I would recommend and urge everyone to take.
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
It Came From Kuchar
I'm not sure how to begin this, so I'll try to make it linear, though the documentary is nothing but. George and Mike Kuchar are two twin brothers, born in Manhattan and raised in the Bronx. I can imagine their birth to be extraordinary; a lighting bolt striking their mother and producing these two electrifying individuals. That didn't really happen, but that's how it plays out in my imagination. At the age of eleven, the two were given consumer-grade 8mm cameras as gifts, but what would later become of those tools is nothing short of spectacular.
This documentary spans across generations of filmmakers and artists, mainly in the New York and San Francisco underground scenes. The interviews consist of those from the two brothers and the various "stars" of their B-movie delights, as well as people like John Waters and Christopher Coppola (brother of Nick Cage), who claim that the Kuchar brothers and their films were their first sources of inspiration. Other clips include archive footage of New York and San Francisco from the '50s to present day, as well as photos and/or interviews of various influential artists, such as Andy Warhol, Guy Maddin, and cartoonists Bill Griffith and Robert Crumb.Continue Reading
I’m Still Here
It’s hard to categorize the film I’m Still Here. Simply put, it plays as a documentary that illustrates a man in free fall. To suggest, however, that it is a true documentation of such only serves to perpetuate the myth (as well as the egos of its makers) behind the film itself. On the other hand, the suggestion of truth is what makes this film possible within the ether of today’s stagnant and highly unentertaining… well… entertainment. It’s pointless to over-analyze Casey Affleck’s directorial debut, as in doing so would only allow yourself to be hoodwinked by two very talented satirists who have set out to do just that: orchestrate an elaborate hoax intended to turn the mirror on the Hollywood machine and also shed light on America’s obsession with celebrity.
I’m Still Here is the fictional account of Joaquin Phoenix’s decent into madness. The film opens with Phoenix pacing around the front yard of his Hollywood Hills home while the city glimmers below. The stage is set as Phoenix declares, "I’m living in a self-imposed prison." What we see here within the first three or four minutes of the film is someone who is lost and is trying desperately to find his true identity. That identity comes in the form of J.P., the alter ego and hip-hop artist formerly known as the actor, Joaquin Phoenix.Continue Reading
Like the documentary Lost in La Mancha, which tell the tale of Terry Gilliam’s never finished film adaptation of Don Quixote, Jodorowsky’s Dune appears to be a much more enjoyable ride as a lost film rather had it actually been made. After the midnight circuit cult success of his bizarro lo-fi films El Topo and Holy Mountain, Chilean filmmaker and all around artsy guru Alejandro Jodorowsky set out to adapt Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel Dune to the big screen. He assembled a a group of holy warrior artists intent on helping him realize his vision, leading them like a prophet. The entire enterprise eventually collapsed when the need for Hollywood big money entered the story. But while his ideas could have been visually fascinating (much of it is too ahead of its time), the overall metaphysical philosophies he was cramming into the story might have only made it another cult curio. Certainly for my taste, the story of the making-of is much more watchable than what might have ended up on the screen. On the other hand, with Jodorowsky’s charismatic storytelling skills it’s hard not to root for his mad-man belief in his dream and for that passion to go beyond mere storytelling to world changing.
Jodorowsky's background in experimental and avant-garde theater in both Paris and Mexico led to an even more unlikely film career. His surrealist and druggy early films found admirers in the midnight filmgoers as well as in French producer Michel Seydoux, who asked the director what he would like to do next. Jodorowsky said Dune and then begun putting together a creative dream team. For his FX Supervisor he failed to convince Douglas Trumbull (2001 and Silent Running) to join the carnival (not a spiritual warrior), but instead landed Dan O'Bannon (fresh off of Dark Star with John Carpenter). He would also convince comic book artist Jean Giraud (Mœbius), the surrealist Swiss painter H.R. Giger and British science fiction book cover illustrator Chris Foss to join the fun. As Jodorowsky apparently worked out the script, he also worked out his visions for the characters and sets with his artists. The ideas came to him in dreams and the talented group came up with some truly astounding art work for what the film would look like. He also supposedly got major rock act Pink Floyd to work on some of the score (as well as goofy French prog rock band Magma). For the cast he managed to gather Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger and Orson Welles (who besides his fee was also sold on the project by being guaranteed a free meal at his favorite French cafe every day of the shoot). The young hero of the film would be played by Jodorowsky‘s adolescent son Brontis (who at the age of seven was prominently featured in El Topo); he would take on around-the-clock sword and combat training for over a year in preparation. The documentary features many of the storyboards that were put in a large coffee table type of book to help sell the project to would-be investors. Needless to say, that book of art now looks like the ultimate Christmas present for any sci-fi geek.Continue Reading