La Commune (Paris, 1871)

Dir: Peter Watkins, 2000. Starring: Enthusiastic, articulate non-professional actors. French. Foreign/Documentary/Cult.

If there’s one thing the French government doesn’t want people to know about, it’s that for two months Paris was a Socialist state ruled independently from the rest of France. Napoleon III’s catastrophic decision in 1870 to declare war on Prussia for amorphous reasons of power and prestige precipitated France’s ruinous capitulation to the Prussian army, ultimately concluding in a Prussian assault on the capitol. During the siege, working class Parisians suffered the most, falling into destitution as prices of essential goods rose, and becoming increasingly resentful of the seemingly immune bourgeoisie. The government moved to Versailles during the war and, after Napoleon III died in battle, set up a new conservative Republic there. At the end of the siege, the army tried to re-appropriate cannons originally left behind to protect the city from the invading Prussians, which Versailles now worried would fall into the control of anarchist elements of the restless populace. However, Parisians protested the removal of the cannons because they had been paid for with public funds, and the listless soldiers, identifying more with the howling mob than with their well-bred officers, fraternized with the crowd and refused to take the cannon. Revolutionary spirit inflamed the city and La Commune was born. Without outside assistance, regular Parisians set up elections, formed a government with executive and legislative branches, and outfitted a defensive army. The citizens of the Commune created worker owned co-operatives, passed a law separating church and state, and abolished religious schools in favor of secular state education. In two months it was gone.

Director Peter Watkins takes five hours and forty-five minutes to narrate not only the rise and fall of the Commune, but also the inspiration and contradiction at the core of all its ideological rhetoric. Shot on black and white 16mm film in a warehouse in the suburbs of Paris, Watkins recruited non-professional actors to play characters that they could politically sympathize with and then asked them to research the period in detail. He also shot the scenes in chronological order for the benefit of the actors, an almost complete rarity in filmmaking. As a result, the line is blurred between fiction and documentary, and historical re-enactment is enriched by real people devoting themselves to the period doppelgängers they have created. The film is meticulously careful to be historically accurate, portraying without hesitation the shortcomings and shortsightedness of the Commune, as well as their fair-minded and progressive principles. There is, however, one intentional anachronism:  television. Commune TV is the television of “la peuple” and Versailles TV is the propagandist station of the establishment. The government station with its preening, self-serious anchors and cliché theme music intros is far and away the highlight of the film.

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Posted by:
Gillian Horvat
Feb 22, 2009 11:44am

Man on Wire

Dir: James Marsh, 2008. Documentary.

“If I die, what a beautiful death; to die in the exercise of your passion.” - Philippe Petit

In his youth, Philippe Petit was drawn to climbing, fencing, and riding a unicycle. Balance was a gift, and motivation was endless. When he was 17, while waiting to see a dentist, he came across an article in the paper about two structures that were to be built in New York. The World Trade Center was to be the largest man-made structure, and within him developed a dream to conquer such a building in his own poetic way. Learning to walk a tightrope and gather close friends to help him reach his future goals, Petit set out to train, plan, and discipline himself to walk across a building that was yet to exist.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Mar 25, 2011 11:41am

Moog

Dir: Hans Fjellestad. 2004. Starring: Robert Moog. English. Documentary.

Who knew Bob Moog had so much energy and excitement? I mean, I guess you would have to if you were the inventor of the one musical instrument to change the face of music for at least the last forty years! This is an inspiring portrait of the inventor of the Synthesizer--the Moog Synthesizer. The one and only, used by everyone from Jan Hammer to Devo and in many soundtracks including Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Musicians spanning all genres have included the Moog Synthesizer in their repertoire. From Hip Hop to Experimental and Pop to Avant Garde. Almost everyone can agree that Robert Moog invented a masterpiece of equipment when he started playing with sound waves and harnessing electrical currents.

Moog states that he "fell right into it." He was an engineer who stumbled upon an idea that just blossomed. His bright personality, which is clear in the many interviews included in the film, and his love and passion for his creation helped to bring the instrument to prominence. He had a gift for inspiring people. This documentary proves that fact. With multiple interviews by people who knew him or were inspired by him we get a glimpse of the impact this one man, and his invention, had on the way we hear music today. We also get rarely seen footage of the man himself showing off his creations as well as the studios they are built in. We see him interacting with the musicians who adore and love him for what he has given them. And we see his humbleness and reciprocal love for the musicians themselves.

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Posted by:
Grace Bartlett
Nov 19, 2008 4:47pm

My Flesh and Blood

Dir: Jonathan Karsh, 2003. Documentary.

This film should seriously be a required viewing for everyone who wishes to adopt a child, or has a child with special needs. Though this belief seems to be shared among those who've seen it, I'd even recommend that children of all ages and backgrounds see it as well, especially those with only one parent. I say this because Karsh's directorial debut is able to show us the experience of adopting a child from both the parent's side, as well as the child's. The Tom family case is obviously unique because of the number of children and the range of their disabilities, but the hardships and joys of family life as a whole are universal. Children of single-parent homes can view this film and be given an example of what obstacles their parent must face, both for them and in terms of their own needs.

Susan Tom is a divorced single mother who, while raising her biological children with her former husband, began adopting children from all over the world. In total, her adopted brood tops off at 11. More mind-blowing than the fact that she is raising and caring for this many children alone is the fact that they all have mental and/or physical disabilities. Without a nurse or much help from foundations and social workers, she and her oldest daughters help maintain the house.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Mar 2, 2011 5:53pm

No Direction Home: Bob Dylan

Dir: Martin Scorsese, 2005. Documentary.

Obviously Martin Scorsese is one of the most accomplished filmmakers of his generation, now into his sixth decade with a fairly diverse body of work. He has his great masterpiece, Goodfellas, and his next tier of classics: Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and maybe even The King of Comedy. All five of those are with his methody, then alter-ego, Robert De Niro; though not as extraordinary but still of note is his later Leonardo DiCaprio period. Interestingly, between all these films Scorsese has also unleashed many notable documentaries. After being one of many editors on Woodstock, he started with shorts, including a great bio/interview of a druggy hustler (who played the gun dealer in Taxi Driver) called American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince. But since his feature-length docs have mostly been made for television (with subjects ranging from film history to the New York Review of Books to Elia Kazan), his best have been about music. From his first feature doc, the concert film The Last Waltz, through the mini-series The Blues to his more recent outstanding George Harrison: Living in the Material World, the guy proves he loves and understands the world of musicians. It’s his respect for the little details and the big picture that make No Direction Home: Bob Dylan his true documentary masterpiece, and maybe secretly as great as anything he has directed (or at least right under Goodfellas).

Made for PBS’ American Masters series (the source of so many brilliant documentaries of the last thirty years), the film clocks in at over 200 minutes and was shown in two parts. Instead of his famous, show-offy visual flair, more than anything else he has ever done, No Direction Home shows off his storytelling skills. All of the footage was shot before he came on board, so in some ways his role as director was really that of lead editor (though the actual editor job is credited to David Tedeschi, who later was promoted to co-director with Scorsese on his NY Review of Books doc, The 50 Year Argument). Besides the incredible plethora of material (film footage and music, much not even of Dylan), the great choice Scorsese made is that instead of an entire overview of Bob Dylan’s life, he kept it small. After a quick run-through of Dylan’s childhood in Minnesota, the film ONLY really details his New York years from 1961 when he first hit Greenwich Village, until his famous motorcycle accident in ’66 (which let to a brief retirement and then a career reboot). But what an amazing five years that was. The film is also about the other music that was happening at the time that influenced Dylan (and which he would go on to influence) and really works as a history of folk music as well.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jul 30, 2015 12:49pm

Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism

Dir: Robert Greenwald. 2004. Starring: Linda Vester, Steve Doocy. Documentaries.

The inside scoop on the “Fair and Balanced” news network and how its notorious enthusiasm for “truthiness” made it the perfect cable news counterpart to the Bush years. Outfoxed is a scathing indictment of Rupert Murdoch’s crappy idea of journalism put into 24 hour news cycle form. From former employees giving the lowdown on Fox’s shady way of skewing coverage to favor Republicans to the jaw dropping series of clips of world class blowhards Bill “Shut up!” O’Reilly and Sean Hannity turning journalism into a joke Outfoxed is a relentless assault on the dishonesty at the core of Murdoch’s failed experiment to control the message....

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Nov 5, 2008 8:07pm

Overnight

Dirs: Tony Montana and Mark Brian Smith, 2003. Documentary.

The tough-minded vision of a master filmmaker fighting the odds to bring his vision to the screen has made for some truly memorable documentaries over the years. The almost mad mavericks Francis Ford Coppola directing Apocalypse Now in Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmakers Apocalypse and Werner Herzog’s epic struggle to make Fitzcarraldo in Burden Of Dreams - the documentaries are almost as good as the films themselves. Another interesting film is Lost In La Mancha which chronicles Terry Gilliam's attempt to get the unbearable looking The Man Who Killed Don Quixote started and completed, the latter never happened. These are three men devoted to filmmaking with grand goals. The documentary Overnight is about another filmmaker, Troy Duffy, trying to get his first film, The Boondock Saints, made. Unfortunately for this maniacal egomaniac his visions are mostly about himself and how cool his sunglasses are.

Back in the '90s Harvey Weinstein and his film company, Miramax Pictures, were riding a wave of good fortune and good will after making an overnight sensation out of a video store clerk turned happening director/screenwriter, Quentin Tarantino. Suddenly everybody had a script ready to go and were ready to be discovered by Weinstein. Unfortunately, it also made Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction two of the most imitated films of their day. Hip dudes spewing cool dialog and then nonchalantly taking part in extreme violence and gunplay. (Does anyone want to sit through Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead, Very Bad Things, Love & A .45, The Salton Sea or 2 Days In The Valley again?) One of the worst Tarantino clones was The Boondock Saints. Overnight is the story of how The Boondock Saints' production was hot, then cold, and then barely got made.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Aug 4, 2010 11:40am

Patti Smith: Dream Of Life

Dir: Steven Sebring, 2008. Starring: Patti Smith & Others...Documentary

OH TO DREAM... Patti Smith: Dream Of Life falls in the realm of documentary, I suppose, but really I'd like to call it a "musical document" for the sake of this writing and my own personal flare for "adjectivery." I never would have "dreamed" I would be into a film about Patti Smith [it's true]. For whatever reason she had never really made a blip on my radar outside of her popularized "G-L-O-R-I-A."

INWARDS & INNARDS Wandering around a room partially full of keepsakes and other remnants we find Patti Smith, a curious soul. She states that this film has been in the works for 10 years and that she will not be leaving this room until the film is completed. What follows is a series of explanations and events exploring her inner workings and outer experiences [family, death, art, friends, politics], all obvious, subtle and having an underlying strange honesty to them that seems clearly unique to her. I was impressed. She talks to us about certain objects in the room as if recreating some kind of "show and tell" experience from childhood. Books, photographs, a guitar Bob Dylan once played, her son's baby clothes, her own childhood dress, Robert Mapplethorpe's ashes, artifacts, all surrounding her as she builds a cluttered memory chamber. She brings more into the room throughout the duration. It touches the semi-sweet sadness inside.

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Posted by:
Joey Jenkins
Apr 3, 2009 2:11pm

Primitive London

Dir: Arnold L. Miller, 1967. Documentary.

Sleeker and more satisfying than any fictional era-reproduction in cinema, Primitive London, the follow up to London in the Raw, gives viewers the pleasure of revisiting London's diverse '60s pop culture. Touching on the divide of its affluent and poverty-stricken society following the depression, the film begins by zooming in on London's adolescents.

Starting with mod culture, the film describes those involved in it as having an identity with no class boundaries. Regardless of where you came from, the flashy and colorful clothing of this scene could transform you into a character worthy of fickle respect. There's also an explanation for the effeminate male clothing, which apparently derived from the abundance of womens textiles when many would-be male patrons were killed in two world wars. Outfits that would have been seen as amoral for a man became acceptable.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
May 27, 2011 1:34pm

Public Speaking

Directed by Martin Scorsese. Starring: Fran Lebowitz, Truman Capote, Pablo Casals, Candy Darling. Documentary.

One thing you can say with some certainty about Fran Lebowitz is that, above all else, she is fantastic company. She may have stopped writing decades ago and she may be known more now for her photos popping up in pretty much every issue of Vanity Fair at whatever gala Graydon Carter invited her to than for anything else, but her wit is enduring and it has kept her around even as her writing career has mummified into something from another era. She has fallen into a trap common to the aesthete. Her cultural criticism is so sharp that it has rendered her ability to capture it pointless because it will never live up to her own expectations. She won’t write much but she will talk, and talk is what Public Speaking, Martin Scorsese’s documentary about her, has in spades. It is so pleasurable to listen to this woman talk. She sizes up what’s wrong with so many aspects of contemporary American life, whether it’s the cultural homogenization of New York or her mystification over how gay rights has become a battle over an institution she can’t imagine why anyone would insist on joining.

Lebowitz can be brutal in her criticism but she isn’t cruel. Perhaps this is owed to how self deprecating she is. She occupies a place on a very small stage of public intellectuals in America —the ones who might actually get booked for a spot on Letterman. But I don’t think she has much in common with people like Christopher Hitchens or Camille Paglia. She doesn’t go for the jugular like they do. This is not to say that she can’t be provocative. One of the most interesting things she has to say is that the first generation of gay men whom we lost to AIDS was superior to the gay men who survived them because it was the ones who died who were "getting laid" and living life to the fullest. It’s an odd but poignant eulogy.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Jun 21, 2011 5:23pm
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