Roger & Me
Forgetting Michael Moore’s politics, his sometimes annoying personality, and his questionable fact-checking skills, the guy has done more than any other director to bring the art form of documentary filmmaking into the mainstream. His first film, Roger & Me, is still probably his best film. It caused a major stir in the world of documentaries, established the format he has continued to use for decades, and has since been ripped-off and copied by numerous other documentary makers. No documentary before Roger & Me instantly gave its maker such a strong brand name.
Before the breakthrough of Roger & Me in 1989, the documentary field was mostly dominated by concert films, nature, travelogue, and straight political docs, or film theory class usual-suspects like the works of Frederick Wiseman (Titicut Follies). Though there were a number of important documentarians on the scene with vital careers like Albert and David Maysles (Grey Gardens), Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, USA), D.A. Pennebaker (Don’t Look Back), Rob Epstein (The Times Of Harvey Milk), and even Michael Apted with his ongoing Up Series for British television. Then in the mid '80s Errol Morris really broke through with his minimalist true-crime saga, The Thin Blue Line, as did Ross McElwee with his very personal history lesson, Sherman’s March. They all led the way for Michael Moore to infuse blue-collar liberal politics with his personal and humorous slant.Continue Reading
Searching for Sugar Man
Like a real life Eddie & The Cruisers this British documentary by a Swedish director (Malik Bendjelloul) about a Detroit folk singer named Sixto Rodriguez who became an icon to a generation of white South Africans is both an in-search-of mystery and an inspirational tome to the power of music and survival. Searching for Sugar Man is another one of those documentaries that if it didn’t have “true story” stamped on it might be too crazy to believe. Not to mention that for someone my age to know that this person existed (and in my own childhood backyard of Detroit) and, like most of the world, am only now becoming aware of the stunning music that he created, it’s sad that Sixto Rodriguez's beautiful songs haven’t been on my heavy rotation all my life. But since seeing this movie they have become ingrained in my head and will never leave.
Coming out of nowhere for a handful of music business types in the late sixties, Mexican American Detroiter Sixto Rodriguez sounded like he could be the next big thing. He had a clear voice (that reminds me of Donovan) with sophisticated lyrics about love, heartbreak and socio-political ills in the Bob Dylan tradition. He recorded two albums and both were commercial flops. So Rodriguez (as he was known) went back to being an inner-city guitar-toting day laborer (and, of course, was screwed out of royalties for his songs). And that’s the end of that story. Or was it? Copies of the albums made their way into South Africa where they became massively popular to a generation of white Afrikaners who were coming of age and questioning the system of apartheid in which they grew up. A total police-state boxed-out from the rest of the world, South Africa was a little behind the times culturally and cut-off when it came to music information. The rebellion and loneliness in Rodriguez’s lyrics spoke to them. The rumor was that Rodriguez had dramatically killed himself on stage, putting an end to any kind of personal contact South Africans might have hoped to have with their idol. But the music lived on and came to define the decade for many.Continue Reading
Sound and Fury
I feel as though children are often approached by adults without respect and deprived of some very rewarding chances in life. Sound and Fury deals with the introduction of new technologies within deaf communities and the controversy it has sprouted. Two brothers, Chris and Peter, are dealing with a family crisis. Chris has healthy hearing, while his brother Peter was born deaf. Each is married with children. Peter and his wife Nita have a son and daughter who are deaf, and one of Chris's infant twin sons is also deaf. Chris and his wife Mari have decided to go through a surgical procedure to give their son a cochlear implant—a device that can restore hearing. Peter's daughter Heather becomes aware of the procedure and its advantages and asks her parents if she can also have the procedure performed.
The families have relatives and friends who are deaf and have come to see their deafness as a culture. For them, being deaf gives them a sense of community and a peaceful, dramatic way of communicating that others don't experience. But for those in the family, especially Heather's grandmother who is not deaf, the procedure can offer a world of endless possibilities for Heather. Peter and Nita, however, feel that their daughter is perfect the way she is and that changing her view of the world with sound might separate her from their community, and from them.Continue Reading
This documentary, shot in a day and following the rambunctious pastimes of a young boy named Hapon, left me in the middle of two unsettling thoughts. Maybe they were impulses, and perhaps in a week I'll feel differently. I haven’t quite recovered from the moral confusion. The first thought was to reject the glorification of the slums and squatters in the Philippines that are documented here. The film follows Hapon and a large amount of children who sort of see him as an icon. The back of the DVD compares the film to seeing children playing at a car crash. Believe me, it's much worse. The beach they swim in is overflowing with garbage and debris; the toddlers roam the dusty streets without diapers and relieve themselves in alleyways. Hapon prances around with his distinguished Mohawk like a king, and yet his open sores have flies hovering over them. The film has no dialogue. It's set against punk music, shot in black and white, with the edgy quality of a skate film. And it shows confident children, satisfied with their play and overjoyed at the thought of someone wanting to document their existence. Hapon and his friends, while malnourished and left unattended, carry a familiar spirit. They are tiny anarchists who enjoy being enveloped in anarchy—no rules, no enforcement, and absolutely no parental control. My second thought following a short-lived disgust is that I'd envy this free-spirited childhood, were it not for the realization that I would have to be happy with the fact that I might not reach adulthood.
The adults are certainly not getting along any better, and like the children, they don't seem to care. They sit in shacks playing cards or sing karaoke in bars—some chagrined, but most very confident. Another jarring aspect of daily life in this city is the commingling of children and adults. There is a shot of a bar where a man is passed out at the counter, and next to an empty pitcher of malt-liquor is a bored toddler. Age seems to have no relevance at all, as minors and elders share the same fate. While the adults have their alcohol, the young children sit underneath a pier and huff chemicals out of plastic bags. The lack of culture was also startling. Like most other countries that have had a relationship with America, citizens of Manila are highly westernized. They have the donated hand-me-downs of the West, and those small "treasures" are seemingly enough. It gives the impression that one must be able to afford culture, or at the very least have the means to hang onto it. The shantytown is filled with American garbage, from bicycles and Mickey Mouse t-shirts and every other useless thing in between. You begin to wonder what the city used to look like, and how quickly it fell into despair.Continue Reading
Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 1 ½
My most favorite movie titles: (1) Garfield 2: A Tale of Two Kitties & (2) Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 1 ½, directed by William Greaves. Greaves’ title refers to the term “symbiotaxiplasm,” a concept coined by social philosopher Arthur Bentley. This term describes the assimilated totality of a society and its affects by humans and to humans. Every person, place, object, and thing that a society creates, maintains, and destroys is accounted for in the word symbiotaxiplasm.
Greaves added the “psycho” to affirm how our creativity and psychology can affect our society, and in turn, how we affect it. Make sense? Good. Moving on…Continue Reading
The hook of The Cruise is that most New York tour guides are jaded wage slaves repeating the same statistics and soulless anecdotes to dozens of tourists every day, but “Speed” views his “loops” as an opportunity to communicate the transcendental joy of being alive in New York, a city he anthropomorphizes in different forms, giving the film a second character, and in a sense a plot. Miller operated the camera himself and he manages to shoot New York with a sensual, humble idiosyncrasy worthy of “Speed” himself. The last shot of the film feels a touch contrived, but the presence of the World Trade Center’s erstwhile towers will haunt any viewer.
It’s difficult, and perhaps impossible to impart the appeal of the documentary The Cruise without quoting its protagonist Timothy “Speed” Levitch at some length; this is in itself a disservice to any potential viewer of The Cruise because the poetry of Speed’s erudition is best seen “live”, being delivered spontaneously by the man himself, rather than being read. Speed’s hyper-articulateness must be heard to be appreciated. To listen to Speed’s quotidian orations is to discover a human being who can extemporaneously compose sentences of Jamesian complexity. So fear not, gentle reader. His words are yours to discover.Continue Reading
The Filth & The Fury
“Because the work, at the end of the day, is what matters…and we managed to offend all the people we were f***ing fed up with.”
– Johnny RottenContinue Reading
The Fog of War
We hear Robert S. McNamara's voice before we actually see him – then he tells the director, "I don't want to go back and introduce the sentence because I know exactly what I want to say." McNamara is candid, opinionated, and passionate – qualities appropriate and endearing from America's former Secretary of Defense, under President Kennedy and President Johnson.
Here Errol Morris offers us a former leader of America's military force's inside knowledge in our nation's war-driven period from the Cold War to the Vietnam War. Some of the information McNamara reveals is astounding. What moved me was that, in the film, he is emotional and intimate – I felt privileged to be able to hear what this historical figure had to say. He explained the results of our actions in several aspects – from the statistical numbers our position in war has had on our daily lives, the impact of our technological weapons, and his own position on being our Secretary of Defense.Continue Reading
The Kid Stays In The Picture
The autobiography The Kid Stays In The Picture by one time hot-shot studio head and producer Robert Evans may be the only book to have gained a cult following with its audio recording. Evans reads from his own pages, and his cool persona as a guy with a lot of regret and a lot of amazing memories are quite entertaining. The film version uses those audio recordings for narration and a lot of archive footage, film clips, and most creatively still pictures with a 3-D effect to tell this rather astounding story of Evans' miraculous Hollywood rise and then devastating fall.
At first Evans was in the clothing business in New York with his brother. And then one lucky break after another happened for the tanned haberdasher. Famously, on a business trip to Los Angeles he was “discovered” by Norma Shearer while lounging by the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel. He was thrust into a minor acting career playing Irving Thalberg in the Lon Chaney bio A Man Of A Thousand Faces and then Pedro the bullfighter in The Sun Also Rises. That was the peak as an actor but he soon became an independent producer developing The Detective with Frank Sinatra. With Gulf & Western taking over Paramount Pictures out of seemingly nowhere Evans was made the Head of Production.Continue Reading
The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters
Going back to Grey Gardens in 1975, so many successful and fascinating documentaries have been about misfits in their exotic sub-culture world. Through Gates Of Heaven, The Cruise, American Movie, and Hell House the viewers are given a glimpse into a unique world that they may not have otherwise known exists. Not only do these often oddball worlds exist, but the people who live in them are completely passionate or even obsessed with maintaining their status in them. One such "world" is the competitive classic arcade game scene. It started - and maybe peaked - in the '80s but according to the fascinating documentary, The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters, it still continues and the nerds who occupy this world are obsessed with it.
Like many amazing documentaries, The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters has a plot so complete and ready-made, with a clear hero and a villain, it gives the impression that it could only have been concocted by a screenwriter. But no folks, it’s real.Continue Reading