O.J.: Made in America
For nearly ten years ESPN’s documentary series 30 for 30 has been the source of some of the most important docs on sports ever made. What usually makes them transcend the sports doc genre is the complexity of the subjects beyond athletics. And now, turning that transcendent quality up to an eleven in ESPN’s nearly eight hour, Academy Award-winning epic O.J.: Made in America they have created a true all time masterpiece. It's directed by Ezra Edelman, who previously made the terrific basketball doc Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals for HBO Films, another good source for sports docs. Beyond the story of a trial, this is the story of a culture and its obsessions with race, celebrity, lust and politics. It's so rich in detail and history, it takes a couple hours before we even get to the murder of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman.
Even within its first two hours the film stands up to the measure of greatness, explaining O.J. Simpson’s story, his relationship to fame and racial conflict in America (especially in Los Angeles) -- a conflict he does everything he can to stay away from. For all intents and purposes the story begins with O.J. becoming a superstar college running back at USC. His life as a young black man in Los Angeles comes on the heels of the Watts Riots (or uprisings, if you will). While the backdrop of political assassinations and the Vietnam war dominates most university experience in this era, the mostly white and well-off world of USC is deep into O.J.-mania. And O.J., a kid fresh out of a San Francisco housing project, adapts perfectly. He has a million dollar smile and articulates all the right clichés, including a clean-cut marriage to his high school sweetheart, Marguerite, making Madison Avenue advertisers drool. As a pro player stuck in Siberia (or Buffalo, NY), it takes a few seasons for O.J. to break out, but when he does, he becomes a superstar player and an early icon of athlete-as-advertising-pitchman. He also dabbles in film, taking not-too-embarrassing supporting roles with the all-star casts of The Towering Inferno, Roots and The Cassandra Crossing and the solid B-casts of The Klansmen and Capricorn One. By the time O.J. retired from the game at the end of ’79, he had a number of NFL records on his resume, as well as a solid looking post-football life lined up.Continue Reading
Before film books exploded as a genre in the 1970s, the most significant published books about the art of film were James Agee’s two volume Film I & II in ’48 and ’52 and Pauline Kael’s works on late '60s film criticism, I Lost It at the Movies and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. But the most relevant book on film -- the one that is still of major importance today -- was Hitchcock/Truffaut by the great French filmmaker Francois Truffaut. Starting his career as a very influential film critic and essayist for (among other publications) Cahiers du Cinéma, he is usually cited as the inventor of the “auteur theory,” which gave the director the final artistic credit for the merits of a film (as opposed to the producer, who in Hollywood was just as often considered a film’s true maestro). He, along with other young French film fanatics, would begin to branch out and direct their own movies; they became the group now known as the French New Wave (or The Nouvelle Vague), which includes Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Demy, Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol and Agnès Varda. This crew of filmmakers can be considered the original movie brats, as opposed to the generation of directors before them. They were raised on movies and cinema culture and also were keenly aware of a director’s body of work as a whole instead of by individual movies. (The American generation that came to prominence in the '70s was actually called “the movie brats.” This term was applied to Coppola, Spielberg, De Palma and Scorsese, who were obviously deeply influenced by their French forerunners).
Another major influence on Truffaut and his friends was an appreciation for Hollywood B-Movie and genre directors, who were under-appreciated in America: journeymen and mavericks like Nicholas Ray, Samuel Fuller, Budd Boetticher and strangely, Frank Tashlin. And while Truffaut also adored the acclaimed masters like Ford, Hawks, and Welles, his favorite was Alfred Hitchcock. Though his career went back to the silents (he made the very first feature-length British talkie), and he was usually considered box office gold and was as famous a director as there was, in the early '60s Hitchcock was still usually dismissed in American and British critical circles as strictly a popcorn director. Truffaut single-handedly set about changing that. Beginning in ’62 he started recording long, in-depth conversations with Hitchcock (aided by his American collaborator and translator Helen Scott), covering his entire body of work. He spent years compiling and editing them, and adding intricate frame-by-frame photos from his films. Finally, in ’67 the book Hitchcock/Truffaut was published and helped to change Hitchcock’s reputation from a pure entertainer to a true artist and is still today considered a bible for filmmakers and movie geeks.Continue Reading
A "Ken Burns joint" may be brushed off by some as academic homework, but a deeper inspection reveals not just a great historian, but an important filmmaker (albeit usually for the small screen). The guy’s body of work is astounding, almost always with documentaries airing on PBS (and usually as part of their brilliant American Experience series). In the '80s he was responsible for a half dozen memorable films including The Brooklyn Bridge, The Statue of Liberty and Thomas Heart Benton. But it was in the ’90 that he really exploded with his nine-part Civil War documentary, a subject that even when not appealing managed to be totally compelling with just photographs and voiceover narration. All of his very long-form pieces since have been about more recent subjects, allowing him to move beyond archival still photos and include actual moving film. His work has become the benchmark and the ultimate chronicle of the American twentieth century, with a number of masterpieces including Jazz, Unforgettable Blackness: The Rise of Jack Johnson, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, Prohibition, The Dust Bowl and what may be his best, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. (And also his one theatrical documentary, the brilliant The Central Park Five). He’s apparently working on a ten episode history of the Vietnam War. I can’t wait.
With Baseball in ’94 Burns made the most all-encompassing chronicle of any sport ever committed to film. Two of the ten episodes had a major emphasis on the first black player to he hired by the then all-white major leagues; now with his 240 minute Jackie Robinson he gives the ball payer his own series. Made with credited co-directors Sarah Burns and David McMahon, Jackie Robinson is as interesting as anything he has ever made before.Continue Reading
Man With A Movie Camera
When I took home Man With A Movie Camera on DVD I was offered a chance to see Russia in late '20s. Yes, there is very amazing motion picture evidence of the newly established USSR. Feature films at this length were in their infancy. Man With A Movie Camera is presented as an experiment in three reels (68 minutes). It is avant-garde in style with visual effects that are pure innovation. As far as narrative, it moves seamlessly through vignettes of pain, joy & the beautifully mundane. Many filming techniques are masterfully executed here such as double exposure, fast motion, slow motion, freeze frames, jump cuts, split screens, stop-motion, etc. Our only reoccurring characters are a man with a camera and the editor of the film. We are given a psychedelic and hysterically voyeuristic perspective of daily life in the urban sprawl of 1920s Russia. Refer to the Soviet Union's complicated history at this time: Stalin had consolidated power the very year of the film's release. The government up until then was forming in the wake of communist leader Vladimir Lenin's death.
One must lament the film's director, Dziga Vertov. He was never able to experience his film the way we can now with a Kino DVD release featuring an awesome score by Michael Nyman. The quality of this soundtrack would be understated if I didn't mention it is among the finest I've ever heard. Man With A Movie Camera offers a climax of sights and sound. Photography this poetic speaks at volumes that cannot accurately be labeled "silent film."Continue Reading
Bodysong is what I'd like to call a docu-hybrid. In the world of documentaries are essay films and these are classified as works that are existential and transgressive. Some notable examples would be Baraka, Chronos and the Qatsi trilogy. Then you have films like That's Entertainment, which visually cite themes or trends within cinema and pop culture. I suppose they're called compilation films or perhaps historical anthologies. The effectiveness of both of these is accomplished by the editing of the film, which presents each scene in conjunction with others that lead or take the same direction. An example would be one person sitting in a chair juxtaposed by someone sitting or rising from one. The lyrical elements of the films are maintained by the score, which are usually of great depth and done by artists like Phillip Glass.
What then makes Bodysong such an enjoyable alternative is the mashup of using home, documentary and educational videos throughout history and splicing them with those of similar themes in cinematic history. All of these images are set against an experimental score done by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood which, for people such as myself, is a welcome diversion from the typical accompaniment of an essay film.Continue Reading
A lot of people end up finding what they think is a kindred spirit in an icon, and perhaps just as many find it in someone who is prophetic or a poet. The icon can bring comfort in embracing the wonder and beauty of art, while the poet can expose the haunting and sometimes transgressive side of things. Sometimes you can find both these qualities in the same person. It's the only thing that can explain the popularity of Bukowski and Allen Ginsberg, for example. Benjamin Smoke is a documentary that does just that, but for someone who never got the chance to assimilate ... and he maybe never would have, anyway.
Born Robert Dickerson and called only Benjamin, his voice and lyrics brings to mind that of Tom Waits or Nick Cave. The band he fronted, Smoke, was infamous in Cabbagetown, GA, a town that, as Benjamin explains, was always separate from Atlanta, where it rests, riddled with poverty. This poverty allowed for all the good and wonderful things in life, he states: “hustlers, inter-breeding, drugs and sniffing glue.” The documentary, one soon realizes, didn't need more than to put up a camera to Benjamin in an empty room in order to make a bold impression, but thanks to the truly masterful direction and awe-inspiring editing by Nancy Roach and the directors, something quite miraculous was captured. As a result, a small legend had his story told.Continue Reading
Come on Children
It didn't occur to me until a few years ago that “teenage” is a concept that's not all that old. I'm sure that there are places in the world where is doesn't, and never did, exist. For most cultures, there has always been a sort of initiation into adulthood by way of customary or religious celebration. A way to make the change less mundane. Perhaps intended to alleviate or lessen the pangs of transitioning into an adult, the identity of a teenager gave and continues to give people a kind of social weaning. A time where it is allowed and expected for one to experiment with new ideas and figure out just what they want to do in their passively thought-of futures. I'm not sure that much consideration or weight has been given to the results of this. Parents are often sited as ones we cannot identify with, specifically when we are teens. That stance seems reasonable; the times play a huge role in the social construct of a teenager, and times are always a-changin'.
Come on Children is a modest documentary on the subject of a teenage disillusionment and its effects. Director Allan King (A Married Couple, Warrendale) and colleagues grew intrigued at the amount of regurgitated complaints from teens that seemed certain that their lives would be much more enjoyable if it weren't for their nagging parents, cops and teachers. So, they gathered twelve youths from the suburbs of Toronto, ages 13 to 19, and took them to a farm without supervision. The youngsters were all from the same middle-class background, with attentive families and, even in their home life, a considerable amount of freedom. One of the group is 9 months pregnant and stays on the farm with the newborn, another is a father already but estranged from his former girlfriend. There's a puppy and two cats and plenty of beer, pot, acid and cigarettes to go around. Even a bit speed, brought by the most boisterous participant, John Hamilton.Continue Reading
No Direction Home: Bob Dylan
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.Continue Reading
Stories We Tell
They say history belongs to the victors, and right or wrong, the person who tells the story gets to make up their own version of history. Actress and filmmaker Sarah Polley’s brilliant (and frankly ingenious) documentary Stories We Tell uses fragments and pieces of memory to tell her own and her parents' story, but without giving away too much, there are many surprises and twists. With the opening narration by her father, actor Michael Polley (of the Canadian TV series Slings and Arrows), you think the film is through his eyes, but eventually you come to realize he may be reading from a text written by Sarah. He tells the story of his relationship with Sarah’s mother Diane, also an actress (who passed away when Sarah was eleven), which fully comes to life, aided by wonderfully edited-in apparent home movies. But as other family members and family friends tell the same stories from different points of view, you also come to realize nothing is as it seems. Everyone has different memories and different points of view, some only coming in fragments. What starts out as a complicated tribute to an artistic family eventually becomes almost a mystery as major family bombs go off. In the end, Stories We Tell becomes one of the most gripping and unique personal documentaries ever made.
Growing up, everyone thought Diane was a “good time Charlie”--an attractive life-of-the-party, a loving free spirit--even though she had two young children from a previous marriage. Michael was a dynamic young British actor on stage, but off, more of an introvert. He was private and she was outwardly showy. Looking back, Michael is convinced Diane fell in love with the characters he played on stage, and was disappointed with who he really was. Nevertheless, the two got married and raised a family. But after some years the marriage grew stale, especially as Diane grew more frustrated with Michael’s lack of career ambition. To both of their relief, Diane was offered a play in Montreal, while Michael stayed back in Toronto with the kids. After a long separation, the two were reunited and were able to rekindle the romance briefly, even having another child together, who turned out to be Sarah. After Diane’s death from cancer, Michael fell into depression, but was forced to raise his little daughter alone. It’s about at this point in the documentary that it starts to come out through different memories that Sarah must have been conceived while Diane was in Montreal and that dear old Michael might not be her biological father. And here Sarah begins to track down all the men who conceivably may have had an affair with her mother while she was away. And then the film takes a big new turn....Continue Reading
Eyes on the Prize
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.Continue Reading