American director Brian De Palma has a long and often controversial filmography. He started out doing counterculture social satires but found his true calling as cinema’s foremost Hitchcock imitator and made a name for himself with his generous use of fake blood and topless women in danger. In the beginning he was often associated with his pals the movie brats (Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, Scorsese, etc.) who stormed the gates of Hollywood and took advantage of the brief period in the '70s between the era of the studio system and corporate conglomeration, when directors ruled with more personal projects. While many of his peers dominated the awards and critics' lists, De Palma was more of a B-movie director who well into the blockbuster '80s had a hit-and-miss record, which in retrospect, is at least always interesting. Directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow create the perfect tribute with their endlessly fascinating documentary De Palma: no talking heads, just the always-bearded director discussing each film, year-by-year with plenty of clips to accompany him.
De Palma began his career in academia and on the fringes, a true independent director, doing unfunny comedies. His peak of unfunniness came with his first studio picture, the horrible Tommy Smothers vehicle Get to Know Your Rabbit. It bombed and De Palma reinvented himself with the bizarre cult musical Phantom of the Paradise and the very Hitchcockian thriller Sisters (which still stands up today, for me, as maybe his best film). Its mild acclaim and success got him a chance to direct the high profile adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie. The film was a smash and De Palma became a brand name. He has had some hits: Dressed to Kill, Scarface (which mostly found its audience later via cable and videotape), The Untouchables and Mission Impossible (more a Tom Cruise production than a De Palma joint). He made a pretty good movie, Carlito’s Way (mostly memorable because of Sean Penn’s brilliant performance as Al Pacino’s coked-out lawyer), but most of his other films have ranged from forgettable to not very good.Continue Reading
Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words
With The Criterion Collection’s release of the wonderful box set 3 Films by Roberto Rossellini Starring Ingrid Bergman (Stromboli, Europe ’51 and Journey To Italy), a little seen documentary that would have made a perfect supplement instead has been given its own stand-alone release -- because it’s that good. Director Stig Bjorkman’s 2015 Swedish doc Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words actually proves to be just as compelling and well made as anything in the more celebrated box set. This is as good a documentary about a monumental film actress as has ever been produced, thanks to a treasure trove of correspondence, home movies, and, of course, footage from her own films and news reels (since she was the original international paparazzi prey). Ingrid Bergman was a complete original. Besides having a hall-of-fame film career she also lived one of the most interesting offscreen lives that often played out like a Douglas Sirk melodrama.
Ingrid grew up in a family of people who died young, which gave her extra drive. While still a teenager, she become a popular film actress in her homeland of Sweden. She was brought to America by big-time movie producer David O. Selznick to star in a remake of her own film, Intermezzo. In ’39, the film ended up being a big hit and -- bang! -- she was a star. An astonishing run of films would make her the most important film actress of the 1940s. She would get four Oscar nominations in the decade for The Bells of St Mary’s, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Joan of Arc and Gaslight, for which she won the award. She was in the popular Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as well as in Hitchcock films Spellbound and Notorious (his greatest movie, so says I). Most famously, she would play Ilsa in quite possibly the most beloved film of the decade, Casablanca. All this before the age of thirty-three!Continue Reading
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