Billy the Kid
"I know I’m unique. I don’t let it go to my head, though. I’m just someone who was born different than others. I’m not black, not white, not foreign. I’m just different in the mind."
Meet Billy Price. Not your average 15 year-old high school-student. Everyone knows Billy, but no one really knows him. Billy is the guy that sits in the cafeteria by himself. He’s the one that looks a little bit funny. He talks funny. Billy has dreams of becoming the Terminator or even Gene Simmons. Most would consider Billy to be overly sensitive or even a bit socially inept. Personally, I think he’s just misunderstood.Continue Reading
Patti Smith: Dream Of Life
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.Continue Reading
La Commune (Paris, 1871)
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.Continue Reading
Encounters at the End of the World
It’s an uncontestable fact that Werner Herzog is the greatest living director. His latest documentary Encounters at the End of the World may not be as cathartic or controversial as his dramatic features, but it validates Herzog’s ability to personalize every film that he directs with the creation of hypnotic, surreal images, images that despite their otherworldliness symbolize a litany of urgent, undeniable truths. The most famous of these are the 360-ton steamship being pulled over a hill in the Amazon rainforest in Fitzcarraldo, as well as the dancing chicken and interminable ski-lift ride in the finale of Stroszek. People who have seen multiple Herzog films walk away with images they hold personally to them, like amulets; for me it’s Kaspar Hauser standing immobile in the village square clutching a letter that he can’t read. Only a director like Herzog could go to edge of the planet and make a film that is idiosyncratic.
Herzog and his cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger (his DP for the majority of his films since Gesualdo) received a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists and Writers Program to travel to Antarctica for several months to shoot footage for a documentary. The director seems to express ambivalence at the beginning of the film about his suitability for the subject, saying that he’s not interested in making a movie about “fluffy penguins.” Ironically, he ends up shooting some of the cutest baby and mommy seal footage I’ve ever seen. It eventually becomes apparent that Herzog’s focus is not so much the landscape as it is the modern day explorers who have come to study the frozen continent. The bleak landmass has become a magnet to a millenarian mixture of scientists, engineers, cooks, survival experts, and ice terrain vehicle drivers who believe that the secret of the earth’s future, and perhaps demise, is hidden in the landscape and wildlife of this frozen desert. Herzog compares these people driven to the end of the map by their dreams to adventurers like Ernest Shackleton and Roald Admundsen, forsaking comfort and civilization to be near the Unnameable.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
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.Continue 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
Recent attention to the children's situation in war-torn Uganda has been spoken about in art events and documentaries such as Invisible Children, and there's a reason for that – international events, especially in Africa, are becoming more and more cared for as history school books fail to cover these contemporary aspects of our global issues.
War Dance, Sean and Andrea Fine's documentary about children competing in the Kampala Music Festival, has been received ambivalent critical review. New York Times' Stephen Holden sums up the conflict: the film "is so gorgeous that its beauty distracts from the anguish it reveals… in spite of its slickness, is an honorable, sometimes inspiring exploration of the primal healing power of music and dance in an African tribal culture."Continue Reading
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
In Five Obstructions Lars Von Trier challenges one of his idols, Jørgen Leth, to remake his 1967 Danish short film, The Perfect Human, five times with certain restrictions. This film documents the conversations between the two directors, footage of the new short films, behind the scenes and on-location footage, interspersed with footage of the original Perfect Human. Each film is in a different location with some different styles. The result is a look into the creative process and demonstrates creativity flourishing even under the shadow of restriction.
At the beginning of the film you get the impression that Von Trier is a mad scientist and Leth is the subject for some gruesome experiment. During the conversational segments, Von Trier sets up rules, or obstructions for Leth. Many of the rules presented as a means of punishment, with the expectation that the resulting film will be a disaster, and that Leth will suffer during the process. Von Trier does little to hide his intent to make the process hell for Leth. For the second film Leth is even sent to the worst place on earth he’s ever been, while not showing any of the atrocities seen there. To further the mad scientist image, Von Trier even seems upset that Leth isn’t suffering enough during the production of these films. Throughout the film Von Trier acts as if he isn’t getting what he wants despite the fact that the resulting films are quite successful. The underlying reasoning for Von Trier's attempts to torture Leth would seem to be to get him to learn something new and challenge him. At the end of the film there is a sense that Von Trier is being cryptic and deceitful about how he feels the experiment pans out. Throughout the film Jørgen Leth maintains a relatively positive attitude and achieves incredible results in spite of each obstruction. At times he seems hesitant. When he is told to make a cartoon, he expresses hate for cartoons. He makes a cartoon anyways and it looks amazing. Each of the films Leth creates is quite innovative and progressive, leaving the viewer desiring to see the next one. Leth illustrates a willingness to go with anything. The end result is that Leth seems to be the one in control, not the other way around.Continue Reading