Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers & Their Times
It drives me crazy when people say that Los Angeles has no history. I have no idea what that means because I don’t think I’ve ever been to an American city as steeped in its illustrious glittering and haunted past as L.A. It’s a history that is certainly taken for granted and poorly managed—it seems every year brings with it another historic landmark that bites the dust here—but the city (and really the entire country) have been so shaped by L.A.’s past that you will never be able to exorcise all the ghosts here. There are too many of them. And the people who ran the city from its inception made decisions whose results we are still burdened with today.
The Chandler family and their paper, The Los Angeles Times, are a good example of this. From the very beginning the paper was designed as a mouthpiece for the voice of Harrison Gray Otis, an ardent capitalist who used the paper to prop up his friends in the business community and attack his enemies from the world of labor. By using The Los Angeles Times as a forum for attacking unions Otis helped ensure that L.A. would have a cheap supply of labor without threat of these workers organizing. When a group of union members bombed the L.A. Times building and killed scores of Times employees Otis became that much more virulent in his crusade against organized labor. (You can see a monument to the workers who died in the blast erected just after it happened in Hollywood Forever Cemetery.)Continue Reading
It Came From Kuchar
I'm not sure how to begin this, so I'll try to make it linear, though the documentary is nothing but. George and Mike Kuchar are two twin brothers, born in Manhattan and raised in the Bronx. I can imagine their birth to be extraordinary; a lighting bolt striking their mother and producing these two electrifying individuals. That didn't really happen, but that's how it plays out in my imagination. At the age of eleven, the two were given consumer-grade 8mm cameras as gifts, but what would later become of those tools is nothing short of spectacular.
This documentary spans across generations of filmmakers and artists, mainly in the New York and San Francisco underground scenes. The interviews consist of those from the two brothers and the various "stars" of their B-movie delights, as well as people like John Waters and Christopher Coppola (brother of Nick Cage), who claim that the Kuchar brothers and their films were their first sources of inspiration. Other clips include archive footage of New York and San Francisco from the '50s to present day, as well as photos and/or interviews of various influential artists, such as Andy Warhol, Guy Maddin, and cartoonists Bill Griffith and Robert Crumb.Continue Reading
I’m Still Here
It’s hard to categorize the film I’m Still Here. Simply put, it plays as a documentary that illustrates a man in free fall. To suggest, however, that it is a true documentation of such only serves to perpetuate the myth (as well as the egos of its makers) behind the film itself. On the other hand, the suggestion of truth is what makes this film possible within the ether of today’s stagnant and highly unentertaining… well… entertainment. It’s pointless to over-analyze Casey Affleck’s directorial debut, as in doing so would only allow yourself to be hoodwinked by two very talented satirists who have set out to do just that: orchestrate an elaborate hoax intended to turn the mirror on the Hollywood machine and also shed light on America’s obsession with celebrity.
I’m Still Here is the fictional account of Joaquin Phoenix’s decent into madness. The film opens with Phoenix pacing around the front yard of his Hollywood Hills home while the city glimmers below. The stage is set as Phoenix declares, "I’m living in a self-imposed prison." What we see here within the first three or four minutes of the film is someone who is lost and is trying desperately to find his true identity. That identity comes in the form of J.P., the alter ego and hip-hop artist formerly known as the actor, Joaquin Phoenix.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
Like the documentary Lost in La Mancha, which tell the tale of Terry Gilliam’s never finished film adaptation of Don Quixote, Jodorowsky’s Dune appears to be a much more enjoyable ride as a lost film rather had it actually been made. After the midnight circuit cult success of his bizarro lo-fi films El Topo and Holy Mountain, Chilean filmmaker and all around artsy guru Alejandro Jodorowsky set out to adapt Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel Dune to the big screen. He assembled a a group of holy warrior artists intent on helping him realize his vision, leading them like a prophet. The entire enterprise eventually collapsed when the need for Hollywood big money entered the story. But while his ideas could have been visually fascinating (much of it is too ahead of its time), the overall metaphysical philosophies he was cramming into the story might have only made it another cult curio. Certainly for my taste, the story of the making-of is much more watchable than what might have ended up on the screen. On the other hand, with Jodorowsky’s charismatic storytelling skills it’s hard not to root for his mad-man belief in his dream and for that passion to go beyond mere storytelling to world changing.
Jodorowsky's background in experimental and avant-garde theater in both Paris and Mexico led to an even more unlikely film career. His surrealist and druggy early films found admirers in the midnight filmgoers as well as in French producer Michel Seydoux, who asked the director what he would like to do next. Jodorowsky said Dune and then begun putting together a creative dream team. For his FX Supervisor he failed to convince Douglas Trumbull (2001 and Silent Running) to join the carnival (not a spiritual warrior), but instead landed Dan O'Bannon (fresh off of Dark Star with John Carpenter). He would also convince comic book artist Jean Giraud (Mœbius), the surrealist Swiss painter H.R. Giger and British science fiction book cover illustrator Chris Foss to join the fun. As Jodorowsky apparently worked out the script, he also worked out his visions for the characters and sets with his artists. The ideas came to him in dreams and the talented group came up with some truly astounding art work for what the film would look like. He also supposedly got major rock act Pink Floyd to work on some of the score (as well as goofy French prog rock band Magma). For the cast he managed to gather Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger and Orson Welles (who besides his fee was also sold on the project by being guaranteed a free meal at his favorite French cafe every day of the shoot). The young hero of the film would be played by Jodorowsky‘s adolescent son Brontis (who at the age of seven was prominently featured in El Topo); he would take on around-the-clock sword and combat training for over a year in preparation. The documentary features many of the storyboards that were put in a large coffee table type of book to help sell the project to would-be investors. Needless to say, that book of art now looks like the ultimate Christmas present for any sci-fi geek.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
Man on Wire
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.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
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
My Flesh and Blood
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.Continue Reading