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
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
Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism
The inside scoop on the “Fair and Balanced” news network and how its notorious enthusiasm for “truthiness” made it the perfect cable news counterpart to the Bush years. Outfoxed is a scathing indictment of Rupert Murdoch’s crappy idea of journalism put into 24 hour news cycle form. From former employees giving the lowdown on Fox’s shady way of skewing coverage to favor Republicans to the jaw dropping series of clips of world class blowhards Bill “Shut up!” O’Reilly and Sean Hannity turning journalism into a joke Outfoxed is a relentless assault on the dishonesty at the core of Murdoch’s failed experiment to control the message....Continue Reading
The tough-minded vision of a master filmmaker fighting the odds to bring his vision to the screen has made for some truly memorable documentaries over the years. The almost mad mavericks Francis Ford Coppola directing Apocalypse Now in Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmakers Apocalypse and Werner Herzog’s epic struggle to make Fitzcarraldo in Burden Of Dreams - the documentaries are almost as good as the films themselves. Another interesting film is Lost In La Mancha which chronicles Terry Gilliam's attempt to get the unbearable looking The Man Who Killed Don Quixote started and completed, the latter never happened. These are three men devoted to filmmaking with grand goals. The documentary Overnight is about another filmmaker, Troy Duffy, trying to get his first film, The Boondock Saints, made. Unfortunately for this maniacal egomaniac his visions are mostly about himself and how cool his sunglasses are.
Back in the '90s Harvey Weinstein and his film company, Miramax Pictures, were riding a wave of good fortune and good will after making an overnight sensation out of a video store clerk turned happening director/screenwriter, Quentin Tarantino. Suddenly everybody had a script ready to go and were ready to be discovered by Weinstein. Unfortunately, it also made Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction two of the most imitated films of their day. Hip dudes spewing cool dialog and then nonchalantly taking part in extreme violence and gunplay. (Does anyone want to sit through Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead, Very Bad Things, Love & A .45, The Salton Sea or 2 Days In The Valley again?) One of the worst Tarantino clones was The Boondock Saints. Overnight is the story of how The Boondock Saints' production was hot, then cold, and then barely got made.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
Sleeker and more satisfying than any fictional era-reproduction in cinema, Primitive London, the follow up to London in the Raw, gives viewers the pleasure of revisiting London's diverse '60s pop culture. Touching on the divide of its affluent and poverty-stricken society following the depression, the film begins by zooming in on London's adolescents.
Starting with mod culture, the film describes those involved in it as having an identity with no class boundaries. Regardless of where you came from, the flashy and colorful clothing of this scene could transform you into a character worthy of fickle respect. There's also an explanation for the effeminate male clothing, which apparently derived from the abundance of womens textiles when many would-be male patrons were killed in two world wars. Outfits that would have been seen as amoral for a man became acceptable.Continue Reading
One thing you can say with some certainty about Fran Lebowitz is that, above all else, she is fantastic company. She may have stopped writing decades ago and she may be known more now for her photos popping up in pretty much every issue of Vanity Fair at whatever gala Graydon Carter invited her to than for anything else, but her wit is enduring and it has kept her around even as her writing career has mummified into something from another era. She has fallen into a trap common to the aesthete. Her cultural criticism is so sharp that it has rendered her ability to capture it pointless because it will never live up to her own expectations. She won’t write much but she will talk, and talk is what Public Speaking, Martin Scorsese’s documentary about her, has in spades. It is so pleasurable to listen to this woman talk. She sizes up what’s wrong with so many aspects of contemporary American life, whether it’s the cultural homogenization of New York or her mystification over how gay rights has become a battle over an institution she can’t imagine why anyone would insist on joining.
Lebowitz can be brutal in her criticism but she isn’t cruel. Perhaps this is owed to how self deprecating she is. She occupies a place on a very small stage of public intellectuals in America —the ones who might actually get booked for a spot on Letterman. But I don’t think she has much in common with people like Christopher Hitchens or Camille Paglia. She doesn’t go for the jugular like they do. This is not to say that she can’t be provocative. One of the most interesting things she has to say is that the first generation of gay men whom we lost to AIDS was superior to the gay men who survived them because it was the ones who died who were "getting laid" and living life to the fullest. It’s an odd but poignant eulogy.Continue Reading
RFK Must Die: The Assassination of Bobby Kennedy
As a hardcore JFK assassination buff (what red-blooded American kid didn’t go through that phase and read Mark Lane’s amazing book Rush To Judgment?), I have to admit, I generally thought that it was kind of a given that Sirhan Sirhan was the lone gunman in brother Bobby’s murder. There have been some swirling conspiracy theories in the back of my head but I never acknowledged them, thinking the assassination of RFK was pretty much an open and shut case. But Shane O’Sullivan's documentary on everything you could ever want to know about the case is very persuasive in making its claim that there is more than meets the eye. Like the JFK case, what makes it more suspicious is the effort that was put forth by law enforcement (LAPD and the FBI) to convince witnesses that they didn’t actually see or experience what they think they saw and experienced. RFK Must Die: The Assassination of Bobby Kennedy may be the quintessential document on the case with some stunning information and footage that I had no idea was available to the public.
Director O’Sullivan proves to be a smart unbiased filmmaker; he lets some of his dramatic conclusions contradict themselves when they don’t fully add up as neatly as a Hollywood story. He’s not fully sure where the information will take him so therefore he does not appear to be driving the story in one direction. The material just so happens to lead to the conclusion that something odd happened that night at the Ambassador Hotel.Continue Reading
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