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Documentary

Blu-ray Classics: John Huston’s WWII documentaries, ‘The Vikings,’ ‘Passage to Marseilles’

LetThereBeLightLet There Be Light (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) – John Huston, like so many members of the Hollywood community, offered his talents to the armed services after Pearl Harbor. He was assigned to the Army Signal Corps, where he made four films. This disc features all four films, including a recently restored version of his final documentary for the armed services.

You can see his changing perspective on war through the productions, from Winning Your Wings (1942), a recruitment film narrated by James Stewart, to Let There Be Light (1946), his powerful portrait of the mentally and emotionally scarred men treated at a Long Island military hospital. Report from the Aleutians (1943) shows the routine of military life at a remote base in the frigid Aleutian Islands between Alaska and Russia (it’s also the only film shot in color), but his tone becomes darker in San Pietro (1945), which documents the battle to take a small Italian village from the occupying German forces. Huston provides the ironic narration himself over the record of destruction and loss of life on a single battle. The scenes of bombed-out ruins and dead soldiers are real but the battle itself was restaged by Huston for maximum dramatic impact. The military chose not to show the film to civilian audiences but new recruits did watch the film to understand the grueling ordeal awaiting them in battle. The film was voted into the National Film Registry in 1991.

Let There Be Light, his final film, is on the one hand a straightforward portrait of soldiers receiving help for “psychoneurotic” damage, what today was call post-traumatic stress disorder, and on the other a powerful portrait of the damage that war left on these men. It’s also a portrait of an integrated military, with black and white soldiers living and working in group therapy sessions together, before it ever existed in the barracks. The film was censored for 35 years and restored just a few years ago. This disc features the restored version.

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The Unmaking of: Stories of the Greatest Films Never Made

Production artwork for Alejandro Jodorowsky’s never-filmed ‘Dune’

The “making of” documentary has become a lively subgenre of nonfiction filmmaking, thanks in large part to the explosion of home video and the proliferation of cable channels in the past few decades. Once a purely promotional creation to run in theaters or on entertainment TV shows, the mix of behind-the-scene peeks, production footage, and cast and crew interviews have become standard items on DVDs and Blu-rays purchased by fans eager to devour every last detail behind their beloved films. From the five-minute puff piece to the epic three-and-a-half-hour Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner, it’s become part of the immersive cinema experience.

Far less common but often more interesting is a relatively recent phenomenon of documentaries on films that were never made, an “unmaking of,” if you will. Whether shut down in the heat of production due to outside forces or abandoned before even coming before cameras, these documentaries look at the creative energy that goes into the planning of a film and hint at what might have been. They also remind us just how complex making a motion picture can be, especially when passionate creators are engaged in a labor of love in the face of studio resistance, production setbacks, or financial troubles.

Here are the stories of a few films that might have been.

The Epic That Never Was (1965)

Made for British television, The Epic That Never Was looks at the ill-fated attempt by producer and aspiring British film mogul Alexander Korda to turn Robert Graves’s novel I, Claudius into a lavish historical drama.

Continue reading at Independent Lens

Robert Flaherty: The First Poet of American Documentary

‘Moana’

In 1926, film critic and future filmmaker John Grierson wrote in The Sun (under the pseudonym “The Moviegoer”) that Robert J. Flaherty’s “Moana, being a visual account of events in the daily life of a Polynesian youth, has documentary value.” Whether or not it is the first use of the term to describe nonfiction filmmaking, it was the first to appear in the public discourse and it stuck, making Robert Flaherty, in a sense, the first documentary filmmaker.

But the next line in Grierson’s review is at least as important in defining the work of Flaherty: “But that, I believe, is secondary to its value as a soft breath from a sunlit island, washed by a marvelous seas, as warm as the balmy air. Moana is first of all beautiful as nature is beautiful…”

Flaherty was by no means the first nonfiction filmmaker of the cinema…. But it is Robert Flaherty that we celebrate as the father of documentary filmmaking and his debut film, Nanook of the North (1922), the first great nonfiction feature.

Continue reading at Keyframe

Blu-ray: The silent south seas of ‘Moana’ and ‘Tabu’ restored with sound

MoanaMoana with Sound (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) – After creating what (in retrospect) is generally considered the first documentary feature, Nanook of the North, in the snows of northern Canada, filmmaker Robert Flaherty traveled to the South Seas island of Savai’i to create a similar production around the Polynesian natives. Like Nanook, Moana (1926) is not a true documentary record but a recreation of a long lost culture for the cameras created in collaboration with locals, who draw from their own historical memory. And it was the film that inspired the term “documentary,” which film critic (and later documentary producer) John Grierson coined while reviewing the film.

Moana is a poetic portrait of Polynesian life as an South Seas paradise, the opposite of Nanook, where the Inuit people fight to survive the harshness of the elements. The pace of life is easy and gentle in the Pacific sun, food plentiful in the sea and growing all around them, just waiting for anyone—even a child—to pluck the coconuts off the trees. Hunting and gathering is akin to play in this culture that was, again as in Nanook, long lost by the time Flaherty put his camera on these people. His filmmaking reflects the theme, each scene taking its time to play out, not to record every detail of finding fresh water in a branch, climbing a palm tree with a simple woven band wrapped around the ankles, or hunting a wild boar (the only real threat to human life on the island), but to appreciate the grace with which these activities are accomplished. The gentleness of the filmmaking—which was as painstakingly created for the camera as any Hollywood drama—creates a lovely, luscious film, a great leap forward in Flaherty’s cinematic talent.

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Cinéma Vérité: The Movement of Truth

The birth of documentary filmmaking is the birth of cinema. The very first films were documents of people, places, and events, whether scientific studies or the moving picture’s answer to the still life painting. And ever since, documentary has always struggled with the challenge to present “truth” on film.

But of course there is no direct pipeline to truth and no film portrait is unmediated. From the beginning, the very choice of what to shoot, where to point the camera, which action to follow, and when to cut, not to mention the decisions that go into the editing process and sound mixing, imposes a vision on a film no matter what the intention.

Cinéma vérité (“truthful cinema”) was born in the late 1950s and early 1960s, developed independently in multiple countries as a response to the conventions of the documentary tradition. In France, where the term cinéma vérité was born, it developed amidst the energy and experimentation of the French New Wave (“nouvelle vague”) from the likes of Chris Marker and Jean Rouch. In the U.S., it was called Direct Cinema, a movement led by Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker, and Albert and David Maysles. And in Britain, Lindsay Anderson (see more on him in UK TV feature below), Karel Reisz, and Tony Richardson spearheaded the Free Cinema movement.

All of these filmmakers reacted against the traditional approaches of non-fiction filmmaking — the formal structure, the talking heads interviews, the omniscient narrator framing the information, the dry, dull quality of so many documentaries — and encouraged a more direct engagement between filmmaker and subject. Technological advances produced lighter 16mm cameras and portable sound recording equipment, which gave filmmakers greater freedom and independence. It also allowed for greater flexibility and spontaneity on location and a more intimate connection with the subjects.

Continue reading at Independent Lens

Review: Janis: Little Girl Blue

Janis Joplin

For many, many years now, people have been talking about doing a proper big-screen biopic of Janis Joplin. Just about every actress in Hollywood — from Bette Midler in her youth to Amy Adams — has been touted as the next person to play Janis.

Still hasn’t happened. One thing I always wondered about these efforts: Would the actress playing Janis sing in her own voice, or would they use Joplin’s recorded tracks? Big question. Because nobody sounded like Janis Joplin.

A new documentary, Janis: Little Girl Blue, narrated by Cat Power, gives a reminder of the storytelling possibilities in Joplin’s saga.

Continue reading at The Herald (may face paywall)

Review: In the Basement

In the basement

“It’s my cozy room,” the man says, proudly touring his neatly arranged basement. This is where he comes to relax and be himself, surrounded by the things that make him happy: his brass musical instruments, his well-stocked bar, his Hitler paraphernalia. Wait, what? Down here in this Austrian man-cave, forbidden portraits of the Führer share space with uniforms and other Nazi bric-a-brac. You know—cozy. This is one of the many sanctuaries explored in In the Basement, Ulrich Seidl’s unsavory documentary. The baleful Austrian filmmaker (of the grueling Paradise trilogy) turns his gaze downstairs, where all the strange and dark impulses that lie beneath the civilized veneer are blossoming in full weirdness.

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Review: Tab Hunter Confidential

Tab Hunter

They called him Tab Hunter. The poor guy never had a chance.

In Tab Hunter Confidential, we learn the inside story of the manufactured movie star with the jokey name (and equally jokey reputation for his acting ability). It’s an entertaining Hollywood saga, even if it won’t change anybody’s mind about Hunter’s talent.

Born in 1931, Hunter was a painfully shy kid raised by a single mom. His blond good looks brought him to the attention of famed Hollywood star-maker Henry Willson.

Continue reading at The Herald

Blu-ray / DVD: Buckley and Vidal are ‘Best of Enemies’

Best of EnemiesBest of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal (Magnolia, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – In 1968, William F. Buckley was the face of the new Conservative movement: editor of The National Review, host of the public television show Firing Line, a conservative media celebrity with a cool intellect and sharp tongue. Gore Vidal, born and raised as a member of the East Coast American political aristocracy, was a respected novelist, essayist, and outspoken liberal commentator who used his wit to provoke and satirize. The despised one another as much as they hated what the other stood for. ABC, the distant third of three networks going into the political conventions of the election season, hired these men to debate the events of the respective Republican and Democratic conventions over ten nights of network coverage. What they got in those brief minutes at the end of each program was less debate than verbal sparring matches between two erudite intellectuals attacking the political philosophy and public record of the other and they were out for blood. As Christopher Hitchens puts it, “There’s nothing feigned about their mutual animosity. They really do despise each other.”

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Review: Rosenwald

Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington

The wonderful true story told in Rosenwald is a terrific history lesson, and an inspirational portrait of how one person can make a difference. And in a sly way, it’s also a rebuke—or maybe a challenge—to the new generation of freakishly rich people. The story of Julius Rosenwald stands in violent contrast to the profile of, say, the loathsome millionaire who hiked the price of the AIDS drug he now owns, or the pumpkin-haired TV star who has enchanted this country’s Republicans. The wealthy people of olden times weren’t all peaches and cream, but Rosenwald’s attitude—seen in vintage clips—was that any rich person is enormously lucky, and has a responsibility to give back.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Early Silent Documentaries: Real-life Adventure Cinema

Since the dawn of cinema, cameras have been taken around the world to capture unique and exotic sights previously available to audiences only in still photographs.

Motion picture pioneers the Lumiere brothers sent their cameras to get scenic shots of foreign landscapes and cultures, and rivals (such as Britain’s Mitchell and Kenyon) followed suit, creating programs that took audiences to faraway places. Mitchell and Kenyon narrated their presentations, turning the shows into events, while on the lecture circuit, explorers started using movie cameras to supplement their slide shows with moving picture footage.

These pre-documentary forays inspired filmmakers and explorers to take their cameras into more remote and inhospitable locations.

‘The Epic of Everest’

Herbert Ponting accompanied Captain Robert Scott on his 1911 expedition to the Antarctic with two moving picture cameras. Frank Hurley, the official photographer of Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 Antarctic expedition, also brought a movie camera. Captain John Noel, gripped by fascination with the Himalayas, documented the third British ascent of Everest in 1924. Photographer and anthropologist Edward S. Curtis went to the coast of British Columbia to recreate the lost culture of the Pacific Northwest tribes. Robert Flaherty, still celebrated as the father of documentary filmmaking, took his cameras to the Arctic to capture the culture of the Inuit, and to Samoa to document South Seas life. And before they made King Kong, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack hauled their cameras through the mountains and plains of Iraq and the jungles of Thailand to explore the rigors of life in worlds far from our own.

Continue reading at Independent Lens

Film Review: The Creeping Garden

‘The Creeping Garden’

Let us dispense with the jokes about films with unusual topics: Yes, if you have to see one movie about slime mold this year, this is it. Yes, The Creeping Garden is the Citizen Kane of slime-mold movies. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s state that Garden is indeed a fascinating film about slime mold, and that it fulfills the documentary objective of informing us about a subject we know little about. The film flies bravely in the face of the world’s ignorance of slime mold, in fact. We visit a British specimen collection in the fungus department of an archive in Kew Gardens, where the curator wistfully notes that very few people request access to the slime-mold section. Those who do are in for a treat: dozens of tiny, dried samples of slime mold, resting in wee boxes with labels hand-lettered by some long-forgotten enthusiast from the 1920s.

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Film Review: He Named Me Malala

Malala Yousafzai

A few years ago I revisited a book I hadn’t looked at since an assigned high-school reading many years earlier. Which is how I was reminded that Anne Frank’s diary is not only an important Holocaust document, but a magnificent piece of writing by a singular author. So much official veneration had stuck to Anne Frank over the years that it was startling to hear her lively, witty, soulful voice come springing off the page. She deserves better than to be relegated to sainthood.

I had similar thoughts while watching this new documentary about Malala Yousafzai.

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DVD: Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films

Warner Home Video

Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (Warner, DVD) – Australian filmmaker Mark Hartley has become a champion of the disreputable genre films of the seventies and eighties thanks to such loving productions as Not Quite Hollywood (spotlighting the disreputable side of the early Australian film industry) and Machete Maidens Unleashed (on Filipino grindhouse films). Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films is a labor of love from a man whose career to date has been a labor of love.

The story of Cannon Films is unique and fascinating. In 1979, Israeli producer / director Menahem Golan and his cousin Yoram Globus, who handled the financial side of their Israeli production company, decided to go international. They purchased Cannon Films, a small American independent production company with a couple of successes to its name. Golan and Globus quickly became B-movie moguls, determined to beat Hollywood at its own game with a series of cheaply-made genre movies with stars like Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson and cashed in on current fads and box-office hits with quick knock-offs. They became infamous for their flamboyant presence, their non-stop self-promotion, and their reputation for cranking out incoherent and at times incompetent movies between their occasional hits, while in a seemingly alternate universe also produced arthouse movies by Andrey Konchalovskiy (Runaway Train, 1985, Shy People, 1987), John Cassavetes (Love Streams), Franco Zeffirelli (the opera film Otello, 1986), and Jean-Luc Godard (King Lear, 1987), whose contract was written on a napkin over dinner at a restaurant. By the end of the eighties, they had driven the company to bankruptcy by the end of the decade.

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Film Review: ‘Meet the Patels’

Ravi and Geeta Patel

Born in Illinois to immigrant parents, Ravi Patel is a typical first-generation American: Shaped by two cultures, he feels the inherited traditions of the old country but is irrepressibly ’Murican in every significant way. This dual nature is put on breezy display in Meet the Patels, an amusing documentary in which Ravi (and sister Geeta, his mostly unseen co-director) tracks a particularly fraught moment in his family’s life. Ravi is 29, and his parents—humorous dad Vasant and anxious mom Champa—are antsy about him meeting a nice Indian woman and getting married. They come from a culture of arranged marriages, and since that system’s already in place, why bother with the complicated American dating game?

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly