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Documentary

Review: De Palma

“And that’s when I came up with the flying utensils.” A seemingly innocuous phrase, right? If the speaker is a Disney animator, you might be visualizing a charming sequence of movie magic. But no—the speaker is Brian De Palma, so this out-of-the-blue comment can only lead to something perverse. His fans will know that the notorious director is talking about Piper Laurie’s death scene in Carrie, his 1976 horror hit. On the page, the telekinetic Carrie gives her mother a heart attack. Speaking to us in the documentary about him, De Palma rolls his eyes over how uncinematic this would be. Why have a character simply clutch her chest and fall over when you could send an arsenal of flying cutlery toward her, crucifying the evil witch in her own contaminated house?

This is one of dozens of stories in De Palma, a feature-length interview in which the filmmaker, 75, tells anecdotes, copiously decorated with clips from all his films. The tidbit about Carrie is typical of the documentary at its best: It’s a colorful story, but it also underscores De Palma’s keen, sometimes lurid grasp of what cinema is. That scene in Carrie may be over the top, but it is cinematically alive in a way that De Palma’s better-behaved colleagues rarely touch.

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Review: The Other Side

When Walker Evans traveled into 1930s America and photographed the people hit hardest by the Depression, he captured the perseverance and dignity of poor folks in the rural South. A similar journey is traced in the new documentary The Other Side, but here perseverance has become hostility and dignity is in shreds. In modern-day West Monroe, Louisiana, the faces are distorted by methamphetamine and alcohol, animated by fear, and given definition by resentment toward an enemy (the black man in the White House, gun-safety advocates—any enemy will do).

For two-thirds of the film’s running time, we follow Mark and Lisa, lovers and lost souls. They cook and sell meth, sometimes tenderly injecting each other. We first see Mark waking up naked along a roadside, the first of the film’s startling images; director Roberto Minervini shoots the scene as though it’s the first morning in an American Eden (the sculpted photography is often in direct counterpoint to the squalid living conditions).

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Review: Phantom India

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

Phantom India is subtitled “Reflections on a Journey.” For Louis Malle the film represents not only a journey out of the Western environs of his previous films, but also out of the fiction film into the documentary. Not that he hasn’t been there before: one of his earliest involvements in the cinema was as co-director of Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s Silent World. But the remove of India as a location and the documentary as a cinematic form may well have—must surely have—had their effect on his subsequent narrative filmmaking. The movie, actually seven 50-minute episodes shaped for presentation on French television, leaves one steeped not only in the spectacle but also something like the sensations of life in India—or, if that be too presumptuous for one who has never gone there, of a special country of the cinematic experience. Malle does his utmost to appreciate his subject wholecloth; a couple of the episodes could handily be abbreviated (the fifth, I think it was, is unprofitably long on the subject of Indian politics), but in the main we can only be grateful for the opportunity to live with some of the scenes and situations long enough to move beyond their surface exoticism into their essence.

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Review: Weiner

Anthony Weiner in the documentary ‘Weiner’

Even the title of the documentary is a punch line. It could’ve been given a tragic title like The Last Crusade, or something soberly ironic like Public Service, or maybe the Raymond Carver-esque You Would Know If This Was Your Underpants (taken from perhaps the greatest thing Wolf Blitzer ever said to anybody on CNN). But no, the documentary is called Weiner, and its title character is just going to have to live with that. As he will have to live with many things for the rest of his life.

Anthony Weiner is a former seven-term U.S. representative (a New York Democrat) whose career collapsed after a 2011 sexting scandal. He sent indelicate messages to women who were not his wife, some of which included explicit photographs of himself, or parts of himself. Before the scandal broke, Weiner was a lively—indeed fiery—congressman, prone to splendid displays of temper on the House floor. He was also a reliably eloquent and bellicose guest on cable-news shows.

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Based on a True Story: 8 Documentaries that Inspired Feature Films

True stories have been a prime inspiration for movies for as long as there have been movies. Early films recreated historical events and breaking news for eager audiences and films as disparate as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1921) and In Which We Serve (1942) to All the President’s Men (1976) and Spotlight (2015) turned recent history into compelling drama. Books, newspapers and sometimes TV and radio news reports were primary sources for years, but more recently, documentary films have become an inspiration for adapting real-life stories and riveting events. In fact, a fictionalized version of the story told in the Independent Lens film The Great Invisible is due out this fall: Deepwater Horizon stars Mark Wahlberg as an electrician on the doomed oil rig.

While dramatized versions, with their movie stars and big budgets and carefully crafted screenplays, are invariably more popular, the original documentaries have their own, more compelling stories to tell. It’s not just a matter of “the original is better” or “documentaries are real.” Non-fiction films are shaped as surely as feature films but the immediacy, the authenticity of subjects who haven’t been polished for prime time, the messy historical records that don’t necessarily hew to the structure of the traditional three-act story all offer a different kind of drama. And the best of these non-fiction works are as dynamic and powerful as Hollywood’s greatest fictions.

We look at the relationship between eight films and the documentaries that inspired them, and why the original documentaries are still essential. Read on to plan some quality based-on-a-true-story double-features.

The Walk (2015), inspired by: Man on Wire (2008)

Robert Zemeckis dramatized the story of Philippe Petit, the French wire-walker and street performer who strung a tightwire between the Twin Towers and walked between the newly-constructed buildings in 1974, in his 2015 feature The Walk, using 3D technology to communicate the awe and wonder of the event from Petit’s perspective. Filmmaker James Marsh had neither the budget nor the technology for his 2008 documentary Man on Wire but he didn’t need it. Petit and his collaborators tell their own story, a mix of performance art and heist thriller, and Marsh illustrates their tale with news footage and brief recreations of their rehearsals. The documentary is just as compelling as the dramatic retelling, a reminder that storytelling is at the heart of great documentary filmmaking.

Continue reading at Independent Lens

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.

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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.

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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.

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