Racing Extinction contains many grisly examples of mankind’s impact on the natural world, but one of its most affecting touches is a snippet of birdsong. The movie considers the way various species have been driven to nonexistence in the past few decades, among them the Kaua‘i ?‘? bird. A research unit at Cornell University catalogues wildlife sounds, and they recorded the song of the ?‘?—that is, the very last one—before the type vanished in the late 1980s. It’s a plucky little cry, made all the more poignant because no other ?‘? is around to answer it. Later we see footage of people killing manta rays and a Hong Kong rooftop loaded with thousands of shark fins, but that extinct sound really brings home an overwhelming sense of absence.
Guess who’s coming to burn a cross on your lawn. Noted white supremacist—now there’s a tagline for a business card—Craig Cobb decided a North Dakota town would be just right for seeding a nationwide racist movement. So in 2013 he moved to tiny Leith, population 24 or so. Buying a few bargain-basement properties, Cobb hatched a plan to get other white-power advocates to settle there, take over the town council, and live the dream. This crackpot is the central figure of this documentary account of what happened when the residents of Leith found out what Cobb was up to.
The Epic of Everest (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD), the film record of the third British ascent of Everest, was an event in itself in 1924. Its restoration is almost as much an event. Unavailable for years, with elements in the BFI film vault waiting for years to be resurrected, the restoration was completed and unveiled in 2011.
Presented with a solemnity befitting the gravity of the event (two of the greatest and most celebrated climbers of the day, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, died trying to reach the peak), it’s also as beautiful a nonfiction film you’ll see from the era. Captain John Noel hauled a hand-cranked camera (developed specifically for the challenge of shooting in the snow and ice) along with the expedition party (of 500 men and animals, according to the titles) and captured truly astounding images. He brought state-of-the-art telephoto lenses which enabled him to get viable images from as far away as two miles. But he also brought art and aesthetics to his shots, many of them like landscape portraits alive with passing clouds, shifting shadows, and halos of snow and mist whipped up by the winds. They are framed beautifully and use the light and shadow as dramatic elements.
One summer evening, while visiting the shooting set of Sam Peckinpah’s The Osterman Weekend, I found myself chatting with John Hurt, never a knockout in looks but always a terrific actor. The easy banter, the charming way he leaned to light my cigarette, the suggestive slide of his eyes—suddenly there was a spotlit place where an ordinary encounter had been heightened into the possibility of dramatic story and character. Then he was summoned by his director, to disappear from view behind a poolhouse door. As he emerged, pointing a gun, it was as though that door frame had been a camera wipe. Hurt was Other, lethal and hard, a slight man moving with the weight of his own history and the terror of the moment. Not sure how to convey how astonishing this alchemy was; Hurt had transubstantiated, shaping how he would be seen by the camera.
Acting is authentic mystery. Sure, you can say it’s just putting on a face and pretending to be somebody, something you’re not. A matter of craft, in the word’s positive and negative meanings. But beyond consummate liars and confidence men, there are those capable of unforgettable transformation. Such protean players look like magicians, able to access other selves, body and soul. Are they vampires—like Liv Ullmann’s hollowed-out actress in Persona? Do they dredge truth out of the dark well of their past, tap into collected memory, to illuminate characters that look and feel like us? And what’s the cost to the chameleon? Does it sear like flaying, or is there ecstasy in becoming wholly Other?
His parents were Midwestern Gothic: the father a bitter drunk who settled things with violence, the mother a poetic type who couldn’t lay off the booze. Yet in the way of strange, sad American stories, these two souls created a combination of DNA and childhood trauma that birthed one of the definitive actors—why not say artists?—of the mid-20th century. The son got his father’s name, Marlon Brando, an ideal moniker for an icon of bigger-than-life coolness and rebellious disdain. If you’re already up on Brando lore, and especially if you’ve read his oddball autobiography, this new documentary won’t uncover much that’s new. But it’s a pleasure to watch, serving up Brando as a model for other artists who aspire to sincerity and honesty in their work.
Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2013 documentary The Act of Killing earned an Oscar nomination and a raft of astonished reviews. There were skeptics, however, who questioned the film’s nausea-inducing strategy of encouraging the mass murderers of Indonesia’s mid-1960s genocide to proudly re-enact their atrocities for the camera. That’s a point worth raising, but with the release of The Look of Silence, we glimpse Oppenheimer’s larger canvas. This film—not a sequel, but a complementary project—has an interrogator.
Instead of the neutral camera-eye of The Act of Killing, we see the new film from the perspective of Adi Rukun, an optometrist (born in 1968, after the slaughter) whose older brother was tortured and killed during the purge.
Taken separately, there is nothing wrong with political documentaries, animation, or talking animals. Put them together, and you have my kryptonite. So my lack of enthusiasm for The Wanted 18 can be taken with that in mind, especially if you like all of the above. The very slim 75-minute film is based on an incident that took place during the First Intifada: In 1988, as part of a general organized pushback against Israel, some Palestinian inhabitants of the town of Beit Sahour purchased 18 milk cows from a sympathetic Israeli farmer. This way, the population could produce its own dairy products and stop relying on Israel for that part of its diet. Not being dairy farmers, there was a good deal of bumbling involved, which makes for some mildly amusing reminiscences from people who were there. Then the Israeli authorities decided to stop the project, and a hunt ensued as the Palestinian milkmen tried to hide the bovines for a couple of increasingly bizarre weeks.
Shouldn’t the documentary come first, followed by a fictionalized feature “inspired by true events”? Not in this case. Ben Affleck’s Argo introduced many viewers to the Mission: Improbable that sprung six U.S. diplomats out of Iran after the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy. Argo was a Hollywood entertainment all the way, even copping the Oscar for Best Picture. Now comes a Canadian documentary that drops the brassy drama of Argo for a more straightforward approach. Its title refers to the Canadian ambassador to Iran, Kenneth Taylor, who not only sheltered the American escapees during their hiding but also fed information to Jimmy Carter’s government for the (ultimately, tragically) botched attempted rescue of the other hostages.
David Thorpe tells us he got the idea for his documentary when he was riding a train from his home in New York to Fire Island. Surrounded by gay men, Thorpe was struck by the sound of the voices he heard around him. Being gay himself, he wondered: “Do I really sound like that?” He quickly found the answer to be “yes,” and then decided the idea of a “gay voice”—how and why such a thing exists—might make a good subject for a personal-essay film. There’s an irony here, which is that so many practitioners of the first-person documentary, from Michael Moore to Morgan Spurlock, seem to be in love with the sound of their own voices. Thorpe insists he isn’t happy with his. But he sure does talk a lot.
Back in the ’60s Ed Pincus made some key social-issue documentaries and wrote a how-to book that became a bible for low-budget filmmaking. If he’d kept on that track, he would have remained a respectable figure in the world of nonfiction film. Instead, Pincus rejected the idea that a camera could record something without changing it, and made a first-person documentary about his own life, Diaries (1971–76), released in 1982. That 200-minute epic was scorned as Me Generation navel-gazing by The New York Times, but also widely acclaimed. Pincus’ work was influential (his former Harvard student Ross McElwee clearly aped the Pincus style in his classic Sherman’s March), but the man himself dropped out of filmmaking for 30 years to raise flowers and family in Vermont.
The film was apparently eight years in the making, but Sunshine Superman happens to open just after the death of Dean Potter, which might color its rainbow feel-good spirit just a tad. Potter was the superstar climber and BASE jumper who fell to earth in May after he illegally leaped off a very high place in Yosemite (another jumper died with him). That event kindled some much-needed discussion about whether BASE jumpers are romantic daredevils or irresponsible adrenaline junkies who endanger themselves and others. Potter is not mentioned in this documentary, but his spirit—whichever side of the argument you fall on—is much in play.
You know your weird neighbors? They seem to be a big family, but nobody ever sees them, except when the angry-looking father goes out to get groceries. Sometimes you hear strange things going on. What are they doing in there?
Well, keep your camera handy, because behind those cardboarded-over windows might be a documentary film waiting to blossom. One such household is thrown open in The Wolfpack, the chronicle of six brothers raised inside a shabby New York apartment and only rarely allowed to go outside.
[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]
With The Sorrow and the Pity and A Sense of Loss, Marcel Ophuls raised historical cinéma vérité to the height of artistic creation. Osheroff’s style of documentary moviemaking, as applied to the political situation in Spain and the ways in which it has evolved since the Spanish Civil War, is similar to Ophuls’s in a number of ways. It employs, for example, the same device of intercutting between old footage and recent interviews with people who went through it all in a manner that lends perspective to the past events and provides a dimension of irony. But the human drama of individuals intersecting with history before our eyes is somehow made less powerful by the aura of anti-war proselytism which hangs about Dreams and Nightmares. Ophuls may be farther removed from Vichy France than Osheroff is from the Spanish Civil War (he fought in it), and Dreams and Nightmares does not try to camouflage its political barbs—no one can blame Osheroff for infusing his personal views into a film he made largely out of a sense of moral commitment. But then, Jane Fonda’s movie on Vietnam is persuasively pacifist without being politically blatant, and she is certainly just as committed as Osheroff.
Red Army (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – Director Gabe Polsky, the Chicago-born son of Russian immigrants, dreamed of playing pro hockey and ended up making movies. This documentary, his directorial debut, finds the intersection of sports triumph, political gamesmanship, and personal sacrifice in the story of the powerhouse Soviet national hockey team of the eighties, when it won two Olympic gold medals and seven World Championships.
The story is built around interviews with Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, the former team captain, and Polsky begins the film with a scene of Fetisov more engaged with his cell phone than with the interviewer (“It’s business,” he explains) and flipping him the finger when Polsky keeps peppering him with questions. Clearly both Polsky and Fetisov have a sense of humor, which helps move us into the story through Fetisov and his teammates, which is not humorous at all. We learn about the rigorous training regimen that kept the men from their families 11 months out of the year, which drilled into them the distinctive playing style that confounded western teams. The players became national heroes, at least for time, but were essentially prisoners of their success. They were under constant pressure to win as a matter of national dignity and political pride.
You could be forgiven for assuming that Lambert and Stamp are some forgotten folk-rock duo of the Peter & Gordon variety. Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp were part of London’s ’60s rock scene, though not as performers but as managers, promoters, producers, and mentors. They helped transform a mod-favorite club band called The High Numbers into The Who, nurtured the songwriting talents of Pete Townsend, and supported the band until its breakthrough.
They are a colorful pair with an interesting story. Lambert, the posh, Oxford-educated son of a classical-music conductor, and Stamp, a working-class bloke and younger brother of Terence Stamp, were aspiring filmmakers when they met as assistants at Shepperton Studios.