We think of the cinema of activism in documentary filmmaking as a relatively modern phenomenon, something first awakened in the 1960s and 1970s and popularized by the likes of Michael Moore and Laura Poitras and Alex Gibney. But the success films like Bowling for Columbine (2002) and An Inconvenient Truth (2006), both Oscar winners and box-office hits, not to mention such devastating investigative documentaries as The Cove (2009), the Oscar-nominated The Invisible War (Independent Lens, 2012), which directly led to a change in policy towards the prosecution of rape in the military (2012), and The Hunting Ground (2015), were built on a tradition that goes back decades.
Here are some of the landmarks in the cinema of advocacy and activism: documentary as investigative journalism, as an educational tool, as exposé of injustice and inequity, and as a vehicle for political or social change. [Note: All these films are available on various streaming services and DVD rental, while the first two are in the public domain.]
The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) / The River (1938)
In The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River, both directed by Pare Lorentz and funded by the U.S. Government, two currents of non-fiction filmmaking met: the educational project and the propaganda film. These were pro-New Deal films but they addressed the dangers of over-cultivation of American farmland. The Plow casts its lens to the Dust Bowl and The River on the Mississippi River, each documenting the specific conditions that caused the ecological devastation of the regain and offering a more sustainable approach to farming. Both films are in the National Film Registry, and Lorentz now has a filmmaking fund named after him. [Watch The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River]
Life of Riley (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD) – It is curious that Alain Resnais, who was the most narratively experimental and ambitious of directors at the birth of the nouvelle vague in France, spent the last two decade of his filmmaking career melding cinema and theater in productions that are both highly theatrical and uniquely cinematic. Life of Riley, the final film from the director (he passed away in 2014, a few months after the film’s debut), is his third adaptation of British playwright Alan Ayckbourn and, like his penultimate feature You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet (2012), revolves around the theater. In this case it’s an amateur production, a play within a play that we only get in glimpses of rehearsals interrupted by disagreements and digressions. The biggest digression is their friend George Riley, who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He never appears on screen but his presence looms over the film and his actions stir the drama between the three couples of the story: suburbanites Kathryn and Colin (Sabine Azéma and Hippolyte Girardot), wealthy friends Tamara and Jack (Caroline Sihol and Michel Vuillermoz), and George’s ex-wife Monica (Sandrine Kiberlain) now living on a farm with the older Simeon (André Dussollier).
“Drama” may not be the right word. The play itself is a pleasant frivolity, a mix of bedroom farce (without the bedrooms), romantic comedy, and self-aware theater that opens on the first day of rehearsals and ends after closing night, with a coda that brings us back to the themes of mortality and emotional connection. Resnais was 90 when he made the film and it is surely no coincidence that his final two features raise a glass to life by facing death and mortality.
The couple face each other in an old-fashioned railway car set up in a 19th-century amusement park, the girl (Joan Fontaine) a sweet-faced blonde for whom he’s clearly the moon and the stars. The young man (Louis Jourdan) in elegant evening clothes is all charm, genuine enough for the moment, a roué enchanted by fresh innocence. Outside the window, painted landscapes from various countries flow by, long murals unwinding from one seemingly endless reel. Lisa’s only previous journeys have come courtesy of travel folders and her father’s reading, while Stefan’s a genial wastrel who’s never really transported by journeys, never deeply touched by experience. At the end of the line, when there are no more moving pictures, the rapt lovers decide to begin again, “to revisit the scenes of our youth.”
When and where did this magical train ride take place? Can we measure how long it took? Its point of departure and arrival?
The answers to these questions lie within the mystery of cinema. In this scene from Max Ophuls’ Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), “real” time and space are subservient to the transformative power of a woman’s imagination. Already in the grave at this juncture in the film, Ophuls’ artist-heroine is surfing time, revisiting the scenes of her actual youth. Her resurrection is powered by the machinery of memory and art; her romantic narrative eventually generates Stefan’s (and our?) ultimate, soul-saving epiphany. A play of luminous light and sensuous shadow, Letterunreels out of a woman’s lifelong religious-aesthetic obsession. Her virtual reality, far richer and more compelling than those railway landscapes, hyperlinks with eternity.
In the opening scenes of You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, a roll call of France’s most celebrated actors of stage and screen from the past four decades are contacted with the sad news of the passing of a playwright, the author of an updated reworking of Orpheus and Eurydice.
The playwright, Antoine d’Anthac, is fictional, the creation of real-life French playwright Jean Anouilh in the play Cher Antoine ou l’amour rate, which director / co-screenwriter Alain Resnais drafts to stand in for Anouilh as the author of his play Eurydice. The actors are real – among them Mathieu Amalric, Pierre Arditi, Sabine Azéma, Anne Consigny, Hippolyte Girardot, Michel Piccoli, and Lambert Wilson – playing fictionalized versions of themselves. In this incarnation, they have all appeared in productions of Eurydice on the Paris stage and have been invited to the playwright’s country mansion for his wake, which in this case is a posthumous request to watch a fresh interpretation performed by a young company to judge whether they are worthy of staging a new production.
You could call it a film within a play, or a play within a film, but neither really captures the Russian nesting doll quality of the deft merging and doubling of the two arts. I see it as living theater meeting the cinematic imagination of Alain Resnais, who wraps Anouilh’s two plays around one another for a new creation.
Fast & Furious 6 (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD, On Demand) was never meant to be an epitaph for Paul Walker, the lean, blue-eyed lead who, after a couple of misfire sequels, reunited with co-star Vin Diesel and revived the fuel-injected franchise into an international hit machine. But regardless of what happens with the seventh installment, which Walker was in the midst of shooting when he was killed in a car wreck during a break, this will stand as the final film in the series where Walker takes a full lead.
Walker shares those duties with Diesel, his brother-in-law and partner in speed-charged car heists, and Dwayne Johnson, returning as a federal agent who recruits the team to help him shut down an international ring of thieves. It’s all about family and the absurdly contrived plot brings one of their family back from the dead: Michelle Rodriguez has lost her memory but not her bad-ass driving skills as a member of the criminal crew. Not that the script makes much difference beyond providing comic relief between the action set pieces, and even that feels like it’s just padding. Rodriguez commits to her role with such investment in the idea of a person discovering her true identity that her character transcends the silly twist. The rest of the cast are little more than pilots driving their characters through the obstacle course of the plot. Which is pretty much all this busy franchise calls for.
Director Justin Lin, who rejuvenated the franchise with his supercharged approach of precision driving, runaway momentum, and physics bent to the crazed stunts of this gearhead fantasy, embraces the spectacle and lets the performers simply do their thing between the stunts. Jordana Brewster is pretty sidelined here but Tyrese Gibson, Sung Kang, Gal Gadot and Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges are all back, with Gina Carano joining the team as a federal agent and Luke Evans leading the rival crew.
Features commentary by Justin Lin, “The Making of Fast & Furious 6,” a set visit with Vin Diesel, and deleted scenes. Exclusive to the Blu-ray is an extended version of the film and five additional featurettes plus a DVD and UltraViolet Digital HD copies.
The Hunt (Magnolia, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital, On Demand) is Thomas Vinterberg’s best film since The Celebration and, no surprise, it mines similar themes and volatile emotions that are churned up the surface. Mads Mikkelsen stars as a dedicated teaching assistant at a pre-school who, through a misunderstanding, is put under investigation for child abuse, a smoldering suspicion that is fanned into a conflagration as the community passes judgment without waiting for the investigation to conclude. It’s a study in rumor and fear fueling self-righteous hysteria as one-time friends not only turn their back on him, they suddenly feel free to treat him like a convicted war criminal somehow free in a technicality. The emotions are raw and primal, not just the townsfolk fueled by a sense of betrayal but Mikkelsen’s abused innocent, fighting back with an equally valid fury of betrayal. But it’s more of a metaphor pushed to extremes than a realistic portrait, ignoring the gross negligence of supposedly serious and responsible officials and suggesting that the entire town turns a blind eye to the vigilante behavior of its citizens. It sure works on our emotions, though, while it reminds us of the power of fear to turn responsible people into very scary creatures.
Danish with English subtitles, with the featurette “The Making of The Hunt,” deleted scenes, and an alternate ending.
You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet (Kino Lorber, DVD) is a reminder that sometime the old dogs have the most creative approaches to modern storytelling. Alain Resnais direct this melding of two plays by Jean Anouilh and he pays tribute to the joys of theater in a marvelously cinematic fashion. A magnificent line-up of French acting greats (among them Mathieu Amalric, Pierre Arditi, Sabine Azéma, Anne Consigny, Hippolyte Girardot, Michel Piccoli, Lambert Wilson and longtime Resnais muse Sabine Azéma) play versions of themselves, performers who watch a new production of a play they once starred in and end up reenacting their own versions in tandem, aging actor reincarnating the young lovers of the Orpheus and Eurydice story. What a magnificent celebration of the transformative magic of theater and performance. French with English subtitles, no supplements.
Last Year at Graceland: The Story Behind Elvis Presley’s Lost Film
Actual listing from the Turner Classic Movies website, August 16, 2002:
â€œ3:00 PM â€“ TICKLE ME/1965
A wealthy man tries to convince a bored socialite that they had an affair years earlier. Delphine Seyrig, Giorgio Albertazzi, Sacha Pitoeff. D: Alain Resnais. C-91m.â€
In the ill-starred filmography of Elvis Presley, Tickle Me has long been considered the lone instance of the King reaching out beyond a simplistic movie formula, and thus presents a fascinating case study for Elvis fan and serious film scholar alike. (To be sure, Girls! Girls! Girls! has its champions, but save that for another day.) Tickle Me was originally assigned to director Hal â€œFirst Takeâ€ Beauregard, who, despite his advanced age and unfamiliarity with post-World War I music, had already guided four Elvis vehicles to box-office success. Just before shooting began, Beauregard was taken off Tickle Me when it was discovered that he had been legally deaf and partly blind for the previous decade, a condition known only to himself and Presleyâ€™s manager, the legendary Colonel Tom Parker.
Desperate to proceed, and with a brief window available before a locked-in start date for Paradise, Hawaiian Style, Col. Parker sought advice from the only person in Hollywood older than himself: Sam Spiegel, the producer of Lawrence of Arabia. The Colonel hoped to hire that Oscar-winning filmâ€™s director, David Lean, and indeed Lean worked on a story treatment for a week or so – but by the time he finished, Tickle Me no longer resembled its original concept. The Lean script would have necessitated re-casting, to say nothing of a three-hour running time, so Lean moved on. (Traces of his ideas can be found in the Presley vehicle Harum Scarum, its Arabian Nights atmosphere clearly influenced by Lawrence.)
This is where the saga truly becomes interesting. With only days until principal photography was scheduled to begin, Colonel Parker asked Lean for an inspiration. And Lean found one: Alain Resnais, the French director of Hiroshima, Mon Amour, which had exploded onto international movie screens a few years before. Resnais was in Hollywood hoping to jump-start his American career with an MGM horse-racing picture, but immediately leapt at the chance to work with the singer known in France as Le Roi du Pelvis. It was Resnaisâ€™ inspiration to enlist writer Alain Robbe-Grillet to punch up the Tickle Me script, which was originally penned by Ellwood Ullmann and Edward Bernds, a long-established writing team whose previous film was The Three Stooges in Orbit. One might expect Robbe-Grillet, widely celebrated for the 1950s Nouveau Roman movement as well as his superbly manicured fingernails, to look down on the assignment. Yet he relished the prospect of exploring U.S. culture from the inside. Later he was to recall the experience as a welcome break from the â€œexcess of thinkingâ€ that marked his work in French literature.