Keep on Buckin’… the System: Crumb (1994)

Crumb (1994)  Directed by Terry Zwigoff Shown: Robert Crumb

Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb enters FilmStruck at roughly 8:00pm ET today.

Near the end of the 1994 documentary Crumb, directed by Terry Zwigoff, we see Robert Crumb and his wife, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, in their home supervising movers as they get ready to head out. Out of the country, that is. They’re moving to France and Crumb wonders if the “football jocks” can handle moving his delicate records. This leads Aline to relate a story of some people in Eureka that she visited who had a big football helmet chair and a “fat teenager” sitting in it in front of the tv playing Nintendo. Crumb says, rather condescendingly, “You don’t see much of that in France.” Crumb never had much regard for people leading lives mapped out for them by corporate culture and mass media. He even rants at an earlier point about people walking around with logos on their hats and shirts, paying corporations to advertise for them.  In many ways, it’s the most fitting possible coda to an examination of Robert Crumb, an artist whose adult life could be adequately described as an endless fight against copyright infringement, artistic mediocrity, and anything that might make him acceptable to the public at large.

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Werner Herzog and the Burden of Dreams (1982)

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To view Burden of Dreams click here.

“If I abandon this project I would be a man without dreams and I don’t want to live like that. I live my life or I end my life with this project.”

That’s how Werner Herzog responded to his investors in Germany asking him if he had the will to go on and finish his film, Fitzcarraldo (1982). If you’ve come to know Herzog over the years, you know that this statement is nothing out of the ordinary. Herzog has never expressed himself in delicate or fragile terms. He prefers to tell it in the most operatic way possible and he gets away with it because you believe him. You believe his dedication to his dreams does indeed become a burden he must drag behind him everywhere he goes. Fitzcarraldo started out as an idea in the mid-1970s and entered into pre-production sometime around 1977. After a year and a half of mapping out logistics and searching for a suitable filming location along the Amazon, Herzog finally set up camp in November, 1979. That’s when everything went to hell.

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Mifune: The Last Samurai (2015)

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To view the work of Toshirô Mifune on FIlmStruck, click here.

A quick search of Filmstruck brought up an impressive 24 films featuring the late great Toshirô Mifune including Drunken Angel (1948), Stray Dog (1949), Rashomon (1950), Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), The Bad Sleep Well (1960), Yojimbo (1961), Red Beard (1965) and Samurai Rebellion (1967). Mifune was a giant in the world of Japanese cinema and although I’ve written a little bit about his background in the past in pieces such as Toshiro Mifune, Japan’s John Wayne and in my review of his first film, Snow Trail (1947), I wanted to know more about the man who had appeared in so many of my favorite Japanese films. My curiosity led me to recently watch Mifune: The Last Samurai (2015). This 80-minute-long feature directed by Steven Okazki and narrated by Keanu Reeves is the first documentary to offer a careful examination of Mifune’s life and work. It is not available on FilmStruck at the moment but Mifune: The Last Samurai is a nice companion piece to their current programming and should be of interest to anyone who wants to know more about the rich history of Japanese cinema.

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The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)

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To view The Times of Harvey Milk click here.

Harvey Milk served only eleven months as the District 5 Supervisor of San Francisco but it can truly be said that his influence will outlive most politicians who have served a lifetime. In those eleven months, Milk got a gay rights ordinance through, successfully blocked the anti-gay teacher Proposition 6 and became a voice for a community that stretched out far beyond his home. In that eleventh month, on November 27, 1978, Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone were assassinated by another former city supervisor, Dan White. Milk’s life was over but his voice and message live on.

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Yum, Yum, Yum! A Taste of Cajun & Creole Cooking (1990)

YUM, YUM, YUM! (1990)

To view Yum, Yum, Yum! A Taster of Cajun and Creole Cooking click here.

If you’ve never heard me say it before, let me say it here again: Les Blank is my favorite documentarian. I’ve written about him several times in different venues on and offline, as well as on TCM’s main site, where I did an article on this very movie. In that article, I wrote, “There aren’t many documentarians like Les Blank anymore. Maybe there never were. Blank had an uncanny ability, an inexplicable talent one might say, to take normal, ordinary activities, like making dinner, and turn them into fascinating cinema.” Of course, the wonderfully titled Yum, Yum, Yum! A Taster of Cajun and Creole Cooking (1990) is about more than making dinner, it’s about culture and family and how something as simple as a meal can have deep communal roots.

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On the Rebound? Sherman’s March (1986) Is the Movie for You!

SHERMAN'S MARCH (1985)

To view Sherman’s March click here.

As a film studies professor, I recognize Sherman’s March (1986) by Ross McElwee as an example of a performative documentary. In this type of doc, the filmmaker appears onscreen, stages interviews with his or her subjects, and intervenes directly in events. The film becomes as much about the filmmaker as it does about the subject. Though made famous by Michael Moore in such films as Roger and Me (1989) and Bowling for Columbine (2002), this type of doc actually precedes Moore’s work. Michael Rubbo’s Waiting for Fidel (1974) follows Rubbo and a group of Canadians who had made arrangements to meet and speak with Fidel Castro in Cuba. Rubbo intended to make a documentary about their meeting. Every day, the party waited for Castro; every day, their meeting was postponed. With little else to do, Rubbo decided to shoot footage of his party visiting sites in Cuba. They never did meet Castro, hence the title Waiting for Fidel.

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Tokyo Gone Gagaga: Otaku (1994)

OTAKU (1994)

To view Otaku click here.

Otaku: (in Japan) a young person who is obsessed with computers or particular aspects of popular culture to the detriment of their social skills. (definition from The Oxford Dictionary)

Otaku: Obsessed fan; geek; nerd. Not restricted to anime fans, otaku is a general and relatively insulting word used to describe people obsessed with some particular hobby. (definition from AnimeWorld.com)

I’ve never referred to myself as an otaku but I’m sure that others have. Throughout much of the 1990s, I held minor jobs within the manga and animation industry selling comic books, attending conventions and finally working as a convention publicist, which involved traveling to Tokyo. During this time I developed a strong affection for many aspects of Japanese pop culture including anime, manga, music and doll collecting. I also self-published zines and wrote for publications while covering a wide array of topics that ranged from Sailor Moon to visual kei (a form of Japanese glam/goth rock). My interest in these subjects wavered between curiosity, admiration and obsession but I’ve always had extremely varied hobbies and pastimes. At the same time that I was writing about Japanese pop culture, I was also writing about British poetry, French literature and classic horror movies. So am I an otaku? I suppose it depends on the time of day and who you ask.

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The Future is Now: Remembrance of Things to Come (2001)

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To view Remembrance of Things to Come click here.

“Gone and never to return
and being for myself alone
a remembrance of things to come
who fancied being a human”
– From a poem by Claude Roy, quoted in Remembrance of Things to Come (2001)

Remembrance of Things to Come aka Le Souvenir d’un avenir (2001) opens at the 1938 International Surrealist Exhibition at the Galerie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, which has been described as “the culminating avant-garde celebration in Europe before the devastating events leading to World War II” (Ubu Gallery). The exhibit outraged critics at the time and featured works of art by Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, René Magritte, Lenora Carrington, Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Cornell, Hans Bellmer and Max Ernst among many others. We tour the dense galleries through the embracing and investigative eyes of Denise Bellon, a pioneering photojournalist who became one of the surrealists most ardent supporters and collaborators. Bellon is the subject of this fascinating documentary made by Chris Maker in association with Bellon’s daughter (filmmaker Yannick Bellon) and the film is now streaming on FilmStruck until July 28th. As is the case with many women who created work within the surrealist movement, Denise Bellon’s name is not as recognizable as her male counterparts but she was arguably one of the most innovative, daring and accomplished photographers of the period. Remembrance of Things to Come moves Bellon out of the shadows and into the spotlight where she belongs.

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On Forugh Farrokhzad

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To view The House Is Black click here.

Documentary often focuses our attention on something we might not otherwise notice—a forgotten event, an overlooked historical figure, an ignored social problem, an animal species hidden in plain sight. The House Is Black (1963), currently streaming on FilmStruck, does more than focus our attention; it dares us to look at a subject that will make us uneasy, uncomfortable or just plain upset. Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad conceived and directed The House Is Black, a short documentary that reveals the daily lives of the inhabitants of a leper colony near Tabriz. It is likely the first Iranian documentary ever directed by a woman.

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Before Cable, There Was Korda

CONQUEST OF THE AIR (1936)

To view Conquest of the Air click here.

Perhaps I’m alone in this (though I hope not) but I find watching old info docs as much fun as watching old movies. When I first got TCM years ago, I quickly settled into something that would become a familiar pattern. Sitting down for a night of movie watching, I was often more excited for the programming between the movies as the movies themselves. And if one of those one-reel wonders turned out to be an informational documentary or travelogue, all the better. If you’ve seen some of them, you know that re-enactments play a big role in them, whether they’re covering the early days of the Pony Express, cataloging superstitions or retracing Washington’s crossing of the Delaware. These infotainments would become the models for cable programming years later, and when you watch them, you can see proto Modern Marvels and Wild Discoveries in the making. In Britain, these formats were done with exceptional skill and an eye towards entertainment and one of the most interesting, and ominously timed, was Conquest of the Air(1936), produced by Alexander Korda and directed by his brother, Zoltan.

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