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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Walking The Thin Blue Line (1988) with Errol Morris

THIN BLUE LINE, THE (1988)

The Thin Blue Line (1988), which is available for streaming via FilmStruck as part of the series Documentaries by Errol Morris, is more than a documentary. It is an investigation into the case of Randall Adams, who was falsely convicted of the murder of Dallas policeman Robert Wood.

Randall Adams was one of the hundreds of rural poor eking out a meager living on the margins of working-class Texas. His (mis)fortunes turned from bad to worse when he met David Harris, a wild teenager with a penchant for violence. The two hung out for a brief time before parting ways after Adams declined to allow Harris to crash in his motel room. A short time later, Adams was arrested for killing Officer Wood during a routine traffic stop. The primary witness was Harris, who claimed he was in the passenger seat when Adams pulled out a gun and shot Wood. Intent on a quick conviction, the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department “discovered” other witnesses in addition to Harris who swore that Adams was a dangerous murderer.

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Treasures Left Behind

THE GLEANERS AND I, (aka LES GLANEURS ET LA GLANEUSE), director Agnes Varda, 2000. ©Zeitgeist Films/

As of late a lot of my friends are purging themselves of records, books, movies and more. I’ve been the happy recipient of these spoils and, as best I can, I have been trying to give these items a good home. Something in this act reminds me of The Gleaners and I (2000) – a documentary by Agnès Varda about people who make their living sifting through that which has been discarded by others. Varda, who made her first film at the age of 26 (La Pointe Courte, 1955) and whose work was essential to the French New Wave, was the first woman to receive an honorary Palme d’or two years ago. Her work is infused with a deep intellect that is kind, ruminative and open to experimentation.

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Pina (2011): Recreating the Stage Onscreen

PINA (2011)

If you have ever been to the theater, you know the exhilaration of watching actors perform live onstage. There’s something about it that’s completely unique. There is no equivalent in the cinema. By the same turn, the awe and grandeur of the cinema produces a different level of exhilaration, completely separate from the stage. When we watch the Death Star explode, or Popeye Doyle race beneath the elevated subway tracks of New York City, or Chief Brody get a big hello from a hungry shark, we know that’s something that can never be replicated on a stage and have the same impact. On the stage, simply seeing a person sing a song in front of you, or dance, or reveal their deepest fear or greatest joy, is a moment all its own. Pina (2011), directed by Wim Wenders, is one of the few films I have ever seen that replicates the stage experience and provides the best argument yet that cinema/stage fusion can indeed work.

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Part Doc, Part Comedy, All Sex

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Did you know that the energy harnessed by orgasm is the same energy responsible for the Northern Lights? No? Well, perhaps you are unfamiliar with the Orgone, an energy that exists everywhere and in all of us. It can be harnessed in an Orgone Accumulator, a wooden/metal box created by Austrian psychologist Wilhelm Reich in the 1930′s, that one sits in to accumulate Orgone energy. Once inside, the good energies build up within the subject, breaking through their “body armor,” as he called it, meaning their collective neuroses, and the good feelings begin to flow. For the rest of us, the bathroom works just fine. In 1971, Serbian director Dušan Makavejev, fascinated by Reich and his energy accumulating cabinet of curiosity, put together a movie, WR: Mysteries of the Organism, part documentary, part fictional narrative, part satirical, part propaganda. What makes it work so hypnotically well, is that all of those parts overlap with each other without a care or concern as to linear narrative or even functional argument.

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But it still happened, right? Life with Nanook and Bob

NANOOK OF THE NORTH (1922)

There was a time, not too long ago, when the veracity of what was portrayed in a documentary was a given. If someone put together a non-fiction film, surely we could trust our own eyes. Over time, questions began to arise and the veracity of documenting life on film was called into question. It was revealed, for instance, that the lemmings plunging to their death in Walt Disney’s White Wilderness (1958) weren’t actually killing themselves en masse but being scared off of a cliff’s edge and, in some cases, thrown off, by the filmmakers. Why? Because people were under the impression that lemmings killed themselves like some tiny rodentia version of the People’s Temple, sans the Kool-Aid. And, hey, if that’s what people thought, might as well give them what they want, right? Um, right? But Nanook of the North* (1922) was no Disney True-Life Adventure. It was a pioneering look into a different culture that set the standard for biographical documentaries for years to come. But is it real? Well, that depends on your definition of real.

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