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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Crash Course in Editing: Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

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Comic book films and action movies tend to use a fast-paced style of editing combined with close framings and jittery camera movement. The editing has been dubbed post-classical or hyper-editing, while the camera movement is referred to with the derogatory term “shaky cam.” I have also heard this obvious, inelegant style called “chaos cinema” or “intensified continuity.”

Hyper-editing is antithetical to the classic continuity editing innovated by D.W. Griffith and cemented by hundreds of directors over nine decades in Hollywood. Continuity editing prides itself on establishing a clarity of space and logic of action, which pulls the audience into the film, making them participants in the narrative. Viewers identify with the characters, bonding with them. Bona fide suspense is created when the characters are in danger, because viewers can see where the danger is in relation to the characters. The performance of the stars, as well as mood and tone, are part of the experience, which is enhanced by continuity. Hyper-editing trades spatial clarity, star turns, and mood for a visceral experience that is forgotten as soon as it is viewed. Small wonder it appeals to adolescent boys whose attentions spans can be measured in nano-seconds.

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On the Road Again: A Poem is a Naked Person (1974)

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On November 14th Leon Russell passed away at the age of 74, after a remarkable career in music. He started as a sought-after studio session ace, working on everything from the Beach Boys and Frank Sinatra to the “Monster Mash.” Drawn to roots music of all kinds, when he started his rock band it played an ecstatic blend of country-blues-R&B (known as the “Tulsa Sound”) that became one of the top touring acts of the 1970s. In 1972 Les Blank started filming a documentary, A Poem is a Naked Person, that would follow one of Russell’s tours as well as the recording process of what would become the album Hank Wilson’s Back. It was shot over two years, and has the vibrancy and surprise of Blank’s improvisatory style. He captures anything, whether it’s an intense studio session or a random girl singing a Three Dog Night tune before a wedding. A Poem Was a Naked Person was not a traditional concert doc, so due to creative differences and contractual snags, it did not see the light of the projector for decades. But it was finally released by Janus Films in 2015, and is now available to stream on FilmStruck.

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Ornette: Made in America (1985)

PERSONALITIES

Ornette Coleman’s symphony “Skies of America” was conceived in 1965, recorded in 1972, and performed intermittently in the ensuing decades. It was something of a grand introduction to Coleman’s “harmolodic” compositional method, the term a portmanteau of harmony, motion and melody, and required a full orchestra alongside Coleman’s working jazz quartet. Due to budget limitations the recording eliminated the quartet (Coleman played solo) and cut out a third of the symphony, due to the length limitations of vinyl. Coleman sought to realize the original vision of the piece over the ensuing decades. Shirley Clarke’s hyperkinetic documentary Ornette: Made in America (1985), is an attempt to track the artistic evolution of the project from the sixties into the eighties, using a performance of “Skies of America” in Coleman’s hometown of Fort Worth, Texas as the fulcrum. Available to view on FilmStruck, or on DVD and Blu-ray from Milestone Films, it eschews historical context for the immediacy of performance, making it more of a piece for fans rather than newcomers to Coleman’s work. But it is a rare peek into Coleman’s artistic process – which means it is a glimpse into the mind of one of the greatest and most influential artists of the twentieth century.

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Just a Shot Away: Reflections on Gimme Shelter (1970)

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Gimme Shelter (1970) is frequently labeled the greatest “rockumentary” ever made. The term gives the film a currency so that young bloggers can include it on their “best of” lists, or marketers can sell it alongside recent music documentaries. Yet, the Maysles Brothers’ vérité cinematography remains fresh and compelling, surpassing recent rockumentaries in style and technique.

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The Trouble with Making Music

PERSONALITIES

“What really makes me want to play music is when I really hear an individual thought pattern placed in an environment to make something actually come about that is not an obvious thing that everyone is doing.”

That’s Ornette Coleman, the extraordinary free jazz saxophonist and true innovator speaking about music in the documentary Ornette: Made in America (1984), but it applies just as well to the new form of documentary film that was born in the sixties, rising with the new wave of popular music cementing itself in American and world culture. The movies documenting the daily activities of Bob Dylan in Don’t Look Back (1967) or The Rolling Stones in Gimme Shelter (1970) were not of the staid and tired talking head variety. They documented in the true sense: without narration, without captions, without context. A freer form was necessary to cover a new era of music that didn’t lend itself to the established norms of the interview film.

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