Doc Holiday: Art of the Real at the Film Society of Lincoln Center


From the beginning documentary filmmaking was synonymous was artifice. For Nanook of the North (1922), Robert Flaherty re-staged scenes of an Inuit family at home, complete with an igloo constructed for the shoot. Getting to truth through fiction was an accepted practice for that non-fiction pioneer. It was a common sense approach, using all the filmmaking tools available to capture as much of a multifarious reality as he could. Today the model, best exemplified by An Inconvenient Truth, is that of a TED talk, in which a pre-determined position is supported by talking heads, explanatory slides and jaunty animations. Most of these message documentaries, well-intentioned or not, have no need for moving images at all.  Flaherty’s model has survived, but it lives at the periphery of the film world, in academic contexts like Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL), or documentary boot camps like the yearly Robert Flaherty Seminar, which programs formally innovative non-fiction work by a rotating cast of curators. Programmers Dennis Lim and Rachael Rakes have gathered the tendrils of these non-fiction experiments into the definition-expanding series “Art of the Real”, which runs through April 26th at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.


Six Degrees of Elvis Presley

elvissammyFor the third and final post in my informal and unintended series on Elvis Presley, I was inspired by the documentary Elvis: That’s the Way It Is, which airs on TCM on Tuesday, April 15, at 5:00am (actually Wednesday, but it is listed as Tuesday night on the TCM schedule). Elvis: That’s the Way It Is chronicles Presley’s engagement at the International Hotel in the summer of 1970. The film airing on TCM is the 2001 special edition, a reworked version of the original. A producer named Rick Schmidlin discovered unmarked cans of unused footage for the film in MGM’s storage facilities in an old salt mine in Kansas along with the original 16-track recordings. The tracks were digitally remixed for the special edition, and unseen footage of Elvis in rehearsal and on stage replaced non-concert scenes from the original. For me, one of the most interesting parts of this documentary is the show of celebrities and stars who lined up to see Elvis at the International, including Juliet Prowse, Charo and her husband Xavier Cugat, Dale Robertson, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Cary Grant.

Elvis knew and admired a variety of stars and performers throughout his career. This makes sense considering his success in different arenas of show business (recording; films; live performance and his eclectic personal tastes in entertainment and music. The latter served him well in developing a unique musical style and sound not once but twice—in 1954 and in 1968-1969. Below are just a few photos of Elvis’s show-biz acquaintances, associates, and admirers. You are not likely to find a more diverse circle of celebrities associated with one entertainer.


Mourning in America


Tomorrow (November 22nd) is the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and TCM is commemorating this tragic event by airing a series of films tonight (November 21st) that document his presidency. Four of the five films were directed by Robert Drew, a LIFE magazine photographer and editor who pioneered the cinéma vérité movement in the 1960s that attempted to “capture truth on film by observing, recording, and presenting reality without exercising directorial control” (The Film Encyclopedia, Seventh Edition, 2012).

Forough Farrokhzad and ‘The House Is Black’

ffopenerNext semester I am teaching a section on documentary film, and I am considering showing The House Is Black, which airs tomorrow night at 12:15am (EST) on TCM as supportive programming for The Story of Film: An Odyssey.  This 22-minute film from 1963 stretches the boundaries of what many people think of as documentary, which is one of the reasons why I am considering it for my class. Conceived and directed by an Iranian woman named Forough Farrokhzad, the film is a portrait of an isolated leper colony near Tabriz in northern Iran.

The House Is Black chronicles the daily lives of the lepers for whom ordinary activities—walking, eating, speaking—are a struggle. A leper colony is a place few viewers have seen, let alone experienced. Though there are still colonies around the world, they seem like remnants from the distant past, or their notoriety is exploited in novels or movies set in exotic lands, such as Papillon or  Moloka’i. In The House Is Black, Farrokhzad asks us to look beyond the deformity and deterioration of the colony’s residents to see them as human beings. The images are neither dispassionate nor sentimental; the film captures the reality of their situation in a verite-like style.

A unique voice-over narration consisting of two alternating voices provokes thought and elicits sympathy. A male voice dispassionately offers facts about leprosy, while Farrokhzad’s own voice recites a poetic commentary that is a mix of quotes from the Bible, the Koran, and her own poetry. The strength of the film lies in the way it combines the external reality of the leper colony (the images) with an internal response to their plight (the narration). Like all great documentaries, The House Is Black seems simple and straightforward on the surface, yet its structure and execution make it memorable and moving.


Doris Day Creeps Me Out


Yesterday was International Home Movie Day, so it seemed fitting to watch Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (1992). The title of Mark Rappaport’s pseudo documentary is somewhat misleading, as the compilations of clips used are all taken from Hudson’s existing body of Hollywood work, rather than a personal stash of super-8 films. Actor Eric Farr appears sporadically as Hudson’s proxy to give voice to imagined musings by the actor as he speaks from beyond the grave on selected excerpts. From the Journals of Jean Seaberg finds Rappaport refining a similar template three years later, and in both cases there is an interesting appropriation of personality at work. In a curious turn of events, Rappaport’s name has been in the headlines recently due to a dispute involving an appropriation of his work, his films and his legacy, by Boston University Film professor Ray Carney – a story which has taken on a life of its own with plenty of extensive coverage. What surprises me is that, here it is, late October, a time when I should be joining all my fellow Morlocks writing about my favorite scary films, and instead I’m writing about Doris Day. To be more specific; the subject is the Day/Hudson romantic comedy Send Me No Flowers (1964), which screens tonight on TCM. But, you know what? There is actually something creepy about Doris Day… [...MORE]

The Story of Film: The Life of an American Editor

As any fan of reality TV can tell you, the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction are poorly policed.  Reality shows emphasize drama—often following entirely predictable and palpably artificial storylines—yet are constituted of footage of events that actually happened.  The irony is that for all the ways that this may feel challenging or new, it has been part of cinema since the very beginning.  This is where movies began, in the 1880s and 90s.

The earliest motion pictures were just what their name said: pictures that moved.  And as such they had a lot in common with pictures that didn’t move—records of real events.  Take a quick look at whatever pictures you have on your phone.  How many are attempts to tell stories, or to be artistic, versus how many are documentary records of things that happened to you?  Think about what comprised the first ever Lumiere Brothers film show in 1895—here’s our office, here’s our friends, this is somebody’s baby.  It’s a photo album that moves.  All that’s missing are some Lumiere Brothers selfies throwing up deuces.



Mike Gray: Filmmaker as Activist

grayopenerFilmmaker Mike Gray died on April 30. I had met and worked with Mike a few years ago when Facets Multi-Media, my former employer, released two of his documentaries onto DVD.  Gray has been called an author, journalist, documentarian, screenwriter, television director, and activist—all of which accurately describe his life and career.

Obituaries tended to label him as the scriptwriter for The China Syndrome, the most celebrated title on his filmography. Gray was such a novice to screenwriting when he penned The China Syndrome that he had to teach himself how to structure and format his screenplay. He did so by re-typing the entire script for The African Queen. Though new to writing fiction films, he was not new to researching social issues to support a point of view or position. Gray carefully researched the potential dangers of nuclear power for The China Syndrome, a fictional story about a nuclear accident and a power company’s efforts to keep the truth from the press and public. The film seemed downright prophetic when a few weeks later, the nuclear plant at Three Mile Island experienced a major accident, allowing a percentage of radioactivity to leak into the atmosphere. Gray also wrote and directed the 1983 science fiction film Wavelength, which boasted an eclectic cast that included Robert Carradine, Keenan Wynn, and Cherie Currie (of The Runaways). The experience helped Gray land a job writing and directing the sci-fi television series Starman. Later, he produced and directed episodes of Star Trek:  The Next Generation.


A Head’s Up on Some Terrific Documentaries from the Sarasota Film Festival

docsstrangersposter“Film festivals are the dominant way to see films like this,” noted documentary filmmaker A.J. Schnack , whose film We Always Lie to Strangers turned out to be my favorite doc of the recent Sarasota Film Festival. His comment was a response to an audience member who during the Q&A wanted to know where her friends might be able to see the film. Unfortunately, the question and comment reveal the dismal situation for documentary distribution and exhibition. Outside the three major markets (New York, Chicago, and L.A.), there are few venues that regularly show nonfiction film. Charles Coleman, the intrepid programmer at Chicago’s Facets Multi-Media, where I used to work, booked a variety of documentaries, which satiated my nonfiction appetite, but it is much more difficult to see docs on the big screen in smaller cities.

The festival experience provides a golden opportunity to catch a variety of nonfiction and alternative films. The selection of documentaries at the Sarasota Film Festival was excellent this year. I can honestly say I liked every documentary that I saw. In that spirit, I recommend all of the titles in today’s post in the hopes that fans of this tragically under-viewed format will seek them out on DVD or at local film festivals.


The Year in Documentaries

The Gatekeepers

As I put together my Spring arthouse calendar lineup, I find it difficult to choose between all the great documentaries that are vying for attention. When the Academy recently listed the 15 documentaries that made their short-list for the 85th Academy Awards®, it was sobering to think of the 126 titles that had originally qualified. On the Academies short list were docs about artists (Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry), kids (Bully), climate change (Chasing Ice), cities (Detropia), woman’s issues (Ethel), censorship (This Is not a Film), a crowd-pleasing story about a semi-disapparead musician (Searching for Sugar Man), Palestine (5 Broken Cameras), Israel (The Gatekeepers), the drug war (The House I Live In), the AIDS crises (How to Survive a Plague), a head-scratching story of an implausible return (The Imposter), rape in the military (The Invisible War), rape in the church (Mea Maxima Culpa), and our current crises with health care (The Waiting Room). [...MORE]

Snapshots of the Fall: Part II

In my last post I provided a look behind the curtain for the first five weeks of film programming for my fall film calendar. This week we look at the remaining 24 titles that round out the schedule. It features everything from classics such as Vertigo to the state premiere of the latest uncompromising and visually arresting film by Bruno Dumont, Outside Satan (a scene of which is pictured above). [...MORE] is the official blog for TCM. No topic is too obscure or niche to be excluded from our film discussions. And we welcome your comments on our blogs and bloggers.
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