The Decline of Western Civilization (1981)

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To view The Decline of Western Civilization click here.

To view The Decline of Western Civilization, Part III click here.

It was in January of 2001 while I was talking to Ozzy Osbourne about David Bradley’s They Saved Hitler’s Brain (1968) that I first met Penelope Spheeris. She and Ozzy were doing press interviews at a posh hotel in honor of her Sundance screening for We Sold Our Souls for Rock ‘n Roll (2001), her documentary about the ’99 Ozzfest Tour. I talked with Ozzy first, Penelope second. The contrast in demeanor could not have been starker. Ozzy was amiable but absent-minded, all twitches and trembles. Penelope was sharp as a razor and extremely relaxed. I should have used my short time with Penelope to dig up details on Ozzfest, but instead found myself talking mostly about her The Decline of Western Civilization documentary trilogy. Of the first two (the original and Part III can currently be seen on FilmStruck), Marc Maron in his podcast with Penelope Spheeris told the director: “You captured the essence of punk, and the essence of what killed it.” [...MORE]

Seek Not Your Fortune in the Dark, Dreary Mine

Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976) Documentary Directed by Barbara Kopple

To view Harlan County, U.S.A. click here.

I tend to romanticize cinema verité filmmakers as rugged individualists who fearlessly shoot their footage under the most difficult of circumstances. Albert Maysles, D.A. Pennebaker, Frederick Wiseman, Richard Leacock—I see them as verité cowboys. Also included in that club is Barbara Kopple, who directed Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976) currently streaming on FilmStruck. Harlan County, U.S.A. won an Oscar as Best Documentary and was placed on the National Film Registry in 1990. And, if you want to talk fearless, Kopple’s experiences while making the film reveals she could hold her own as a verité cowboy.

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Documenting Despair: Salesman (1968)

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To view Salesman click here.

Something happened to me the first time I saw Salesman (1968). Within just a few minutes, I felt a tightness in my chest, the kind I always associate with stress and anxiety. I began to question myself: Had I forgotten to do something important? Was I suppressing anxiety about work? Maybe I drank too much coffee? Then it hit me: It was the movie. If that sounds like the opposite reaction you want while watching a movie, believe me, I don’t mean it that way. I felt it because I’d been there. I had not one but two cold-calling sales jobs in my life. Two. They paid a base wage below minimum wage because you received a commission on your sales. Or, if you chose, you could take the minimum wage and forego any commission. At one time or another, I tried both. And it was awful. Just absolutely God-awful. Not a work day began where I didn’t feel an immediate tightness in my chest that usually gave way to utter depression by the end of my shift. Was this what I was going to be doing? How could I make this work for a lifetime? Salesman, the extraordinary and pioneering documentary by the Maysles brothers, Albert and David, understands all of that. There’s not a sales pitch scene in this movie that doesn’t make me tense but I’ll tell you what: I’d watch this documentary over most fiction films, and most non-fiction too, any day of the week.

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“We’re Going to Win this Thing, Right?” The Art of Propaganda

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To view The Lion Has Wings click here.

Propaganda can be as benign as simply biasing information to promote one particular point of view, usually at the expense of another. In its more naked form, it can be used to convince one set people that another group will be their destruction if they’re not dealt with swiftly and decisively. And in its most dangerous form, it can be used to convince the masses that an entire population of people don’t deserve to live. Radio and the movies gave propaganda a reach it never had before the 20th century. During the 1930s, both became a strikingly strong means of getting the message across and once World War II got started, radio broadcasters like Lord Haw Haw and Axis Sally did their best to demoralize the enemy: the Allied Powers in general, Britain in particular. At a certain point, you’ve got to hit back and all sides did. During World War I and II, the Allies dehumanized their enemies in posters,  from the “Mad Brute” ape depiction of German soldiers in World War I to the buck-toothed, thick glasses of the Japanese in World War II. The Nazis, of course, took things to an entirely different level with their rampant dehumanization of the Jews leading to eventual systemic genocide. And when the Nazis went into western Poland on September 1, 1939, joined by the Soviet Union in the east a couple of weeks later, Britain found itself in a tense situation. They weren’t nearly as prepared as they could have been but needed to convince the British people they were. Enter Alexander Korda and his three contract directors Michael Powell, Adrian Brunel and Brian Desmond Hurst, to quickly make a propaganda film that could be released to audiences within weeks. The result was The Lion Has Wings, one of the most important, and groundbreaking, propaganda films of the period.

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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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