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)

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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

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“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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The Whole World is Watching: Medium Cool (1969)

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“This is America quaking, this movie, seen the way only a gifted artist can possibly draw his photographic attention to these events . . . the roots and fruit of social turmoil, and the media pervading and even anticipating the event. The media’s involvement in the motion picture, its place in the movie, is more important than the relationship that exists between the girl and me. And ultimately, the media remains . . . goodbye to us. Which brings the picture full circle. The media continues.”
- Actor Robert Forster on Medium Cool from a 1969 newspaper interview

Haskell Wexler’s quasi-documentary Medium Cool (1969) airs on TCM this coming Sunday (10 PM EST / 7 PM PST) and I can’t think of a better film to watch before the start of the RNC and DNC conventions this month.

If you’ve been paying attention to the election this year, you’re well aware of the fact that both of our major political parties are in upheaval at the moment while the country is engulfed in racial and economic strife. This, along with an unremitting war on a nebulous enemy, gender disparity, unaffordable health care, inadequate education opportunities, environmental concerns, gun violence, an invasion of privacy by government as well as commercial interests and a growing distrust of our corporate run media (just to list a few of the hot-button issues propelling the debate), has concocted a Molotov cocktail of social unrest. When Haskell shot Medium Cool in the long, hot and discordant summer of 1968, a similar political climate was sweeping the country. It was an alarming and dispiriting time and many of the concerns troubling Americans 50-years ago are still with us today.

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Check Out These Documentaries

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I know very few people who do not like documentaries, which are produced by the hundreds if not thousands every year. Some of the most respected filmmakers lauded at film festivals are documentarians. And, yet docs are rarely screened in theaters, and specific titles are difficult to track down. Documentary distribution and marketing just seems so arbitrary and indiscriminate.

The opportunity to see documentaries on the big screen is the main reason why I continue to attend and support the Sarasota Film Festival (SFF), despite some serious misgivings about the fest. Often, filmmakers attend the screenings to introduce their films and to answer questions from the audience. I am always touched by their passion for the format as well as their thoughtful commentary. The documentary selection at the SFF was particularly good this year, and I recommend the following titles. [...MORE]

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March 26, 2016
David Kalat
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How to Make Your Own Vermeer in 3 Easy Steps

Perhaps you are the type of person who enjoys ruminating on the question of “what is art?”  If so, you’ve maybe already enjoyed such films as F for Fake, Exit Through the Gift Shop and My Kid Could Paint That, and gnawed on what they reveal about the curious unconscious calculations we put into valuing art.  What to watch next?  Well, have I got a film for you.

Directed by Teller (of Penn & Teller fame), and narrated by Penn Jillette (of… oh, you get it), Tim’s Vermeer is many things at once, and none of them the sort of things that usually go together: it’s Mythbusters meets fine art.  It’s a conspiracy thriller.  It’s a period piece.  It’s a puzzle box mystery.  It’s a comedy about a truly Quixotic, Sisyphean quest… and, for a particular subset of art aficionados and critics, it is an ugly, maddening insult.

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KEYWORDS: Penn and Teller
COMMENTS: 6
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This Is Elvis: Commemorating the King

blogopenerTo celebrate Elvis Presley’s 81st birthday, TCM will show four feature films and two documentaries this Friday, January 8. I have a soft spot for the last film scheduled, This Is Elvis, because it was the movie that motivated me to write my dissertation on Presley, which provided the core material for several books.

Produced, directed, and written by Andrew Solt and Malcolm Leo, This Is Elvis combines television appearances, news footage, voice-over narration, and re-created scenes with actors to interpret Presley’s life and career. In other words, don’t expect an expository documentary like you might find on the Biography Channel. Instead, the heavy use of re-created scenes, simulated newsreels, and feigned interviews make this an example of a performative documentary, in which the filmmakers stage scenes and direct performances to mimic drama or to depict a specific outcome.

The film is structured in flashback, which adds drama and interest to the material. It opens with the shocking news of Elvis’s death and then cuts back to his childhood in Tupelo, Mississippi. Altogether, four separate actors portray Presley at various points in his life, including Paul Boensh III who plays ten-year-old Elvis. In the childhood scenes, Elvis is depicted learning the guitar from an old blues singer, played by real-life bluesman Furry Lewis. David Scott stars as the teenage Elvis, who performs in front of his high-school class for a talent show. Dana Mackay portrays Elvis during the sequence in which his mother becomes ill and then dies, which occurred when the singer was in the army. The most authentic portrayal is given by Johnny Harra, a real-life tribute artist who plays Presley during his Vegas years.

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The Agony of Defeat: Four Falls of Buffalo (2015)

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On January 3rd, 1993, the Buffalo Bills trailed the Houston Oilers 28 – 3 at halftime. I was 11 years old, and had gone to the Wild Card playoff game at Rich Stadium outside of Buffalo, NY with my father, uncle and grandfather. They were ready to pack it in and go home, to beat the traffic and avoid the humiliation of watching the end of a blowout defeat. There was no hope, what with franchise quarterback Jim Kelly on the bench with strained knee ligaments while his replacement Frank Reich scuffled. The opposing QB Warren Moon was calmly throwing lasers appropriate for his space age name, with his second TD pass going to one Webster Slaughter, and it certainly was. Better luck next year, we must have told ourselves, when Kelly would be healed and the team that went to back-to-back Super Bowls in ’91 and ’92 returned to full speed (their offense was based around the no-huddle, up-tempo offense). But I wanted to stay to the bitter end. I savored sitting on those aluminum benches, with my Bills Starter Jacket pulled over orange overalls, pinioned in between my beer-bellied family. It was 34 degrees but I was warm, there was still time to cheer and yell and let oneself go.

So we stayed, and a miracle happened. The Oilers went up 35-3 early in the 3rd Quarter, and then the Bills preposterously kept scoring, over and over again, until they pulled off the greatest comeback in NFL history, winning 41-38. It was a dream but I was there in my seat, it was impossible but there it was, right in front of me. The Bills would lose the ensuing championship, of course, as they would the following year as well, an unprecedented four-year feat of Super Bowl failure.These years are captured in all their depressing grandeur in the latest documentary in ESPN’s 30 For 30 series, Four Falls of Buffalo. 

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Empire Pictures documentary Kickstarter campaign is live! Please give!

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Documentary filmmaker Daniel Griffith (SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE DEVIL: A 50 YEAR RETROSPECTIVE [2009], THE WONDER WORLD OF K. GORDON MURRAY [2010], AS TIMELESS AS INFINITY: THE TWILIGHT ZONE LEGACY [2014] of Ballyhoo Motion Pictures has started a Kickstarter campaign to help fund his comprehensive look back at the founding and flourishing of Charles Band’s Empire Pictures, “the most ambitious B-movie studio of the 1980s.” If you were renting videos back in the heyday of the VHS tape (or, if you will, Betamax), then you probably dragged home copies of RE-ANIMATOR (1985), TRANCERS (1985), GHOULIES (1985), CRAWLSPACE (1986), RAWHEAD REX (1986), FROM BEYOND (1986), TROLL (1986), DOLLS (1987), PRISON (1987), GHOULIES II (1988), CELLAR DWELLER (1988), and possibly ROBOT JOX (1990). (No, the SUBSPECIES movies weren’t Empire, they were Full Moon Entertainment, the company Band founded after selling off Empire Pictures.) I know I did! If you want to play a part in commemorating and keeping alive the memory of Empire Pictures, then look no further. 

Dolls

Look familiar?

Crawlspace

Sure it does!

Cellar Dweller

Right?

Ghoulies

Right?

TerrorVision

AMIRITE?!!

From Beyond

(Boy, we had faces then, didn’t we?)

Prison

 

Okay, time to wrap this up…

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It’s all coming back now, isn’t it? If these movies have meaning for you, if this venture excites your pineal gland, please consider throwing Daniel anything you can: $5, $10, $20… whatever works for you. Let’s keep the spirit of weirdo American independent entrepreneurship alive!

To contribute, click here.

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