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]

Tales from the trenches: Pahlen Season

Having retired from the DVD business, I am realizing now that I’m sitting on 15 years’ worth of anecdotes from behind the scenes that I never felt like sharing publicly at the time, because I worried they didn’t gibe with my marketing plans, and I was also mindful of not misusing this forum for self-promotion.  But I no longer have a vested interest in any of these movies, and I’m now starting to feel more willing to talk about what went on in the making of some of these DVDs.  I’m posting a few stories these weeks to gauge reader interest.

This week I want to talk a bit about my triptych of DVDs with the estate of Victor Pahlen!


My Brush with Reel Chicago

Filmmakers dedicated to documentary make hundreds of nonfiction films every year, few of which are widely distributed and exhibited to the general public. Film festivals, cinematheques, special programs affiliated with museums and universities, and PBS are the primary avenues of distribution for new documentaries. The mode lacks the commercial or institutional infrastructure of feature filmmaking that results in any organized perpetuation or preservation, resulting in the loss or deterioration of too many documentaries.

The home viewing industry has offered another avenue for viewers to discover documentaries and another format for filmmakers and distributors to release –and even restore—films. For the last year, I have worked on a long-term project at Facets involving the restoration of several Chicago-based documentaries from the past. Dubbed Reel Chicago, the series features five DVDs showcasing the work of filmmakers working in the city from the 1960s through the 1980s. Two films in the series, The Popovich Brothers of South Chicago by Jill Godmilow and Maxwell Street Blues by Linda Williams and Raul Zaritsky, are now available. I am working hard on the third in the series, Tom Palazzolo’s Chicago, scheduled for an April release, and I have just started the final two, The Films of Gordon Wiesenborn and The People Versus Paul Crump by William Friedkin (yes, the William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist). The series represents one of my favorite projects while working at Facets, and I am excited that my hard work is coming to fruition. Today’s post places these films in context with Chicago’s unsung but remarkable documentary tradition; next week, I will talk about the process and frustrations of restoring and preparing films for DVD release.


Scanning Life Through the Picture Windows: Young Americans (1967)

In 1968 five documentary films were nominated for an Oscar but you’d never know that from looking at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences website. The site claims to feature a complete list of all the Oscar nominees and winners, but on the official web page for the 41st Oscar ceremony there are only four nominees listed instead of the customary five. James Blue’s A FEW NOTES ON OUR FOOD PROBLEM, Harry Chapin‘s THE LEGENDARY CHAMPIONS, David H. Sawyer‘s OTHER VOICES and Bill McGaw’s JOURNEY INTO SELF all receive credit but the original Oscar winning documentary of 1968 is suspiciously absent.

Despite the website snub, the fact remains that YOUNG AMERICANS took home the award for Best Documentary that year but director Alexander Grasshoff was forced to return his Oscar a few months later due to one of the Academy’s most notorious blunders. Thankfully the documentary still exists even if it has been forgotten by the Academy and it remains a fascinating relic from a decade that I too often categorize as “swinging” and “groovy.” I must point out that there’s nothing swinging or groovy about YOUNG AMERICANS. In fact, it’s an extremely square film but it offers audiences a unique and undeniably conservative look at American culture in the sixties that is as revealing as it is deceiving.



It’s been a little over a year since I debuted here, and in that time I’ve stirred up a handful of firestorms–but weirdly, not the ones I expected.  I posted a clip of Buster Keaton as a sympathetic Nazi general, and nobody chirped a word of protest.  I ran a whole blog about blackface comedians, and the comments thread it initiated was reasoned, intelligent and low-key.  I facetioustly pretended that The Thing was a Christmas movie, defended Popeye, and praised Charlie Chaplin imitators.

But the one time I provoked serious anger and acrimony was the time I suggested that William Haines–William Haines!–wasn’t all that funny (I got called “hateful” for that one!)

When I wrote last week’s post about the Muppets, I figured I was running a risk.  Critics say nice things about heavily hyped contemporary movies at their own peril.  But my positive thoughts on the new Muppets wasn’t what kicked up dust–heavens, no.  The vitriol came out in my offhanded reference to Orson Welles having appeared in the 1979 Muppet MovieSomehow, this prompted the comments thread to start to tear into F for Fake. (how?)

To be fair, it was just one lone voice, wailing into the ether about how much he hated the Muppets, and F for Fake.  I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a put-on, somebody simply trying to bait me.  But I’m not above being baited.  I won’t stand by and let anybody talk smack about F for Fake, one of my 10 favorite movies of all time.  Consider the battle joined.

Let's get in on!


A New Film Roster

Today marks the last day of my Fall calendar film program. Now it’s time to roll up my sleeves and get working on the next one. My goal is to find 50 titles that provide repertory programming, community and academic outreach, festival favorites, cult oddities, challenging cinema, quality docs, along with enough arthouse money-makers and crowd-pleasers to keep the whole damn thing alive. The ideal mix honors the past, is grounded in the present, and has an eye for the future. Like a good friend, it needs to have the temerity to confront you with uncomfortable truths, take you to new places, introduce you to new talents, provide a window to other cultures, feed the mind, feed the soul, provide catharsis, tears, laughter, and a wide variety of surprises.  A few directors come to mind who try to do all those things in one film, but this at risk of making you nauseous. (I’m looking at you Takashi Miike!) What follows are some of my top-picks (so far) as I consider titles to include in my Spring calendar. [...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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