Posted by Susan Doll on November 7, 2016
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.
Posted by Greg Ferrara on November 4, 2016
“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.
Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on July 14, 2016
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.
Posted by Susan Doll on April 18, 2016
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]
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.
Posted by Susan Doll on January 4, 2016
To 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.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on December 15, 2015
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.
Posted by Richard Harland Smith on October 21, 2015
Documentary filmmaker Daniel Griffith (SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE DEVIL: A 50 YEAR RETROSPECTIVE , THE WONDER WORLD OF K. GORDON MURRAY , AS TIMELESS AS INFINITY: THE TWILIGHT ZONE LEGACY  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.
Sure it does!
(Boy, we had faces then, didn’t we?)
Okay, time to wrap this up…
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.
Posted by Susan Doll on May 18, 2015
TCM airs one of Orson Welles most challenging films, F for Fake, this Friday, May 22, at 1:30am. The film is so unique that it is difficult to determine its mode or genre, or even to summarize what it is about. When Welles was editing the film in Paris, critic and scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum asked him if it was a documentary, and the great director responded, “No, not a documentary—a new kind of film.” That is probably the most accurate description of F for Fake.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on April 14, 2015
Before the start of his heartbreaking rural romance True Heart Susie (1919), D.W. Griffith asks in an intertitle, “Is real life interesting?” He implies that the answer is yes, expecting that you’ll sit through the ninety minutes to follow based on its adherence to the facts of everyday life. But there is no expectation of documentary truth, since the star is Lillian Gish and and the writer of the story, Marian Fremont, are named front and center. Instead, Griffith said, “I am trying to develop realism in pictures by teaching the value of deliberation and repose.” The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s second annual Art of the Real series, a wide-ranging survey of non-fiction (ish) cinema that runs through April 24th, is one that privileges the contemplative and dreamlike over works that only admit to one truth. Like Griffith’s work, the Art of the Real films (over twenty shorts and features), co-programmed by Rachael Rakes and Dennis Lim, think along with you, offering multifarious pathways to the “real”. The series will feature the North American premiere of the Lebanese portrait film Birds of September, Luo Li’s environmental doc/shaggy dog mystery Li Wen at East Lake and Luísa Homem & Pedro Pinho’s epic observational documentary of the Cape Verde tourist boom Trading Cities. Not to mention sidebars on The Actualities of Agnès Varda (with Varda introducing her films in person) and Repeat as Necessary: The Art of Reenactment, which takes the abused reenactment form and traces its storied history in documentary art.
The most affecting work in the series, though, might be its simplest. Masa Sawada’s I, Kamikaze is a seventy-five minute interview with the ninety-year-old former kamikaze pilot Fujio Hayashi. Hayashi sits behind a table, his glasses traveling up and down his nose, as he dredges up the memories from his time in the Japanese Imperial Navy. One of the original volunteers for the air suicide attack units, he was, and remains, a good soldier. He lost his mother at a young age, and the few words he spares for his father depicts a neglectful, distant figure (after he returned from WWII, he said, “I’m back. I’m sorry for losing the war.” His father did not respond, and they barely spoke the rest of their lives). Hayashi poured his soul into the unit, and was willing and able to give up his life for his country. Instead he was tasked with training the young kamikaze recruits, ordering their missions, and hence, their deaths. Hayashi takes long, considered pauses before many of his answers, opening up blocks of time to study his face, his posture and his too-large suits. These are silences filled with thought, for Hayashi and the viewer. His expressions are almost entirely impenetrable and thus open to interpretation, a stonewall even when discussing his good friend Nishio, whom he had to order on a suicide mission. His military bearing is still intact, emotions attaching to the meaning of the words, but none in the inflection of his steady, phlegmy voice. Hayashi is comfortable with death, and has lived with it all his life. He keeps repeating that for long stretches of his life living or dying made no difference to him. He was, in this sense, the perfect kamikaze -though he was never able to achieve his intended destiny. He describes that period as “memories bathed in light”, and that when it is his turn to leave on his final mission, he will have a smile on his face, just as the kamikaze pilots did on theirs as they were heading out into oblivion.
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