Showing posts with label Documentary. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Documentary. Show all posts

September 21, 2017

Anthony Desiato’s My Comic Shop Country

Poster for the upcoming film My Comic Shop Country by Anthony Desiato
Back in 2011, I covered my hometown St. Louis International Film Festival for the now-defunct Sound on Sight and also published the reviews on this blog. One of the surprises was My Comic Shop DocumentARy, an up-close look at the Alternate Realities store in Scarsdale, New York. What made the documentary charming was the close perspective on both customers and employees of this comic shop. It was directed by Anthony Desiato, who worked at Alternate Realities for more than 10 years. His personal experience with the shop and owner Steve Oto made the film more engaging than I expected. Desiato did a Q&A at the festival, and it was clear how much the store meant to him.

Since that time, Desiato has directed several other documentaries on the interesting people that he’s met along the way. By Spoon! The Jay Meisel Story focused on the eccentric guy we first met in My Comic Shop DocumentARy, and Wacky Man: The Rise of the Puppeteer covered an idealistic puppeteer. Desiato also created the podcast My Comic History to chronicle the sad closing of Alternate Realities. In the third season of that show, he traveled to comic shops around the country to uncover the business side of running a store. I’m not a comics expert, but it’s still intriguing to learn more about what happens behind the scenes.

Desiato’s next project is a feature film called My Comic Shop Country, which will continue the work from the podcast. He’ll visit comic shops around the nation to explore how local stores function and the communities around them. Desiato has set up a Kickstarter campaign to help fund this new film. Judging by his other work, this documentary should have plenty to offer for anyone interested in the industry or even how small businesses thrive. To give a better idea of Desiato’s style, I caught up with other films that he’s created in recent years.

The poster from By Spoon! The Jay Meisel Story, a documentary from 2014

By Spoon! The Jay Meisel Story (2014)

The first line of By Spoon! The Jay Meisel Story is the title guy saying “fuck technology!” into the camera. It’s a sad time for parts of the industry that have been forced to change to survive. Meisel isn’t exactly a technologically advanced guy, so moving to the digital realm is unlikely. The big character spends his life in a tight spot among the comic books in the Empire State Flea Market. He’s a fiery, old-school New York guy that grumbles at customers. Of course, this doc shows how his gruff demeanor hides an endearing soul beneath the surface.

It’s the small touches of Meisel’s personality that make him engaging. He buys movie posters that aren’t particularly memorable and rarely sells them. He’s doesn’t seem that forward-thinking when it comes to other cultures, though he’s hardly that simple. The sad cloud hanging over the film is the impending closure of the flea market. It’s not like Meisel has done anything else for decades. He refuses to go on eBay and instead uses his garage. The whole thing is unfortunate.

Desiato clearly likes Meisel, and the loss of his shop feels tragic. Watching him trying to sell products out of the garage is sad. His former spot is empty and won’t be the same even when new tenants buy the space. A montage of happy interactions between Meisel and various customers pinpoint what’s now missing. It was more about the human connections than the individual comic books. This sweet film shows how many people a guy like Meisel charmed during the numerous years in his shop. Like My Comic Shop DocumentARy, it reveals wonderful characters that we often don’t see on our screens.

The poster from Wacky Man: Rise of the Puppeteer, a film by Anthony Desiato.

Wacky Man: The Rise of a Puppeteer (2016)

How does a person become a puppeteer? Zach Woliner has that dream and created the character Wally Wackiman to make that happen. Jim Henson set the standard with The Muppets and related projects, but there are still limited professional roles for puppeteers. Can Zach do it? That quest is the subject of Wacky Man: The Rise of a Puppeteer. Recording videos at home with his wife Veronica, Woliner is idealistic but recognizes that challenges he faces with this dream. Balancing it with a full-time office job makes his goals even harder to fulfill.

Woliner’s brother and parents give some background on the life that inspired him. It’s clear that this passion for puppetry has been central since an early age. You don’t get the sense that anyone pressured him to give up the dream, and that’s important. The chances of success are slim, but Woliner makes an impression at a puppeteers’ workshop. There’s something inside him that might click with others if luck goes in Woliner’s favor.

Wally Wackiman is a self-aware puppet, which opens up a new realm of comedy for Woliner. It’s sometimes tricky to separate Woliner’s persona from the puppet. The segment on that separation is one of the most interesting parts of the movie. We also see the possible limits of this character in YouTube videos. Woliner is a talented guy, but there are so many entertainers competing for our time. Observing the DIY approach of the videos shows the hard work that’s involved with online production. Parties are no easy feat either.

What rings true in the ups and downs of Wacky Man is Woliner’s heart. This isn’t a callous guy with an obsessive dream. The strong relationships with Veronica and his brother keep Woliner grounded in a challenging field. Sesame Street is the dream job, and the moment when Wally hits the stage with Oscar the Grouch is charming. But can he break through and reach that level? The commitment is there in spades, though it may take a lot more to achieve his dream.

Interview with Anthony Desiato

Desiato was kind enough to answer some questions about My Comic Shop Country, the Kickstarter campaign, and why he’s so interested in making this project happen.

1. What initially attracted you to comics and working at a comic shop when you were younger?
The character of Superman drew me in initially when I was five, but as I got older and my reading selections expanded, I came to appreciate everything the medium can do. Comics invite the reader to engage with the material like prose books, but they also offer the visual dimension like films and television (albeit with unlimited budgets). As a medium, you really get the best of both worlds. As far as working at a comic shop, if you're a comic fan looking for an after-school job, there's really nothing better.

2. You’ve visited stores across the country for the My Comic History podcast. What inspires you to dig further and produce the documentary?
The styles of storytelling in a podcast vs. a documentary film are distinct enough that each project will stand on its own. For example, if there's a story that takes five minutes to recount, that's perfect podcast fodder, but it would be an eternity on film. At the same time, podcasts are an auditory medium, so I'm tremendously excited to SHOW these stores in the documentary. I've discovered some terrific stores with eye-catching layouts, merchandise, and displays, and I can’t wait for viewers to see them.

A poster from the podcast My Comic History from Anthony Desiato

3. Your podcast often delves into the business side of running a comic shop. What interests you about exploring that aspect of running a store?
Maybe I secretly wish I had gotten my MBA instead of my law degree? It's funny — I'm not entirely sure why the business of comics retail appeals to me the way it does. I think it has to do with the fact that most retailers (it seems) start as fans and collectors first who decide to pursue comics as a career. The process of turning your passion into a business can be a tricky proposition, and I’m always curious to hear how people navigate that. I’m also keenly aware of the challenges retailers face on multiple fronts. However, rather than take a doom-and-gloom approach, I love to hear HOW retailers are responding to these challenges.

4. In both the feature My Comic Shop DocumentARy and your short film By Spoon!, we see the ways the industry has changed and even left some people behind. Why have some comic shops been able to thrive in this evolving world?
There are a lot of ways to answer that, but I think your question gets at a critical point. The industry has changed and continues to change, and the stores that recognize that and are willing to innovate are the ones that may just make it.

5. What continues to interest you about comic shops today?
Well, for the longest time I thought it was only MY comic shop that interested me, but when Alternate Realities closed, I re-examined that proposition and realized that the local comic shop as an institution held great appeal to me. I had captured the community of AR on film and in podcast form, and I wanted to try to capture the larger comic shop community as well.

A look at the comic shop Alternate Realities, which closed a few years ago.

6. How did you choose the comic shops to be featured on the podcast and the upcoming documentary?
It was a combination of factors both creative and practical. I knew I wanted a cross-section of stores in terms of geography and history. There were stores I already knew; I solicited recommendations; and I looked at trips I was already taking (for work, weddings, etc.) to see where I could tie in shop visits.

7. You’ll basically travel the country as a one-man crew for this film. How challenging with the production be for you to shoot all the footage?
These days, I have my wife traveling with me, which has been a huge help. I’d also think about bringing in a crew person if possible.  But as far as shooting everything myself, it's all I know! That's how I've made all three of my previous docs.

8. How long do you anticipate it will take to shoot and complete the film?
The plan is to shoot and edit next spring and summer, with an eye toward completing the film in Fall 2018.

9. One of the highlights of My Comic Shop DocumentARy was spending time with all the unique figures that inhabit the world of Alternate Realities. Do you hope to connect with similar characters around the country in your new film?
Absolutely. With everything I’ve done, it's always about the people above all else. Comic shops are perhaps the best place to find colorful personalities — on both sides of the counter.

10. The Kickstarter rewards include some pretty cool incentives for backers, including a cooking class with you and your wife, a portfolio review, and a superhero photo shoot. How did you go about putting together the rewards?
When I turned my attention toward designing the reward structure, I wanted to make sure there was variety in both the prices as well as the rewards themselves. Whether you're looking to contribute $5 or $5,000 — or anywhere in between — there's something for you to choose. I thought about what might appeal to someone who's followed my past work (hence rewards like exclusive podcast episodes and the My Comic Shop DocumentARy Blu-ray), but I also considered the folks coming into this cold, who might be interested in the original art, custom toy, or portfolio review rewards. There are essentially five reward categories: digital, physical, one-of-a-kind, experiential, and sponsorships.

Learn More

Check out the My Comic Shop Country Kickstarter page to learn more about the film and the benefits of supporting the project. Stay updated through the My Comic Shop History page on Facebook.

May 3, 2017

Two by Chris Marker – Three Cheers for the Whale and Junkopia

A fish from the Junkopia space near San Francisco in Chris Marker's film.

French director Chris Marker is known primarily for his 1962 sci-fi short La jetée, which inspired the Terry Gilliam film Twelve Monkeys. That film remains quite powerful today, but it only scratches the surface of the work from this prolific filmmaker. Marker worked steadily for more than six decades going back to the early ‘50s. A large portion of his career has included documentaries like 1983’s Sans Soleil, a brilliant look at connections across different cultures.

Marker rarely takes the expected road when approaching a documentary subject. His films often maintain an eerie quiet because they aren’t packed with explanations. He is a skilled thinker who is able to put together an interesting film with limited resources. La jetée is mostly just a series of still images, but its story resonates because of the excellent craftsmanship. A large collection of Marker’s work is now available for streaming on Filmstruck. For this article, I caught up with two of his documentary shorts that had previously escaped my attention. Each is remarkable in its own way and shows the breadth of Marker’s talent.

A painting from Chris Marker's 1972 short film Three Cheers for the Whale

Three Cheers for the Whale (1972)

For this 17-minute short film, Marker teamed up with Italian filmmaker Mario Ruspoli to offer a quiet plea for protecting whales. Composed mostly of still photographs and paintings, this piece makes a convincing case against industrial whaling. Leonard Lopate and Emily Hoffman provide the narration for the English version, which was prepared by Marker in 2007. Their words help chronicle the history of whaling from the Eskimos’ utilitarian approach to the factory-like approach of Japan. To the latter group, the whales’ status is now solely for commercial use.

This material hardly feels new today, particularly given the spotlight on films like Blackfish and The Cove plus the TV show Whale Wars. There’s an interesting connection between that series and this film in the form of the Japanese whaling vessel the Nisshin Maru. It appears briefly here and was pursued by the Sea Shepherds on the show. It reminds us of the long history of whaling, which was already a major issue in the ’70s. The message of this film is positive about love for whales yet doesn’t shy away from the dangers posed by humans.

The final section of Three Cheers for the Whale includes harrowing footage of a whale being shot and killed by a harpoon gun. The idea that “nature is no longer neutral” continues today with regular attempts by politicians to gut the environment. It’s too easy to look at countries like Japan and Norway as the lone enemies. We do plenty on our own each day to make wildlife the enemy. Marker and Ruspoli’s work remains poignant in our ugly modern climate.

Some artwork from the Junkopia short film from Chris Marker

Junkopia (1981)

Our modern world is constantly moving, particularly for those who live in the cities. It’s rare to experience a moment of calm without cars, machines, and other people infringing on our space. When we see a quiet place, it can feel eerie to escape the madness. Marker captures that sensation in his 1981 film Junkopia. The six-minute short presents a collection of artful contraptions on the beach near San Francisco. Ominous music and ambient sounds just add to the post-apocalyptic atmosphere of this undisturbed spot.

The “junk” in this location includes driftwood sculptures in the shape of a turkey, an airplane, and even a moon lander. The work from the anonymous artists washes away due to the tides, so a few are seen floating out in the water. Although they occupy a tranquil setting, the art can also deliver chills when presented in a different way. Marker shoots the shadow of an old sign that resembles a looming monster when shot from that perspective. He reveals a mastery of creating moods and shifts gears with a single cut.

The illusion of Junkopia is shattered when Marker cuts to a highway and reminds us of the daily grind. There’s an ugly contrast between the cars slowly moving along the freeway and the creative expressions on the beach. It’s a glimpse at a place that no longer exists, and the sense of loss permeates this footage. Marker shot it with a Zoetrope Studios crew during the production of Sans Soleil and captured a moment in time. The final shot of a wooden boat drifting away in the waves says it all. It may seem like junk, but Marker finds plenty to make them worth a look.

May 1, 2017

Faces of November Review (Robert Drew)

A shot from the funeral of John F. Kennedy in Faces of November

Back in November, I wrote a short piece about Robert Drew’s documentary short Faces of November with thoughts of putting together a longer piece about his work. It was shortly after Donald Trump’s surprise victory, and I was still in shock about the results. While I’m less freaked out with our situation, the negative impact remains every day. I haven’t decided to dive back into Drew’s films since that point. It wasn’t a conscious decision but probably related to a desire to escape from a very different vision of the presidency.

Since Drew’s films are no longer streaming on Filmstruck, I decided to post my thoughts on Faces of November now instead of waiting to pull together a longer essay. I did see Primary back in 2011, and I’d like to dive further into his works on Kennedy and others. Perhaps completing this article will inspire me to allot the time to uncover more gems from Drew’s career. Without further introduction, here is my unpublished review from November about his 1964 film.

Faces of November (Robert Drew, 1964)

We’re living in difficult times following an election result that has traumatized many of us. Even so, it’s still hard for me to contemplate the national climate following an assassination. This is particularly true for a popular leader like John F. Kennedy. Faces of November does an excellent job in capturing the outpouring of grief in the faces of onlookers at the funeral.

This Robert Drew documentary doesn’t overdo the importance of the historical event. Instead, he places us with the people as they say goodbye to Kennedy. We see the resolute look on Jacqueline Kennedy’s face as she tries to stay strong. Bobby Kennedy stares into space like he’s seen death itself. No dialogue is needed to feel the grief emanating from their entire bodies.

Faces of November opens with an image of trees while gun shots blare in the background. Rain pelts the Capitol at night and the wind blows strongly the next day. It’s like nature recognizes the blow to a nation’s consciousness. Drew doesn’t cram too much into the 12-minute timeframe. The camera stays with an interesting face and connects with us through the onlookers’ emotions. Soldiers maintain their composure as the camera draws close looking for a crack. Men and women openly cry while “Taps” plays at the funeral.

It’s a quick glimpse at a pivotal U.S. event, yet the people are the story. The lone exception is a grand shot inside the Capitol, and it’s more about beauty than scale. It’s a quick reminder of what we all can do, despite the odds against us.

Faces of November is available to rent on iTunes and buy on Blu-ray through Criterion.

Related Reviews

A Perfect Candidate

February 25, 2017

Black Panthers Review (Agnès Varda)

A striking image from the 1968 documentary Black Panthers from Agnès Varda.

It’s easy to look back at the Black Panthers as a small piece of history from a chaotic time. Founded in 1966 and active until the early ‘80s, the Black Panther Party took a militant approach to black nationalism. On the other hand, they also promoted education and built social programs that made a difference in the community. Agnès Varda’s 1968 short film Black Panthers gives an up-close look at a group that was hardly one-note. Also known as Huey, this 28-minute documentary offers a human portrait of a complex organization.

The opening shot depicts a sign displaying the words “Black is Honest and Beautiful” in large letters. This statement reminds us that the Black Panthers had an uplifting message. Shots of kids playing and dancing at the outdoor event are quite a contrast from the usual images. Despite the live music and happy children, an unidentified female narrator reminds us that “this is no picnic in Oakland”. It’s part of the “Free Huey” movement to protest the arrest of co-founder Huey P. Newton for the shooting of police officer John Frey. Varda gives a snapshot of the Black Panthers at a specific moment in their history and reveals quite a bit in a short time.

Varda’s camera delivers some remarkable shots within the fly-on-the-wall framework. One stunning image presents an extreme close-up of a serious face in the foreground while a speaker addresses the crowd far in the back. It shows both the commitment and the education from the Black Panthers all in one shot. The speakers include Stokely Carmichael, who makes a convincing case that the U.S. has “declared war on black people”. It’s easy to connect his words to what we’ve seen recently with the killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and many more.

There’s also an interview with Newton, who talks about his poor conditions in prison. He seems optimistic about his case but recognizes that the deck is stacked against him. Newton was only 26 at the time and looks even younger, but he makes valid points. It’s tricky because we only have a small portion of the story. Varda is French and presents the Black Panthers from an outsider’s perspective, but also with respect for their views. This empathy makes it easy to understand their struggle, especially given the forces marshaled against them.

Varda also focuses on positions of power for women in the Black Panthers and their choice to go with natural hair. Kathleen Cleaver is a memorable figure that speaks passionately about her role in the party. She’s now an accomplished lecturer and academic, and that’s no surprise after seeing this film. It’s clear from her brief scenes that she’s intelligent and committed to making a difference.

Black Panthers plays differently in the Trump era as many of us look for ways to resist his policies. A statement that describes the U.S. as “this racist nation” rings true when you consider our current leadership. Militant actions may not be the best choice today, but the commitment that we see from the Black Panthers does connect to the struggle now. An effective mix of activism, greater education, and a convincing message should help to change the tide. It helps to know more of the past, and this film offers a glimpse at a small part of the bigger picture.

Black Panthers is currently streaming on Filmstruck in a restored version.

November 11, 2016

Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist (Saul J. Turell)

Paul Robeson stands up and sings in Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist.

While the election results poured in on Tuesday night, I sat motionless on the couch for hours. It was a different kind of dread than the usual daily fears. This sense of grave concern for the future left me powerless to act. Now that a few days have passed, the worries remain but have given way to a need for action. It’s going to be rough at times, yet I know there’s so much that each of us can do to make a difference every day.

I mention the election because it raises internal questions about pursuits like this blog. Why continue to write about art when so much is going wrong? I’m under no illusions that many read my writing. It’s largely a personal diary. Should I close up shop and focus solely on social causes? It’s a legitimate question but also feels shallow and selfish given the larger issues. I’ve succumbed at times to believing that a Facebook or Twitter post makes a difference, and that’s obviously false. We need to do more and not get trapped in online echo chambers. Curling up in a ball and hoping things get better is cowardly.

One way to influence change is through acquiring knowledge, and that’s my hope for this site. I try to engage with a variety of art but often fall into predictable patterns. I can write about Michael Mann and James Bond forever, but that’s too easy. This site is a small blip on the radar, but the media that I consume matters. I’m a 40-year-old white male living in a well-off, mostly white St. Louis neighborhood. My dad was an engineer, and my mom was a school teacher. My perspective is way too limited and needs to change.

Exploring more diverse narratives on this blog is just one of many choices that I plan to make going forward. I’ll donate money and time to causes that I care about like protecting the environment, fighting racism and sexism, and supporting diverse liberal voices in politics. I’ll also try to do better here and spotlight a wide range of films and television. This includes work from other countries and filmmakers and actors that aren’t just white guys. It’s a small step and should build the right mindset to help support a brighter future.

Paul Robeson and Erasing History

My introduction connects directly to Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist because I knew basically nothing about him. His name is familiar, yet he’s rarely cited as an early African-American star and activist. Narrated by Sidney Poitier, this 30-minute documentary presents Robeson’s incredible vocal talent and screen presence. It includes several performances of his signature tune “Ol’ Man River” and archival footage. It’s a nice primer on a complex man and film star of a different era.

This Oscar-winning 1979 documentary was directed by Saul J. Turrell, a filmmaker and classic-film distributor that once led Janus Films. It’s the type of portrait that barely scratches the surface. I’m intrigued to learn more about Robeson’s life, especially about his activism. Turrell does a great job spotlighting Robeson’s achievements on stage and screen but only briefly delves into his political views. Why did the U.S. revoke his passport? We see Robeson performing communist songs, which was certainly enough in the late 1940s and early ‘50s. Robeson’s connections to the Soviet Union played a role in the obstructions, along with his race.

Turrell highlights the lyrical changes in “Ol’ Man River” that corresponded to Robeson’s political evolution. The Showboat song seems quaint at first but grows in power with each performance. Robeson’s change to “You show a little grit/And you land in jail” is quite relevant today. The original sadness of this song becomes empowering with these updates. His deep baritone injects heart and fury into the later versions. We see the entire song with the edits near the end and witness its growing power. I'm amazed that so much of Robeson's past has been erased from our collective memory. This change was by design; he was even removed from records of his All-American football success.

The downside in concentrating on the songs is limited time for more context. The film’s title supports that macro approach, however. This is a tribute to Robeson’s legacy, not a biography. Last year, Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) announced that he would direct a Robeson biopic. I’m unsure on the progress of this project but can’t think of a better choice. Robeson’s success and controversy are mostly forgotten, and a feature film would reveal his legacy to larger audiences. After seeing this documentary, I’ll definitely seek out more information about Robeson’s life in the near future.

Related Resources

November 8, 2016

Shake! Otis at Monterey and Jimi Plays Monterey (D.A. Pennebaker)

Otis Redding belts out a tune in Shake! Otis at Monterey.

During this challenging election season, it has often seemed fruitless to focus on anything but the dangers facing our country. A sense of gloom pervades and may not go away regardless of today’s results. Given this atmosphere, it’s important to step away and think about wondrous gifts like art, music, and film. Over this past weekend, I looked back at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival through two short films. This incredible event brought together so many innovative artists from the era. Well-known acts like The Who, Jefferson Airplane, and the Mamas & the Papas joined nontraditional choices like Ravi Shankar for the famous concert. Monterey also saw the emergence of transcendent performers like Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix. Each is a subject of a D.A. Pennebaker short documentary released in the mid-‘80s.

Thanks to the arrival of Filmstruck, I queued up both Shake! Otis at Monterey and Jimi Plays Monterey for first viewings. Clocking in at 20 and 50 minutes respectively, both waste little time and stay focused on the main attraction. Pennebaker’s feature film Monterey Pop does a great job chronicling the slate of artists but only gives 1-2 songs to each one. The chance to view full sets from Redding and Hendrix spotlights their complete skills. The sets flow much better and aren’t limited to a few memorable moments. It’s cool to see Jimi Hendrix burn a guitar, but there’s a lot more to him that just shock value.

Shake! Otis at Monterey

Supported by Booker T. and the M.G.s, Redding bursts onto the stage like he’s been shot from a cannon. He was the final artist of the night and had extremely limited time. That urgency makes the five-song set a blast for the senses. Clad in a green suit and focused on riling up the crowd, Redding lumbers around the stage to Sam Cooke’s “Shake”. It makes sense to have this song as the film’s title; there are few quiet moments in this set. That quick pace continues with “Respect”, which feels more aggressive than Aretha Franklin’s well-known version. It slows down for “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”, but Redding is still magnetic on stage.

Pennebaker shifts deftly between close-ups of Redding with medium shots revealing the band. An inventive shot from behind Redding’s head with the spotlight centered on it proclaims his stardom. During a fiery soul version of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, quick cuts sell the intensity. This cover uses the Mar-Keys horns rather than Keith Richards’ guitar as the driving force. It isn’t just a retread and finds new ways to deliver a popular song. Artists were less averse to covering recent songs during that period, and it’s great to see.

Redding closes the set with “Try a Little Tenderness”, and Pennebaker makes an interesting choice to focus on the audience. Cutting to a tired woman to match the song’s lyrics is too on the nose, but the effect works in general. Shots of people dancing and having fun earlier in the day mostly work, despite its separation from Redding’s performance. The ultimate return to stage builds the energy to a feverish pitch, and then we’re done. It’s a testament to Redding’s power to get so much out of such a brief set. The tragedy is realizing that he died less than six months later. Redding was only 26 but carried himself on stage like a show-biz veteran. Shake! reinforces the great talent and potential for a performer who built a legacy in such a short time.

Jimi Hendrix shines at the Monterey Pop festival in Jimi Plays Monterey.

Jimi Plays Monterey

There’s a similar sense of loss while seeing Hendrix rock at Monterey. He was only 24 and unknown to U.S. audiences. Three years later, Hendrix was gone with so much unseen possibility. We’re lucky to have such a clear document of his skills in Jimi Plays Monterey. Pennebaker takes longer for set-up this time, with mixed results. The opening sequence with speed painter Denny Dent working to the sounds of “Can You See Me” is stunning. Less effective is the narration from John Phillips to give background on Hendrix. It expands the running time yet does little but postpone the main event.

Thankfully, the delay is only about 15 minutes before we reach Hendrix’s performance. The eight-song set includes classics like “Foxey Lady” and “The Wind Cries Mary” along with a surprise cover. Before seeing this film, I had no idea that Hendrix covered Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”. This version is driven by guitar more than vocals, which fits both artists’ styles. Hendrix makes the song his own while respecting Dylan’s work. Like I mentioned with Redding, it’s stunning to see this cover just a few years after the song’s original release. It’s also a clever way for Hendrix to connect with the U.S. audience at Monterey. Picking a famous song from a big star reminds us that he’s part of the club.

It’s clear from the start that Hendrix belongs on stage next to the heavyweights. The long guitar intro of “Killing Floor” reveals his unique sound and on-stage charisma. Hendrix’s music transcends its time period, and his style and persona enhance the impact. When he plays the guitar with his teeth and behind his back in “Hey Joe”, it doesn’t feel like a gimmick. He treats the guitar like a foreign instrument, and the rapturous audience loves it. Pennebaker mostly uses close-ups to focus on Hendrix and barely shows his bandmates. There’s a sense that he could do anything on stage, and the camera (and us) don’t want to blink and miss it.

The climax (no pun intended) is Hendrix’s iconic performance of “Wild Thing”, which ends with the burned guitar. Before destroying it, he also does quite a few erotic acts with the instrument. Prince definitely grabbed a few of his guitar moves from Hendrix. It’s very easy to grasp what’s happening, especially given the song. The performance is fascinating, though I wonder how it played with the Monterey crowd. Pennebaker cuts to a few stone-faced audience members that don’t see the event’s magnitude. This moment has lost none of its power almost 50 years later.

I can’t say enough good things about TCM’s Filmstruck, which is going to occupy a lot of my time. The interface is easy to use, and even the standard service has plenty of options. The Criterion Channel is enticing, but I’d need many more hours to use it. In this case, both short films included audio commentaries and brief introductions. It takes the best parts of DVDs and translates them to the new streaming world. I’m already hooked and hope that it succeeds.

Related Articles

Monterey Pop Review
Wattstax Review

October 1, 2016

The Last Man on the Moon Review and the Essential Apollo

Astronaut Gene Cernan stands near a large rocket in Last Man on the Moon.

It’s hard to believe that almost 44 years have passed since a human last walked on the moon. When Apollo 17 returned to Earth, it concluded a remarkable era of technological innovation. Commander Gene Cernan signifies that end as the moon’s final visitor. Mark Craig’s documentary The Last Man on the Moon re-introduces Cernan to viewers that may only know Apollo from history books. They remember Neil Armstrong and John Glenn but often forget about the other guys. Each has a unique story about joining the space program and becoming part of the massive project. Cernan is 82 yet still embodies the youthful vigor of an astronaut. He also exudes a quiet sadness about the bygone era.

Craig depicts Cernan as a Western hero that once ventured into the unknown and returned a changed man. The film begins at a rodeo with the wild throes of a bull visually connecting to the rapid circling of the centrifuge. Cernan’s stoic face stands out in a crowd of rabid onlookers during the bull riding. It’s like his mind lives in a place far away from our concerns. Like Sam Shepard’s Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff, Cernan exudes confidence without saying a word. Despite his age, he still seems above the fray and warmly recalls his big break. This is a guy that loves being an astronaut and has the right make-up for the job. He appreciates the chance but maintains the ego that got him to the top.

We’re nearing a time when few astronauts that walked on the moon will remain. Most are in their 80s and come from a bygone era. Even back in the ‘60s, these guys worked in a bubble separate from the Vietnam War and civil rights movement. Few can understand what it’s like to live and work on the moon. Cernan and other astronauts like Tom Stafford, Alan Bean, Charlie Duke, and Jim Lovell do their best to explain the challenges and glory of the space program. They’re proud of the accomplishments but have regrets about tragic failures. We hear the familiar tale of Apollo 1 and what they lost in the fire. There were previous deaths yet none stung as sharply as the loss of that crew.

This story focuses on Cernan’s three spaceflights: Gemini 9, Apollo 10, and Apollo 17. Each brought unique obstacles, particularly a failed spacewalk on his first mission. Craig mixes archival footage with stunning visual effects that don’t take you out of the movie. Lorne Balfe's music creates the right mood for experiencing the wonders of space. I usually dislike recreations in documentaries but have no major issues this time. Hearing directly from Cernan about his mindset while the images play helps alleviate the concerns. We’re taking the journey with him through each major challenge. Cernan won a tight contest to command Apollo’s final mission, and the pressure to finish strong was palpable.

A key theme is what the astronauts set aside back at home to succeed in space. His first wife Barbara Jean Atchley openly recounts the difficulties with being married to a famous astronaut. Years after Apollo 17, Cernan was still touring the country. His personality fit that lifestyle (and still does), but it isn’t easy on others. There’s little anger in Atchley’s comments here; she finally recognized it wasn’t the life for her. Even Cernan’s current wife Jan Nanna admits the obstacles with her husband’s busy schedule. It’s also moving to hear from Robert Chaffee’s wife Martha Horn. He was part of the Apollo 1 crew killed in 1967, and she still gets emotional when discussing that day. It’s an emotional scene that reinforces the real danger for the astronauts and the impact on the people around them.

Is there anything left to cover from the Apollo era? Yes and no. Segments on famous moments like Apollo 1 cover familiar ground, but the emotional context is different. Cernan isn’t the same guy he was in 2000 when his book The Last Man on the Moon was published. The country has also changed and no longer has a shuttle program. There’s a brief moment where Cernan visits the site of his former missions and regrets it because it’s so empty. We also see him eulogizing Armstrong, who died in 2012. Apollo is our history, but its contributors are still living their lives. It’s refreshing to catch up with one of them in this film and get a small peek into an astronaut’s mind.

The Last Man on the Moon is currently streaming on Netflix

Capsule from the space program, Last Man on the Moon

Interested in Apollo?

Last Man on the Moon tells an engaging personal story, and it’s really just the tip of the iceberg. We all know about Apollo 13, but there’s a lot more to explore. Countless books are available on the topic, and it’s given us excellent documentaries and narrative films. These examples represent a small portion of the many available resources. Be warned; once you venture down this rabbit hole, it’s hard to escape.

For All Mankind: A perfect companion piece to this film, Al Reinert’s 1989 documentary includes incredible archival footage along with the astronaut’s voices and a score from Brian Eno. Instead of telling us how to feel, Reinert just presents footage of the Apollo missions in a well-edited package. The Criterion Blu-ray or DVD releases are a must for anyone interested by the space program.

A Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin: Easily my favorite book in any genre, this comprehensive look at the full Apollo program mixes the human story with the technical info. Chaikin’s enthusiasm for the material and the astronauts is clear throughout more than 700 pages. He avoids getting too technical and maintains a down-to-earth approach that’s infectious. I’ve re-read it more than any other book.

From the Earth to the Moon (HBO mini-series): Adapted partially from Chaikin’s book and produced by Tom Hanks, this warm mini-series wonderfully dramatizes the Apollo missions. The top-notch cast includes Nick Searcy as Deke Slayton, Stephen Root as Chris Kraft, Bryan Cranston as Buzz Aldrin, and Tony Goldwyn as Neil Armstrong. It’s a fun look back at history that never feels dry, and the amazing visual effects maintain the grandeur of space travel.

Chariots for Apollo by Joshua Stoff and Charles R. Pellegrino: This lesser-known 1999 book takes a very different approach to the space program. Instead of focusing on the astronauts, Stoff and Pellegrino concentrate on the technical successes. It won’t interest everyone but is still easy to read for people without engineering degrees. It’s an great way to fill in the gaps from Chaikin’s work.

In the Shadow of the Moon: This engaging 2007 documentary from David Sington brings together so many important astronauts to discuss their experiences. The combined effect of hearing Cernan, Aldrin, John Young, Mike Collins, Charlie Duke, Dave Scott, and others speak ensures we get the full picture. It’s a funny, informative, and surprising look at what it was like to be part of Apollo.

Subscribe Now

Don't miss a post! Sign up to get posts via e-mail.

September 22, 2014

2014 Documentaries: To Be Takei

George Takei at an autograph signing in To Be Takei

When the original series of Star Trek premiered in 1966, it was a landmark for diversity. The multi-racial cast explored the galaxy and covered important social issues with more depth than you might expect from a ‘60s TV show. I caught little of these achievements when seeing it as a kid in the ‘80s; the outer-space setting and alien worlds drew my attention. Viewing it today, the series is sillier than I remember but has an added relevance because of the cast and subject matter. One of the key players was George Takei, who piloted the Enterprise through the final frontier as Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu. He remains known for this iconic character, particularly following the success of the Star Trek feature films. There’s a lot more to his story than his time playing Sulu, however.

When many people think of Star Trek, their minds go to Kirk and Spock. Even so, few actors from that show have developed a following like Takei. He’s gone beyond the typical fan and built an online fan base through Facebook and frequent appearances on the Howard Stern Show. He’s also become outspoken for social justice and came out as gay in 2005. The different sides of Takei’s personality are chronicled in Jennifer Kroot’s warm documentary To Be Takei. She presents the actor with his husband Brad, who’s been in a relationship with him for more than 25 years. The film jumps around chronologically to offer an interesting portrait of a man who’s becoming more popular every year.

It seems fitting with Takei’s hectic life that Kroot avoids a straightforward telling of his background. She spends a good deal of time on his childhood experiences at internment camps during World War II. One segment that cuts between many versions of the same speech for various organizations is very effective. Takei has clearly found his niche as a public face for important causes apart from his acting career. His descriptions of growing up in those camps are stunning even to someone with some knowledge about them. Kroot returns to this topic several times, and the jumps to different themes don’t always connect so well. Even so, it’s easy to follow around a guy like Takei wherever the movie takes him.

George and Brad Takei in To Be Takei

What makes this film about more than Takei is the participation from Brad, who doesn’t seem entirely comfortable in front of the camera. The opening scene involves a minor squabble between the couple, who are completely endearing. Brad runs the show at a later autographs signing and is a no-nonsense manager at these events. It’s his persistence that allows the star to be so relaxed for his fans. What’s unfortunate is how long Takei stayed in the closet because of fears that it would hurt his career. It’s a testament to Brad’s love that he was willing to stay behind the scenes for so long. It could not have been easy to watch from the distance and keep their relationship a secret. It’s a telling reminder of our recent progress but shows that our culture still has a long way to go before there’s no stigma.

An interesting subplot is Takei’s strained relationship with William Shatner. We see footage of the roast of Shatner, which includes some vicious swipes that seem to be in good fun. However, there is a slice of truth to everything Takei says about his former co-star. Shatner appears in the film and seems to be joking about their feud, but it becomes clear that animosity is still there. Was Shatner invited to Takei’s wedding? Who’s telling the truth? I expect the reality is somewhere between their stories. I admire both guys yet recognize that some big personalities just don’t mesh. I would have enjoyed more time on this topic within this movie, but I realize the feud wasn’t the focus.

Howard Stern also has a significant presence in this documentary, though he’s supporting Takei. Given the radio host’s reputation, their friendship shows a refreshing meeting of the minds between kindred spirits. They have an easy chemistry that you can’t fake, and Takei has appeared many times on Stern’s show. Clips from their interviews help to reveal why Takei’s built such a following beyond the Star Trek fans. It isn’t easy to move beyond the role of typical genre stars that are locked into certain characters.

An ongoing part of To Be Takei is the attempt to make Allegiance, a musical inspired by his time in the internment. While parts of this passion project remind me of the fictional William Shatner’s attempt to do a musical of Julius Caesar in Free Enterprise, it ends up being a success. Takei may not be a great singer, but it’s easy to make an emotional connection because of his personal history. This engaging film shows how that experience as a kid shaped everything his entire life. It’s a little disjointed and messy, yet that seems appropriate when you consider Takei’s hectic existence. He’s throwing himself into everything, and the late-career renaissance is a testament to this persistence.

September 15, 2014

2014 Documentaries: Finding Vivian Maier

An image of Vivian Maier from Finding Vivian Maier

We all have an artistic drive within us. It could be painting, photography, woodwork, or even writing about movies. There’s something that must come out to keep us alive. That doesn’t mean we’re all looking to get discovered. Some take the opposite approach and have little interest in showing their work. Vivian Maier was one of these people. She took thousands of photos and had a unique talent for capturing the human experience. Her pictures are more than just attractive images; they have a rare soul. Maier was also an eccentric personality that hoarded newspapers and had few friends. Working as a nanny, she chronicled others’ lives while having a limited one. Despite all we’ve learned about her life, Maier is still an enigma with so many questions surrounding her work.

If it wasn’t for random chance, we’d know little about Maier and her remarkable photographs. John Maloof was a young real estate agent in Chicago looking for pictures to document his neighborhood’s history. He purchased Maier’s photos at an auction for that project and discovered something quite different. It seems fortuitous that they fell into the right hands since Maloof was curious to dig further into Maier’s work. Finding Vivian Maier depicts his efforts to learn more about her background as a photographer and a person. Maloof co-directed the film with Charlie Siskel, and it plays like a detective story as they uncover new clues about her past. Maier was a private person but still connected with enough people to give a solid perspective on her life. We may not fully know her, but their recollections allow us to build at least a limited understanding about Maier’s persona.

There’s a danger in accepting too much of what we see in this type of documentary as the actual events. It’s clear that Maloof had to get pretty far before filming his efforts. Examples like Searching for Sugar Man have revealed the ways that filmmakers can skip over some truths to tell a better story. That doesn’t seem to be the case with this film, however. From all accounts, Maier was an unknown artist and hadn’t been discovered until this point. Beyond its success as a film, this story provides a great introduction to her impressive work. The challenge is keeping us engaged in something beyond the initial surprise. Maloof and Siskel tackle this obstacle by looking into the person behind the photos. The families where Maier worked are open to recounting their tumultuous experiences with the unusual nanny. We slowly uncover her background along with Maloof as he digs further into the mystery. The pace is helped greatly by the excellent score from J. Ralph (The Cove), who keeps the momentum flying towards the next discovery.

Finding Vivian Maier

It’s easy to be cynical and think that Maloof has pursued this project solely for commercial gain. He does own many of the photos and benefits financially from Maier becoming known. That interpretation seems too simple, however. There was no guarantee of any benefit when he spent countless hours digging through boxes of photos. That great diligence rarely happens if the person isn’t engaged by the material. There’s little sense within this film that his interest in Maier’s life isn’t real. We shouldn’t be too naïve, though. Maloof stumbled upon a gold mine with that first box of photos. However, he still had to do the work and locate the families to uncover her past. This film often plays like a personal diary with Maloof speaking directly to the camera in close-up about each step in this journey.

Finding Vivian Maier premiered in 2013 at TIFF and has become one of the most prominent documentaries of the past year. We’ll never know why Maier was so driven to take photos yet had little interest in publicizing them. That compulsion drove her to create amazing work, and the fact that she made prints indicates her understanding of their value. It’s an intriguing story with plenty of different layers to uncover. Maier was a difficult person and could be an unkind nanny. There was a touch of insanity to everything she did. She seems like a being from another place and time dropped into our universe to document it. How could that kind of person have a normal life? Maier was too manic to connect with people, but that same eccentricity drove her to surprising heights.

September 8, 2014

2014 Documentaries - Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me

Elaine Stritch in Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me

There’s a fascinating moment from Elaine Stritch that breaks the fourth wall of the documentary format. When she feels that a scene isn’t working, the long-time Broadway star angrily directs the camera man and tries to recreate it. From that point onward, we start to question how much is a performance for the camera. Are we really seeing behind the showbiz veneer? While this question lingers, it slips to the background as we watch such an entertaining woman. Director Chiemi Karasawa gives us intimate access and reveals the vulnerability behind a star well into her 80s. Despite her physical and mental limitations, Stritch is defiant and refuses to slow down. She’s an open and energetic performer, but we see the insecurity from someone who’s lived her life on stage.

Despite attempts to control the perspective, there’s so much truth within Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me. Stritch is exhausted and struggling to craft her show, but the crowd still loves her. She deftly plays her inability to remember all the lyrics as a joke, and fans appreciate the attempt. Most Tony-award winners would never take this approach. There’s a touch of insanity to the way Stritch refuses to stop after hospital stays and other setbacks. Even so, her persistence is charming despite any difficulties along the way. By her side at every turn is Music Director Rob Bowman, who does a lot more than arrange the songs. His reliable presence provides just the support that Stritch needs to keep the show alive.

Celebrities appear frequently in Shoot Me, including the late James Gandolfini. His warm comments about Stritch remind us of the heart behind his often-gruff demeanor. Seeing the pair together presents two performers who left before their time. She died earlier this year, and it still feels too soon at age 89. The camera takes us behind the scenes at 30 Rock with Alec Baldwin, Tina Fey and others. Stritch’s guest appearance as Jack Donaghy’s mom won her an Emmy in 2007. It’s clear that she has a lot of friends in show business, and that fact isn’t surprising given her style. An early scene follows Stritch down the street wearing a fur coat and talking to everyone she meets. Her life is on stage.

Elaine Stritch

There are so many stories about Hollywood, Broadway, and show business in general in Stritch’s mind. It’s impossible to capture them all within an 81-minute film. Karasawa gives us a picture of an artist at a time in her life when so much tells her to stop. Stritch loves the spotlight, but she’s hardly arrogant. When choosing a room at the Stella Adler Studio, she keeps rejecting locations for being too large. Despite her success, Stritch remains an insecure girl from a humble background. She’s a force of nature on stage but has struggled with alcoholism behind the scenes. It’s intriguing to watch her battle with it every day and sometimes cave and have a drink. It’s hard to blame her at 87.

Stritch is well known among theater fans, but she’s hardly a household name for cinephiles. Shoot Me is just the right way to introduce her to a new segment of the audience. Avoiding the talking-head route and spending time with Stritch is the right move. We see her both on stage and in the quiet moments back at the Carlyle Hotel. This gives us a much clearer understanding than any raves from other actors or experts. I knew little about her before seeing this documentary, and even this brief glimpse told me quite a lot. Stritch may talk directly to the camera and create a few wrinkles, but that freewheeling approach is part of her charm. All we see is the heart, and there’s plenty on display in this film.

September 2, 2014

2014 Documentaries: The Unknown Known

Donald Rumsfeld in The Unknown Known

The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” – Donald Rumsfeld

There’s a strange charm to the way that Donald Rumsfeld dodges questions. His comments make sense on the surface, but he’s just spinning a phrase to avoid giving a concrete answer. It’s easy to think of Rumsfeld as a fool who believed so strongly in his plans that he ignored what was right in front of him. Errol Morris’ The Unknown Known does not present a guy of limited intelligence, however. The smiling face that sits in front of the skilled interviewer is a shrewd manipulator who believes he can sidestep any question. When Morris asks him why he agreed to sit down for the movie, Rumsfeld calls it a “vicious question”. It’s hard to say why he chose to participate, but it probably involves the ego of a guy who held posts for multiple presidents going back to Richard Nixon.

I’ll admit to entering this documentary with a bias against Rumsfeld. He was one of the faces that sold the Iraq War under George W. Bush in 2003. If there is an ideological spectrum, I’m sitting on the opposite side from Rumsfeld. Even so, it was intriguing to learn his assessment of tumultuous times that revealed failures to connect the right evidence. Rumsfeld calls it a “failure of imagination”, but that view takes the position there wasn’t an agenda pushing to invade Iraq. He tries to answer Morris’ questions and outlines why they believed Saddam Hussein was a threat. However, the reasoning falls short because of contradictions between the answers and the original case for war. You could say he’s forgotten past words, but Rumsfeld comes off as a guy who obsesses over details.

Donald Rumsfeld's Snowflakes memos

Morris spends a good portion of the 103-minute running time having Rumsfeld recite key memos called snowflakes from his extensive career. It’s a clever device to reveal what he was thinking at the time given his reluctance to offer insights. We jump back to his work for Nixon and Ford, though a majority is spent with his recent tenure. Supported by powerful music from Danny Elfman, Morris incorporates film clips, photos, and other devices to keep the material engaging. He continues to grow as a filmmaker and understands how to add context. There is footage of Rumsfeld sparring with reporters at press conferences, especially near the end of his tenure. Morris' Interrotron camera allows us to look directly into Rumsfeld's eyes, though we may not like what we see. Rumsfeld is a skilled manipulator and comfortable in this setting.

There are no knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don't know.” – Donald Rumsfeld

Let’s inspect this statement. Rumsfeld gave this quote in June 2002 at a press conference in Belgium from NATO headquarters. It happened during the build-up to the Iraq invasion, and he appears to be discussing the challenges with intelligence. But what is he really saying? The point becomes less coherent the more times you read it. Is he stating that logical conclusions are made without evidence and are “unknown knowns”? That’s quite a stretch when you’re talking about decisions that could involve the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. Rumsfeld doesn’t explain the comment much better to Morris in this film. He’s clever and knows how to distract from what he isn’t saying. It’s intriguing (and maddening) to watch him give comments that seem candid yet reveal very little.

Donald Rumsfeld in Errol Morris' The Unknown Known

It’s difficult to discuss The Unknown Known without mentioning The Fog of War, Morris’ remarkable documentary with Robert McNamara. Both were military leaders who made questionable decisions, but the difference is what the McNamara interview reveals. He served as the Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War and is open to exploring what happened during that period. Some critics have pointed out their frustrations that Morris couldn’t get the same response from Rumsfeld. I understand those concerns but don’t think it hampers this film. We still get an engaging look at a guy who barely acknowledges his failures. It gives a better understanding of Rumsfeld’s limited thinking that led to problems during his tenure. It lacks the same punch as The Fog of War, but there’s enough to make it interesting for the right audience. Morris does his best to draw more from Rumsfeld, but you can’t force a guy to reveal things he’s locked behind a wall of murky explanations.

July 31, 2014

Anita: Speaking Truth to Power (2014)

Anita Hill, star of the documentary Anita: Speaking Truth to Power

I believe Anita Hill. It doesn’t make sense to talk around the issue when discussing her story. My perspective on her revelations about Clarence Thomas back in 1991 is essential to analyzing this film. Anita: Speaking Truth to Power offers an intimate perspective of what Anita experienced facing the Senate committee (and the public) 23 years ago. The image of old white men questioning Anita remains stunning because of the sharp contrast. It’s a fascinating story on its own, but Director Freida Lee Mock (Wrestling with Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner) focuses on Anita’s life during and after the hearings. She was painted in a terrible light by Republicans (and some Democrats) and put through the ringer by the press. I can’t imagine how much worse it would have been in today’s news cycle. Regardless, Anita’s life was forever changed by this time in the spotlight. Was it worth it? This engaging documentary makes the case that Anita’s example inspired great progress.

Anita Hill testifying about Clarence Thomas in 1991.

The highlight is the chance to connect so closely with Anita, who speaks freely without seeming bitter about the results. She’s an intelligent, brave woman that ended up being a punchline for late-night comedians. The law professor couldn’t escape the limelight and decided to embrace it, though I’m sure it wasn’t an easy choice. This documentary covers a famous event but succeeds more as a personal tale. We’re only hearing from Anita and her supporters, but that’s just fine. Mock isn’t doing an investigative journalism piece about the confirmation hearings. I expect that the book Strange Justice by Jane Meyer and Jill Abramson would go more into that territory. The writers appear in this film and offer some background on the case against Thomas. Other participants include Anita’s friends and family, and they paint an interesting picture of a highly regarded and fascinating person.

The film begins with a voicemail from Thomas’ wife Virginia, who’s still asking for an apology from Anita 19 years after the hearings. This is stunning and reveals their monumental impact on a personal and political level. It’s possible that Virginia truly believes that her husband is innocent. Only she knows for sure, but leaving a voicemail in 2010 is strange. Virginia’s angry face appears frequently in the clips from the hearings, and it’s clear that she believes a huge injustice has occurred. While I admire someone who stands by her husband, it’s hard to be too sympathetic. The big question is why Anita would come forward if the accusations were false. What did she have to gain? The most likely result was character assassination, and the senators were more than willing to comply.

The Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991.

What’s even more distressing than the image of the guys questioning Hill is the tenor of their inquiries. There’s an aura of distrust and suspicion behind their questions. The worst offender is Arlen Specter, who ferociously digs into every detail and tries to discredit Anita. Orrin Hatch is nearly as bad and looks for inventive ways to undercut her accusations. Those men are Republicans defending their guy, but the Democrats barely stand up for her. Joe Biden makes some friendly comments but seems extremely uncomfortable with the situation. Ted Kennedy eventually makes a fierce statement about the hearings, but he remains silent for most of it. Only moderate Democrat Howard Heflin from Alabama makes clear points for Hill (at least in this film), but his complicated questioning may have gone over some heads. Few look comfortable discussing sexual harassment.

The challenge with analyzing this documentary is maintaining an “objective” take. I was intrigued to learn more about Anita’s story, so it was an easy sell. As a father of two young girls, I have a personal interest in stories about courageous women. The filmmaking is pretty standard and includes interviews mixed with video footage. Even so, that’s hardly a strong criticism. Flashy techniques could distract us from the main points about Anita. If you don’t believe her story, this film is unlikely to change your mind. Even so, it might offer greater understanding about why she came forward. The hearings' legacy goes well beyond Thomas’ confirmation despite the fact that he remains on the U.S. Supreme Court. The final segment reminds us of how much Anita has impacted women across multiple generations. She’s become a cultural touchstone in the fight against sexual harassment, and the impact transcends her individual struggle. We still have a long way to go towards real gender equality, but this example shows that we’re heading in the right direction.

May 5, 2014

Icons Marathon: The Trials of Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali in The Trials of Muhammad Ali

In the history of boxing, few names are as recognizable as Muhammad Ali. People remember his big personality, remarkable wins against Sonny Liston and George Foreman, and three brutal fights against rival Joe Frazier. Ali’s greatest fight took place outside the ring, however. His stand against the Vietnam War was revolutionary for a figure of his status. It’s been chronicled in Michael Mann’s Ali and other sources, but few have provided the depth of The Trials of Muhammad Ali. Director Bill Siegel (The Weather Underground) gives us the social landscape of the time, which plays a key role in understanding the obstacles that Ali faced. In the age of the military draft, enlisting wasn’t a choice if your name was chosen. Standing up to the government was unwise for anyone. Given Ali’s membership in The Nation of Islam and outspoken persona, it was basically career suicide.

Muhammad Ali holds his son in 1974 in The Trials of Muhammad Ali.

The challenge with Ali is showing the greatness without avoiding the contradictions. His financial backers were a group of white businessmen from Louisville, yet he spoke publicly that all white men were devils. He’s hardly a model when it comes to relationships with women yet is part of a religion that treats them well. Ali claims to be a conscientious objector, yet he’s involved in a brutal sport where the goal is to knock the other guy unconscious. These contradictions are part of what makes Ali so fascinating. He was an outspoken public figure at a time when leaders like Malcolm X were murdered. His chances of being on the front lines in Vietnam were extremely low, and Ali still risked his livelihood to stand up to oppression. His only financial outlet was public speaking, which brought attacks that were just as nasty (if not more) as the punches from his opponents in the ring.

This documentary shows all sides of Ali and doesn’t shield us from his shortcomings. His wife Khalilah ‘Belinda’ Ali talks about what drew her to him and the challenges. Journalist Robert Lipsyte reveals the challenges from his counterparts who wouldn’t stop calling him Cassius Clay. If they couldn’t take that step, getting them to support more daring moves would be impossible. We also hear about the perspective of Ali’s financial backers from attorney Gordon B. Davidson. They all paint a clear picture of what he sacrificed and the forces lined up against him ever returning to the ring. The fact that he actually fought again is remarkable, though he lost more than three years from his prime.

Muhammad Ali fights a brutal bout in The Trials of Muhammad Ali.

This story essentially writes itself, but Siegel makes some good choices. He portrays Ali through a large amount of archival footage. We’re not just hearing from talking heads and can observe it from the time period. The videos of Ali getting into verbal battles with TV personalities are interesting because they’re so nasty. I wouldn’t expect Jimmy Fallon to come even close to this level of conflict with a guest. What’s intriguing about Ali’s insistence in demonizing white people is the way her typically precedes it with “the Elijah Muhammad teaches us”. While this probably comes from instructions about how to handle interviews, it also slightly distances Ali from that message. His thinking has evolved over the years, but it’s still interesting to watch these statements in such a public forum. Athletes rarely speak out on this level today because the money is so significant.

If you aren’t an Ali fan and don’t agree with his stance on Vietnam, this documentary probably won’t change your mind. It does give us a pretty clear view on why backing down wasn’t an option. His stubborn refusal to take the easy road is a significant part of his legacy alongside the boxing achievements. His boisterous personality and confidence in the ring connect directly to his stubborn refusal to bow down about Vietnam. This film offers an interesting portrait of a volatile time through the challenges of one of its most significant figures. It’s disheartening to see the images from the ‘60s and ‘70s and look at the man battling Parkinson’s that we see today. Even so, he remains one of the key figures of the 20th century in the sports world and beyond.

April 23, 2014

Icons: Springsteen & I (2013)

If there was a way to design a movie directly for me, a collection of homemade fan videos about Bruce Springsteen would be high on the list. When you add those clips to exciting live footage from his extensive career, it pushes the project into the stratosphere. There’s little chance that I could analyze Springsteen & I like a normal movie. It would be impossible (and disingenuous) for me to separate my fandom and try to consider Baillie Walsh’s documentary in the normal fashion. Instead, I’d rather discuss it from the perspective of an avid fan that can’t get enough of Springsteen’s music. His resilience in a fickle industry has been remarkable, and he’s showing few signs of slowing down at age 64.

This film includes fan-made clips describing their experiences with the Boss and what’s attracted them to his music for so many years. A middle-aged guy breaks down in tears while even thinking about what those songs have meant to him. It’s clear that people are connecting with the music on a different level, and I can sympathize with that relationship. Men and women of all ages describe a personal bond with Springsteen despite never having met the guy. A young truck driver sees herself in his songs and takes inspiration that it’s okay to do the job she loves despite having a master’s degree. It’s easy to get cynical in the face of such heart, but there’s a genuine love within each participant. 

A connective part of each video is listing three words that describe Springsteen in the fan’s mind. While many cite his genuine demeanor and working-class roots, those wouldn’t make the cut for me. It’s true that his affable personality sells the music on a different level, but it’s impossible for me to know the true guy behind the image of “Bruce Springsteen”. My choices would be “relentless, powerful, and consistent”. What the studio cuts of his songs don’t convey is the ferocity that comes across in the live setting. The songs take on a life of their own, and that soul has developed so many hardcore fans. Some tread the line into obsessive territory, but there’s warmth that helps to mostly avoid that stigma. 

When I think back to my all-time favorite concerts, two from Springsteen would definitely make the list. I was a late arrival to the E Street train and didn’t become a huge fan until after the reunion tour in 2000. That interest was cemented in 2003 by an incredible show at Milwaukee's Miller Park. It was the second time I’d seen them on The Rising tour, and they had such a loose feeling near the end of that run. I had a similar experience in St. Louis near the conclusion of their Magic tour. They played nearly four hours, took many requests from crowd signs, and maintained the momentum throughout the show. Any band can play a long set, but few can keep the fans right there with them for the entire running time. It’s a skill that takes years to master and explains Springsteen’s continued relevance. 

Some of Springsteen & I’s highlights depict impromptu moments on stage that show why he’s charmed so many people. An Elvis impersonator known as “The King” recounts getting the chance to perform “All Shook Up” on stage with Springsteen in Philadelphia. We catch the video of this fun moment while he goes through the surreal feeling of actually singing with his idol. What makes this conversation special is the guy’s wife, who has so much pride in seeing him realize his dream. Another memorable story talks to a man who was dumped right before the concert. He channeled this sorrow into a sign to play “I’m Going Down” and ended up getting a hug on stage from Springsteen. This nightly connection with regular people may seem transparent and part of the act, but it feels surprisingly natural. 

Walsh was wise to include performances that energize the low-key home videos and give added relevance. A couple dances in their kitchen to “Radio Nowhere”, and then the perspective shifts to Springsteen playing the song to a stadium of fans. The older footage shows the rawer side of his work in the ‘70s when the E Street Band was coming alive. When combined with the more recent concerts, it presents a through line from the idealistic rocker to the giant we know today. One participant talks about the power of those early shows, when Springsteen wasn’t a giant face on a video screen. The audio recordings from the late ‘70s are truly remarkable and reveal such promise from a guy who took his shot and won. It’s fitting that the film closes with “Born to Run” with live clips from the past five decades. It may seem corny for everyone to return and thank Springsteen for his music, but that simple message connects so many of us. We’ve bonded at concerts and in our cars over the songs that just never seem to fade no matter where we are in life. Thank you, Bruce. 

April 18, 2014

Icons: The Punk Singer (2013)

Kathleen Hanna in The Punk Singer

When you label someone the voice of a movement, can they ever live up to expectations? Such was the case with Kathleen Hanna, who became the face of the “riot grrrl” scene while leading Bikini Kill in the ‘90s. Working alongside bands like Huggy Bear, Bratmobile, and Sleater-Kinney, she helped to initiate the third wave of feminism in this country. That’s the basic history, but who’s the person behind that image? Director Sini Anderson tackles this question with The Punk Singer, a sincere documentary that does more than show why Hanna’s contribution was important to the scene. It reveals the complexities in the fiery demeanor, especially when a devastating illness ends her time in the spotlight.

Combining archival footage with more recent interviews, Anderson does an excellent job presenting the different stages of Hanna’s career. Music was the outlet for an artist with so much to say, yet it put her on the public stage as a target. It’s refreshing to see so many talented women participating in this project. We’re lacking typical guys like Rolling Stone’s David Fricke that appear in so many documentaries. Instead, pivotal artists like Kim Gordon, Corin Tucker, and Joan Jett give their impressions on Hanna’s work in the ‘90s and beyond. On the surface, she was just a punk singer, but her role became so much greater. It also riled up the male establishment and brought attacks from all corners of the spectrum.

The Punk Singer

The first hour focuses on Hanna’s time with Bikini Kill and Le Tigre and spotlights the music without getting too rhapsodic. Concerts were rougher affairs at that point, and mosh pits were no joke at club shows. It wasn’t a hospitable place for most women, and Hanna wouldn’t stand for it. While her approach to bringing women to the front might seem obvious, that move was very rare. Beyond the hype, it’s the practical moves that stand out within the furor. This material works because we hear plenty of humble comments from Hanna about her experiences. The incisive stage presence of her younger days has given way to a committed yet much different persona. She’s grown up a lot in the past few decades, though the anger towards the divisive system remains as strong as ever.

There are few guys on screen in this film, and that choice makes this story more unique. One exception is Hanna’s husband Adam Horovitz, whose stabilizing presence helps her through the difficult times. The section on their romance is really touching. Despite being a great match, the couple moved slowly because of the challenges for touring musicians. The Beastie Boys’ social consciousness has frequently been under reported, and some still equate them with the image of partying young guys from their first record. His presence is fairly limited in the movie, but their strong relationship comes through from those scenes. Horovitz shoots a harrowing moment of Hanna revealing the side effects from medicine to combat her Lyme disease. It’s hard to think of such a vibrant performer reduced to such a difficult state.

Kathleen Hanna in 2013's The Punk Singer

The Punk Singer was the first place where Hanna revealed the reason that she quit performing in 2005. She didn’t realize until five years later that she had contracted Lyme disease. This final segment is difficult but reveals the emotional core that drives the film. It does more than portray an artist's glorious past. Anderson and Hanna are using the film to come to terms with her illness. I’m typically fidgety when watching movies at home, but I was glued to the set during the last act. We observe a singer with so much energy reduced to a shell of her former self. Watching her take the stage again with The Julie Ruin is such an affirming moment. Plenty of challenges remain, but she’s on the path to a brighter future.

March 19, 2014

Niche Culture: Indie Game - The Movie (2012)

Indie Game - The Movie

One of my clearest holiday memories from my childhood was getting an original NES for Christmas in the late ‘80s. My parents had insisted that Nintendo wasn’t coming to our house. It was quite a smokescreen. After following clues around the house, I arrived in the basement to see that glorious system ready for play. My celebration was probably extremely dorky and ridiculous. My friends and I started with Super Mario Bros. and became obsessed with games like Castelvania, Metroid, The Legend of Zelda, and so many other classics. Breaking out the old system reminds me about its greatness. The games are still a blast to play, despite not having the complex worlds of recent titles. There’s something to be said for having a simple yet challenging task and being able to execute it to accomplish a goal.

This nostalgic feeling is present with the creations shown in Indie Game: The Movie. These guys come from my generation of gamers, and their programs have a throwback feeling to them. The online medium is much different, yet the experience of exploring those worlds seems very similar. The challenge for these inventive minds is to compete with gargantuan companies like EA. Their work may be original and exciting, yet the marketing machine is pushing them out of the fray. It takes serious dedication to find a way to stand out, and even that isn’t enough if the odds are stacked against you.

Edward McMillen in Indie Game: The Movie

Watching guys struggling to develop a game doesn’t sound exciting, yet it’s quite a thrill. The reason is that Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky have found such interesting figures. Tommy Refenes is a pale, skinny guy who looks like he barely steps out of his apartment. This is his first big project, and he’s determined to make it happen. His partner Edward McMillen has found success, but nothing has prepared him for the stressful run to complete Super Meat Boy. These are the outsiders from high school who stayed at home and played video games, yet they’re hardly awkward. McMillen is married and seems well-adjusted despite the stereotype. Refenes’ main goal is to pay off his parent’s debt on their house. These are likable guys that are easy to root for, so we’re on board to hope for success.

The other focus is Phil Fish, who earned several awards for his game Fez way back in 2008. Four years later, he was still struggling to complete it. His story shows the difficult side of being a loner in an industry dominated by large corporations. He battles on the legal side with a former business partner while trying to finish his much anticipated game. The question is whether he really can let it go. Fish keeps digging into the details, and each change introduces the possibility of new bugs to fix. He’s clearly unstable and talks of killing himself if the game isn’t released. He’s presented as a decent guy who just wants to finish his game, but there’s another side that probably makes him a difficult business partner.

Phil Fish in Indie Game: The Movie

The success of video games is off the charts; its blockbusters dwarf the movie industry. I’m not even sure that I realize just how large they’ve become with younger generations. This movie shows how the programmers who grew up with Atari and Nintendo have become game developers. They’re stretching the medium's boundaries while still longing for the excitement of the products that inspired them. The ambitious worlds are beyond what was possible a few years ago. And the technological advancements just keep coming. Despite their struggles, the fact that McMillen and Refenes can sell more than a million copies of their game reveals the stunning potential for this industry.

It’s surprising to note just how gripping Indie Game: The Movie becomes right to the end. My interest could stem from my gaming past, but I doubt that’s the only reason. Pajot and Swirsky are first-time filmmakers and don’t try to over reach and cover too many subjects. They briefly talk to Jonathan Blow, who created the breakout hit Braid in 2008. He clearly has plenty to say about the state of the industry, yet he comes off more pretentious than the other developers. His presence is interesting, but he spends just the right time on the screen. It’s those decisions that raise this movie above your standard documentary. I felt the heartbreak when Super Meat Boy’s release wasn’t appearing on Xbox Live. It takes a lot to engage me so thoroughly, and this inspiring film doesn’t miss a beat.

Next week, I’m switching gears and checking out the work of Johnnie To with Election.