Sunday, October 25, 2009

"Keep a good head, and always carry a light bulb" DON'T LOOK BACK REVIEW DOCUMENTARY MARATHON

Don't Look Back-1967-D.A. Pennebaker

*Excuse me while I make a claim beforehand. I love Bob Dylan, and watching this documentary, to me, was such a great experience seeing him just interacting with people. Pardon my affection for the man throughout this review of Pennebaker's wonderful documentary. It is worthy of more discussion then I'm sure I will give it. Also, it has been a few months since I saw this film, so forgive me if my facts are just a little off. Please? Okay, fine, don't, but just read the review. Or not. God. Do whatever you want. I don't care.


Cinema Verite filmmaking is a fascinating way to capture a figure such as Bob Dylan. Dylan is definitely one of the most enigmatic artists of our time, and D.A. Pennebaker's portrait of him in Don't Look Back, is so very intriguing for that reason. We know so little about the man. The events of Pennebaker's documentary follow Dylan and Joan Baez on a tour of England in 1965. This is such a transitional period for Dylan, as he is in the middle of switching from acoustic folk songs to a more electric rock and roll style. Which is what makes the documenting of the time so fascinating.

Is this the real Bob Dylan? Certainly not, we get a few different Dylan's throughout the documentaries duration. We get the confident Dylan who pleasantly listens to up and comer Donovan's sweet little pop song, and tells him how much he enjoys it before he destroys it with his own song, proving that Dylan is a transcendental figure. No matter how good a song may be, it will never be a Dylan song.

Sometimes, I wonder, how self aware Dylan truly is. When we see his interactions with reporters and his lashing out at a reporter who called him a folk musician. He much preferred the term artist, or was this an act? Maybe I am slightly misguided about Dylan, but I feel as if he's always playing with people. Never giving anyone his true self. This explains him and Baez's slight arguments about social issues we see in the film and Dylan's lack of interest in them. Which also leads to Dylan's ultimate leap from folk to rock and roll music. A decision which cost him a lot at the time, but to Dylan it was about his art, not about some movement, or some cause.

A perfect representation of this would be when Dylan is performing for a massive crowd and his mic isn't working. He continues to play, and we hear his guitar, but no one can he what he is singing. This doesn't stop Dylan. In Dylan's art, he was always misinterpreted. In fact, I don't really know at all what Dylan meant with most of his songs. I simply cling to what they mean to me, but I'm sure they are totally different to any number of people. The audience wasn't hearing what Dylan was really saying with his poetic lyrics that they all sang along to. Perhaps no one really does.

A scene that really stands out is Dylan's argument over the broken glass. He is so angry about some broken glass, wondering who threw it, that we actually see Dylan showing some passion that seems genuine. What does this mean for Dylan? Is he really that angry that someone might have gotten hurt, or is this representative of his entire art form? He is moving on, he is shattering the glass of his folk music icon image, and trying to move forward. Was Donovan going to beat him to the punch? Dylan was clearly, although he attempted to hide it, jealous of Donovan in a sense. He was sort of the British version of Bob Dylan, and Dylan simply wanted to stand alone.

Ultimately, the opening sequence tells all. With Subterranean Homesick Alien playing, Dylan holds poster boards with the lyrics written on them. Sometimes misspelled and sometimes totally different words than the ones sang. It's a very humorous, yet, meaningful scene. It is Dylan's moving forward from his old style. He is simply tossing those words onto the ground, as if they never meant anything to him in the first place.

In the film's final sequence we see Dylan in the back of his limo, with Albert Grossman reading aloud an article about Dylan in which he is regarded as an anarchist for showing people societal problems but never offering any sort of solution. To which Dylan replies, "It can't be good to be an anarchist..."

Could this be Dylan's telling moment of moving forward with his art and not looking back as the title suggests?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"I took my lucky break and I broke it in two..." WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE

Where The Wild Things Are-2009-Spike Jonze


Without pandering to any sort of audience, Maurice Sendak wrote a beautifully transcendent children's book about imagination, loneliness, and love. He did so in a mere 10 sentences, with some splendid illustration, and for 46 years it has been captivating children and adults alike.

In the early 90's, Spike Jonze started directing short films and music videos, eventually gaining notoriety for his imaginatively creative narratives in such short pieces of filmmaking. His work with The Beastie Boys, Weezer, and Fatboy Slim comprise some of the best music videos made during the last decade of the 20th century. In 1999, he made his feature film debut with a dark, cynical comedy called Being John Malkovich, written by the illustrious Charlie Kaufman. He followed that up with another Kaufman collaboration, and one of my favorite films of all time, Adaptation.

Fast forward to October 2009, both of these men; creative, genius, masterful at their art, have converged. Jonze, with the help of co-writer Dave Eggers, has adapted Sendak's classic into a dark piece of cinema. After 3 years of battling with the studio over the vision of the project, and spending all of 2009 to hype it with the help of Arcade Fire, it has finally graced us with its presence.

The story, if you are totally oblivious, follows a young boy named Max. He is vulnerable, lonely, but an incredibly caring individual. After having a terrible day Max wants the attention of the only person who really seems to love him, his mother. When he doesn't understand why she won't constantly listen to him, he lashes out in a fit of anger; "I'll eat you up!" He screams to his mother while energetically dodging her every attempt at stopping him from destroying anything. After biting his mom, he runs out of the house, and into his imagination, where he takes a small boat out into the ocean, to the island of the Wild Things.

Upon reaching the island, Jonze had a lot of room for interpretation, as in the book, there is very little said on the island. Each Wild Thing has a personality of their own. And they are all incredibly in need of therapy. With childlike interplay, Max is able to keep them all from eating him. He proclaims he has a sadness shield and is a king, they make him their king.

What Jonze is able to do on the island is something few people would have been able to accomplish. He allows for each Wild Thing to have their own specific personality, but each one's personality can be traced back to a piece of Max's sadness. Carol, voiced wonderfully by James Gandolfini, deals with his pain with anger. He lashes out by destroying things, or yelling at people. Max and Carol bond more than any of the others.

Carol: It's going to be a place where only the things you want to happen, would happen.

Max: We could totally build a place like that!

When Max becomes King, he is forced to confront all of the Wild Things in ways he never expected. When they complain about still being sad, after he promised them happiness, he gets angry. The self proclaimed downer of the group, Judith(Catherine O'Hara), even berates Max, exclaiming; "Happiness isn't always the best way to be happy."

What we see here is the idea, made famous by Thomas Moore, of a Utopian vision. A place where there would be no more sadness or pain, no more suffering or loss. Jonze and Eggers show that there is no such thing as a Utopia. It is part of maturing or growing up to realize that life will never be perfect. Perfection just isn't something that is of our world, even if that world is wholly imagined, it is impossible to attain.

With Carol's insecurities about one of the Wild Things, KW, leaving, because she found new friends, when he is seemingly in love with her, we find the conflict that has caused all of the Wild Things to be in such a sad state. Max's conflict was caused, in part, because of his mothers new boyfriend, and him losing the attention he craved from her. He simply didn't understand. Here we find Max's parallel.

In a scene, involving Max and KW, in which some viewers might find gross or weird, Max is reborn, in a sense, and finally understands that his mother also is in need of love. Not just from him.

If there are any problems with the film, it lies near the end. There is a dramatic build when Max is going back to reality that, while heart stirring , yes, seems somewhat manipulative compared to the rest of the film. The music builds and crescendos and it felt somewhat forced, but I can't say I didn't fall for it hook, line and sinker, and would gladly do so again. It got a little misty in the theater, I will say.

Criticisms that have stemmed about this being a children's/family film, and having such dark material, must be from those who have obviously not read the book in awhile. While Sendak's illustrations are a bit more brightly colored than the Wild Things are in the film, the few sentences they say certainly lean towards less than childlike appearances. Especially when Max first arrives and the book states he was greeted by the Wild Things gnashing their teeth and roaring their roars and so on. And while king, Max feels lonely.

Jonze has captured that in a unsanitized way. He seems to have made an honest and meaningful piece of art that draws parallels to Wizard Of Oz, Alice In Wonderland and even that 1989 Fred Savage/Howie Mandel classic Little Monsters. It is definitely a kid's film, because it deals with the feelings kids so often have, that most children's "art" is afraid to deal with in our culture of Santa Clauses and Easter Bunnies, we can't fathom our kids finding truth and meaning from something scary. Real life is scary and while I wouldn't condone forcing a kid to sit through it out of torture, if the kid truly was scared, I wouldn't hide it from them either.

As mentioned in those previous family films, Dorothy is caught in a tornado and almost killed by a witch. Alice must deal with some creepy things, as well as be threatened by the queen to have her head cut off! How are these things child friendly, but not loneliness?

In this day and age, artists like Spike Jonze are important, because they use their art as a mirror for us to see ourselves in. Where The Wild Things Are is about so much more than all the words I wrote before it, it is foremost about love, and how we deal with the feelings that love causes. In the end, without using any words, Jonze offers us the answer that unconditional love is the most beautiful and hopeful thing we could ask for, remember; "and it was still hot."

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Harlan County USA-1976-Barbara Kopple


Hazel Dickens turns out to be the star of Barbara Kopple's 1976 masterpiece Harlan County USA. "They'll Never Keep Us Down" is the perfect song to encapsulate everything Kopple's documentary delves into. It's such a beautiful thing, because it is rare to think of southern, more conservative folk fighting for social rights. Dickens is right up there with them.

"The power wheel is rolling, rolling right along,
The government is keep it going, going strong,
So working people get your help from your own kind,
Your welfare on the rich man's mind"

This group of people in Harlan County represent something beautiful that we, as a human race, so often fore go, but we all have within us. When we are united in hope, we will fight no matter the cost, for our freedom. That is why Kopple's film is a masterpiece in documentary filmmaking. Obviously influenced by the Maysles brothers and D.A. Pennebaker, she uses a cinema-verite style to capture this mostly unheard of movement.

I love that Kopple decided to title the film; Harlan County USA, not Harlan County, Kentucky. She is getting at something. These people are the us' of this world. We are the underdogs, and we all have something unjust in our lives that we can win over with sheer will, truth and justice. It is an underdog story if there ever was one. Seeing how these mining families live, it is heartbreaking. The workers put their lives on the line for pay and housing that shouldn't be offered to anyone, let alone someone risking their lives for their job.

"When we win the contract, daddy is gonna have hot running water,
and a big ol' bathtub."

Harlan County
has a passionate energy to it that bleeds through every frame. There is so much heart here, be it from the director behind the camera, or the people fighting in front of the camera. What one might expect to find within the confines of the film is more of a glimpse at what it's like to work in the midst of the earth, total darkness. And while we are shown brief excerpts of the men working, they most certainly aren't in any way the crux of the narrative at all. This is a film that is about struggle.

Kopple never tries to glamorize any of this, or make it aesthetically pleasing in anyway, she simply documents her surroundings. She isn't following these people because she finds Appalachian folk fascinating, just to learn more about them, as some have criticized the likes of fashion photographer Richard Avedon of doing during his photographic study of the west.

Harlan County
takes a lot of its focus and places it onto the women, the wives of the coal miners, as they stand up, in a very feminist fashion, and fight. While these women may not work in the mines, they are ferocious, and it's truly a beautiful thing that Kopple is able to capture all of this on film. It should be required viewing in many American history classes, for the ways in which in captures history in the making. Much like the civil rights movement, albeit nowhere near as important, and on a much smaller scale, these women take a stand and it's beautiful. It gets to a point that even Norman Yarborough, the president of Eastover(the company that owns the mines), had to say about the women's role in the strike.

“I would hate to think that my wife would play that kind of role. There’s been some conduct that I would hope that U.S. women wouldn't have to resort to.”

Just the phrasing he uses allows for him to seem despicable. Why only U.S. women? Are other countries women lowlier than ours? And why is it that men can fight and spit and cuss, but women shouldn't have to resort to it, especially when it's all they can do to help?

Tense doesn't even begin to describe when the woman decide to block the roads in a revolt to block the scabs(people who work in the mines while the actual workers are on strike). They have to face down the state troopers, which in this case, being such a small town, happens to be someone they know personally. Billy G. Williams, the sheriff, is faced with a tough decision because he is experiencing this strike first hand with his friends, but he has an obligation to get them off that road. It is a tragic moment that Kopple captures with grace and precision.

There are times Kopple herself was in danger of death, we hear guns fired in the darkness, and in an interview with Roger Ebert, she says she heard they were planning on killing her and her crew that night.

Kopple's film is messy, beautiful, simple and profound, just like a human being. It is a living, breathing organism.

"If a man smiles all the time he's probably selling something that doesn't work. " SALESMAN DOCUMENTARY MARATHON

*the title is a quote from George Carlin

Salesman-1968-Albert and David Maysles


The sound of wipers and turn signals are like the rhythms of these men’s lives. Salesman, directed by the Maysles brothers in a great, authentic cinema-verite style, follows four Bible salesmen on the road as they struggle living the life of a dying profession. The Maysles brother’s use of style creates an arena for higher believability in the drama and interactions as we follow, in a fly on the wall fashion, these salesmen into the homes of their clients, into their hotel rooms and their cars.

The striking thing about Salesman is the fact that these men are not only door to door salesman, but Bible salesmen. The idea of selling the Bible is an interesting one, as I remember it, in Christ’s words; he always spoke about giving to people, not taking from people their money. It’s an interesting juxtaposition that adds a hint more to the subtext of the narrative.

Door to door selling already has one foot in the grave, its integration with religion and the local churches brings us into a whole other realm. Not only are we seeing men desperately trying to sell to live, but we see the integration of religion and business and those who are believers thinking nothing of their priest giving these salesmen their names and addresses because of their trust in their church. It’s obviously a brilliant endorsement when the man of God himself is recommending these salesmen.

However, through an interview on the DVD special features I came to find out the Maysles brothers lack of interest in the religion/business subtext. Their focus was solely on the lives of four men as they struggle to stay afloat in their troubled job choice. We have Paul Brennan, “The Badger”; Charles McDevitt, “The Gipper”; James Baker, “The Rabbit”; and Raymond Martes, “The Bull”, all traveling together and getting along like a dysfunctional family. They all know the job is going downhill but they feel like they can each make it through. The Maysles do an outstanding job of fleshing out these characters, especially Paul Brennan. Brennan is the oldest of the group, and seems to be having the hardest time making sales.

There is a certain desperation in each sale. Not only on part of the salesman, but also on the customer being sold to. They both seem to want to get everything over with, generally with two totally different agendas. We see clients talk about money problems, while the salesman is obviously trying to be understanding without blatantly saying that they too have money problems when people aren’t buying their product. That desperation causes a great tension when we see each salesman in the home using their best lines to try and win over each family. Seeing the salesmen in the heat of the action, while also seeing them rehearse their sales pitches together, reminds the viewer of how each salesman is basically an actor. They rehearse as if they are performing improv, and thinking, what might the audience throw at me next?

Brennan’s constant struggle to find the streets where his clients are to be found is a representation of the way of the salesman, trying to find their place in a changing world. It’s a sad sight, but Brennan is so compelling. He tries to keep a smile on his face for others and the camera, constantly doing an Irish accent and joking around. It is only when he doesn’t know the camera is watching that the Maysles are able to capture his fear of the future simply by the look on his face as he stares blankly off into nowhere. This happens twice in the film and one can’t help but wonder what the man is thinking. These brief moments say so much with so little time taken. They are the film’s greatest moments.

Salesman doesn’t seem to be all dreary. It’s not hard to get a kick out of the Bible salesman conventions. Seeing a bunch of men dressed alike listening to men speak, using religious language, about business, bringing back the duality of religion and business.

“There are many people who know the Bible. There are many people who can quote from the Bible, but somewhat different, you know the business.”

The abnormality of comparing the Bible salesman to a priestly figure struck me as quite hilarious at times. Is there really admiration to be found in the profession of door to door salesman? They are akin to modern day telemarketers, and everyone seems to find them utterly disgusting (not gonna lie, I used to be one, there is good money in it).

When one man literally quotes the Bible saying “Knowest ye not that I am about my fathers business” in reference to Bible selling, I couldn’t help but chuckle. This film represents the death of the 1950’s way of life. We want our capitalism and we want our religion. Let’s not reference Christ’s contempt for the rich and adoration for the meek and lowly, let’s try and make as much money as possible but still be very upright and moral in our ways. In 1968, the year of this film’s release, America had already changed greatly. But there were those on the fringes still wearing their business framed religious glasses. The sad thing is where are we at today? Stuck in the same spot.

"Some people just don't like to celebrate human tragedy while on vacation." ROGER AND ME DOCUMENTARY MARATHON

Roger And Me
-1989-Michael Moore


When given the opportunity to speak his mind, Michael Moore will be there to say what he believes needs to be said. I greatly respect the man for this, and although I have some problems with his techniques and overall opinions about some subjects, I find the man absolutely fascinating. With that being said I found Michael Moore’s first critical and cultural success, Roger and Me, to be an attempt at getting things right, while never reaching any sort of transcendent moment that I feel Moore could be capable of capturing with such material.

In Bowling for Columbine, while Moore uses tragedy as a device of sympathy to get his ultimate point across, he uses it in such a way that it works to the movie’s advantage. He uses similar, if not exact, tactics in Roger and Me that seemingly allow the film to fall flat on its face.

Moore happens to find tragedy fascinating. Be it in the lives of his neighbors or fellow Americans, he jumps at the chance to make a movie about a tragic event through his eyes. That is simply all we are ever shown in a Michael Moore documentary. A glimpse at the man’s thoughts about said tragedy. In Roger and Me, it seems Moore’s thoughts aren’t with those who lost their jobs but are simply focused on making people out to look like jerks. From Roger Smith to Pat Boone, he goes from one to another “just wanting answers” but obviously going about it all the wrong way to cause a scene.

While this type of thing is all he really does in Bowling For Columbine as well, it seems he disguises it a bit better and drops in hints of hope and truth. Here, Michael Moore seems to think that logic, truth and justice are best served by trying the same stunt twice, constantly on “the search” for the man who is responsible for all that is wrong in the world, Roger Smith.

I think Moore’s films live or die on the villain he creates. While Roger Smith seems to be a good choice, a capitalistic pig who could care less about the little man working for him and more about saving himself a few pennies. He never allows Smith to have a character that embodies evil. Compare this to Moore’s best film to date, Bowling For Columbine, where so many people think our bad guy is Charlton Heston, no, he is simply a minion to the ultimate evil: The Fear Mongering Media. This approach works because we see all of these things working together to harm us, and it’s something that is tangible in our own lives and we relate to. Roger Smith is a creation in Moore’s head. I find his ways despicable but not because of anything I saw him do in the film.

Ultimately, Moore’s chops didn’t seem to be there as a director. His beloved juxtapositions seemed less well constructed than in later films, and those are the center pieces that create in the viewer a sense of anger at what has transgressed before us.

Monday, October 19, 2009

"If I don't make it to the NBA, don't you forget about me" HOOP DREAMS DOCUMENTARY MARATHON

Hoop Dreams-1994-Steve James


When Steve James’ epic, nearly three hour, documentary about the dreams of two inner city black kids to become the next Isaiah Thomas was released in 1994, it was to wild critical and popular acclaim, so much so that it’s lack of an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary wound up causing such a ruckus, the rules were changed. The piece, originally intended to be a 30 minute episode on PBS, turned into a 5 year journey following the hopes, dreams, fears, anxieties and aspirations of two boys and their families.

If Hoop Dreams is anything, it is entertaining. While looking at the average running time of a Hollywood epic period piece, groaning can be heard, but once given the chance, the film is an engrossing piece of work that not only gets you to care about the lives of these families but pulls you in with a sense of urgency and heart that few documentaries are able to reach. Oftentimes we are held at arms length by a narrator constantly trying to butt his way in to the story, here, while there is a needless narration, it isn’t intrusive or uninviting, it simply relays to the viewer, like a sports commentator, what is going on at the moment.

While James does happen to do an outstanding job of pacing such a long movie, there happen to be long stretches without one of our beloved main characters making an appearance. While it’s still played out with excellent attention to detail and never a loss of attention, one cannot help but feel something is missing when going for extended amounts of time without one of these two boys.

Upon meeting the boys, we get a slight juxtaposition in their upbringing and overall attitude. William Gates is a shining star. He is charismatic yet shy, but always one step ahead of everyone else. Arthur Agee is scrawny and scrappy, lacking a sense of direction, but with buckets of passion to make up for it. Along the way we get to see the differences in their lives and how they play out to a similar end.

The documentaries most charming aspect is its attention to the characters, be it our main characters, or our supporting cast. We not only get to explore the lives of these young boys hoping for a fulfillment of their dreams, we get a glimpse at how these kids can be taken advantage of, and small but subtle commentaries on religion.

From the coach at St. Joseph, Pingatore, to Arthur’s very eclectic parents; we are given small hints at the deep impacts that not only these people have on Arthur’s and William’s lives but how Arthur and William have changed their lives as well.

Hoop Dreams was named by Roger Ebert as the best film of the 90’s just ahead of Pulp Fiction. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was the best of the decade, I can say that Ebert isn’t wrong. Hoop Dreams could very well be the decades shining star, but just like the boys who we meet in the film, it doesn’t seem it will ever be given the chance to meet its fullest potential.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


Hmmm...4 months with no update from me. I guess all I can wonder is...did you miss me?

Not to worry, I have slowly but surely been watching documentaries, many more than I have listed on the side and am working on getting the reviews up here soon. It was an incredibly busy summer, as well as a busy start to the school year, but I am finally able to finish off this documentary marathon and actually start updating this thing regularly again.

My only question I have left would be; is anyone actually reading this?