Friday, July 31, 2009
Gates of Heaven, by Errol Morris (1978), documents the pet cemetery business in California. The love that pet owners feel for their pets is expressed in interviews and landscapes. The film's palette is bright and sunshiny, with just the right hint of ironic appreciation for eccentricity. One interviewee's framing reminded me of a Diane Arbus photograph, "Lady bartender at home with a souvenir dog, New Orleans, 1964." (Copyright Estate of Diane Arbus)
Thursday, July 30, 2009
The River (1938), by Pare Lorentz, is a motion picture counterpart to the Depression-era photographs commissioned by Franklin Roosevelt's government agencies. Music composed by Virgil Thomson complements moody black-and-white footage of erosion, rising river waters, acres of houses covered with water up to their roofs, and tent cities. A poetic narration drums along, bringing to mind other man-made disasters such as the flooding after Hurricane Katrina.
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Robert, Mary and Katrina (2006) is an unusual documentary. It's a single-take video recording of an account of one Hurricane Katrina odyssey. That's it: an oral history interview of Robert and Mary Manuel, made at the shelter where they were staying, a few days after the storm. Filmmaker Marjoleine Boonstra uses a plain set-up that allows for no distractions to the narrative drive, occasional humor, and overall significance of the story.
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
The Charlie-bit-me home video from YouTube has over 110,000,000 views. It is 56 seconds long and appears to be handheld with a regular consumer camcorder and patience. The size of the audience for this clip convinces me that documentary and independent filmmakers should put their work online, particularly older films and videos that are hard to track down. A fraction of 110,000,000 is pretty big.
Monday, July 27, 2009
The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On (1987) by Kazuo Hara is a riveting film that has a lot to teach about making documentaries. Students who see one section (representative stills, above) ask about the ethics of the film crew continuing to shoot after the film's protagonist, Kenzo Okuzaki, jumps up to fight the man he's interviewing. Was violence needed to provoke a confession?
Friday, July 24, 2009
Fast Food Women, by Anne Lewis, came out in 1991 but seems to anticipate Barbara Ehrenreich's 2001 book, Nickel and Dimed. In this film, women working in pizza, burger, and fried chicken places in eastern Kentucky talk frankly, as if to a friend, about their jobs and lives. Their conversations are particularly relevant now that fast food has been getting the spotlight.
Thursday, July 23, 2009
Les Blank's A Well Spent Life (1971) documents blues guitarist and singer Mance Lipscomb. It's a beautiful film.
Blank portrays the community of Navasota, Texas by showing landscapes, daily life, friends, and family. Lipscomb's story and music unfold with interviews and performances in a variety of settings, along with scenes of cooking, farming, nightspots, and a baptism. Blank uses plenty of observational footage, close-ups of people, and text from posters and signs.
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Billy Wilder Speaks (2006), directed by Volker Schlöndorff and Gisela Grischow is an extended interview of Wilder, shot over two weeks in 1988. An earlier release (Billy Wilder, wie haben Sie's gemacht?) is from 1992 and was based on the same set of interviews. Schlöndorff, who directed The Tin Drum (1979), is an enthusiastic questioner. Billy Wilder's high-energy anecdotes and analysis about his many films (and their stars) are in a captivating mix of English and German. The stills show the camera set-up.
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
High School, by Frederick Wiseman, documents a big public high school and was released in 1968. Will high school always be the same? Wondering about this question is part of the charm and endurance of the film. The personalities and (beautifully shot and edited) interactions of the students, teachers, gym teachers, college counselors, and parents were so familiar that a high schooler who was watching the film with me yesterday said, "Why am I watching this? I'm on vacation and I don't need to be back in school." Fashion, technology, and diversity are areas of key changes which makes viewing the film even more interesting. The sight of a roomful of 1960s students on typewriters, for example, looked like a scene from "Mad Men."
Monday, July 20, 2009
51 Birch Street, by Doug Block, is an important personal documentary, sensitive and eye-opening. Written material is a big part of the visual texture of the film, providing interest and contrast to interviews, family observations, and first person reflection.
Bystanders with camcorders sometimes document incidents that otherwise would not get seen. This still from a video made in July 2008 shows the approach of a Critical Mass bicycle rider who is about to be knocked down by a policeman.
Sunday, July 19, 2009
A talented group of MIT students conceived and built an extremely useful and cost-effective Braille label machine called the "6dot." As part of their effort to win the James Dyson Award for student designers and engineers, they made a video to show how the labeler works. These stills give a sense for the utilitarian and straightforward footage which efficiently conveys the value of this invention.
Saturday, July 18, 2009
The Way Things Go, (aka Der Lauf der Dinge, 1987) by artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss, shows an extended chain reaction of stuff and nonsense. The artists built, and then put into motion, a Rube Goldberg set with ramps and wheels, balloons, cascading water and bubbles, fire, wind-ups, and explosions. The camera documents thirty seemingly continuous minutes of hypnotic mayhem with a few discreet edits.
Update: The music video by the band OK Go, This Too Shall Pass, features an elaborate chain-reaction set-up that is similar to The Way Things Go, but with more color, lots of consumer objects and toys, and an ambition to shoot in one continuous take.
Friday, July 17, 2009
A Perfect Candidate is an entertaining and totally timely documentary about American politics. R. J. Cutler and David Van Taylor insightfully record, as a case study, Oliver North's run for the Virginia senate in 1994. The filmmakers have commented on cinematographer Nick Doob's framing of North at a campaign stop in a church (above, top), which has the suggestion of a halo above his head. A conference room scene (above, bottom) was excerpted throughout the film, an editing necessity because the filmmakers had limited access to the "back room" of the campaign.
The documentary Valentino: The Last Emperor by Matt Tyrnauer (2008) is a great watch with many wonderful moments.
The filmmaker shows the story-within-the-story of one particular white evening dress throughout the movie. Here are seven stills (above and in the next post) that summarize the process of conceiving and making the dress.
Camera choices and lighting make a big difference. Here, a student video production had access to two very different camcorders and some video from the web. Top: a television show, with studio lighting. Middle: a high quality "prosumer" camcorder and no added light. Bottom: an inexpensive one-chip camcorder with no added light.
Thursday, July 16, 2009
Chick Strand's documentaries and experimental films live on after her death recently at the age of 78. These stills are from her 1986 "Fake Fruit Factory," a 16 mm film documentary mostly shot in close-up. Strand's camera patiently observes women at work preparing and painting paper-mache fruits. A non-sync audio track weaves in a variety of voices in Spanish with English subtitles.