Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Bert Stern

Photographer Bert Stern's Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960) is an durable record of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. Chuck Berry's performance of "Sweet Little Sixteen" is notable because some observers characterize Berry (top still) as a rock and roll interloper at an otherwise "pure" jazz event. Drummer Jo Jones (second still), among other players, accompanied Berry for "Sweet Little Sixteen." Were the older jazz musicians deliberately undermining Chuck Berry, as Keith Richards suggests in his autobiography?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Joshua Weinstein

Joshua Weinstein's portrait of Dr. Sharadkumar Dicksheet in Flying One One Engine (2008) gives equal weight to two sides of his persona: the disabled nobody, scrimping by in a messy apartment in New York City (top still), and the heroic, even god-like surgeon who has corrected the facial deformities of thousands of children in India. The film's editing brings out secondary characters, surprising humor, and gritty irony.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Frederick Wiseman

Basic Training (1971) is Frederick Wiseman's observation of the United States Army nine-week basic training course at Fort Knox, Kentucky in the summer of 1970. The film is bookended with the pomp and speechmaking of orientation and graduation. The middle of film is structured to build from the learning of discrete skills (top two stills) to elaborate exercises that seem to resemble actual combat, at night and in the field (third still). Wiseman adds humor and commentary by periodically showing groups of soldiers on the march, chanting call-and-response military cadences (bottom).

Monday, December 6, 2010

Christian Delage

Christian Delage assembled Nuremberg: The Nazis Facing Their Crimes (2006) from footage of the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal in 1945 and 1946; Christopher Plummer narrates. The documentation in the courtroom was overseen by director John Ford, who was working for the Department of War (Office of Strategic Services Field Photographic Branch/War Crimes Unit) during World War II. Ford, Stuart and Budd Schulberg, Pare Lorentz, and others prepared documentary films to show as evidence at the Nuremberg trials and filmed the ten months of the proceedings. Delage's film tackles the complexity of the trials by clarifying the overall timeline and sorting through a bewildering number of participants. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson (top still) was the primary American prosecutor, for example; future news anchor Walter Cronkite (second still, at left) covered the trial. The Nazis in the dock (third still) are stiffly defiant throughout. Marie Claude Valliant-Couturier (bottom still), personifying all heroes of the resistance, gives her eyewitness testimony.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Werner Herzog

In Grizzly Man (2005),Werner Herzog presents a self-appointed grizzly bear expert, Timothy Treadwell, as a symbol of all interventionist and wrong-headed do-gooders. Treadwell spent years living in Alaska among the bears, often alone for months at a time, before his luck ran out in a bear attack. He shot 100 hours of video footage, including both animal behavior and also his own first-person confessionals. Treadwell romanticizes the wild animals around him, ascribing human characteristics and names to bears and foxes. He wrongly assumes that he's living in harmony with a community of like-minded creatures. He's as misguided as First World volunteers on a Third World charity trip. Herzog's voice-over narration finds meaning in Treadwell's aspirations and beauty in his videotapes. An array of friends and observers provide a bracing contrast to Treadwell's on-camera emotional narcissism. Herzog's structuring, contextualizing, and moralizing creates value from home videos that probably would never have been seen if Treadwell hadn't been killed and eaten.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Frederick Wiseman

Watching Frederick Wiseman's 1975 film Welfare is like taking a time machine back to the grungy and non-gentrified New York City at the time of the city's financial crisis and close call with bankruptcy. Everyone at the Waverly welfare office is smoking and the computers are from the Mesozaic era (bottom still), but the overworked staff comes across as resolutely willing to listen. Indeed, a 1975 portrait of bureaucratic dehumanization now seems far less menacing. Wiseman's close-in, eavesdropping documentation of client-staff interactions gives us a wide range of stories and personalities. We hear from the woeful, the mentally ill, and the unlucky, with a few con artists thrown in the mix.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Frederick Wiseman

Frederick Wiseman's Seraphita's Diary (1982) is a conceptual one-woman performance piece featuring actress-model Apollonia van Ravenstein playing dozens of characters: old and young, men and women, in minstrel blackface and haute couture. (Such wildly disparate personas bring to mind Cindy Sherman's range of self-portraits.) In Seraphita's Diary, Wiseman imagines a model named Seraphita who has disappeared, leaving her diary behind. The film presents a succession of conversations. One scene, for example, shows van Ravenstein as photographer, makeup artist, model, and other supporting figures at a pretend fashion shoot. Perhaps Wiseman's fictional "Seraphita" is a reference to the androgynous title character in Honoré de Balzac's 1835 book.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Robert Drew

Robert Drew's Yanki No! had a remarkable team of filmmakers including Richard Leacock, Albert Maysles, and D.A. Pennebaker. The film aired on ABC in December of 1960 as part of the Bell & Howell Close Up series. Observational footage of a wide range of people and places in Latin America demonstrated the power of documentary images to convey the region's anti-American popular opinion. Latin American activists were aware of the impact of American television: one Venezuelan official pointedly tells the cameramen go out to the slums and film there (and they do). Yanki No! cuts from erudite conversations to crowded rallies, with many "face in the crowd" close-ups. In Havana, for example, a young woman (top still) and a Russian sailor (middle) speak to the filmmakers. The climactic scene in the film shows Fidel Castro in his heyday (bottom still).

Monday, November 15, 2010

Anne Milne

Maria's Way (2009) was made by Anne Milne as a student in the MFA Film Directing program at the Edinburgh College of Art. The film's quiet observation of one stop along a well-known pilgrimage route (the Way of St. James, in northwestern Spain) documents a day in the life of Maria Teodora Mediavilla as she greets passers-by heading to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. The film unexpectedly uncovers a very human and sardonic side to Maria's deeply-felt religious call to reach out to the pilgrims.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Ondi Timoner

Ondi Timoner's Dig! (2004) is a Handycam special: a homemade, years-of-shooting documentary yarn about two rock bands and the uncomfortable rivalry between their two leaders, Anton Newcombe (top two stills) of the Brian Jonestown Massacre and Courtney Taylor (bottom still, gussied up for a music video) of the Dandy Warhols. Although Newcombe consistently undermines his own career with on-stage fights (third still), narcissism, and substance abuse, the camera loves him and the film portrays him as some sort of genius. Taylor's narration and Timoner's thoughtful editing bring together a sprawling story.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Leon Gast

Leon Gast's Smash His Camera (2010) showcases the allure and quantity of Ron Galella's celebrity photography while also offering a payback on behalf of the famous people he chased, among them Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Marlon Brando. The documentary questions Galella's motives, laughs at his singular lack of self-insight, and gives airtime to critics who malign his reputation (Thomas Hoving is particularly biting in his assessment of Galella as trivial sideshow). Galella is proudly game throughout, oblivious to his own exploitation-by-documentary. Editing by Doug Abel brings out Galella's future irrelevance. One sequence, for example, juxtaposes a celebrity event (middle still: Galella and Taylor Swift) with a hyper-clueless woman at a gallery. This young woman stands in for everyone under the age of 35 who would be equally unable to recognize John Belushi, Brigitte Bardot, Henry Kissinger, or Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (bottom still).

Monday, November 1, 2010

Robert Drew

Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963) is a documentary made up of pairs: two students trying to integrate the University of Alabama, James Hood and Vivian Malone (top), two political opponents at home in the morning before work (Robert Kennedy and George Wallace, second and third stills), and two sides of a confrontation between George Wallace and Nicholas Katzenbach (bottom two stills). Much of the action depicts simultaneous phone conversations, shot in Washington and Alabama, featuring anxious middle-aged white men. The filmmakers on this early example of observational cinema muscle included Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Michael Apted

still picture from 49 Up

Michael Apted's 49 Up (2005) continues the fascination of the previous films in this longitudinal documentary series. We've gotten to know same group of English men and women who've had their lives peered into, sniffed, and stirred since the age of seven. Skillful editing teases out many small suspenses and unexpected reveals, such whether a character will get (or stay) married, have children, or ever be happy. The interviews, while informal, are beautifully shot and lit. One wonders what is in store for the next film, because by now, at age 49, several of the participants have pushed back against the entire enterprise. Some of them argue with the filmmaker about how they've been represented (Jackie, top) or simply state they will "bow out" next time (Suzy, second still). Two of the participants who did bow out of the series were Peter, after 28 Up, and Charles, after 21 Up (third and fourth stills).

Update: Peter did return to the series for 56 Up.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Michael Apted

In his films 7 Plus Seven, 21 Up, 28 Up, 35 Up, and 42 Up (1998) Michael Apted introduces his characters with narrated capsule biographies using memorable scenes from the past films. Within these brief bios, Apted often uses images to telegraph personal traits. For example, one short sequence from 35 Up (repeated in 42 Up) demonstrates Bruce's humility and genuine love of learning: the camera pans across a classroom of kids in Bangladesh, revealing Bruce as just another student in the class (top still). Apted's recaps of Suzy's privileged life include footage of a dog chasing after and chewing over a rabbit in a handsome garden (second still: from 7 Plus Seven). Using this same dog-and-bunny scene in every subsequent film allows the viewer to feel the irony of the filmmaker's compulsion to chase after and chew over all the individuals, Suzy among them, who participated in the original Seven Up documentary. Indeed, Apted persistently puts Tony and Symon (above, third and fourth stills) on the spot when he keeps carping on their feelings about money, goals, success and failure.
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Documentary Starts Here by Nancy Kalow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.