Thursday, July 29, 2010

Marco Turco

Excellent Cadavers (2005) is director Marco Turco's adaptation of Alexander Stille's book about the Italian Mafia. Stille himself is woven into the storytelling: he narrates, converses with friends (such as photographer Letizia Battaglia, top still), visits crime scenes (also shown in bloody archival footage), and searches for evidence in libraries. The two dead heroes of the film, anti-Mafia magistrates Giovanni Falcone (middle) and Paolo Borsellino (bottom still), were assassinated after putting hundreds of organized crime suspects on trial. The film leaves open the question of whether or not they died in vain.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Dziga Vertov

Dziga Vertov's 1930 propaganda documentary, Enthusiasm (Энтузиазм), is subtitled "Simfoniya Donbassa," or symphony for the Don (River) Basin. The film begins with a cinematic embrace of the Soviet view against organized religion. Vertov documents the cheerful toppling of several church steeples and also pokes fun at people in churches making the sign of the cross by juxtaposing them with booze-swilling drunks (top still). The rest of the movie showcases monumental imagery of machinery, mines, and factories along with some heroic shots of Soviet workers, staged and unstaged. An unusual soundtrack contains both music (some by Dmitri Shostakovich) and decades-ahead-of-its-time collage of location sound with "found" audio.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky

Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's Brother's Keeper (1992) shows the cinematic power of a well-crafted courtroom documentary made over a long time period. The film documents the case of Delbert Ward, accused of killing one of his brothers in the home they shared in rural New York State. Berlinger and Sinofsky got to know the three remaining Ward brothers and their community in the months leading up to the trial. The film's affection and understanding of this community is what distinguishes it from facile or exploitative television coverage. Delbert Ward's neighbors and friends (some of them, above) get plenty of screen time, often in close-up. As exemplars of common-sense and decency, they build our empathy for a suspect who has far less on-screen appeal.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy

The experimental Ballet Mécanique (1924), by artists Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy with some cinematography by Man Ray, is a machine-dream of abstraction. People and objects repetitively spin and swing, intercut with kinetic kaleidoscope imagery. Film historian Erik Barnouw describes one repeated sequence, of a woman climbing stairs (top still), as representing "the degradation of manual labor." The overall weirdness of the film reminds me of the hand-cranked-film camerawork and compulsive spinning that provide the background to the Nine Inch Nails music video, "Closer" (1994, by Mark Romanek).

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Wim Wenders

Tokyo-Ga (東京画 or "Tokyo pictures") by Wim Wenders (1985) is a love-song to Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. Twenty years after Ozu's death, Wenders finds himself kicking around Tokyo's streets, finding some fun visual oddments along the way, such as a fake food factory (top still). Wenders narrates the film with both melancholy and appreciation for the "lost" Tokyo of Ozu's films; he often points out Ozu's signature techniques and themes. One "a-ha" moment comes when Wenders demonstrates the difference between his normal camera lens (second still) and Ozu's preferred lens (third still), a 50 mm telephoto. Sensitive interviews with actor Chishû Ryû and cameraman Yuuharu Atsuta show that they share Wenders' devotion to the master.

Monday, July 12, 2010

George Butler

George Butler's The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition (2000), based on the book by Caroline Alexander, tells an old-fashioned, low-tech adventure story. The antagonist is Nature; the hero is a man who never got close to his goal of crossing the Antarctic continent on foot. Explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton sailed to Antarctica in 1914, but his ship got stuck in ice and eventually sank. Shackleton and his men survived by camping out on the ice, sailing to a barren island in three lifeboats, and then splitting up into two groups to attempt a near-impossible rescue (they returned to England in 1917). Crew member Frank Hurley's motion picture footage and still photographs (some examples, above) help to illustrate a case study of leadership under stress. Shackleton was both dictatorial and nurturing: a genius for keeping his men busy and cheerful, he sacrificed his own comfort for the sake of the crew, but was quick to punish if necessary. Narration voiced by Liam Neeson, interviews with descendants of the expedition, and modern-day footage retracing Shackleton's path perfectly balance Frank Hurley's black-and-white images.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine

In Ballet Russes (2005), filmmakers Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine interview dancers at a 2000 reunion of two competing ballet troupes, the Original Ballet Russe and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. The camerawork highlights the physical expressiveness and theatricality of older ballet dancers who recall their dancing days in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. The interviews, along with captivating archival footage of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballet Russes and its successor companies, tell the story of how ballet moved into the forefront of 20th century modernism. New ballets were choreographed in collaboration with contemporary composers, such as Igor Stravinsky; the artists designing the sets and costumes included Pablo Picasso. Key figures in ballet over the past hundred years, such as George Balanchine (second still) and impresario Sol Hurok (bottom still), come to life in the film.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Dziga Vertov

The Lullaby (1937), by Dziga Vertov, also known as Kolybelnaya (Колыбельная), is a documentary-like propaganda piece celebrating the Soviet Union and motherhood. Vertov's expressive close-ups of faces from a variety of Soviet ethnic groups emphasize the patriotic duty of raising and educating children. He further hammers on the theme of patriotism with a bombastic score and visuals of huge gatherings and parades. Stalin (bottom still) is shown to be greeted by adoring crowds which perhaps explains why this film is so hard to find.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Heddy Honigmann

Oblivion (El Olvido) by Heddy Honigmann (2008) introduces a cinematic metaphor right at the start: the politics and society of Peru as a mixed-up cocktail, specifically the Pisco Sour ("the national cocktail of Peru"). This drink is concocted in a luscious process sequence in which an urbane bartender shakes together fresh lime juice, Pisco, cane syrup, ice and egg whites. (I didn't even want to wait for the bitters to be dashed on top to book my flight to Lima and sample one of these.) The rest of the movie is a masterpiece of observational character study within a larger portrayal of government incompetence and widespread poverty.
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Documentary Starts Here by Nancy Kalow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.