Thursday, September 30, 2010


Professors in their offices are standard fare for student documentary makers. In the case of a film about Stanley Hoffmann (above), student questioners elicited a range of responses from their subject, ranging from the unexpectedly humorous to the bookishly academic. Across the desk from an eminent thinker, try raising the tripod to get an eye-level framing, rather than shooting from below.

Monday, September 27, 2010

John Walker

John Walker directed Strand: Under the Dark Cloth (1990) as a tribute and guide to the career of photographer Paul Strand. The footage includes Strand himself (top still) and friends such as Georgia O'Keefe (second still). The film makes the case that Strand's early work -- sharp edged and unsentimental -- was consistently a modernist challenge to the romanticized photography of the day, exemplified by the work of Alfred Stieglitz (who was married to O'Keefe). Above, three examples: a 1915 photograph of Wall Street, a fence (1916), and a blind woman in New York (1916). The film doesn't hide the fact that Strand used a sneaky right-angle lens; his street-photography subjects did not know he was taking a picture.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert

Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, in The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant (2009) visualize the winter landscape as matching the unhappy mood of the auto workers who are about to lose their jobs near Dayton, Ohio. We get to know several long-time GM employees and understand how they had developed a sense of community. The film's most touching sequence is watching dozens of workers autograph the final truck as it goes down the assembly line (bottom still). Using documentary tools of observation, character study, and editing, the filmmakers suggest the wider implications of the plant's shutdown.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Edgar G. Ulmer

Edgar G. Ulmer's hybrid film, Carnegie Hall (1947) combines performance footage with a rambling fiction plotline. The heart of the film is its documentation of several music legends of the last century. Artur Rubinstein at the piano and Jascha Heifetz playing violin, among others, are shot in a glamorously-lit Hollywood style. Musical selections are generally allowed to run from beginning to end while a decidedly un-diverse tuxedo-and-décolletage Carnegie Hall audience listens motionlessly.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Emile de Antonio

Emile de Antonio's film on Richard Nixon, Millhouse (1971) is a very watchable all-in-one document about a powerful politician. The Vietnam war was the pressing contemporary issue underlying the film; Watergate was not even on the horizon. The film covers Nixon's youth, his role in the Alger Hiss case, his many political campaigns, and his televised appearances that range from folksy to angry to contrite. Watching the film today provokes an uneasy reaction, because Nixon seems at once laughable and an overwhelming creep who is the likely forerunner to contemporary "dirty tricks" political campaigners. The film favors Nixon at the microphone, with some of his famous speeches shown in their entirety (editing by Mary Lampson employs many ironic audio and visual juxtapositions), along with interviews (with Joe McGinniss, for example, middle still) and well-chosen archival footage (bottom still: Dick Gregory).

Monday, September 13, 2010

Zeynep Devrim Gürsel

Coffee Futures (Neyse Halim Ciksin Falim), a documentary by Zeynep Devrim Gürsel (2009), starts out as a light-hearted look at amateur fortune-telling among friends in Turkey. Gürsel shows a range of people examining the patterns in coffee cups (left by the dregs of finely ground coffee). The documentary elegantly expands its purview from culture and tradition to global politics when the fortune-telling seamlessly moves from ordinary romance to the question of Turkey's admission to the European Union.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Emile de Antonio

Emile de Antonio's Underground (1976) is an extended whine session for five members of the Weather Underground, intercut with well-chosen archival material (Mary Lampson was the editor). Interviews with Bill Ayers, Kathy Boudin, Bernadine Dohrn, Jeff Jones, and Cathy Wilkerson, then in hiding, were shot by cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who never shows their faces by shooting through gauze or else into a mirror (as in the top still, Wexler at left, de Antonio at right). The self-justification of the five white middle-class activists contrasts with powerful footage of their much more charismatic role models, Malcolm X, Fidel Castro, and Ho Chi Minh (above).

Monday, September 6, 2010

Alexander Hammid

The 1961 film of Martha Graham's ballet, Night Journey, was directed by Alexander Hammid and edited by Miriam Arsham. In Graham's telling of the Oedipus myth, a burly Paul Taylor (top still) dances the part of the blind seer Tiresias. Graham herself is Jocasta (bottom still), the wife and mother of Oedipus (danced by Bertram Ross). Watching the film is a different experience from seeing the ballet performed live, because the camera shows the dancers close-in, from many angles, and interacting with Isamu Noguchi's sculptural forms that comprise the set.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Richard Schickel

Richard Schickel wrote and directed Howard Hawks-The Men Who Made the Movies; it's one episode of a 1973 TV documentary series that also included films on Hitchcock, Capra, Cukor, and several others. The Hawks documentary is deceptively straightforward: movie clips intercut with their director's commentary (top still). Schickel grounds each of Hawks's anecdotes with a killer example from the film under discussion, which makes the film a delight to watch. Above: Scarface, His Girl Friday, The Big Sleep, and Red River.
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Documentary Starts Here by Nancy Kalow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.