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.
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Documentary Starts Here by Nancy Kalow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.