Monday, December 19, 2011

Richard Press

Richard Press's Bill Cunningham New York (2010) documents the unnervingly capable photographer, an obsessive workaholic who insists on using film not digital (top still). Cunningham captures images of fashionable people high and low, either on New York City streets or at nighttime parties. Press follows Cunningham riding a bike around town in his blue utility jacket, making a sighting, snapping pictures, and finally readying images for publication in The New York Times. The film shows Cunningham at home and with friends (second still), and interview time goes to his most-photographed subjects, such as Iris Apfel and Anna Wintour. Footage from an earlier documentary adds another dimension to a now well-recognized figure, whereas an inquiry about Cunningham's personal life is hardly necessary.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Johan van der Keuken

Johan van der Keuken
's Big Ben: Ben Webster in Europe (1967) portrays the jazz saxophonist at age 58, living in Amsterdam. He plays in clubs, practices at home with a record player, and gets fussed over by his landlady (second still). A process sequence showing a saxophone factory shows van der Keuken's skill as a photographer.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Emile de Antonio

Emile de Antonio's Mr. Hoover and I is a personal and angry bash note to the longtime FBI director. The filmmaker addresses the camera straight on (top still), describing his well-documented grievances against the FBI's seemingly obsessive harassment. The film shows de Antonio getting a haircut (second still), giving a speech, and visiting John Cage in Cage's kitchen (third still). Otherwise, few photos or clips illustrate de Antonio's harangue, and he's at his best with crazy anecdotes about Hoover's reaction to his films Weather Underground, In the Year of the Pig, and Millhouse.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Lars von Trier and Jørgen Leth

Lars von Trier and Jørgen Leth made The Five Obstructions (2003) together as a visual record of the therapeutic value of movie-making. Lars von Trier challenges Leth (middle and bottom stills) to create new versions of Leth's arty 1967 film The Perfect Human (Det perfekte menneske, top still). Von Trier hurls insults and provocation at Leth in an attempt to rouse him out of depression; the audience is a reluctant witness to the two men interacting in a sometimes-creepy set of one-on-one conversations. Leth's gorgeous new versions of The Perfect Human don't deserve the put-downs that von Trier tosses off, but the fun of the movie is waiting for what von Trier will say next.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Les Blank

In Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1979), Les Blank documents with relish the fulfillment of a pledge: Werner Herzog promised he would eat his shoe if Errol Morris finished Gates of Heaven (Morris's first film). Les Blank shoots every step of Herzog's process, starting with his arrival in northern California. Herzog cooks the shoe at Chez Panisse, where Alice Waters (top still) helps with the recipe (second still). Later, Herzog eats his boiled shoe in front of a Berkeley audience. Charlie Chaplin's shoe dinner from The Gold Rush (third still) makes an apt counterpoint to Herzog's good-natured chew. The next day, Herzog reflects in a grandly Herzogolicious monologue (last still).

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Robert Drew

On the Road with Duke Ellington
(1967) by Robert Drew showcases Drew's bravura observational filmmaking style. Unlike more recent music documentaries, this film steers clear of archival footage and photographs in favor of long verite sequences with dated voice-over narration. The day that Duke Ellington received an honorary degree at Yale (third still) is shown at length, for example, while we hear nothing of Ellington's innovative early years and classic recordings. The film leaves an overall impression of a sad and perhaps lonely man, endlessly smoking and feeling underappreciated. Above, Duke Ellington with arranger Billy Strayhorn and Louis Armstrong.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Joris Ivens

Joris Ivens's 1931 Phillips Radio (Symphonie industrielle) documents a Dutch glass-tube radio factory. The film's powerful footage of a now obsolete technology still looks shiny and futuristic. Exotic radio and speaker components work though assembly lines, dancing to the soundtrack's mix of machine sound and music. Ivens creates a modernist statement about industrial dehumanization despite the elegant and old-timey feel of the plant. We see men strenuously blowing glass by hand, for example, and factory processes are timed with an hourglass. Ivens includes a humorous human moment when some precariously balanced boxes fall off a cart as its driver speeds around a corner at the factory.
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Documentary Starts Here by Nancy Kalow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.