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.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Susan Fanshel and Jill Godmilow

Susan Fanshel and Jill Godmilow's Nevelson in Process (1977) is a portrait of the artist as an opinionated rebel: bossy, hyper-creative, and enveloped in tobacco smoke. The film captures Nevelson's rapport with her technical team: young men who do the heavy lifting, hammering, and welding on her sculptures. Nevelson is candid about her artistic process but puts her private life strictly off-limits.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Jayne Loader, Kevin Rafferty, Pierce Rafferty

The Atomic Cafe (1982), co-directed by Jayne Loader, Kevin Rafferty, and Pierce Rafferty, is a witty and biting assemblage of post-1945 newsreels, speeches, popular song, army training films, and government propaganda on the subject of nuclear war. The film captures an era of fear and misinformation that perhaps isn't so different from the present. The film has no added narration or contemporary interviews, so its themes, ironies, and relevance derive from expert editing. The film's structure builds to a sobering sequence, constructed from archival materials, which portrays a sustained thermonuclear attack. A simplistic graph (top still) directed at an ignorant and trusting population bring to mind the US government's "Homeland Security Advisory System" color chart. Footage of kids running for cover from old seesaws resembles images from James Cameron's The Terminator 2 (1991) that show a playground after the bombs have dropped. (second and third stills).
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Documentary Starts Here by Nancy Kalow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.