All posts filed under “Documentaries

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Ketchup

Once school lets out, I start consuming culture faster than I can respond to it, so I need to quickly catch up with notes on a few books and movies. 

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead (2016). I was really disappointed by how disappointing this was; it sounded so terrific in the reviews. The fantastical/speculative elements don’t engender much surprise, the characters are wooden, the set pieces go on too long and belabor their points, the movement through time and space is frequently herky-jerky and confusing, and worst there’s an air of bland, austere dutifulness hanging over the whole enterprise. I don’t think I’m someone incapable of appreciating a novel of ideas, but I guess I do like a little style thrown in after all.

The Sympathizer, Viet Tranh Nguyen (2015). This was terrific, a timely tour de force for our era of heightened consciousness about who gets to speak for whom in literature. This slyly provocative novel features a double agent whose identity, politics, and identity politics are so scrambled he himself can’t say where he really belongs. The subtle arguments about nationalism, culture, and determinism come wrapped in a crisp, lively, dead-on rendering of the period. Smart and fun so rarely go hand in hand.

Love & Mercy, Bill Pohlad (2014). Enjoyable and informative; I knew Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys suffered from mental illness, but I had no idea that he was so cruelly manipulated by his manager. Big props to the art director here; the movie’s a joy to look at and makes you feel like you’re in late 20c L.A.

Gimme Danger, Jim Jarmusch (2016). Jarmusch’s love letter to the greatest rock and roll band of all time. A bit more my speed than the Beach Boys. Iggy for President! He’s like if Bernie Sanders jumped into the mosh pit. You hear “I Wanna Be Your Dog” about a thousand times over the course of this movie and it is AWESOME every time.

Twentieth Century Women, Mike Mills (2017). I don’t know how he does it, but he does — this movie is as sweet and wistful as can be, and somehow less triggering than Beginners, which apparently annoyed me pretty bad. Do all the grand emotional turbulences between kids and parents, parents and lovers, kids and kids really just amount to a bunch of well-off over-educated white people wringing their hands? Yes, of course. But feelings are still feelings, people! Did you know Mills is married to Miranda July and they have a son named Hopper, who’s five? Once he’s old enough to skateboard over to Frances Bean’s house for a cup of matcha, that kid is going to be the most indie kid who ever lived.

Shame, Steve McQueen (2011). This Paul Schrader movie was somehow directed not by Paul Schrader but by Steve McQueen. Of McQueen’s three features to date (the other two are Hunger, about Bobby Sands, and 12 Years a Slave, about Solomon Northrup), this is the only one I’ve been able to bring myself to watch, and that’s saying something, because this one’s not exactly Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. McQueen sure has a thing for abuse. Shame features a kind of sexual shark, played by Michael Fassbender, who very literally has one thing on his mind. We see him have every variety of modern urban intercourse and none of it seems much fun at all. Predictably, he fails to get it up only once, when he meets a person — a charming and ingenuous co-worker — who registers on his tiny consciousness as a subject rather than an object. It’s all profoundly sad, but I’m not sure it’s profound.

South and West, Joan Didion (2017). You only need to check this out if you’re interested in the rural South and/or you’re a Didion fanatic; I’m both. This isn’t even really a book, it’s just a bunch of jottings Didion made on a one-month road trip from New Orleans, up through Mississippi and Alabama, in the summer of 1970. There are flashes of insight, and some classic Didion images, but most of it is pretty shallow and predictably stereotypical. I find this oddly gratifying, that the South seems to have stymied my hero’s normally inexorable acumen . . .

I’m remembering that last year at this time I was reading the Ferrante books and it was perfect. I miss them.

I’m also reading essays on photography by Robert Adams; I’m not so sure about them. He’s a bit given to hagiography of his heroes. The more I read prose by photographers the more I realize that it’s awful rare to find a photographer who can write for a damn.

 

 

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Influenza Playlist

Being sick loosens the customary strictures of my TV ethos. Normally, oppressed by my needs to maximize efficiency and minimize shame, I mostly try to watch things I haven’t seen before and things that aren’t total garbage. But six days on the sofa with the flu lends license to revisit old things and wallow in crap.

In addition to random episodes of various television shows, a Green Bay Packers playoff game, a Crimson Tide championship game, the Golden Globe Awards where Meryl Streep talked about how we need to protect journalists and insulted MMA, and dunes of additional flotsam (I discovered my Apple TV can stream every Simpsons episode ever, which is good to know), here’s some of what I can remember watching in living DayQuil-vision over the last week.

Once Upon a Honeymoon, Leo McCarey (1942). Carey Grant and Ginger Rogers try to conduct a playful romantic comedy amongst the Nazi intrigues leading up to WWII. Featuring a scene where they’re mistaken for Jews and confined to the Warsaw ghetto. One of the most schizophrenic movies I’ve ever seen.

Being There, Hal Ashby (1979). Revisited for obvious reasons. Ashby, working off a script byJerzy Kosiński, posits that a complete idiot uncomprehendingly reciting snippets of TV advertisements could rise to political power, but he doesn’t quite dare to get Chauncey Gardiner all the way into the Oval Office, he just hints at the possibility. Outrageous satire then, business as usual now.

Caddyshack, Harold Ramis (1980). This amused me less than I thought it would. I didn’t remember how much of the comedy turned on sexism. The Chevy Chase character has held up better than the Bill Murray character, I think.

High Fidelity, Stephen Frears (2000). This wasn’t as fun as I remembered, either, and for sort of similar reasons. The movie proposes the girls as existing only to thwart or satisfy the boys. The boys are the only characters whose problems actually matter, and they’re all a bunch of assholes. It was fun seeing all the posters in the record store, though. The Silos! God. The year 2000 was a lot of years ago all of a sudden! Amazing how little consciousness of hip hop these boys have.

Rushmore, Wes Anderson (1998). Very nice, but really all I can think about it what a quantum leap it was from this to The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), which is so infinitely better.

His Kind of Woman, John Farrow (1951). Uneven and claustrophobic romance/noir suffered a lot of production problems and it shows. But I’d watch Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell hang wallpaper, and Vincent Price is a hoot.

The Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino (2015). You know, I got about eight hateful minutes into this and turned it off. It’s just boring. Probably unfair.

Blue Velvet, David Lynch (1986). Hasn’t lost an ounce of weirdness in thirty years. You can’t imagine it being made today. There’s something so frank (forgive me) about its presentation of depravity. It doesn’t wink at itself, or us; it doesn’t say, “Ooh, look how naughty and outré I am.” It’s just like: Look at this.

The Secret Rules of Modern Living: Algorithms, David Briggs (2015). Notice how both this documentary and the article I mention below mention “secret rules.” I’ve been abstractly terrified of the Internet for some time now; since the election it’s not very abstract. (I squarely blame the Trump presidency on the Internet, period.) I came across this documentary on Netflix and I’m glad I watched it. Math has never been my strong suit, but the cheerful Oxford don explains algorithms in terms even I could understand, and I feel I have a glancing knowledge now of how, for instance, Google search works. Pretty fascinating.

The Secret Rules of the Internet,” Catherine Buni and Soraya Chemaly (2016). I so wish we had Orwell with us to see what is happening to the nature of public discourse. This article really got me thinking about how we’ve increasingly ceded authority and standards for truth to the radical flatness of the Internet, where information moves because of money and/or ideological agenda, and the truth is completely optional. Meryl Streep was right; we need to support real journalists now more than ever.

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Into the Inferno, Werner Herzog (2016) & Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, Werner Herzog (2016)

Herzog, in his mid-70s, continues to make excellent new work at an absurd pace. These two are ostensibly documentaries about volcanoes and the internet, respectively, but they work more like essays or poems which begin with the idea of something (e.g., volcanoes, the internet) and then spiral out associations from there. Into the Inferno has talking head scientists explaining how magma works and all that, but Herzog is perfectly happy, when visiting a volcano in North Korea, to spend a good chunk of time on North Korean politics and culture. So you’re watching along, enjoying the insights, and suddenly you ask yourself, wait, why am I learning about North Korean history in the middle of a volcano documentary? And then you’re like, whoa, hold on, is there some metaphor at work here? And by right about then, Herzog’s back to talking about magma, and the moment passes. Then all of a sudden he’s talking about cargo cults, and you’re like, wait a minute . . .

Lo and Behold is even looser in its organization and freer in its range of attention. We see the dingy UCLA office where a computer called up another computer for the first time, and we hear Elon Musk talk about connectivity, but Herzog also visits the National Radio Quiet Zone to talk with people suffering from electromagnetic sensitivity, conducts an absolutely devastating interview with the family of a girl whose gruesome death was photographed and shared on the internet by a couple of assholes in the employ of the California Highway Patrol, and — a favorite moment of mine — asks a young Carnegie Mellon student if he in fact loves the robot he and his team have designed. “Yes,” the student answers. “We do love Robot 8.”

There are certainly critiques available for Herzog’s documentaries. He prefers grandeur to details, poetry to prose, and so sometimes you get the sense that inconvenient data is being elided. He’ll let a MOOC proponent enthuse about the phenomenon’s potential, but won’t talk about the problems, for example. And some will be annoyed when he inevitably comes around to his portentous voice-over moments, which are so easily parodied. Ever since seeing Into the Inferno, I’ve taken to loudly announcing in a strong German accent that “Zee depthless abyss of molten lava reminds us zat all human endeavor iss futile.” Personally, I’ve for decades considered these Herzogian pronouncements a feature, not a bug.

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Ketchup

600 Miles, Gabriel Ripstein (2015). You can’t just point a camera at someone driving a car with golden hour light on their face and let it run for three minutes. It’s not suspenseful; it’s boring. A small story like this depends on effective characterization and unfortunately that doesn’t happen here. Too bad because we have a  dire need to see normal human Mexicans on the screen instead of just caricatures and thugs.

Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle (2015). So ridiculous it almost gets fun, but no. This is terrible.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ben Fountain (2012). Really wanted to like this but the prose is so jumped-up it made me nervous like I’d had six cups of coffee. Someone told Fountain that there need to be three fancy whiz-bang usages per page in order to keep the reader’s interest, maybe? There was a point where I thought we were getting into Tim O’Brien-style magical realism, but then it turned out that I was just being asked to believe something totally unbelievable, and that bothered me. I guess Ang Lee made a movie out of this in super high 3D HD; I don’t get why.

Alabama in the Twentieth Century, Wayne Flynt (2004). I’ve been meaning to get to this for a long time. It’s an academic history from a university press, and thus unsurprisingly a little long on data and a little short on synthesis for the lay reader, but I still came away with a much better sense of the political, social, and cultural dynamics of my adopted home state. In a nutshell, it’s run by an oligarchy of major landowners and businessmen who by and large don’t give much of a hoot about the public good.  Which is more depressing: Watching my true home states in the Midwest devolve from their progressive labor-informed roots into paranoid right-wing madness, or living in a place that never had any progressive labor-informed traditions in the first place?

Straight Outta Compton, F. Gary Gray (2015). Trucks with a lot of the Behind the Music clichés, sure, but they’re clichés because they’re so frequently true. It’s really a pretty good movie, well-acted and visually dynamic. As with all based-on-a-true-story stories, there are certainly robust arguments to be had about what got put in, what got left out, and what got made up. For example, there are some gestures toward acknowledging the violence against women perpetrated by the group, but IMHO not enough.

The Great Beauty, Paolo Sorrentino (2013). I keep going back and forth on this one. It’s a classic imitative fallacy problem: Is the movie critiquing self-indulgence, narcissism, half-baked art, vacuous philosophizing, and bourgeois complacency, or is it an example of all of the above? Maybe both/and. It’s certainly delicious to look at, and I do find myself smiling an awful lot. Makes me feel both wistful and embarrassed to feel anything at all.

The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer (2012). Everyone said to watch this, but when I read about it I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to handle it. My solution was to watch it in several successive sessions, not all at once, which worked OK. It is so weird and heartbreaking and mesmerizing and horrifying and beautiful. It should never have been made and it’s a fantastic accomplishment. I watched it two months ago and I’m still not over it. It’s like Night and Fog crossed with 8 1/2. It’s about corruption and genocide and torture and power and all that. And it’s also very much about history and historiography, particularly how monstrous crimes get narrativized and thus normalized. So you have to grapple with abstract questions about historiography and representation and power while simultaneously grappling with very non-abstract realities of people killing each other in cold blood. It’s a lot to take. This really deserves thinking about at more length and in more detail but I’m kind of scared of it.

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, Göran Olsson (2011). Terrific footage shot by Swedish journalists forms the backbone of this documentary, and it’s fascinating and wonderful to watch. When the editors and director start trying to be synthetic historians the piece gets a little watery, since they are incapable of seeing their subjects as anything but totemic heroes. Never mind the commentary and absorb this instead as raw history; it’s fantastic.

 

 

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Best of Enemies, Robert Gordon & Morgan Neville (2015)

26-buckley-vidal-ledeABC News, lagging in ratings, needed something splashy to draw in viewers, so they hired liberal Gore Vidal and conservative William F. Buckley, Jr. to debate on camera during the 1968 Democratic and Republican national conventions, knowing full well that these two masters of repartee would provide good entertainment. And entertain they did, as this excellently made documentary shows. One potential reaction to this story is to say, “Back then there were real intellectuals on TV, debating the issues, how sad that these days all we have is shallow demagoguery on the ‘real’ news networks, and the only serious journalists on television are, ironically, comedians (John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Larry Wilmore, Jon Stewart, etc.)” That’s not my take. Watch Vidal and Buckley “debate,” and you quickly realize that their discourse was all about contempt, point-scoring, sophistry, and adamant refusal to acknowledge the very humanity of the other. These guys don’t represent some prelapsarian alternative to our contemporary crisis of journalism, where noise masquerades as signal; they represent its beginnings. Super worth watching, especially between now and November 8.

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Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog (2010)

Cave of Forgotten Dreams posterAs is the case with Herzog’s other late-period documentaries, one’s interest is divided between information and atmosphere; you watch this a little bit because you’re interested in the astounding paintings inside the Chauvet Cave, and a lot because you want to hear That Voice talking about steam and the abyss of time and mutant alligators reclaiming the earth. I am a sucker even for the interminably slow tracking shots scored with lugubrious arias. If you ever start to feel like your individual existence matters in some way, watch this for a swift corrective.

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Chuck Norris vs. Communism, Ilinca Calugareanu (2015)

Photography by Kev WilliamsSweet and satisfying documentary about the underground market in western movies on VHS tapes during the last throes of the Ceaușescu regime in Romania, when state censorship and secret police surveillance were at their Orwellian zenith. Irina Margareta Nistor is our unlikely heroine. A mild-mannered translator of state television programs by day, by night she dubbed into Romanian every triumph and every dog to come out of Hollywood in the 1980’s, over 3000 banned films all told. Everyone in Romania knew her voice, but none her face. Great story.

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Ketchup

KetchupCan’t keep up the full-blown posts while school’s in session. This isn’t everything seen, heard, and read this semester — just what I can remember off the top of my head.

Atonement, Ian McEwan (2001). Hundreds of terrific sentences and a lively yarn. Is it now always necessary that every novel has to be about both what it’s about and also about novelists?

Ex Machina, Alex Garland (2015). This made me so mad but now I’m having trouble even remembering it. I think it had to do with the fact that it was masquerading as being all Jaron Lanier philosophical when really it’s just about grubby horny boys wanting to look at sexy naked girls without feeling bad about it. Two choices available to female-coded beings in this world: slave or murderer. See my commentary elsewhere regarding those recent Scarlett Johansson movies; she’s the queen of this kingdom, and Luc Besson is its Don King.

Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography, Errol Morris (2011). Manic, obsessive, repetitive, and great investigation of photography’s truthiness and its consequences. Particularly astute on the ways photographs can be put to use as political propaganda.

Diogenes the Cynic: Sayings and Anecdotes, With Other Popular Moralists, ed. Robin Hard (2012). I didn’t like Diogenes as much as I thought I would. His inconsistencies irritate me. Turns out I’m more of a Seneca guy. What are you going to do.

Dialogues and Essays, Seneca. Still working on this. Not as immediately accessible as Marcus Aurelius but I’m warming to it.

Meditations, Marcus Aurelius. I love this like I love Montaigne; their spirits are so close. (My understanding is that Montaigne oddly doesn’t seem to have known Aurelius — a pity.) The Staniforth translation is the best. The Robin Hard one may be “better” for classicists but it’s awful for human consumption.

Welcome to Me, Shira Piven (2014). A little Truman Show, a little Nurse Betty, a little To Die For. Doesn’t quite hold together, is too one-note and too relentlessly committed to despair, but it’s still a smart movie.

Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), Suzan-Lori Parks (2015). If you’re struggling to write a play about a soldier come home from a war and you find out that your favorite living playwright’s new play is titled “Father Comes Home from the Wars,” you have some kind of mixed feelings. But the main feeling here is satisfaction, since this is one of Parks’ best.  I admire her so much. I’m particularly impressed that she’s getting less and less obscure, but isn’t losing any of the fundamental ambivalences that make her work so provocative. This work is every bit as incisive and destabilizing as, say, The America Play, but I can also imagine this one put on by a high school drama club, whereas earlier work was a bit too far out for that kind of venue. Wonderful, wonderful piece; wish I could have seen it at the Public.

The Sellout, Paul Beatty (2015). Beatty reminds me of my good friend Jeffrey McDaniel, such a fecund imagination that he’ll never use one clever metaphor when three have come to mind. The novel works as a crazy comic satire on contemporary race relations, politics, poverty, capitalism, Los Angeles, and also as a sort of fictional beard for Beatty’s more essayistic commentaries on all of the above. I sometimes wish Beatty didn’t feel the need to stuff every single sentence with as many jokes as possible, but all that candy is laced with enough acid that I suppose it balances out in the end.

Also reread Roth’s The Radetzky March  and The Emperor’s Tomb this fall, for fun.  

Also reading more Simon Stephens plays.

TV: Sandy convinced me to watch Orphan Black. It’s pretty dumb but I did watch the whole thing. It’s kind of ironic that here you have a show with all these strong female characters, but only one actress getting work! Also watched the Netflix series Narcos, FX’s The Americans, and Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle. Also re-watched the entire span of The Wire and thought it’s holding up very well. More and more, I find I watch fewer movies and more series. This depresses me a little, but I don’t know why.

Listening: Nicholas Jaar, Claude von Stroke, The Juan Maclean, Dexter Gordon, McCoy Tyner, Maya Jane Coles. Utterly in love with my absurdly expensive Spotify subscription.

Looking: Thinking a lot about August Sander’s People of the 20th Century, Sternfeld’s Stranger Passing, and this post from Blake Andrews on “docutrinity.”

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What Happened, Miss Simone? Liz Garbus (2015)

nina-reelgoodGreat documentary about an absolutely fascinating character — I’m not going to say “tragic” because I’m not sure that’s exactly true. Simone was a preacher’s daughter in the Jim Crow south who very early in childhood showed such intense capacity at the piano that a white piano teacher on the right side of the tracks took her on as a project. She practiced the repertoire at the expense of all other childhood activities, as is expected of prodigies, and got herself up north to attend conservatory, but the money ran out, and she started gigging at bars and clubs. Playing pop tunes for drunks was as easy for her as it would have been for Picasso to draw caricatures for tourists on the boardwalk, and when a bar owner told her to go ahead and sing, too, she went ahead and sang. No one, least of all Simone, could have guessed those sounds were in her, waiting to come out.

From there the story starts moving much more quickly, as Simone’s career explodes. I’m not going to recount all the twists and turns — you’re going to watch this on Netflix yourself soon, I hope. I will say that the movie got me thinking a great deal about the artist’s relationship to her historical moment. Shall she seek to evade it? Engage it? Change it? I think sometimes none of these choices are really available, and history just engulfs the artist, has its way with her, and I think that’s what happened to Miss Simone.

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The Woodmans, C. Scott Willis (2010)

710tNVz1QVL._SL1077_I suppose this might seem quite exciting and exotic if you didn’t go to Sarah Lawrence. If you did, you will likely be reminded, as I was, of everything you loved and hated about dear old Sadie Lou, and beyond that everything you still love and hate about art and artists.

The Woodmans are white and privileged and care passionately, in the Romanticist manner, about making art. They are all of them — father, mother, son, daughter — ambitious, insecure, massively narcissistic, and mildly talented. The daughter, Francesca, the sine qua non of this movie and the family’s small, self-gnawed niche in art history, is not necessarily any more talented than any of the others, but she is, we are led to believe, the most ambitious, the most insecure, the most massively narcissistic, and — the documentary seems to want us to make a causal connection — the most successful.

Though not in her lifetime. The poor young woman killed herself at 22. She was upset a boyfriend, upset her work wasn’t being seen, upset about not getting a grant from the NEA. So she killed herself, at 22, and then became successful.

We’re reminded of Sylvia Plath and think forward to Sarah Kane, but may I say out loud what I hope I’m not the first to think? We’d be reading Plath and watching Kane even if they hadn’t killed themselves. Do we know that about Woodman? If she hadn’t self-mythologized and been effectively marketed by her craven and jealous parents, and had instead lived to a ripe old age making emo self-portraits in beautifully empty studios in Tuscany, would anyone remember these photos except the RISD professors and students who thought she was so cool and intense and enviable at 21?

I’ve seen a lot of contrasty nude self portraits made by incandescent from-money up-all-night white girls with dirt in their hair. The broken furniture casting Caligari shadows under hot lights, the Man Ray motifs, the double exposures symbolizing this, the long-exposure blurs symbolizing that. In college in the 80’s those photos seemed revolutionary and way better than Titian. But then I grew up, and some of those girls did too, and we learned that making art isn’t about passion, and it sure as hell isn’t about whether or not you get an NEA.

I am not blaming or belittling Francesca Woodman. She was a talented and vibrant young woman and her death was a tragedy, and she may have become a good artist had she lived. I am a little bit blaming her parents, who obviously instilled in their daughter early on and in dangerously concentrated form the shibboleths of Romanticism. I am additionally blaming the 20th century for conceiving of the idea that a young woman making nude self-portraits is always to be read as self-empowering and never as self-objectifying. I am mostly blaming Western culture in general. It’s amazing any of us get out of it alive! Oh wait.