All posts filed under “Documentaries


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.


Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori (2012)

Some movies you know you’re going to cry through so you have to wait until your housemate’s out of town to watch them. Big Star is for me the saddest and most beautiful band that ever existed. There are many, many bands that I like more than Big Star, that I think are more accomplished than Big Star, that I would much rather listen to than Big Star, but Big Star is the infinitely dense collapsed black giant in my pop firmament. One of its polestars, Alex Chilton, has a big pop hit (“The Letter,” with the Box Tops) as a child and then commences a career that must qualify as the most varied and ambivalent wander in the pop wilderness ever. The other, Chris Bell, our American Nick Drake, desperate and desperately talented, dead at 27. There’s the diffidence of the band, but then there’s also the diffidence of Memphis, a nowhere/everywhere in American life — so full of resonance and so drained of content — that’s become weirdly symbolic for me as my years as a fake or aspirational Southerner tick by. They couldn’t have done it in New York or Los Angeles. They maybe could have done it in Chicago.

And then there’s the music, simultaneously exquisite and disastrous, filled with junk elation and pain so real it bleeds. Absolutely American in its Delta soul, and yet so far beyond any vernacular satisfactions, so utterly louche and nihilistic, that it’s probably, bizarrely, more comparable to Celine than anyone else. Compared to a song like “Kangaroo,” the Doors’ gestures at decadence seem like something out a Family Circus cartoon.

It’s a pretty good movie. Hagiographic, for sure, and sometimes the filmmakers take too much for granted that we already know the basic outlines of the story, but it’s well worth watching and crying over.


A Band Called Death, Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett (2012)


This was much more interesting, and much more affecting, than I’d anticipated. In 1970’s Detroit, three brothers start playing music together in their bedroom. Nothing too surprising about that, except two things made the situation unique. First, they were Black kids playing not R&B but rock and roll, more inspired by The Who and Alice Cooper than by the Motown shop down the street. Second, the eldest brother and band leader, Dave, was an incredibly charismatic and perhaps slightly manic character, who insisted, for some overly elaborate reasons, that the band be given a sure-to-never-get-a-contract name: DEATH.

The trio records some songs at a famed Detroit studio, but sure enough, the producers can’t sell the songs because of the band’s name. (Or at least that’s the story given in the movie; I wonder if there were other factors as well.) The guys press 500 45s on their own dime and hand them out at radio stations, but nothing comes of it.

Very long story short, 30-odd years later, some of those 45s begin to surface, record collectors and rock critics get wind of it, and the guys get some respect at long last, including an issue of their original demo songs as an album from (one of my all-time favorite labels) Drag City.

I knew that much going into it. What I didn’t see coming was the extent to which this is a story about family. The bond between the brothers is amazing, and their artistic collaborations are just beautiful to watch. Two of the brothers have sons themselves, who wind up forming a band, covering some of their fathers’ and uncles’ songs, and promoting the resuscitation of DEATH, so to speak. The temptation here (as in Searching for Sugar Man, a story which has a lot parallels to this one, including (coincidentally?) a Detroit setting) is to see the moral of the story as “great art will always bob up to the surface eventually, no matter how long time and circumstance keep it submerged.” First, I don’t think that’s true; I think there is probably plenty of great art which never makes it out of the basement or attic or closet. Second, that’s a less-interesting narrative to me. The real story here to me is about how beautiful it is to do the thing you love with the people you love.

On another note of interest. I’ve elsewhere talked about an irony of contemporary life that I’ve observed: The wholesale digitization and promulgation of information has ironically empowered us to easily share and discover knowledge of analog and occult technologies. The persistent popularity of film photography is my favorite example. If the only way to learn how to operate a Hasselblad was to go down to the local camera shop and ask the staff for a lesson, you would not ever consider acquiring such a camera, because that camera shop no longer exists. However, because there are hundreds and hundreds of videos on YouTube showing you how to work the camera, you can easily figure it out. Something similar happened with that DEATH 45; its very analog rarity turned out to be part of what focused the rock critic hive mind on the band’s genius. The movie does a nice job giving us a peek into that weird world of crazy record collectors, too — have to remember to recommend this to George Hadjidakis. I’m sure he’s already heard of it, though . . .





Searching for Sugar Man, Malik Bendjelloul (2012)

Sugar-ManA unique story in some ways, all too familiar in others. Sixto Diaz Rodriguez, a working-class kid born 1942 in Detroit to Mexican immigrant parents, puts out a couple of solid folk-rock records in the late 60’s and early 70’s. They don’t sell, his label drops him, and he lives a life of menial labor and community activism in Detroit for decades. Unbeknownst to him, though, he’s hugely famous in South Africa, where his music is as familiar and pop-canonical as that of Simon and Garfunkel and Cat Stevens, though little is known about him personally. The movie traces the efforts of a few die-hard South African fans to find Rodriguez. Eventually, once he’s “discovered,” he tours South Africa, where he is much loved. The question of where all the money went from the hundreds of thousands of records sold in South Africa while Rodriguez scraped by in Detroit is lightly pricked but not dug into, because the filmmakers want this to be a story about Rodriguez’s mystical, totemic purity, rather than (yet another) story about a rube who got fucked over by the record industry.

However, that is the story, however over-familiar or mean, and I wish the filmmakers had acknowledged that. Rodriguez wrote smart, incisive songs about systemic oppression; kids in South Africa were inspired by his ideas; record company executives took the kids’ money; Rodriguez made nothing. That’s not a story about a guy too cool to care about money. That’s the story of a guy who got fucked over. Detroit makes and the world takes! The movie seemed to want me to feel warm and fuzzy about this story but I felt angry. Maybe I listened to Rodriguez’s lyrics more closely than the filmmakers did.


Detroit City Is the Place to Be, Mark Binelli (2012) & Detropia, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (2012)

I’m a proud Michigander but I come from the west side of the state and the far east has always been something of a gleaming mystery to me. I knew the auto industry had built Detroit and that when it collapsed Detroit collapsed, and I knew about the white flight to the suburbs, Devil’s Night, the 1984 Tigers, Philip Levine’s poems . . .  Well really I didn’t know much; I knew about as much as a kid from Poughkeepsie knows about Bed-Stuy. But still, Detroit is bound up with Michigan (in a much more meaningful sense than New York City is with New York State), and Michigan’s my home, so I’ve always felt some affinity; I just haven’t known what with exactly. Recently, Detroit’s come to my attention in a lot of ways both direct and indirect, though, and I feel like I’m moving (sliding?) toward some more tactile understanding of the place. I’ve had the chance to visit for the first time in years; I’ve been reading more and more about the place in the news in the wake of its recent spectacular fiscal meltdowns; I’ve had frequent occasion, in my beloved New Orleans, to draw analogies to Detroit (ruin/beauty, opportunity/inertia, etc.); and my reading of visual art periodicals has featured lively debates about the ethics of “ruin porn“–an issue that I also think about a lot in New Orleans.

I remain, of course, totally ignorant about Detroit, though I think I do understand that the smarty-pants interloper (usually white) who comes along to explain the place to its supposedly benighted (usually black) inhabitants is one of the most reviled members of the local fauna, so I’m smart enough at least to profess my ignorance! There’s a great scene in Detropia where a couple of white hipster European 20-somethings come into a coffee shop clearly so pleased with themselves for coming to Detroit instead of the more predictable destinations like New York or San Francisco, like so pleased with themselves that they seem to be looking around waiting for someone to congratulate them on how cool they are, and the African-American barista just looks at them like . . . I don’t even know how to describe that look.

Detropia and Binelli’s book are nice companions. The movie, like Ewing and Grady’s excellent Jesus Camp, has no voice-over narration telling you what to think or feel about what you’re seeing; it just follows some people around as they go about their business in Detroit and reflect aloud on how it was, how it is, and how it could be. Binelli’s book, on the contrary, is super chatty. Binelli grew up both in and around the city of Detroit. (Those are important prepositions. If someone tells you he grew up “in” Detroit, and he is white, try this: Say, “Wait, in Detroit? Or around Detroit?” He will almost certainly blush a little and confess to an address well beyond the city limits.) After living elsewhere for a long time, he returned and lived smack downtown for some years as a reporter, during which time he wrote this book. The writing is smart and funny, a little shaggy in spots but all in all a really nice blend of solid reportage and color commentary. I won’t go into detail about the contents; suffice to say that if you’ve got more than a passing interest in the city’s current situation, this is a lively and useful overview. I’m still a dumb farm kid after reading it, but a little less dumb.

P. S. I’m also going to mention here while I’m at it a project by Brian Widdis and Romain Blanquart called Can’t Forget the Motor City, in which Widdis took b/w photos of Detroit landscapes and Blanquart color portraits of Detroit residents. The idea was to show the life in the place rather than the decay and I think the results are terrific. That image up there is one of Blanquart’s.


William Eggleston in the Real World, Michael Almereyda (2005)

It’s dangerous to learn too much about the weird puny humans behind the artworks you love. Bill’s a little lovable in this, but he’s also petulant, selfish, drunk, and stupid.

I was interested in his process, though, which seems to involve taking a billion pictures and then guessing which of them are wheat and which are chaff. I say “guessing” advisedly; the resistance to valuing wheat over chaff is exactly at the heart of Eggleston’s achievement in much the same way it’s at the heart of John Ashbery’s. I’ll also go so far as to say that just as you can’t write a contemporary American poem without invoking Ashbery’s presence or absence as you do so, you can’t take a contemporary American photograph without similarly admitting or excluding Eggleston.

I would like to take this opportunity to mention the recent lawsuits involving Eggleston’s estate making additional prints of images that were supposed to be limited editions. These cases seemed to me delicious and hilarious in their irony. Eggleston is all about surfeit.

Finally it was interesting to realize, watching this, that though the South remains in many ways foreign and mysterious to me despite my dozen-odd years here, there are some character traits, attitudes, social strategies, and modes of dissimulation I have come to recognize as characteristic of a certain set of the populace here. Men both dreamy and mean, lost and ambitious, needy and oblivious, mournful and contented. And the inscrutable women who mix their drinks and then pretend to scold them for being drunk.

Anyways. It made me a sad in the best ways.


Park Avenue: Money, Power, and the American Dream, Alex Gibney (2012)

Park-Avenue-2The indefatigable Alex Gibney is back with another solid documentary guaranteed to leave you staring into space with a horrified look on your face. He’s probably made another one in the time it took me to write that sentence. Like Taxi to the Dark Side and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, two others of his I’ve admired, Park Avenue seems at once sober and manic. The research is clearly thorough and thoughtful, the ideas are presented clearly, the charts and graphs are cleanly designed and easily understood, but at the same time there’s this edge of hysterical incredulity running just under the surface the whole time, like the narrator’s forever on the brink of screaming “Can you effing believe this shit?!”

From the PBS web site for the film: “740 Park in Manhattan is currently home to the highest concentration of billionaires in the country. Across the river, less than five miles away, Park Avenue runs through the South Bronx, home to the poorest congressional district in the United States. In Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream,Gibney states that while income disparity has always existed in the U.S., it has accelerated sharply over the last 40 years. As of 2010, the 400 richest Americans controlled more wealth than the bottom 50 percent of the populace — 150 million people.”

Anyone who’s been paying attention already knows stuff like that, and that one is seven Americans receive food stamps, and so forth. But the film still manages to shock me again and again. The saddest part for me is seeing working-class and middle-class people duped by  politicians into thinking that it’s the poor (and the unions), not the rich, that are responsible for their problems. The second-saddest part is seeing that even Democratic administrations seem powerless, in the face of multi-billion dollar lobbying efforts, to do anything about income disparity. You come away from this feeling like if you have a dime, it’s because the 1% have decided it’s somehow to their advantage for you to have it.


Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters, Ben Shapiro (2012)

imagesWhat are we supposed to think about Gregory Crewdson? His photographs, some of which I’ve seen in person, are overwhelming, incredibly-detailed large-format prints of Hopper-like (sometimes more Stephen-King-like) scenes of small-town life. The melancholy rag man pushing his cart, the melancholy waitress exhausted after her shift, the melancholy working-class family sitting down to their melancholy supper. It seems to be about 1972; the downtown single-screen movie theater is still going, folks drive Dodge Darts and wear girdles, no one has a computer or a cell phone. It’s always either dawn or early evening, the light is diffuse violets, blues, yellows, oranges. They’re interesting to look at, very engaging visually, tons of details to observe, and the figures are often found in slightly mysterious acts, peering at each other in ways that are strange, or ignoring each other for reasons we can’t know. So fine, right? Not super interesting, but interesting enough, right? Well, there’s a bit more to the story. Crewdson’s probably less known for the images themselves than he is for the processes by which he obtains them, which are, in a word, insane. Entire soundstages are constructed, entire towns are brought to a standstill, when he decides to make an image. He brings enough infrastructure to make an entire movie, but he produces only a single frame. Looking at the pictures, I can’t help but have this sense of their extravagant staging present in my mind, and that massive assertion of artifice becomes, for me, a part of the experience of the work. Now add in the fact that the people and settings of the images are generally working-class and low on luck, and the aura of the artwork gets even odder. I’m looking at a hugely expensive, extravagantly faked depiction of a sad little invisible domestic drama on a dead end street in a dead end town, and Gagosian is going to sell it for probably around $100K. I’m upside down trying to figure out the political ramifications of this process. Is Crewdson a hero for suggesting that so much depends upon a tired waitress it’s worth spending three days paying a crew of dozens to set up a shot depicting her? Or is Crewdson a creep along the lines of the rich Swiss scumbags in Detropia (review coming soon) who have come to Detroit to enjoy themselves by admiring the city’s decay? Is he empathizing or exploiting? My guess is that he himself would have no idea how to respond to these ideas. Judging from his presence in this documentary, he’s not a terribly self-aware person. He has pictures in his head and he wants to put them on the wall, and this is how he does it.


Page One: Inside the New York Times, Andrew Rossi (2011)

No one with any interest in current events could fail to understand that information moves differently now than it did ten years ago, or ten months ago, or maybe even ten minutes ago. These changes have put obvious and well-documented pressure on “legacy media” companies like the Times. In July of 2002, NYT was trading at $50 a share; this past July it was at about $8 a share.

But you know all that. This movie goes over that territory, but where it really shines is in its depiction not of the Times as a company, but the Times as a collection of individuals. There are scenes where people gather around someone’s desk and hash out what the ethical course of action is vis a vis some situation that’s just arisen. People have principled disagreements, come to conclusions, act on them, and move forward. I found such moments heartening. Whatever else you want to say about the media, the Times, our desperate age, etc., you can’t help but come away from this feeling like these people are truly acting in good faith and truly on a mission for good. They’re probably doomed.


Encounters at the End of the World, Werner Herzog (2007)

In which the NSF flies Herzog to Antarctica so that he can ask a penguin researcher, “Does a penguin ever go insane when they have simply had it with the colony?” If you love Herzog, this will tickle you pink. Dour laconic condemnations of civilization, breathless Caspar David Friedrich-esque romantic ejaculations in the face of ineffable landscapes, a fascination with damaged and fragile characters that comes across as both exploitative and sympathetic at the same time (the scene with the traumatized man who “escaped” from something he can’t even talk about (East Germany?) and proudly shows Herzog the rucksack he has ready at all times, should he need to escape again, is without question my favorite moment in this film), and always, always, the magnetic attraction to oblivion. When Herzog talks about the dangers of diving under the ice, or how easy it is to get lost in a blizzard, or the way a penguin will sometimes become disoriented and start walking away from rather than toward the life-giving sea, you understand very clearly that he doesn’t dread these disasters; he longs for them.

Herzog continues to make fiction films, but more and more his best attention seems to be directed toward documentaries. (Which, after all, is the more interesting movie, Grizzly Man or Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans?) Might it be that for a mature artist, the claptrap of artifice begins to seem an impediment rather than an aid to the realization of one’s dramatic — and even aesthetic — goals? Discuss.