Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Inside Job (2010)

I wrote this five years ago, right after Charles Ferguson won his Academy Award.  I think I have a pretty good idea now what Wall Street planned to package and sell next.

Inside Job (2010), Charles Ferguson's exposé of the takeover of American government by greedy financiers, is full of information.  It adds important details to the history of the worldwide financial disaster that triggered the Great Recession, and, even when Ferguson is being redundant, recounting facts that are generally well-known, he's entertaining.  Sunday night, Ferguson won an Academy Award.

The question is:  How relevant is the history of a ponzi scheme that caused a global financial disaster back in 2008 now that the folks Inside Job calls our "Wall Street government" have moved on to undermining civil liberties, torpedoing single-payer health insurance, busting unions and generally shredding the safety net we cobbled together during the Great Depression?


Inside Job (2010) Economic Crisis Film LLC

Will Charles Ferguson's documentary film bring down the Wall Street government?  Will it even break their stride?

I have no doubt that Inside Job will do what film and art are uniquely suited to do.  It will change the way we look at the world.  I don't think anyone who sees Inside Job will ever look at bankers and the finance industry, academia, our government, or the history of America over the last 30 years in the same way again.

Inside Job unfolds like a criminal trial as Ferguson carefully builds a case against the most prominent financial figures in America, many of whom are now in the Obama administration.  By the end of the trial, the verdict of history -- or at least of the historian, Ferguson -- is clear.  The finance industry and the government, on purpose, wrecked the world economy and destroyed millions of lives.

Ferguson's explanation of how subprime mortages were bundled as derivatives, called Collateralized Debt Obligations -- CDOs for short -- and sold in unregulated markets along with Credit Default Swaps -- insurance policies that paid off when borrowers defaulted on the subprime loans in a CDO -- is easy to follow.  Because anyone could buy a Credit Default Swap against a CDO, whether they owned the CDO or not, firms like Goldman Sachs could sell CDOs and bet against them at the same time.  AIG, the main writer of Credit Default Swaps, collapsed -- and got bailed out -- when it couldn't pay off on the Credit Default Swaps it had written.   The financiers held on to the commissions and bonuses they made selling the CDOs and Credit Default Swaps, even after the bubble burst.  The taxpayers held on to the dirty end of the stick.

Ferguson is a skillfull interviewer who balances skepticism with naiveté and knows how to follow up when he gets an opening.  The big names in finance and government were smart to dodge his interviews.  He is especially savage when he unmasks the academics -- the professors of economics and finance -- who sold out to the finance industry, covered up for crooks, and even invented economic theories to justify and defend Credit Default Swaps.

Inside Job is a film in the tradition of documentaries like Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly's Harvest of Shame (1960).  It combines interviews and narration with archival video and photographs to make a point.  It's not particularly filmic, but the cinematography of Svetlana Cvetko and Kalyanee Mam is crisp and sophisticated.  It fits the subject.  The settings for the interviews are well chosen.  A fast-moving montage of mansions, yachts, jets, drugs and whores -- but where were the male prostitutes? -- adds a dimension to the history of the meltdown that was missing from the Congressional hearings on C-SPAN.  To his credit, Ferguson sees Wall Street's obsession with wealth and its use of drugs and prostitutes more as character issues than as moral ones.  And he's not without humor.  The irony of Eliot Spitzer being reluctant to use the personal vices of Wall Street underlings to force them to flip on their overlords is not lost on him, or on us.  Equally ironic is the Bush administration's sacrifice of Lehman Brothers to "calm the markets," like Greeks, sacrificing to Poseidon to calm the seas.  If Inside Job has a weakness, it's in the way Ferguson brings the pain of the financial crisis down to the individual level.  Why interview workers in China when so many workers in the Midwest had lost their jobs?

Inside Job won the Academy Award for Best Documentary this year, but, in spite of Matt Damon's sappy reminder -- delivered as we gaze at the Statue of Liberty -- that "some things are worth fighting for," Inside Job may not accomplish as much as Ferguson hopes.

What we -- the survivors -- need now, instead of warnings and history, are tools.  We need to know how to get on down this Cormac McCarthy kind of road, past the charred, asphalt-covered bodies of the refugees who died when the death ray caught them pushing shopping carts, burdened with their last belongings, along the interstate.  We need stuff we can use.

And we need to know what the overlords -- the financiers who are, as Ferguson reminds us, still in power -- are going to do next.  What will they package and sell to create the next bubble?  Maybe we can get in on the ground floor.

A link to the complete film is here at YouTube.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010) Everybody Wins

Whether or not Exit Through The Gift Shop wins the Academy Award for Best Documentary, British artist Banksy's light-hearted romp through the world of underground street art is shaping up as a win for Banksy, for his fellow street artists, and even for the collectors who, according to Banksy, bought $1 million worth of kitsch, conceived and produced with Banksy's help by the documentary film maker turned street artist: Thierry Guetta, a.k.a. "Mr. Brainwash." If the ebay value of the work the L.A. art geeks bought at Mr. Brainwash's massive 2008 Life Is Beautiful show is rising and falling with his fame, the geeks should be in better shape now than they were before Banksy released his chronicle of MBW's rise to stardom. MBW himself has made out quite well. In addition to the cash from his 2008 show, he landed a Madonna CD cover -- thereby meeting the minimum requirement for consideration as a serious graphic artist -- and he treated himself to a NYC show last year. But the biggest winner of all is the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' mysterious "demopol", the nominating system that filled the Academy's hand in the category of Best Documentary by including Banksy's comedy among the five contenders.


Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010) Trailer banksyfilms

As the voting draws to a close, Academy members can choose from a list of documentaries that includes exposés of the global financial system and the natural gas industry, a film portrait of a rifle platoon on the ground in Afghanistan, and, remarkably, two documentaries about artists and the impact art has on people's lives. One of them is Waste Land (2010), Lucy Walker's sensitive study of Brazilian-born artist Vik Munoz and the catadores who separate recyclables from garbage at Rio's Jardim Gramacho, the biggest landfill in the world. Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010) is the other one. It is, at the same time, an entertaining recollection and an "exposé" of the art scene. Lucy Walker had to walk a thin line between portraying her subjects and exploiting them. Banksy never had that problem. He just had to have fun.

Exploitation and expropriation is the main -- if not the only -- point to street art, formerly known as graffiti. The streets are the canvas, and, in Banksyland at night, they belong to art and to artists in search of a perfect wall. Exit Through The Gift Shop puts Banksy's permanent mark on street art and the L.A. art scene. It's a clever expropriation of underground street art and the artists who make it, especially Mr. Brainwash, who set out to document Banksy and got documented himself. The streets and street art belong to whomever can control them, and, in Exit Through the Gift Shop at least, Banksy is in full control.

Artists synthesize experience. The successful ones also manage to create self-sustaining systems in which the sale of their work fuels the creation of more work until the balance tips in their favor and they are making enough money to expand the scope of their work. They become a brand. Banksy, of course, is there. He's able to sustain his own work, run an art factory, finance the work of other artists, and move out into new forms. And, in spite of his protestations to the contrary, Banksy has a flair for film.

Exit Through The Gift Shop is the most personal of the documentaries up for an Academy Award this year. It's cinema verité that is exceptionally well done, and it neatly demonstrates the power of narrative to structure time and to entertain.

Banksy has the conventions of the exposé film down pat: the hooded sweatshirt, the pixilated faces, the voice-over that ties fragments of film together. He understands the use of foreshadowing as well as he understands what Tom Wolfe called "le monde", the insular little world of art makers, art dealers and art collectors. The first time we meet Mr. Brainwash, he's pawning off cheap clothes with unusual stitching as expensive designer clothes. The last time we see him, he's just sold a million bucks worth of art that's as questionable, from Banksy's point of view, as the money Banksy forged -- with Princess Di's face in place of the Queen's -- but was afraid to distribute. There is no law against the sale of bad art. As Wolfe famously noticed, le monde is very small, and collectors have always been driven to get in on the ground floor, running the risk of buying bargain basement clothes at designer prices, or near art -- the equivalent of the peripheral junk you pick up when you exit a museum through the gift shop.

But it is the brilliance of his editing, the way he alters reality by juxtaposing events, sequencing and resequencing time and space to sculpt a reality that never was or could be in the so-called real world, that finally sets Banksy apart. Somehow, from fragments of experience, recorded on hundreds of tapes, Banksy pulls together a complete narrative that, really, could not be any other narrative and still fit together so well. What's real and what isn't? Does it matter? I doubt there are two viewers anywhere who would agree on how much of Banksy's documentary is "made up" to provide continuity and context, or just to make a point. (Personally, I doubt Mr. Brainwash's grilling at the hands of Disneyland security after Banksy -- in one of the film's funniest scenes -- inserts a life-size, blow-up doll, wearing a black hood and orange Gitmo jumpsuit, into the Disney landscape. But I enjoy the Disneyland footage anyway.)

If Exit Through The Gift Shop -- and Banksy's work in general -- has a weakness, it's that his work is political. Banksy has a message. It's a cool message, but a message nevertheless, and Banksy has to lock it down. He can't leave room for the viewer to miss the point. He can't chance the kind of complexity that would make his art polyreferential, the kind of work that points to a multitude of things at once. Maybe that kind of work -- work that empowers the viewer to participate more in making the art -- would require Banksy to give up more control of his turf than he's willing to do right now.

And, finally, there is this.  The Life Is Beautiful show's success is all the more remarkable, because it occurs in 2008 when the American economy was already in free fall and the fault line, separating rich America and poor America -- a fissure conservatives had been hammering on since Reagan -- finally split, sending the two Americas drifting apart, though not so far apart that the poor Americans can't still see rich America and the American dream sailing away, forever out of reach.  Will the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences be able to ignore that coincidence and judge Banksy's work on its artistic merits alone?

Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010) is available from Netflix and Amazon.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Restrepo (2010)


View Larger Map

As you zoom in, the arrow points to the opening of Afghanistan's Korengal Valley at the Pech River, northwest of Asadabad, near the Pakistan border.  The Korengal valley is the location of what has been, arguably, the most documented engagement between U.S. forces and the local Taliban and their allied foreign fighters in Afghanistan.  The fight for control of the Korengal Valley has been recorded in award-winning photographs, a long article in the New York Times Magazine, and, of particular interest, in Restrepo, a direct cinema film by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger that's available for sale or rental as a DVD and as streaming video from Netflix and Amazon.  The film won an award at Sundance last year, and it's been nominated for an Academy Award.  There is not a lot of direct cinema around anymore, and this one deals with a serious subject, with life and death decisions.  On top of that, it must have been an exceptionally hard film to make. 

The Hetherington-Junger documentary illustrates the difference between documentary film on the one hand and photographs and print on the other for practioners of the art and for viewers of documentary films as well.  The challenges the film makers face in Restrepo are the same challenges direct cinema and cinéma vérité film makers always face:  telling a story without narration, tying episodes together seamlessly, slapping on enough detail to make the film come to life and give viewers a sense of being there.  In addition, they had to stay alive.












OP Restrepo as it appears in the film.  Whoever shot this scene is outside the outpost, exposed to enemy fire. (Update: Tim Hetherington was killed by mortar fire in Misrata, Libya, 4/20/2011.)

The efforts of the film makers and the film's subjects, the professional soldiers of the Second Platoon of Battle Company, are exceptional, but, as film, Restrepo is not exceptional.  As document, it fills some gaps that photography and print can't fill, and, for a few minutes, it achieves brilliance, but it relies too much on photography, print and a viewer's personal memories to fill the gaps in its incarnation as a 90-minute feature film.  I suspect there is an exceptional 30-minute film buried in Restrepo, but, if it's there, Junger and Hetherington didn't find it.

The experience of art is a collaboration between the artist and the audience, and fragmented videos like Restrepo require viewers to participate to an unusual extent.  The more we know about combat, the more gaps we can fill and the more complete and convincing Restrepo seems, especially as we recall the film a couple of days later, after the images have sunk in.

Restrepo was brought to my attention by a Marine who thought it captured the essence of combat better than any film he'd seen.  He and I are both aware of the movie's many shortcomings, its lack of a central theme beyond the notion that war is hell, its episodic and elliptical nature, the absence of a point-of-view that reveals what the GIs are shooting at -- we see bombs, rockets and mortars going off in the valley, but most of the time the soldiers could be firing their own weapons into thin air for all we know -- but, for him, the personalities of the soldiers make the film worthwhile.  For me, it's the greasy grill in the snack bar, the cramped bunks, the mysterious spotting device that looks like it was covered up to keep us from seeing what it is.  More cerebral than my Marine friend, I admire the idea of OP Restrepo, the gesture, while he admires the spirit of the men who manned the post.

For others, the appeal of Restrepo may lie in the irony of viewing a film about combat in the Korengal Valley, knowing that American troops withdrew from that valley in April of 2010, after entering it 5 years earlier specifically to pick a fight with the Taliban and the foreign fighters there.  America did not stay the course in the Korengal Valley.  Some might say the soldiers and Marines who died there died in vain.  And some might say that the valley is a metaphor for America's war in Afghanistan, a war that is sure to end in some kind of stalemate, with neither the United Nations nor the Taliban winning a clearcut victory.

Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger were embedded with U.S. troops in the Korengal Valley off and on during 2007 and 2008.  Other reporters were there at the same time, notably, Elizabeth Rubin.  Her story for the New York Times Magazine, Battle Company Is Out There, with photos by Lynsey Addario,  fills most of Restrepo's gaps.  Indeed, Restrepo works best for me when I think of it as video that illustrates Rubin's article.

Restrepo The Movie, a web site devoted to promoting the film and Junger's book version of the fight for the Korengal Valley, War, has photos of the 2nd Platoon, video interviews, some outcuts from the film and some Hetherington pictures.  A little blog at the site has an entry that reminds us that Juan Restrepo was a real person who died in combat and is remembered and mourned by his family.

Reading the Rubin article and spending some time at the Restrepo web site before you watch the film -- or reading Rubin and visiting the film's web site, then viewing the film again if you've already seen it -- may add to the depth of your viewing experience.  It's something I'd recommend you do.

The web site tells us that Restrepo is "an entirely experiential film: the cameras never leave the valley; there are no interviews with generals or diplomats. The only goal is to make viewers feel as if they have just been through a 90-minute deployment. This is war, full stop. The conclusions are up to you."  And, describing their film -- in all modesty I suppose, --- the directors themselves assure us that: "This is reality."

But the reality is that Junger and Hetherington's cameras do leave the valley.  They go to Italy with Battle Company when the company redeploys, and the film makers take the soldiers of Battle Company into a studio and interview them there.  Ironically, those interviews, those remembrances of combat, provide the glue that holds the video fragments Junger and Hetherington recorded on the ground in Afghanistan together.  And it is the interviews that come just before some fragments of video shot in the middle of operation Rock Avalanche, a six-day fight around the village of Yaka China, that -- for a few minutes -- lift Restrepo to the level of brilliant documentary. 

Like Junger's documentary book, A Perfect Storm, Junger and Hetherington's Restrepo is about death, even to the extent that, if nobody had been killed during the year they spent making the film, it's doubtful Restrepo would have been distributed.   But American soldiers did die in the Korengal Valley that year, and, as he did in A Perfect Storm, although he does not attend their deaths, Junger recreates their dying.  To be sure, Junger does not presume to tell us how it feels to die in combat the way he told us how it feels to drown in A Perfect Storm.  We learn from the soldiers that "Doc" Restrepo, the medic for whom outpost Restrepo and the film are named, was wounded soon after he arrived in the valley and bled to death in a medevac helicopter on the way to a field hospital.  We're not there when Restrepo dies.  But when another soldier, Staff Sergeant Larry Rougle, is killed, we're as close to the action and to the emotions of his comrades as it's possible to get without being there.

There is something uncomfortable -- disrespectful maybe --about deconstructing a film that shows an American soldier dying in a war that is, for some of us, morally, strategically and even tactically ambiguous.  After five years of fighting for the valley, the battleground turned out to be of no strategic value. The tactic of seizing the high ground and setting up an outpost -- OP Restrepo -- to draw the enemy in did not work.  The attack on the outpost never came, and Battle Company's CO, Dan Kearney, was forced to take his soldiers down the valley to engage the Taliban in Operation Rock Avalanche, a long battle that is the climax of the film and the low point of Battle Company's deployment in the Korangel Valley.

Veteran combat photographers used to advise rookies to use fast film, a fast shutter, stop down, focus at 10 meters and shoot anything that moves.  That works to illustrate a story, but to tell a story with pictures, especially one that unfolds over months of fighting, much of it at night, needs a better plan.

Elizabeth Rubin says she went to Afghanistan with a question:  Why, with all our technology, were we killing so many civilians in air strikes?   After a few days, that question sparked others.  Was there a deeper problem in the counterinsurgency campaign?  Why were more American troops being killed every year?

Those questions led Rubin to focus her article on the life and death decisions being made every day in the Korengal Valley and on the man making most of them:  Dan Kearney, the lord of the Korengal Valley.  She follows Kearney through a fire fight that ends with him killing a woman and a child when he destroys a house with armor-piercing missiles, and on into Operation Rock Avalanche, a mission Rubin says many thought insane.  It's during Rock Avalanche that Rubin's rendition of the battle for the Korengal Valley syncs up with Junger's and Hetherington's in her account of the action that cost Staff Sergeant Rougle his life.

I followed Piosa through the brush toward the ridge. We came upon Rice and Specialist Carl Vandenberge behind some trees. Vandenberge was drenched in blood. The shot to his arm had hit an artery. Rice was shot in the stomach. A soldier was using the heating chemicals from a Meal Ready to Eat to warm Vandenberge and keep him from going into shock.

Piosa moved on to the hill where the men had been overrun. I saw big blue-eyed John Clinard, a sergeant from North Carolina, falling to pieces. He worshiped Rougle. “Sergeant Rougle is dying. It’s my fault. . . . I’m sorry. . . . I tried to get up the hill. . . .” Sergeant Rougle was lying behind him. Someone had already covered him with a blanket. Only the soles of his boots were visible.

“There’s nothing you could do,” Piosa said, grabbing Clinard’s shoulder. “You got to be the man now. You can do it. I need you to get down to Rice and Vandenberge and get them to the medevac.” Clinard wiped his face, seemed to snap to and headed off through the trees.

It may be that some day someone like Sebastian Junger or Elizabeth Rubin will write a book, and the electronic version of that book will include hyperlinks to video clips that illustrate the author's prose.  The words and images and sounds will all come together in the same work, a new kind of art that combines the best of narrative, video, photography and sound.

Or maybe we'll have to keep pulling that kind of work together ourselves, creating cathedrals of our own imagining like my recollection of Restrepo, with chapels by Rubin and Junger, stained glass windows by Hetherington and Addario, statues of Restrepo, Rougle, Kearney and Sal Giunta, the first living Medal of Honor recipient since the Vietnam War, clips from YouTube put up there by GIs -- and high up on a back roof a little gargoyle fashioned from these thoughts.

Restrepo is available from Netflix and Amazon.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Gasland (2010) Dick Cheney's Legacy

Every race has a dark horse, running at long odds. In this year's race for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Film, the dark horse may be GasLand (2010), a film by Josh Fox that takes on almost everyone in the Oil and Gas Industry, including George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Halliburton over the use of "fracking" -- hydraulic fracturing -- to extract natural gas from vast deposits all over the United States.

GasLand (2010) HBO Documentary Films Low Resolution Fair Use Video

While he was Vice President, Dick Cheney forced a bill through Congress that exempts fracking from the reporting requirements of the Clean Air and Water Act. The drillers don't have to tell the public what's in the fracking liquid they mix with water and shoot into gas deposits where it can seep into the water supply or return to the surface, either to evaporate or to be carried off and dumped.

Fox makes the case that fracking injects dangerous chemicals deep underground to break up rock and shale, releasing vast quantities of natural gas, while polluting the water supplies of homes and towns near the wells, which, if natural gas drilling proceeds as planned, will be just about every home and town in America. The industry denies the charge that fracking poisons the environment and the people and animals who depend on the environment for clean water.

Formally, GasLand is about as simple as documentary film gets. Maybe a Ken Burns special, cobbled together from old photos, with voice over and dramatic music, requires less of the film maker, but not much less. The subject of GasLand is Fox and his quest for information about what fracking is and what it is doing to people and the environment. We tag along, learning as we go. The form will be familiar to anyone who has seen Supersize Me (2004), Religulous (2008), or any of Michael Moore's films. GasLand adheres closely to the form. We take a road trip, talk to people who have had their water poisoned by the frackers, see some drinking water catching fire right out of the tap, animals losing their fur, sick people describing their symptoms, big names in the oil and gas industry, including Boone Pickens, refusing to be interviewed, politicians ducking and obfuscating.

Fox has a personal stake in the issue. He owns 14 acres of unspoiled land in Pennsylvania -- his boyhood home -- that the gas industry is trying to lease for $100,000. Fox doesn't try to make the industry's offer into a will he lease or won't he lease cliff hanger. We find out he won't early in the film. The element of suspense in GasLand is situational. The issue of fracking is far from settled. Legislation to undo Cheney's exemption of natural gas drilling from the reporting requirements of the Clean Air and Water Act is still working its way through Congress, and Pennsylvania and New York are struggling with the problem of how to protect their water supplies from the frackers. All of that counts in GasLand's favor. Timeliness is a plus for documentaries.

Fox is immensely likable. His rap is pleasant, his voice easy on the ears. Strangely enough -- and maybe it's the landscape he's traveling through -- he reminds me of Don Johnson in A Boy And His Dog (1975). That Fox is able to conjure up an apocalyptic premonition of the future, using video of natural gas drillers at work in people's backyards and tap water catching fire, is a sign of his considerable talent.

Nevertheless, GasLand is a dark horse in the Oscar sweepstakes, because it's ahead of its time. To work as exposé, it has to make fracking relevant and build some outrage against the natural gas industry. Two of its competitors, Inside Job (2010) and Restrepo (2010) just have to tap into the outrage over the global financial meltdown and the war in Afghanistan that already exists.

GasLand is available on YouTube here.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Legacy Of Fred W. Friendly And Edward R. Murrow



In 1960, Fred W. Friendly and Edward R. Murrow teamed up to make Harvest of Shame.  The film was Murrow's last television documentary before he left CBS to head up John F. Kennedy's United States Information Agency and the Voice of America.  Ironically, as a U.S.I.A bureaucrat, Murrow tried, unsuccessfully, to suppress a B.B.C. broadcast of Harvest of Shame.

Harvest of Shame documented the living conditions of American migrant farm workers, and recorded the prevailing attitude of big business, lobbiests and government officials toward the farm workers and their living conditions.

Edward R. Murrow has had many imitators, but none of them has managed to channel Murrow's combination of serious journalism and real concern for people who were unable to manage in any way the oppressive political and economic culture that impinged on their lives.

Harvest of Shame is one of television's most respected documentaries, not because it was especially effective, but because of its intention and style.

Harvest of Shame originally aired just after Thanksgiving Day in November 1960. A follow-up report by CBS last year -- a 5 minute segment, compared to the 50 minutes of the original -- found that the migrants' pauper wages were a little better and the workers were mostly poor Hispanics now instead of poor blacks and whites, but the working conditions and daily lives of migrant farm workers have not much changed.

Harvest of Shame gave a face to the faceless, advocated for the powerless, and created a lasting example of how television documentaries -- and journalism in general -- can engage important issues without bias or polemics, with compassion instead of passion, and with respect for its subjects.

The shots of workers, voicing their frustration about trying to make a living at the bottom of the American economy, and the shots of a corporate lobbiest, reducing and explaining away the tragedy of people permanently abandoned to poverty, could, in these times of massive, permanent unemployment and under-employment -- especially of the undereducated and people over 50 -- be filmed today. We only lack the film makers, journalists, and the subjects who -- like the migrant farm workers of the 60's -- convincingly demonstrate the flaws in American society, the disjunction between our basic values and the way we allow some of our fellow Americans to live.

Harvest of Shame, for the most part, let's the workers and bureaucrats speak for themselves, admittedly in the context of Murrow's narration. But the film manages to balance Murrow's narration with the true faces and voices of the workers, captured by David Lowe, in a way that never overpowers the workers and their story. Typically, Murrow closed the show with a comment that conveys his belief that words — and reason — matter, that it is possible to talk about occasions for anger, without histrionics and without acting anger out.



Are there real barriers to producing documentaries like Harvest of Shame these days? In many ways, they should be easier to do. The cost of video equipment is more affordable than it's ever been, and venues like YouTube let documentary film makers "self publish." The problem, if there is one, lies in finding subjects.

Harvest of Shame can be purchased on DVD at Amazon, or, with a leading commercial, be viewed for free at YouTube or CBS News.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The West Virginia Mine Wars

The Republicans in Congress are trying to cut the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities out of the federal budget, essentially eliminating all federal support for the arts, including support for documentary films. That's just one more way to stifle independent voices.

At a time when protests -- both non-violent and violent -- are sweeping the Middle East and Africa, and American unions -- supported by college students -- are struggling to fight off Republican attacks on the remnants of the labor movement, let's recall the kind of documentaries public money has helped produce.

Even the Heavens Weep: The West Virginia Mine Wars (1985), directed and edited by Danny L. McGuire, was produced by WPBY-TV and the West Virginia Educational Broadcasting Authority with money from The Humanities Foundation of West Virginia and the National Endowment for the Humanities. It's a simple documentary -- narration, still photos and interviews -- that recreates the beginning of the labor movement in America, and the battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia. It packs a surprising wallop.

In 1921, 10,000 armed coal miners -- many of them WWI vets -- marched up Blair Mountain to get at the coal mines and company towns on the other side of the mountain, triggering the bloodiest fight between labor and capital in America's history. The mine owners defended their mines and shanty towns with 3,000 hired thugs -- armed with rifles, machine guns and a small cannon -- dug in at the top of Blair Mountain, and hired private planes to bomb the miners with explosives and tear gas. Finally, Warren G. Harding sent federal troops to Blair Mountain to disarm both sides. Until the documentary was made in 1985, Blair Mountain had dropped out of American history.


Even the Heavens Weep, WV Educational Broadcasting Authority

Even the Heavens Weep is an important historical document, pulled together from archival photos and news clippings, framed by a good script. The photographs of the working conditions in coal mines before the unions and of the living conditions in the "company towns" at the West Virginia mines are, at the same time, a grim reminder of the past, and a horrifying glimpse into what the future of workers might look like in America, Inc.

Even the Heavens Weep is available from West Virginia Public Broadcasting in Charleston, West Virginia. For anyone interested in the labor movement and in understanding what that movement was originally about -- whether or not you know who John L. Lewis and Mother Jones are or where the name "redneck" came from -- it's more than worth the effort to get it.

It’s hard not to see similarities between the mine owners’ determination to smother the nascent union movement early in the 20th Century and corporate government’s determination to finish off the vestiges of the union movement now.

But it’s even harder not to see the differences. The early unions had the energy of youth and the excitement of their discovery of solidarity and brotherhood on their side, and the course of history was in their favor, even if it took ten more years, the Great Depression and the New Deal to establish the unions. (By the time Roosevelt threw the weight of the federal government behind the unions, every working man and woman in American would be hurting from the economic collapse that followed the drastic consolidation of wealth into hands of a few, privileged Americans that touched off the Great Depression.)

Nowadays, the union movement is on the wane. Fighting to protect public employee unions feels almost like fighting to protect an endangered species. Many Americans are hurting, and, in fact, will never work again. But there are too many Americans who are not hurting this time. The country and the economy is too big for 10,000 marchers to make a difference, even if they were armed — is that even conceivable anymore — and could find somebody to march against. It feels like the only thing left to document is the end of the labor movement in America. And maybe we won’t even bother to do that.

Films like Even the Heavens Weep don't cost a lot of money to make, but they do take time and dedication. And it takes backing to get the kind of interviews with historians McGuire uses to pull the archival footage and photos together. Without the mantle of the CPB, the NEA or the NEH, particularly for young film makers, getting access to credible sources can be extremely difficult --almost impossible -- to do.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Fall Of 2007

The 83rd Academy Award nominations for documentary film were announced last week.  Collectively, this year's nominees documented the global financial meltdown, fracking for natural gas, edgy street art, dumpster diving on a massive scale, and war on the ground in Afghanistan. 

More than other genres, documentary films tend to be political and, sometimes, combative.  Their intent is to document something, and it's hard, if not impossible, to separate the importance of what they document from the skill with which they document it.  One suspects that Restrepo, an important film that's not particularly well made, is the odds on favorite this year, especially because the first living GI to win the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War fought in the combat operation Restrepo documents.  (I jotted down some thoughts about Restrepo earlier this year.)  But it's entirely possible that the Academy will decide that the global financial crisis or what natural gas producers are doing to the environment outweighs the war in Afghanistan, or even that the artistry of Waste Land or Exit Through The Gift Shop deserves the Best Documentary award.  The Academy often surprises me.  Last year, when I commented on Hollywood's Real Glass Ceiling, I was convinced the Academy would hand Kathryn Bigelow the Best Director Oscar, but wouldn't -- couldn't afford to, really -- give the Best Picture award to The Hurt Locker in the face of Avatar's overwhelming box office and the massive build-out in 3D venues that was going on all over the world.  The Academy proved me wrong.  They showed me they did "have the heart to take on the real world."  (Unless, of course, it was those pesky Palestinians who did Avatar in by painting themselves blue in Bil'in -- a case of bad timing for James Cameron.)

Documentary films about current events and living people are very much about timing.  In the Sixties, Fred W. Friendly and Edward R. Murrow's Harvest of Shame ran an hour and was considered gutsy journalism.  Fifty years later, a CBS follow-up on migrant farm workers merited only 5 minutes of air time. 

The September Issue (2009), directed by R.J. Cutler and filmed by Robert Richman, is a documentary film that illustrates the importance of -- and the surreal nature of -- timing.  The film is a portrait of Anna Wintour, Vogue's U.S. editor-in-chief, and Grace Coddington, her creative director, shot in the context of the roll-out of Vogue's collossal September 2007 Fall fashion issue.

 Vogue Cover, September 2007                      
  Low Resolution Fair Use Image                    

The September Issue is an examination of power and manipulation, and, especially, of power in the hands of a competent and confident woman.  Most film portraits of women executives show embattled women, under fire and hanging on by their fingernails.  In 2007, Anna Wintour was firmly entrenched and riding the wave of a booming economy and fashion industry.  The sub-text of The September Issue is an examination of a successful collaboration, of the way editors and artists work in the real world, and of the way auteurs like Wintour and Coddington make signature art out of the work of creative people.  And it is, finally, a comment on relevance, satisfaction, and the underlying insecurity that saps joy from even the most successful celebrities.

Formally, The September Issue is an example of cinema verité in its simplest, least challenging form. It mixes more or less coherent shots of live action with interviews. The problem with that approach is that it turns the film into a contest of sorts. The film maker tries to get at the truth, the subjects of the film try to hide it — or, at least, to slant the truth. Interviews are like testimony, the characters tell you what they want you to know.


Not surprisingly, the live action scenes tell us more about Anna Wintour than she tells us about herself. Her center stage seat at shows and the nervous fawning of the designers she visits deliver a convincing picture of her position atop the world of design in 2007.

The September Issue was filmed in 2007, just before the beginning of the global financial meltdown and the Great Recession.  If the world's business cycle were depicted as a giant rollercoaster, the lift sweeping up to dizzying heights, the first drop plunging down at the steepest angle the human body can tolerate without blacking out, Anna Wintour and Vogue were, in September of 2007, poised on the brink of the fall.  The September issue of Vogue, essentially an extravagantly produced catalog of designer clothes and accessories, ran 840 pages.  The issue has become a collector's item, selling on ebay for as much as $500 a copy.  In 2007, it was a celebration of the fashion industry, a self-congratulatory revel in wealth reminiscent of Versailles with one important difference:  the world of fashion and the incomes that sustain it have barely taken a hit from what has been, for the ordinary men and women who used to pick up Vogue on their way out of the supermarket, a devastating recession.  To be sure, Vogue's advertising revenues are down from 2007, when one of Vogue's advertisers, Burton Tansky of Neiman Marcus implored Anna Wintour to pressure the designers she had under her thumb to deliver their creations faster.  (If you want to see how a powerful man on the verge of a rant can be reined in by a beautiful woman, watch Wintour's pat on the hand settle Tansky down.)  But the drop in ad revenue may be more a reflection of a general feeling of discontent in an industry whose players were personally bilked by money managers than a reflection of specific worries about the global demand for designer clothes or the bang for the buck of advertising dollars.  After all, weren't most of those ads in the September issue a display of plumage, a demonstration of the wealth and importance of the advertiser?

Last night, ploughing through a copy of Vogue's September issue I brought home from my public library, I was struck by the fact that I had to wade through 313 pages of ads before I encountered the first snippet of text pretending not to be advertising.

Then, in a typical pop culture collision,  I found a Rebecca Johnson profile of Michelle Obama, complete with gorgeous photographs by Annie Leibovitz, sandwiched between Grace Coddington fashion spread and a charming essay about life at the top of the New York scene in a Greenwich Village townhouse whose decor, according to the article, was inspired by the Barbara Streisand remake of A Star Is Born.

Vogue    September 2007, pp 774,775                         
Photograph:  Michelle Obama by Annie Liebovitz 
 Low Resolution Fair Use Image                                 

Was Hillary Clinton just not fashionable enough for her party's elite?  Is Michelle Obama as perfect as the Vogue interview and Liebovitz photographs make her seem?    Or were the images of Michelle Obama manipulated like the images of the models in the Coddington photoshoots with their interchangeable heads, bodies and air-brushed skin, photoshopped to perfection?  Did Vogue prepare the small town Iowa battleground for an Obama victory?  Did a media empire help bring down Hillary Clinton because she was no longer chic, no longer the face of the future toward which fashion -- at least in the mind of Anna Wintour -- must incline.  I suppose that's a stretch, more the stuff of fiction than of some documentary that might have been made.  But I think it's self-evident that the Obamas' style is rather neatly tuned to the style of Conde Naste publications like Vogue, The New Yorker and Wired.

Of course, there are no scenes of the Michelle Obama interview in Cutler and Richman's documentary film.  Successful politicians learned as far back as the Kennedy era to keep documentary film makers at a distance.

The people who get scrutinized in The September Issue are Wintour and Coddington, and the element of suspense that holds the film together -- even documentaries require some kind of glue -- is Grace Coddington's struggle to get her art, intact, into the issue, even though it is often at odds with Wintour's vision.   In the end, Grace gets most of her work in -- at one point she observes that she nearly has the entire issue to herself -- because she can do what artists do:  synthesize experience.  Everything is grist for Coddington's mill and her imagination, even the documentary film makers themselves.  Before the film is over, she has Richman jumping -- if not through hoops -- at least up and down.

Coddington may be the resident genius at Vogue, but she doesn't get the cover.  For that job, Wintour brings in Italian photographer Mario Testino.  And, to my eye, it is Testino, not Coddington, who, in a homage to Fellini, manages to produce the only images that are distinguishable from and rise above the pages and pages of ads.

Vogue  September 2007  Photograph by Mario Testino
  Low Resolution Fair Use Image                                         
                                 
The real winner in The September Issue is, of course, Anna Wintour.  After living for four years with the rumor -- or the fact -- that she was the inspiration for the The Devil Wears Prada, The September Issue gave Wintour an opportunity of create her own image.  She comes across as determined and opinionated, without seeming abusive, a far cry from the editor in The Devil Wears Prada.  If anything, Wintour manages, as improbable as it seems, to portray herself as quite vulnerable.  She appears to have gotten what she wanted from the film.


The September Issue  A&E IndieFilms and Actual Reality Pictures

Not that I'm completely surprised.

Maybe it was the faint scent of expensive perfume still lingering on the pages of my library copy of Vogue or maybe I overdosed on the images of beautiful women, but, watching The September Issue and Anna Wintour, I suddenly remembered filming an interview with Lady Bird Johnson -- a woman I had not thought of as particularly attractive -- at her television station in Austin.  After the interview, I rode down in an elevator with her, and I was shocked to find myself suddenly overwhelmed by her perfume, her dark red lipstick, perfect make-up and luxuriant fur coat, her obvious wealth and power.  Maybe it was pheromones.  I could barely breathe, and, when we got off of the elevator, my hands were shaking and I was feeling weak in the knees.

The September Issue is available from Amazon and Netflix.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Grey Gardens Revisited

There is an element of the hunt in documentary films, a delicious kind of trophy hunting at its lightest, but, at its heaviest, a predatory savaging of people and events that exposes the dark side of subjects and the exploitative nature of documentary film.

The Maysles brothers' Grey Gardens (1975) is a film portrait of Big Edie and Little Edie Beale. It’s a film about eccentrics and eccentricity, about marginal people whose living conditions reflect the condition of their lives.



Film lends itself exceptionally well to the substitution of one thing for another when two things regularly appear together. Over the course of the Maysles brothers' film, the Grey Gardens estate comes to stand for the lives of the Beales in the same way the American flag has come to stand for America and the White House for the President. If there were nothing more to Grey Gardens (1975) than that – and there is – it would still be an important work of art, because it’s a wonderful example of film as sympathetic magic. It gives us the illusion of power over the world by reducing complicated people and situations to a manageable size.

The genre the Maysles brothers chose to work in had rules, and they were accused from time to time of breaking them, of manipulating events, of straying outside the boundaries of direct cinema and cinéma vérité, particularly in the case of Gimme Shelter (1970), a sensational film that features the murder of a black Rolling Stones fan at Altamont.

Direct cinema captures real events as they happen, without interfering with them in any way. There is no direction in direct cinema, no “do this” or “do that again.” No questions. No staged scenes. Nature documentaries are perhaps the purest example of the form. The film makers witness horrific events, but never interfere. Cinéma vérité, another style of modern documentary, has some latitude. It’s more about truth than about reality, and, as long as the film conveys the truth, it may wander away from real events.

In the case of films like Grey Gardens (2009), a historical drama that HBO has run off and on since its triumph at the Emmies, neither the rules of direct cinema nor cinéma vérité apply. The intention of the producers is simply entertainment, and they're free to pick over the bones of the Maysles' kill any way they can.  HBO doesn't broadcast Grey Gardens as part of it's regular schedule anymore, but, in a move that harkens back to the days when movies were all glitz and glitter to brighten the lives of the little people, they put it up on HBO On Demand over the Christmas holidays.  "They were steeped in affluence and privilege," the HBO promo proclaims.  "Yet their lives in East Hampton became a riches-to-rags story that made national headlines."  There is a metaphor lurking around there somewhere.



A cottage industry has sprung up around Grey Gardens and the Beales since the Maysles first documented the squalor and decay of the Beales’ lives. Since Grey Gardens (1975) the documentary, we’ve had Grey Gardens the musical, Grey Gardens the book, Grey Gardens the web site and, finally, HBO's version of the Beales' story.  But I doubt HBO will have the last word.

Over the years, the Beales have attracted a cult following: people who know what it’s like to live on the fringe. But the audience for works based on the lives of the Edies is more general than a cult. It includes any of us who have ever slowed down to look at the scene of an accident. 

The story of the Edies coincides with the long, downhill slide of American society, the decay of the American dream, and the slow stratification of America into two cultures, one affluent and above ground, the other underground, it’s people trapped in poverty.  If it could happen to the Edies, it could happen to anyone.

American capitalism has always had two spurs to keep us moving up the steep hill of success. One boot prods us with the promise of fortune and fame, the other with the specter of disaster, with the threat of losing all we have suddenly or, like the Beales, gradually, as we get older. The Beales’ story is frightening and fascinating. It’s hard to look at it, but it’s harder to look away. 

The Maysles brothers had an eye for the wounded straggler, for the animal ready to die. Perhaps it’s because their subjects knew they were damaged that the Maysles brothers were able to stay above the people and events they filmed, to appear to be superior to their subjects, to have the upper hand. Their contemporary, D. A. Pennebaker, seemed more respectful, more deferential to his subjects – even, as in the case of the War Room (1993) when Pennebaker’s camera grovels at the feet of James Carville and Mary Matalin, obsequious.

Pennebaker had a knack for getting in on the beginning of things: Timothy Leary and the counterculture; Bob Dylan; Joplin and Hendricks at the Monterrey Pop Festival; and, finally, the Clintons. The Maysles brothers, Al and David, had a knack for being there at the end of things, the final acts, the death throes of the traveling salesman and the Counterculture, the unraveling of Camelot. 

By the time he filmed Grey Gardens (1975), Al Maysles was one of the best cinematographers in the world, and the Maysles brothers had mastered the art of manipulating subjects and situations. They had developed a gift for narrative unmatched in documentary film. No one tells a story the way the Maysles brothers do.



“Once you’ve lost that push, you’ve had it,” Paul Brennan, the "Badger," tells the camera in Salesman (1968). Brennan suffers from too much awareness. He knows he’s a dead-ender in a dying profession. Negativity is the unpardonable sin of Brennan’s world, and Al Maysles patiently and carefully documents Brennan’s descent into negativity during Brennan’s last days as a bible salesman.

“We can get it together,” Mick Jagger tells the crowd at Altamont, just before a shot of what appears to be the Hell’s Angels killing a black fan who pulled a gun on them. Earlier in the concert, when Grace Slick, watching the Hell’s Angels beat her fans with pool cues, said: “People get weird, and you need people like the Angels to keep people in line,” she was, at that spaced-out, sappy moment, more in touch with the direction of American society than the slightly confused Jagger who believed Altamont was going to set an example for America about how to behave at large gatherings.



The Maysles brothers persuaded Jagger and the Stones to let Al film them watching a rough cut of Gimme Shelter on a Steenbeck editing table, ostensibly to provide a gimmick to structure the film. The brothers’ real reason was to make the apparent knifing of a fan by the Angels the central point of the film. Without the knifing and the opportunity to make Jagger eat his words, the Maysles brothers would have had a mediocre, though beautifully photographed concert film, whose high points were scenes of Jagger expressing his androgynous sexuality and young Tina Turner fellating her microphone. The violence and the obvious naiveté of the Stones and Grace Slick gave the brothers a chance for something much bigger, a chance to take down the Stones, Slick and the Counterculture at the same time. Eerily, Jagger’s helicopter exit from the Altamont speedway foreshadowed America’s final exit from Saigon, and, by the end of Gimme Shelter, Jagger’s stare was as vacant as the barren landscape in the last shot of the film.

For big-game hunters like the Maysles brothers, who already had bagged the "Badger", the Stones, Grace Slick and the beginning of the end of the Counterculture, two eccentric ladies in a run-down mansion were sitting ducks.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

A Woman Under The Infuence

I started Cassavetes' A Woman Under The Influence last night and I had to turn it off. I only got as far as Gena Rowlands, coming back to her house with a man she had picked up in a bar.  Right now, I don't want to know what happens to her. I don't want to know what Cassavetes is about to do.

I knew a woman who lived on the edge, in and out of wards. Overdoses. Slashed wrists. The last time I talked to her was the night she called and said: "I did it again."

I hung up the phone, took a long shower, got dressed, fixed a sandwich and watched a little TV. Then I called 911.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Escape To Reality

When the world gets to be too much for me, I pull out one of my video collections and escape for a couple of days.  I have Angels In America, all of The Sopranos, RomeLonesome Dove, and a ton of Bergman.  Most of the time they'll do, but, when things get really rough, I turn to my John Cassavetes Criterion Collection.

More than any other director, John Cassavetes portrays people at their limits, bound up, boxed in by their marriages, their friends, their sex, their race, their age, the limits of their talent, and any other cage or corner Cassavetes can cram them into. And they usually don’t get out. They find their salvations, if they find them, inside their cages. Even if a Cassavetes character appears to escape, we can’t be sure. When Cassavetes and Peter Falk leave Ben Gazzara in London at the end of Husbands (1970), it doesn’t feel like Gazzara has slipped out of his cage. It feels like his friends have left him on the battlefield to die.

Although it doesn’t include Husbands, the Criterion Collection’s boxed set of five Cassavetes films provides an easy, though expensive, way to acquire a taste for Cassavetes. The set has Shadows (1959), Faces (1968), A Woman Under the Influence (1974), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), Opening Night (1977) and the 2000 documentary, A Constant Forge: The Life and Art of John Cassavetes. Or you can watch most of Cassavetes’ films and the documentary individually on Netflix or Amazon Prime.

Cassavetes was, arguably, the father of American independent film. His first film, Shadows, was made at about the time French directors were creating the New Wave. It's a beat film.  Cassavetes, like the French, subordinated plot to the mise-en-scène. His films weren’t about the narrative. The story was often beside the point; just something to hang the film on. To Cassavetes and the French auteurs, film was synthesized experience, and the story was just an occasion for that synthesis. The French bought the rights to dime store novels for their plots. Cassavetes invented situations. His films have beginnings and ends, but they are, like direct cinema and cinema verite documentaries, essentially situational and episodic. The end of each episode and the way it’s resolved are determined, not by the requirements of a plot, but by the inner workings of the episode itself. Affairs end. Men go home to their wives. Women who have nervous breakdowns come home to their families when they get out of the hospital. They put their kids to bed, clean up the dishes and go to bed with their husbands. Strip joint owners who get mixed up with the mob get killed. And the play must go on.

To the cinema verité style and structure, Cassavetes added improvisation.  He worked out scenes in collaboration with his actors instead of forcing his view of the scenes on them. Cassavetes’ approach to directing let his actors bring their own life experiences to situations and allowed him to add their sense of what is authentic and what is not to his own. The tension between rigid direction and improvisation, between conformity and self-expression, is a recurring subtext in Cassavetes’ films, from Shadows to his Pirandellian masterpiece, Opening Night.

Cassavetes' first film, Shadows, features Lelia, a young, black artist, cornered by race, gender and family. She’s the kid sister of Hugh, a singer who can’t sing, and Ben, a horn player who never plays for us. Hugh and his agent, the only person who can stand the way Hugh sings, tour second-rate clubs in the Midwest. Ben listens to jazz from the corners of rooms; cruises New York City bars and cafes with his friends, trying to get laid. Lelia hangs out with Ben and his crew, and with artists and intellectuals, older guys who know things Ben and his friends don’t know. She falls for a good-looking white boy, who dumps her when he meets brother Hugh, because, unlike Lelia and Ben, Hugh is obviously black. Lelia ends up on a dance floor in the arms of a middle-class black man she meets at a party, the kind of man Lelia and her brothers think of as a square but others might call solid. Cassavetes leaves her there, moves on to watch Hugh go off on another road trip, and to watch Ben and his pals get beaten into unconsciousness in the men’s room of a bar when they try to pick up the wrong women. Cassavetes crammed that action and the feeling of the beat Fifties into one black-and-white box in 1959. It was ten years later before he was able to make his next independent film, Faces, a portrait of a marriage on the rocks.

Faces was Cassavetes’ film for the Sixties, and the first Cassavetes and Rowlands collaboration. It was the beginning of a body of work that eventually exhausted the themes Cassavetes took up in Shadows: women on the edge, the way families and friends tie us up but make us strong, the life and death struggle to be authentic and spontaneous instead of phony. Faces is Cassavetes' least successful film, although it's his most accessible and appreciated effort.  It's his least filmic and most photographic film.  In Faces, an L.A. executive leaves his wife for a prostitute, played by Rowlands. His wife, Lynn Carlin, tries to commit suicide after a one-night stand with Seymour Cassel, a hipster she picks up in a club. The executive goes home to his wife and, in a scene that breaks the static, monotonous repetition of faces that dominates the film, chases the hipster out of the house.  In addition to Rowlands, Carlin and Cassel, the cast of Faces included Fred Draper, Val Avery and Elizabeth Deering, actors Cassavetes worked with for the next ten years. Faces was Rowland’s first shot at portraying a woman on the verge of a breakdown. Her second shot came six years later in A Woman Under the Influence.

There is something almost unbearably edgy about the young Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence. It’s as if somebody has jammed a 220v wire into her brain. It takes her about two minutes to convince me she’s the most troubled woman I’ll ever see. Her relationship with Peter Falk is tense. There is an acceptance of violence against women in the film I find deeply disturbing. And yet, A Woman Under the Influence is about the kind of people I know well. Working class people. Never enough living space. Not much education and culture. Sometimes not enough money. They fight at the dinner table. But there is redemption in the physicality of these Cassavetes’ characters, in their muscle. It’s a punch, a roundhouse right, that brings Rowlands down to earth and restores her to her family. To her kids. To the dirty dishes that, when all is said and done, have to be taken from the table to the sink. In A Woman Under the Influence, Cassavetes shows us a family coming together, closing the doors on the outside world and making what they can of their lives. A Woman Under the Influence added Lady Rowlands and Katherine Cassavetes to Cassavetes’ troop of actors.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, the fourth film in the Criterion set, is Cassavetes’ film noir classic. It’s the darkest of Cassavetes’ films, not just visually – most of it was filmed at night with available light — but emotionally as well. It’s Cassavetes’ most bitter film. When the mob decides to kill him for his club, escape is never an option for Cosmo Vitelli. He has no real family or friends. The most important thing in his life is a third-rate floor show he created for his tawdry strip joint. Vitelli, played by Ben Gazzara, gets shot in the gut while he’s trying to murder a Chinese bookie to pay off a debt to the mob. He manages to kill most of the mob, but he ends up bleeding to death, slowly, while he paces the sidewalk outside his club.

Opening Night is Cassavetes' last film.  Gena Rowlands stars as an aging actress, struggling with her age, her relationship with her co-star, played by Cassavetes, the demands of her director, the limits of the script, and the death of a young fan who gets hit by a car while she’s watching Rowlands leave the theater. Rowlands is haunted by the girl’s ghost. On the verge of breaking down, Rowlands murders the girl’s ghost and her own youth. Playing a scene with Cassavetes, she saves the show and her career with an improvised performance on opening night. The film is a triumph for Cassavetes. As the writer and director of Opening Night, he can do what he was never able to do in the real world. He can direct the play’s audience and their reaction to him and his wife.

The audience loves them, of course .

I guess I do, too. The easy explanation for that is to say I like melancholy moods, dark streets, and the rain. I like redemption. I like to see the old order brought down and to see chaos reign. I like reluctant heroes and the kind of women who work retail. And there’s plenty of that in Cassavetes. But it’s more than that.

Cassavetes knew that it’s not what you see, but what you remember that counts. It’s the way films live in our memories that matters. And he gave us a lot to remember. He gave us close-ups, and he gave us enough time with his characters to get to know them well.

I remember Ben Carruthers in Shadows, walking down the street in a coat that’s too light for New York City in the wintertime; Seymour Cassel fleeing down the hill in Faces; Gena Rowlands dancing, Peter Falk climbing a hill with his crew, Katherine Cassavetes guarding the stairs to keep Rowlands away from the kids in A Woman Under the Influence; Ben Gazzara in the dark, getting his orders from the mob, and Gazzara in the light, standing in the spotlight with Mr. Sophistication and his strippers in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. I remember Rowlands, beating her youth to death in a hotel room, crawling toward her dressing room, putting her dukes up when she’s improvising with Cassavetes in Opening Night. And I remember John Cassavetes, laughing and bounding around the stage in Opening Night, while the audience laughs out loud and applauds.

When I watch Cassavetes’ films I feel I’m in the presence of myths.

Can I name the myths? Can I say who Cassavetes’ characters remind me of, who the major and minor deities are in Cassavetes’ pantheon? Who is that with the wound that will not heal? Who is that, chasing the suitor from his house? Who is that, leading his men out to work? Who is that, leading the women out to dance? Can I name them? Not a chance. It was Cassavetes’ achievement to create a pantheon of characters who suggest mythic figures without names. I could no more name them than the Greeks, gathered around the hearth to listen to the poet spin his yarns, could say who Achilles and Odysseus reminded them of.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Time Travel In The '60s

Compared to the action-packed super-realism of time travel films like the Terminator series, 12 Monkeys and Planet of the Apes, the black-and-white video technology of The Star Wagon, a 1966 television play, written by Maxwell Anderson and directed by Karl Genus, is archaic. But Genus’ direction and the relaxed and intimate acting of a cast that includes Orson Bean, Joan Lorring, Eileen Brennan and Dustin Hoffman make The Star Wagon one of the most entertaining attempts to use the idea of time travel to dramatize the tension between free will and destiny I’ve seen.

The Star Wagon, produced for WNET and NET Playhouse at the time that National Educational Television was evolving into the Public Broadcasting System, is one of the television plays available from distributors like Broadway Theatre Archive who specialize in early television productions. It’s also available as a rental from Netflix.

Taped mainly on location, The Star Wagon follows Bean, a dreamy inventor, and his earthy sidekick, Hoffman, as they try to reverse their fortunes by turning back time. If the outcome of their journey through time seems sappy and predictable nowadays, that may say more about the cynicism of the 21st Century than it does about the naiveté of television audiences in the '60s, who were comfortable with Hollywood endings, the triumph of good over evil and the idea that innocence, lost in time, can be restored. And some of Anderson’s themes — that there are no great men, that nothing matters more than freedom, and that the business of business is the fleecing of the unwary – seem, in this age of Ponzi schemes and bailouts, downright timeless.

Television is an intimate medium, suited for low-key performances, and Genus’ cast, led by Bean and Lorring in the role of Bean’s long-suffering wife, deliver the kind of casual intimacy seldom seen in film. Genus uses his performers and the low resolution images of early black-and-white video to create a unique mix of impressionism and naturalism. The high contrast images of Genus’ actors, overexposed to the extent that the actors’ bodies seem to glow, are painterly and impressionistic, but the performances Genus and his actors create are natural and realistic.



Genus’ cast has a remarkable ability to be with one another, to be with Maxwell Anderson’s script, and to demonstrate that good acting is, in fact, reacting. The result is a kind of naturalness that even directors like John Cassavetes, who were completely committed to naturalism and improvisation, never achieved. Cassavetes was able to use improvisation to structure his films by creating realistic situations, but the dialogue his actors improvised seldom matched Anderson’s ear for small talk, flip comments, and the kind of gentle razzing we see in The Star Wagon.

Anderson and Genus deliver poetry, as well. Standing on the star wagon, Hoffman looks like an angel with one good wing. There is a dreamlike, druggy quality to Bean and Hoffman’s laughter as they launch themselves back through time. Bean moves effortlessly from innocence, as he rehearses a hymn, The Holy City, with Lorring, to funny sexuality as Eileen Brennan digs in his front pocket for candy at a picnic; and Bean’s dark and violent rebirth leaves the impression of opera, of voices singing together to reveal the dark underside of Anderson’s comedy before Hoffman yanks Bean from the river to begin life over, half-drowned and miserable, lying in the mud with his head in Brennan’s wet lap.


Technically, these scenes of Bean’s death and rebirth by the river are as advanced as any experimental cinema of the Sixties. Bean’s passage begins with the sound of Hoffman pushing Brennan out to the way and jumping into the river, but we aren’t allowed to see Hoffman pull Bean out of the water until we enter the drowning Bean’s thoughts and contemplate nothing less than the meaning of life.

It is possible to think of life as a long series of paths not taken, doors opened or not opened, decisions made one way instead of another. It is a convention of most time travel films that the journey back through time will either change nothing, or it will change everything. The art of those films is to show why this should be so, to explain in a satisfying way why history had to happen exactly as it did happen. In The Star Wagon, Anderson breaks with that convention. He raises the possibility of changing history by going back in time, and then rejects that possibility as an act of will. Orson Bean’s Stephen returns to the present tense of his life as we found him, not because he has to, but because he wants to. But he is better for having made the journey, even if the world is not, and, watching the film, I felt the sweetness of life in a way I had not felt it since those summer evenings long ago, when I was a boy and I waited nervously at shortstop for our pitcher to deliver his first pitch.

At the end of the play, Stephen tells us his time machine is just a way of remembering the past. Karl Genus’ The Star Wagon is as good a way as any of remembering some of broadcast television’s best years. And that’s something, in my view, upon which it is worth spending some time.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (2011)

The tide of popular culture turns amazingly fast. The rise of one myth flows in over the ebb of another, wiping out all traces of the receding myth, until that myth returns to lap even farther up the beach than before. So it goes with pop culture versions of the fall of man. They keep coming back.

In the Fifties, the French writer Romain Gary raised the issue of mankind's survival in The Roots of Heaven.  Gary's protagonist is Morel, an ordinary French dentist who goes over to the elephants in French Equatorial Africa. Morel is a misanthrope, but Gary, it turns out, is not. The ending of the novel is a tribute to the human spirit. The Fifties were the time of the beat generation, of cool, of jazz, grass, the Korean War, the rise and fall of McCarthy, the presidency of Eisenhower, the post-war boom, the poetry of Patchen and Ginsberg, the death of Robert Capa, the fall of Dien Bien Phu and Brown v. Board of Education.

Just seven years later, Pierre Boulle's 1963 novel, Planet of the Apes, contemplated the extinction of mankind and the rise of the ape as the torchbearer of civilization throughout the universe. The Sixties were the time of the hippies, the Cold War ascendent, the Kennedy and Johnson presidencies, the Civil Rights movement, acid and acid rock, the Vietnam War, the fall of Lyndon Johnson and the rise of Nixon. Alan Ginsberg lived to see Chicago cops riot against the sons and daughters of America's middle class who had tuned in, turned on, dropped out and come back swinging against the war and the draft. I was just back from Germany where I had put in my two years as a medic at an Army hospital, getting high and shooting up Thorazine to improve my tan, so I passed on Chicago myself, but I did show my younger brother how to curl up into a ball to protect his nuts when the cops started beating him. I sent him off to Chicago with a bright red bandana to cover his nose and mouth when the tear gas began to fly.

Boulle's Planet of the Apes didn't speculate about the causes of the rise of the apes as the dominant species in the far reaches of the galaxy, or about the extinction of man and the rise of the apes on our own planet. Boulle simply presented the success of ape culture and the failure of mankind as a fact. For some unknown reason, man was just not good enough.

When Twentieth Century Fox produced the film version of Boulle's book, they apparently thought they owed the viewer an explanation. The plot of Planet of the Apes (1968) hangs on a malfunctioning starship that plunges back to Earth instead of landing on a planet at the far end of the galaxy, and on a nuclear war that wipes out the human race, letting apes take over the planet while the starship and its astronauts are gone.

In Fox's Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), the human race is wiped out -- probably -- by a virus. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, nobody takes seriously the idea that man will be wiped out in a nuclear holocaust.  And we're not worried about rogue computers turning on the human race anymore.  The peril now is biological.  In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a virus that makes apes smart enough to talk and to break out of an ape jail in San Francisco is deadly to humans and highly contagious to boot. Good thing for the apes, of course, since, without the intervention of the virus they would have had one good day of beating up on the cops before the bombs started to fall.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes, 20th Century Fox

The idea that apes can beat up cops is as silly as the notion that hippies can beat up cops. It's just more Hollywood eyewash in the style of the Na'vi beating down the guns and machines of corporate America to liberate Pandora in Fox's Avatar (2009). But there is a strong odor of misanthropy and self-hatred about the idea that resonates with establishment critics like David Denby of The New Yorker.

Here's Denby, waxing poetic over scenes of apes, invading a research facility. "When the apes, like water bursting through a dam, pour through the building's glass walls at different levels," Denby exults, "the image is a pop epiphany of freedom."

Something like ice breaking up and cascading down a raging river as a metaphor for revolution I suppose.

The high water mark is definitely creeping up the sand.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Avatar: Cameron's Epic Failure

Be sure you see the 3D version of James Cameron's Avatar (2009). The 3D visuals are the only thing Avatar has going for it. Without them, it's a second-rate effort with a hackneyed plot and dialogue from a director who seems to have entered his long fingernails phase. Cameron spent so much time making Avatar that the world moved on, leaving him to obsess over yesterday's themes alone.

While Avatar, like American banks, is probably too big to fail, it will be interesting to see if America embraces Avatar the way it did Cameron's most important film, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), or Michael Bay's excellent summer blockbuster, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009).  It was Cameron's genius to create a myth in T2 that resolved the conflict between human beings and machines by uniting the best of humans and the best of machines in Schwarzenegger's cyborg.

In the Transformers films, Bay went beyond the man vs. machine myth to pursue a vision of machines transcendent. Bay's machines embody the best and the worst of human nature, while in Avatar, Cameron rejects humanity to pursue a comic book vision of nature in revolt against man and his efforts to subdue it. Bay celebrates the kickass technology of the U.S. military and its projection of power anywhere at any time, Cameron comes down on the side of the men and women who oppose the cynical exploitation of people and nature by corporations -- a theme he developed far more successfully years ago in Aliens (1986) and in The Abyss (1989) -- although Cameron's efforts along those lines never approached Roland Joffe's moving and historically accurate film, The Mission (1986) . They still don't.

Avatar has too many film-historical references to be considered original art. The warmed-over plot and characters will appeal to viewers who think of the Battle Of The Little Big Horn as the high point of the westward expansion or of Dances With Wolves as a good film. The rest of us will have to wait for a new director with fresh ideas to exploit the 3D technology Cameron has pursued so faithfully and so completely frittered away.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The 3D Bubble

After single-handedly creating a 3D bubble with Avatar, James Cameron is trying to fill it. Since Avatar was released last year, the universe of available 3D screens has doubled internationally. That's a lot of seats to fill.  So Cameron's Avatar, already the highest grossing movie of all time, is being re-released today.



The marketing angle for the re-release, aimed at filling some of those seats in the over-built world of 3D theaters, is nine -- yes, nine -- previously unseen minutes of film, picked up from the cutting room floor.

Avatar fans will see their beloved Na'vis mourn the death of a fallen warrior in a "big, emotional scene" that Cameron claims is the best CG he's done. (Like Jesus, Cameron has saved his best wine for last.)  We're also promised a "rousing action-adventure, pulse-pounding" hunting sequence.

Following the re-release today, an extended Avatar DVD will be released in November that includes the new footage, plus an "alternate reality version" of the film that is 16 minutes longer than the original.

Cameron says it will be a long time before there is an Avatar sequel -- if we're lucky, it will be a very long time -- but, apparently, Cameron will be able to find plenty of scraps to keep Avatar fans on the hook during the long wait.

The success of Avatar is a sign of the times. It tells us more about ourselves and the world we live in now than about whether Avatar is a particularly good film, or even a particularly entertaining one.
Escapist movies do well in hard times. And the times these days are hard enough to require exceptionally escapist movies. Avatar fills the bill. More than anything else, it's a movie about escaping from the reality of the human condition.

Sadly, it's not a good movie to boot. In fact, Avatar is a very bad film. The story, dialogue, art, characters, sound and music are all trite. It’s even weak in the one area you’d expect a 3D film to deliver: retinal pressure and the sensation of movement. There’s not enough subjective viewpoint to suck the viewer into the action and provide real thrills.

Worst of all, Avatar consciously tries to rise to the level of myth, but can’t quite make it. That’s what happens when a film maker succumbs to the idea he can create myths rather than channel them. In a medium that lends itself to metaphor, Avatar is remarkably without characters, scenes or images that point to anything beyond themselves. Cameron's images, like his film, are, essentially, meaningless.  Maybe the times are too hard for films that synthesize real experience. Maybe Hollywood can't afford to support producers and directors who engage the world as artists. Maybe the market will only support escapist spectaculars that distract us from the real world.

Avatar is a significant motion picture event. It was designed to revive a floundering industry by providing a 3D experience that can’t be matched by television or DVDs. Its release was accompanied by the kind of marketing campaign you’d expect for a film that took over 10 years and a few hundred million dollars to produce. The industry is betting it will be the first of many 3D blockbusters that will be cranked out over the next couple of years. The theaters and seats are waiting. And Cameron has set the bar low enough that Avatar might represent the future of the industry.  That's a pity, because Cameron has done much better in the past. In Avatar, the 3D technology Cameron pursued so faithfully and so completely was just frittered away.

In his best film, T2, Cameron resolved the age-old conflict between human beings and machines by uniting the best of humans and the best of machines in Schwarzenegger's cyborg.  In T2's Wagnerian finale, the cyborg sacrifices himself to save the human race by following his evil counterpart into the cauldron to make sure that the last remnant of the mad scientist's work, the computer chip inside the cyborg's own head, is destroyed. As the cyborg prepares to enter the flames, Cameron uses a series of close-ups to create a beautiful and unforgettable portrait of the cyborg. Half of the face is human, the other half, where the skin has been torn away to reveal the gleaming metal armor underneath, is machine.



But in Avatar Cameron rejects humanity to pursue a comic book vision of nature in revolt against man and his efforts to subdue it.

To his credit, Cameron has always sided with men and women who oppose the cynical exploitation of people and nature by corporations. But that's a theme he developed far more successfully years ago in Aliens (1986) and in The Abyss (1989), although Cameron's efforts along those lines never approached the movie Avatar reduces most blatantly, Roland Joffe's moving and historically accurate film, The Mission (1986).  Cameron's reprise of The Mission is pure escapism that offers his audience the temporary and vicarious thrill of watching alien natives defeat well-armed corporate mercenaries.

Ultimately, films exist as memories. I saw Avatar twice when it was first released, once in digital 3D and once in IMAX 3D. I don't vividly remember a single image from the film.  Maybe that's the key to a successful re-release. If you don't remember a film at all, it makes sense to see it again. In the inside out, upside down world of pop culture, the most forgettable films will have the longest lives. Viewers will watch them again and again, as though they're seeing them for the very first time.