Archive for the ‘documentary’ category

Miss Sharon Jones!

November 20, 2016

sharonjonesBarbara Kopple’s compassionate documentary Miss Sharon Jones! was completed in 2015, got a limited theatrical release last summer, and hit DVD earlier this month. It is newly relevant for a saddening reason: its subject and star, the retro “queen of funk” singer Sharon Jones, passed away just last week. That makes watching Miss Sharon Jones!, which follows Jones as she deals with her first bout with pancreatic cancer and finishes up her Grammy-nominated album, more bittersweet than it might have been. It is well worth the watch, though, especially for viewers/listeners (like me) who hadn’t been familiar with Jones and her work with her band the Dap-Kings.

In recent years, Kopple, whose early work tended towards the political (1976’s Harlan County USA and 1990’s American Dream both won Best Documentary Oscars), has focused on female entertainers in extremis: films about Mariel Hemingway (Running from Crazy) and the Dixie Chicks (Shut Up and Sing). Miss Sharon Jones! devotes about as much time to Jones undergoing chemotherapy as to her music. Though there is some cookin’ footage of her and the Dap-Kings onstage and in the studio, the movie isn’t primarily a concert film; it’s a portrait of a woman and her art and the sickness that temporarily — and then, outside the reach of the film, permanently — stopped the music.

Intimate but not invasive, Kopple’s camera takes us close to Jones and her fear and pain. But Jones perseveres, and her strength permeates not only her singing but the movie itself, so that we don’t feel gross or exploitative for watching a dying woman. For, of course, at the time of filming, and possibly right up until the end, Jones was very much a living woman. I’ve heard and read many performers talk about whatever awful physical or mental torment they may have been going through, and as soon as the lights and applause hit them, all was forgotten. Sharon Jones frequently dances in this film, dances like a woman half her age and with none of the illness. The force of her will is exhilarating and, at times, a little intimidating. I would not have wanted to get between her and whatever she wanted. I would almost feel sorry for her cancer if the fucker hadn’t caught up with her in the end.

The movie shows us the power of art and music to transform Jones from a suffering middle-aged woman to a volcanic goddess of song. It does this with a minimum of cant or bathos. Jones is seen to have been a devout Christian, and one of the extended examples of her singing and dancing, as the shackles of her disease slip visibly from her body, takes place in a church. Kopple doesn’t underline this; it’s just part of the DNA of so much African-American music. Jones was a uniter: her fans are racially mixed, as are her band and her friends — her best friend, a white nutritionist, gladly put Jones up at her home for a while. Again without pushing too hard, the movie speaks gently for kindness between diverse people. It’s a message I don’t mind hearing just now.

In brief, Miss Sharon Jones! has more on its plate than just Miss Sharon Jones. In just 93 minutes, the movie encompasses a good deal of experience and truth, and we get to hear some mighty fine retro funk while we’re there. Like the Dixie Chicks film, whose subject was the backlash after Natalie Maines voiced anti-Bush sentiment during the run-up to the Iraq War, the movie captures the impact of one band member’s problems on many other people. Jones knew she had to go on — the Dap-Kings depended on the income from performing. She also knew she couldn’t just sit home and mope — the music was perhaps a more vital therapy than the toxins pumped into her veins. And now, in this year that has taken so much from us, she is gone, too. She was not a household name (despite doing the talk-show rounds to support her album), but a lot of people felt her loss sharply. She meant something to more people than she might have realized. I hope she did realize.

Elstree 1976

April 10, 2016

cdn.indiewire.psdops.comA friend of mine collects Star Wars action figures, including custom-made figures of the more obscure characters, and likes to have the figure “cards” signed by the actors who played the obscure characters. I was with him at a local convention when he got an autograph from a guy who played, I think, some Imperial commander (I’m sure he’ll correct me if I’m wrong). People like that actor are the focus of Elstree 1976, a documentary about the bit players, masked heavies, and helmet-wearers who added texture to the tapestry that was the first Star Wars film. Extras, of course, have been the subject of other projects, including Ricky Gervais’ show of the same name, but the extras from any Star Wars movie, it seems, have the edge over any other extra. Thirty years from now, nostalgic fortysomethings will stand in line to get autographs from the guy who played the stormtrooper who bled on Finn’s helmet in The Force Awakens.

A crowdfunded effort from director Jon Spira, Elstree 1976 is largely a matter of talking heads, some of whom are more interesting than others. Most of the budget probably went to the rights to use clips from Star Wars that illustrate where, exactly, in a crowded frame a particular X-Wing pilot is, a nonspeaking role whose portrayer dines out on it to this day. At least the X-Wing pilot had his face on camera. Many others didn’t, including Paul Blake as Greedo, the green goblin who infamously shot first in George Lucas’ 1997 second draft of the dust-up between him and Han Solo. (The clip used here is the “special edition” Greedo-shoots-first version. If you have no idea why that’s an issue with fans — and there’s no reason you should — Elstree 1976 might not be for you.)

Spira’s biggest “get” is David Prowse, who wore the helmet and cloak of Darth Vader (James Earl Jones provided the voice). Prowse could probably anchor a documentary of his own, since his odd career straddles many fandoms (he worked for Stanley Kubrick and Terry Gilliam, played the Monster in two Hammer Frankenstein films, and appeared on Doctor Who, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Benny Hill). Like all the others here, he seems amiably resigned to having Star Wars on his gravestone, though there’s apparently no love lost between him and Lucas. The second biggest name here is Jeremy Bulloch, the man under Boba Fett’s helmet (he’s the only one from The Empire Strikes Back, making his sections of the documentary Elstree 1979). Most of you would recognize neither man if you tripped over him, yet they both make a living from signing at conventions for starstruck acolytes.

A note of discord is struck when Angus MacInnes, probably the most steadily working bit player to come out of Star Wars, sends some darts of resentment towards those who work the autograph circuit without having received a screen credit for the film. (He played Gold Leader, in case you were curious; I wonder if my friend has his autograph.) Mostly, though, the folks in Elstree 1976 (including a lone woman, Pam Rose, who played an alien in the cantina scene) are friendly and grateful for the opportunities their glancing brush with film history has afforded them. They seem happy to bring some joy to fans, and I suppose it’s better to have been Third Rebel Soldier on the Right in Star Wars than to have been Third Civilian Casualty on the Left in Batman v Superman.

All these people are part of something larger than themselves, and so someone like Garrick Hagon (who played Luke Skywalker’s mostly-edited-out friend Biggs Darklighter) has something in common with, say, Harrison Ford, although Ford will never need to make ends meet by signing posters in hotel meeting rooms. None of them, including Ford probably, had any idea that the thing larger than themselves would become so large as to dominate multiple industries. But so it has, and so here we are, living in a Star Wars world where the already-hyped Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is coming this Christmas, and perhaps the extras in that film will want to have a long cold look at this documentary and their futures.

Packed in a Trunk

April 3, 2016

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It’s bad enough when artists die in obscurity; it’s far worse when they are condemned to live in obscurity for much of their existence. In Packed in a Trunk, which hits DVD and various streaming platforms on April 26, we learn about Edith Lake Wilkinson, whose misfortunes were threefold. Edith had the bad luck to be a woman, an artist, and gay in an era, the late 19th and early 20th century, that had little respect for any of those attributes. After her parents died, Edith had an inheritance, which was allotted to her a little at a time by an unscrupulous family lawyer who had a large degree of control over her. This lawyer discouraged her from living in Provincetown, forever a place of tolerance for artistic gays, and from living with her lover Fannie. Most damagingly, he saw to it that she was admitted to an asylum; Edith spent 32 years locked away, until her death in 1957 at age 89.

Probably none of us would have heard of Edith if not for her great-niece, Jane Anderson, who’d grown up surrounded by Edith’s paintings in her childhood home. Now in her fifties, Jane has a career of writing and/or directing quirkily feminist movies (When Billie Beat Bobby; Normal; The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom). Like her great-aunt, Jane is artistic and gay. She feels a connection to Edith, and wants to rescue her from darkness. Her goal is to get Edith’s work shown at a Provincetown gallery; spookily, a gallery owner reaches out to Jane, and his gallery building is the same one that once appeared in a painting of Edith’s.

The title, of course, has dual meanings — not only Edith’s art was packed in a trunk. If she’d been allowed to carry on as she wished, her “white line” wood block technique might have been recognized as innovative and influential. Her work is fresh, unpretentious, and increasingly colorful as she found her groove in Provincetown, surrounded by all that Cape Cod beauty. The movie, however, doesn’t really try to recast Edith as a LGBT martyr. Jane Anderson doesn’t want to wallow in the unfairness of what happened to Edith; she wants to air Edith’s work, let it speak loudly and beautifully for itself. And it does; many people come to see the paintings, many more will see them via the movie, and all that will be remembered of her attorney and persecutor is that he was a bastard. Posterity wins this time.

Packed in a Trunk is sometimes a little iffy technically — it has occasional problems with camera focus. But the essence of Jane’s mission stays clear and readable, and we are pleased to see the Provincetown community’s embrace of its lost daughter. As luckless as Edith’s life seems to us, there is also a fair amount of good luck: here was a woman whose work happened to wind up in the home of a girl who would grow up into a position to rehabilitate Edith’s reputation. How many other artists, male or female, white or otherwise, have been denied us forever because they were gay in the wrong place and time, and did not have a distant relative to tend to their work a century later?

Generation Baby Buster

May 31, 2015

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The hero of the Canadian documentary Generation Baby Buster is Lenore Skenazy, a columnist who made the mistake of trusting her nine-year-old son to ride the New York subway by himself, and then made the further mistake of writing about it. The mistake lay in doing these things in an era of overprotective helicopter parenting. Skenazy was pilloried far and wide, and in response she has become an advocate for “free-range” parenting. Her point is that it’s actually safer for kids now than it was in the days when parents let their kids run off by themselves; the difference is that the media hammers on the perceived dangers without any perspective or rationality.

Skenazy is one of the featured interviewees in Generation Baby Buster, among several others (mostly women) who talk to filmmaker Terra Renton about why many women hesitate to have kids today. We hear a few possible explanations, most of which sound plausible. Renton herself isn’t sure she wants kids, and she isn’t sure why she feels that way. Isn’t she supposed to want to be a mom? Isn’t being a mom the highest level of womanhood? Aren’t kids the best thing that could happen to a woman? Well … not necessarily every woman.

The movie is fairly apolitical, and it doesn’t really fall on the anti-kids side. Mainly it speaks for choice, and notes that much of the pressure on young women to have kids, and then to be the “correct” kind of mother — selfless, anxiously protective, living solely for the kids — comes from other women. A woman who chooses to be child-free is often judged as selfish; child-free men generally aren’t subjected to the same judgment. But even when women become mothers, they are supposed to be endlessly happy and grateful for it, unlike mothers of past generations who felt free to grouse about their kids to their friends. These days, a mother admitting her annoyances to other mothers might be frowned on.

Renton keeps the movie active and engaging, with quick-fade editing, a bit of animation, and brief silent dramatizations. The many toddlers are filmed even-handedly: some are cute and funny, some are loud and gross. The experts who have written the books we see on Renton’s shelf are mostly older people who remember when things seemed simpler for parents. The consensus seems to be that well-meaning (and largely upper-middle-class) parents in the Western world have complicated parenting needlessly. I think Lenore Skenazy nails it when she blames the “if it bleeds, it leads” nature of what passes for journalism now. The news has been reduced to a klaxon of DANGER! DANGER! that deafens everyone and keeps parents and kids alike in a constant state of fear.

Into this culture of smothering paranoia come women like Renton, wondering if she would make a good mother, or if she even wants to be a mother. Simply to ask these questions in the current climate is itself heroic. Renton doesn’t say nobody should have kids. If you want them, have them, and have fun. What she does say, eloquently, is that asking those questions, and acting accordingly, should be viewed as equally valid as having kids. The unspoken question, though, is this: If motherhood is such an important and beautiful thing, why do so many mothers allow this free-floating societal anxiety to rob the experience of its importance and beauty, leaving only stress and a sense of futility?

Speed Sisters

April 26, 2015

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The leadfooted drivers in Furious Seven might genuflect to the far braver and more challenged racers in Amber Fares’ documentary Speed Sisters. The young women in the movie are Palestinian, and they’re bucking their very culture — and some family members — by competing behind the wheel in the first place. As if resistance from their own people weren’t hard enough, there’s also the thousand-pound gorilla of Israel, whose government won’t allow some of the Speed Sisters to race outside of Palestine. During a practice run in a parking lot near an Israeli prison, some Israeli soldiers get bored and shoot off tear gas at the women. A canister hits one of them in the back; the big ugly bruise persists for weeks, and the incident almost scares her out of the sport.

Despite the realities of living in occupied Palestine, much of Speed Sisters is upbeat. Breathlessly paced, it follows four of the racers as they compete with men and with each other. The Lebanese-Canadian director Amber Fares focuses on the Sisters’ growing popularity in and outside Palestine (a couple of the racers have permits to leave the country and race in places like Jordan). The Sisters aren’t just representing themselves, and aren’t just representing women; they’re representing Palestine. Not too much pressure! The star of the Sisters is clearly Betty Saadeh, the racer who was hit with the tear gas; blonde, with rounded features and a keen sense of fashion, Betty is a cover girl, and she is aware of herself as “a brand.”

It’s an irony of sorts: we can’t get away from self-actualization as self-marketing even in Palestine. But that’s part of the movie’s point. As I said, it doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities, but neither does it portray the country as some Escape from New York hellhole. People live there and drive there and compete in sports there. If the Speed Sisters have been given the burden of taking their fellow Palestinians’ minds off their troubles, they seem more than able to shoulder it.

You may have seen the Sisters before, on the Israel/Palestine episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show Parts Unknown (Bourdain is shown in footage from that episode for about two seconds, without much explanation for those who don’t know who he is). One of the points of the episode was that the Sisters, and anyone else who wants to race there, have to make do in relatively small spaces, hemmed in by military checkpoints every few minutes. Given the geographical limitations, you’d think it wouldn’t occur to any Palestinian to race cars, but there they are, doing it. The Sisters mostly mind their language, making the film suitable for inspiration for like-minded young girls anywhere.

The message, unstressed and un-preachy, is that these women can’t be stopped from doing what they want — well, yes, past a certain point they can, by heavily armed soldiers, but they do everything they can do within their doubly oppressive culture. They jump into their cars (many of the vehicles are stripped back down to workaday cars after each racing event) and roar around, beating men and women and occasionally even Israeli racers, and bringing attention to Palestine as something other than the Middle East’s punching bag. If Vin Diesel is looking to up the ante for the next Furious entry, he might start by looking at the Speed Sisters.

Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s World

April 19, 2015

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Some artists seem to have popped in from another dimension to show us what life looks like over there. They don’t appear to have any readily identifiable influences; one looks at their work and wonders where the hell it came from, how someone could start with a blank space and come up with … that. Picasso is one such artist; so is Jack Kirby, in the realm of comics; and then there’s H.R. Giger. A Swiss maestro of airbrushed surrealism, Giger etched his name in film history when he designed the creature in Alien. Suddenly, the relatively unknown artist’s name was synonymous with “biomechanical” and “psychosexual dread.” Giger’s bizarro-erotic nightmares won him a legion of fans and inspired a slew of artists, musicians, and tattoo artists. Some people have Giger’s work tattooed onto their skin; some have his autograph tattooed onto them; some have his face tattooed onto them.

Belinda Sallin’s documentary Dark Star, which finished shooting not long before Giger’s death last year at age 74, is a bit unconventional in that it doesn’t walk you through an A&E Biography-style synopsis of the man’s life. We don’t see photos of little Hans Ruedi Giger scampering around his back yard. We don’t know how he got started as an artist, or how his style developed, if indeed it did develop and didn’t just come out that way naturally. The movie comes across as a last visit with Giger, whose gait has been slowed and speech thickened by time but whose eyes still twinkle with mischievous spirit. We meet various people in his sphere, including an ex-wife and an assistant. They all help him deal with his paperwork and his massive collection of art and books — he’s a bit of a hoarder. A couple of the rooms in his mazelike Zurich house look like the rooms cluttered with chicken remains and human bones in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, except here the remains are just art.

The movie talks a little about Giger’s first wife, who killed herself in 1975, and whose fate is still a raw wound for Giger. Perhaps understandably, Sallin doesn’t engage with the long-standing rumor that Giger had his late wife’s skeleton stripped by carpet beetles and installed in his home. Then again, the tragedy is about the only whisper of darkness in Dark Star. Giger is surrounded by people who love and admire him. He’s turned his home into every creative person’s dream, including a sort of ghost train in his garden, which tracks through a variety of Giger-esque visions of birth. He even has the prerequisite standoffish cat (“Muggi III”) who has the run of the place. The movie is an appreciation but not really an investigation into Giger’s life or work or the connection between the two.

Sometimes a more conventional documentary can answer questions. I was curious to what extent, if any, Giger’s dark biomechanical sensibility was forged by growing up in Europe during wartime (Switzerland was famously neutral in WWII, but was bombed multiple times anyway by the Allies due to its closeness to Axis countries). I’m still curious. If you always wanted to watch Giger sign autographs or sit in meetings, Dark Star will be your jam. You do get to see some vintage footage of him at work with his airbrush, or on the set of Alien, though you’d think that was the only movie he ever worked on. (His alien from Species is referred to obliquely, but there’s no mention of, say, Poltergeist II or Alejandro Jodorowsky’s infamously aborted Dune.)

In brief, Dark Star is an object for Giger fans, not an argument for why he has fans. It’s made to be shelved alongside his Necronomicon and the Alien box set; it doesn’t bother cozying up to the uninitiated. Which is its right, I guess, but as a casual admirer of his work, I didn’t learn much, nor did the sight and sound of an obviously pained Giger make me feel especially good about gaining access to his “world.” At times, the camera seems intrusive, tracking him as he makes his halting way between shelves that groan under the weight of art books, or recording his slurred speech (stroke? mouth cancer?) as he speaks about his late wife. The film gets close when we don’t want it to, and vice versa.

Can’t Stand Losing You

March 22, 2015

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There’s probably a great documentary to be made about the swift rise and equally swift dissolution of the rock band the Police, but Can’t Stand Losing You isn’t it. It’s actually the second film to tell the Police’s story from the viewpoint of a band member — drummer Stewart Copeland’s Everyone Stares came first, in 2006, a year before the band got back together for a final world tour. Can’t Stand Losing You climbs into the shoes of Police guitarist Andy Summers, whose memoir provides narration and whose artsy photos offer images of occasional interest. Summers is an amiable and hardworking sort, but of the three Police, his perspective seems the least interesting.

The movie jumps back and forth in time, between the Police’s humble origins and eventual peak and their 2007 reunion. Summers tells us that during the band’s punk-club days, they were often covered in audience spit, that being customary in the scene. In what may or may not be a witty transition, we cut to footage from the Police’s reunion tour, and I thought to myself, Nobody would dare to gob onto Sting and the boys now. They’re elder statesmen now, their new-wave platinum blond hair trending towards gray. At least the audience responds to them more appropriately than it did in the Synchronicity era, when we catch film of young fans bouncing gaily up and down as Sting belts out the Jungian agonies of “Synchronicity II.” Older fans in 2007 listen to the same song and stay put. They’re old enough to have been packed like lemmings into shining metal boxes, and so on.

Summers goes through a mild variation on the rock-star lament. He punches the clock in a few bands (including the Animals) before finding the Police. He meets and marries psychiatrist Kate Lunken (no mention is made of Summers’ first wife Robin Lane), has a daughter with her, and finds it increasingly difficult to focus on family life as the Police’s star ascends. Kate asks for a divorce in 1981, but they remarry four years later. Given the craziness of the band’s lives at their peak (’77-’84), you’d think we’d hear some spicy stuff, but I guess Summers wants you to buy his book. He emerges from the Police experience, and sinks back into it decades later, without much insight into any of it. He’s clearly an everyman kind of guy, and the guy to talk to for idiosyncratic, pungent, poetic thoughts would be Sting, but I think we’ll be waiting a long time for his documentary about the Police. (He and Stewart Copeland appear in this film by default, in backstage and onstage footage both vintage and more recent, but neither sits for an interview.)

Was there a lot of tension in the band? Mostly between Sting and Copeland, we gather. A group interview conducted by MTV’s Martha Quinn is interrupted when Sting sprints away from the table with Copeland in hot pursuit, and the two legendarily came to blows during the recording of “Every Breath You Take” (while Summers quietly came up with the tune’s signature riff and laid it down in one take). Summers was and is a clean decade older than his bandmates and had more experience, yet they didn’t seem to take him seriously — I counted at least two occasions when Sting rubs Summers’ head affectionately but condescendingly, as though petting a beloved but stupid dog. How did Summers feel about this? The movie won’t tell you.

So this isn’t the definitive Police documentary many will want it to be. Nor is it especially moving as a musical document. I suppose hardcore Andy Summers fans — there may be several out there — will dig it the most, though of the three, his post-Police career was the least familiar to me. Which means nothing, of course, nor does the Wikipedia factoid that made me emit a bark-like laugh, that in 2012 Rolling Stone named him the eighty-fifth greatest guitarist of all time — hell, no national magazine has ranked me the eighty-fifth greatest anything of all time, so I shouldn’t talk. What matters is how interesting a movie subject Summers is and how interestingly he can paint a picture of the Police for us, and I’m afraid he comes up short both ways. Perhaps the person to talk to after all is Summers’ psychiatrist wife.