Archive for the ‘documentary’ category

Fahrenheit 11/9

September 16, 2018

fahrenheit119Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 11/9 is a sloppy but affecting essay about American crisis. Like all of his movies, it’s not only about what it seems to be about — Bowling for Columbine, for instance, wasn’t only about guns, Sicko wasn’t only about the health-care system, and God knows Fahrenheit 11/9 isn’t only about Donald Trump. In fact, I’d guess there are fewer minutes of Trump footage in the movie than there are of, say, the furiously eloquent Parkland shooting survivor Emma González, or the fresh, charismatic Congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or the fiery West Virginia State Senator Robert Ojeda. This is no accident — Moore is saying that these are the kinds of people we’d better listen to. They may be left but they’re nowhere near establishment Democrat.

Perhaps understandably — after his 2016 concert film Michael Moore in Trumpland whiffed in its attempt to shake America’s 100 million non-voters out of their indifference — Moore isn’t feeling very comedic these days. Fahrenheit 11/9 is the least funny movie he has ever made, and I’ve seen Canadian Bacon. The mood here is sickened and uncomprehending — “How the fuck did we get here?” Moore asks at the top of the film. He still makes his jokes, pulls his stunts (like one involving a truck full of poisoned Flint, Michigan water), but ultimately the goal seems to be to give us the creeps. (A weird montage of Trump acting skeevy towards his daughter goes on a little longer than it needs to.) At times the movie gets rather doomy and macabre, reflecting the current American mood.

Sometimes the film seems like Moore’s debate with Trump; he answers “Make America great again” with “When was America ever great?” It’s great for some people, for sure. Maybe not so great for people of color, or women, or its original people, or the otherwise marginalized. A historian in the film corrects Moore’s “200 years of democracy” — two hundred years of democracy for white males, sure. How about zero years of democracy? Rule by the people? We’re still not quite there yet. But Moore isn’t all that interested in being inflammatory this time, which is why I don’t think Fahrenheit 11/9 will make the splash that his peak-popularity films did — Bowling, Fahrenheit 9/11, and Sicko. Moore seems to know this, and to know he and documentaries are on the way out. They can’t change the world any more; a tweet or a Facebook post can.

After an opening act that points scorn at the big orange target, Moore spends what feels like a quarter or maybe even a third of the film on the water crisis in Flint. He talks to whistle-blowers, families, doctors; not coincidentally, many are people of color, and Moore characterizes the poisoning of Flint’s water as “a slow-motion ethnic cleansing.” Then he goes to West Virginia, where he visits with teachers who are going on strike. Then he sits down with some Parkland kids, including David Hogg. It seems like the first hour of Fahrenheit 11/9 is darkness, and the second half is light, represented by the growing number of young political hopefuls, agitators, and kids sick of growing up in a post-Columbine reality of shooter drills in their schools. These kids, Moore suggests, can save us and rescue America’s true destiny as a “leftist nation.”

So the movie feels like a loose anthology on the theme of American decline and, perhaps, rise, if enough people want it. I’m a Moore booster but thought Fahrenheit 9/11 was a bit too much of a glib slam-dunk on George W. Bush. It felt like agitprop after the wounded, searching quality of Bowling for Columbine. But Fahrenheit 11/9 is something else, something deeper and thornier and oddly personal. It’s as if Moore made the movie in order to convince himself and the like-minded not to eat a gun. Moore rejects bromidic words like “hope” (and boy, does Obama come in for a withering pan of his drinking-Flint-water stunt), but he likes words like action and revolution and together. He wants to see this divided, hemorrhaging country united. But he doesn’t know how to do it, and he wonders if a new generation might. By the end, Trump almost seems beside the point. The country that produced him is the bigger fish to fry.

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Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

September 9, 2018

neighborcover.0Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a lovely film about a lovely man, Fred McFeely Rogers, known to generations of children as Mr. Rogers. This gentle and loving spirit, who was ordained as a Presbyterian minister, exemplified everything Christianity should be but too often is not. Rogers used his show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, to reassure children that there was nothing the matter with them — that they were fine exactly the way they were. Many children heard this sort of thing for the first time watching the show; they didn’t get it from their teachers or even their parents. Even François Clemmons, who played Officer Clemmons on the show from 1968 to 1993, and who was a grown man of 23 when he started working with Rogers, tells us that ultimately he came to see Rogers as a surrogate father.

Rogers, who died in 2003, had a soft and lilting voice and a genuine, eager smile. (The perfect person to play him in terms of how he looks and sounds is Jim Parsons, though Tom Hanks was announced in the role last January, playing a later-life Rogers around the time that Tom Junod famously profiled him for Esquire in 1998.) What the movie, unobtrusively assembled by director Morgan Neville, shows us again and again is that Rogers’ soothing yet no-nonsense demeanor was no act. The show handled tough topics — death, divorce, assassination — and refused to talk down to its young audience. Rogers strove to use language that would best and most healthily resonate with children, and he used the same plain-spoken voice with everyone regardless of age or position in life. I’ve seen a photo of him sitting with the Dalai Lama; they are both wearing expressions of perfect pure childlike happiness. At times, Rogers seemed to represent the best of every faith, every belief system.

That same childlike happiness is partly what has choked up millions who’ve seen Neighbor, including me, and I completely missed the whole Mr. Rogers thing (and Sesame Street) since our analog antenna didn’t pull in PBS during my formative years. In my teens, like every other asshole teen, I razzed the too-wholesome-seeming Rogers and laughed at the many parodies — the parodies became who he was, to me. Later in life, starting with that Tom Junod profile (he’s in the film, too), I began to appreciate who Rogers was and what he stood for — and against. His basic message spoke of the importance of self-esteem, and he must have sensed, back there in the late ‘60s when the country’s waters were starting to churn, that such a message was about to be needed. If you didn’t love yourself, he reasoned, you couldn’t love others, and that was what this life was — was supposed to be — all about. “We are here to help each other get through this thing,” Mark Vonnegut once said to his father Kurt, “whatever it is.”

That reminder of happiness, of goodwill towards all, makes us wistful and unhappy now, in this least neighborly of eras. Where have you gone, Nancy Rogers’ son? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you. The viewer leans toward the screen in yearning for this avatar of decency. The spiritual leader America may have needed in the sunset of the 20th century was not in a political office or beseeching us for funds on PTL; he was off to the side on a kid’s show on public television. Rogers’ great gift was empathy so keen that he couldn’t bear to treat anyone any differently than he would wish to be treated — not even Koko the gorilla, with whom Rogers sat and communicated as best he could, and who returned his love with hers. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? doesn’t let us get too down about Rogers’ physical absence during our current turbulence; he would have been at odds with our culture now, but then he was always at odds with it.

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Transformer

April 29, 2018

Transfomer_1_previewWhen a transgender person sets out to transition from male to female, it can be a great help if she has a small, slender body. Many transwomen, though, don’t have such a body, and sometimes they are sufficiently discouraged from transitioning because they lack the physique that society deems “feminine.” In the good-hearted documentary Transformer we meet Janae Marie Kroczaleski, named Matt at birth, a former Marine and erstwhile prize-winning powerlifting/bodybuilding competitor who has always felt female inside. Yet even after committing to facial feminization surgery, Janae doesn’t feel right completely abandoning her “guy side,” the self who lifts and hangs out in sweaty gyms with two of her best guy friends, whom she considers brothers.

Increasingly in the transgender community, particularly with the rise of younger generations, the notion of “passing” — being able to “go stealth” in one’s preferred gender presentation without attracting unwelcome, bigoted, often violent notice — is becoming less desirable as a variety of body types in general have become more accepted. Janae will always be a large and muscular woman, and has made her peace with that as much as she can; in the past she has lost excessive weight to attain more of an hourglass figure, but she ended up miserable, so now she is combining a less bulky and “cut” version of her old body with softer clothes, makeup, wigs. Honestly, though, she comes across as much less masculine simply by no longer overcompensating, as many pre-transition transwomen do, thinking they can exorcise the feminine “demon” inside by drowning her in testosterone.

Transformer takes Janae’s emotional pulse as she goes through the usual barrage of feminizing therapies, meds and surgeries. Her story, by virtue of the physique she started with, is an exaggerated version of the struggles of most transfolks. Smoothly directed by Michael Del Monte, the film is on the brief side at under 80 minutes, and sometimes details are shortchanged — we find out late in the game, for instance, that Janae has been fired from her job as a pharmacist, and she worries about how she’ll now make a living, afford more surgery, and support her three sons (from her first marriage). The movie offers no reassurance about her financial future — it seems to forget about it — though according to reports outside the documentary she seems to be making her way as an entrepreneur and activist. What’s more important to Del Monte is Janae’s journey as a warrior on the bleeding edge of gender and its many received notions.

Janae may stand as an inspiration to any transperson who for whatever reason looks in the mirror and doesn’t see the gender they know they actually are. There’s a nice scene in which Janae visits an event for trans lifters and chats with a transman — female-to-male. They talk shop about the desire for “bottom surgery,” the sort of final frontier of medical transition. This is not, to put it mildly, the kind of conversation one normally hears in films, and is all the more fascinating for that, and all the more to be valued. With other people Janae stays honest but respectfully leaves them some room to process her struggle on their own. Her mother is shakily on board, her dad not so much; her teenage sons, informed at early ages of her status, are completely okay with it (they still call her Dad, though).

Janae’s sons, like many of their generation, give us some hope for a more open-minded future. Transformer in general shows us a world around Janae that more or less accepts her (which may be a result of consciously surrounding herself with positivity). As one of her sharp sons says, the biggest obstacle in her way has always been herself. These days Janae identifies as nonbinary, or gender-fluid — either/or. She is an embodiment of the resistance to gender essentialism — the outmoded school of thought that says men and women have to be, act and look a certain way. When Janae is being roughly encouraged by a fellow transwoman lifter (“Don’t be a little bitch!”), we accept it as part of the culture that they insist on staying a part of while refusing to deny who they are. A lot of us, not just transgender, might learn a bit from these women yelling at each other profanely but supportively, being completely their own persons. A good movie and a great story.

24×36: A Movie About Movie Posters

July 8, 2017

24x36_5__largeAccording to the documentary 24×36, movie posters have had three distinct eras, two of which overlap. First, the Golden Age, whose posters were often genuine, enduring works of art, though never viewed at the time as anything but marketing tools. This era lasted till about the 1990s, when painted or illustrated posters fell out of favor, replaced by photos manipulated by imaging programs; such posters are noteworthy for their poverty of imagination, and for years at a time, if it was a horror film from Miramax or its sub-shingle Dimension, it had the notorious “floating heads” design. This ugly era, held in disdain by poster cultists, has more or less persisted in the mainstream, while over in fan culture for the last decade or so we’ve been seeing lavish posters for beloved genre films.

This sidebar fan-driven era is presented in 24×36 as a triumph, a journey out of the wilderness for what is, after all, a corporate art form. Hollywood has turned posters into soulless, same-same placards — more overtly advertising, in other words — while the fans who create and buy the fan posters curate and revive a lost art. This is a neat, upbeat narrative for a documentary. It’s also a crock. 24×36 sits down with a few veteran practitioners of the form — Roger Kastel, who designed the iconic Jaws poster; David Byrd, responsible for a good many ‘60s rock posters — but mostly talks to fans, or fan artists. Filmmakers are represented, in one of the movie’s few solid calls, by eternal fan-turned-creator Joe Dante.

There’s a great deal of nostalgia for work — not only movie posters but, say, old comic books and even old movies — that was made not out of any artistic urge but because bills needed to be paid. The majority of movie-poster artists were anonymous, though some of them managed to sneak their signatures into the design somewhere. The poster artist had to answer to the director, to studio executives, to a lot of cooks. The fan artists apparently just do it out of love, and are allowed to do (within reason) what they want. They still get paid, though, maybe more than the old-school artists ever did. The limited-edition Mondo posters, considered by many the epitome of the new fan-service art, routinely sell out within minutes, and sell for tidy sums.

What I dislike about the Mondo aesthetic, apart from the company’s snob-boutique appeal (you, too, can hit refresh on your browser a hundred times for the honor of spending hundreds of dollars on a print!), is that the designs are often way too busy. Often, as in the preternaturally unattractive work of fan favorite Tyler Stout, the goal seems to be cramming as many characters and as much ludicrous detail into a poster as possible. It reflects a non-artist’s assumption of what art should be, a ton of visible work, a spaghetti-splatter of lines and shapes; never mind that the eye literally doesn’t know where to look. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the minimalist posters, which seek to get the whole movie across in one stark, usually silhouetted image. But even these designs are almost ostentatiously simple; they beseech you to coo over their cleverness, but they look like entries in a paperback-cover-design contest.

24×36 never finds anything ironic or chilling in the notion of fans selling the past to each other. (I think of artists like the Mondo artists as fan artists even though they’re professionals, because their art proceeds from their fandom. By the same token, a director like Edgar Wright sometimes veers frighteningly close to being a fan artist.) Do these artists ever do anything that isn’t about paying homage to others’ art? At least the old poster guys did other kinds of things, and the near-abstract style of Bob Peak (Apocalypse Now) or the burnished photorealism of Richard Amsel (Raiders of the Lost Ark) are uniquely their own. (Tyler Stout’s stuff is unique, too, I suppose, inasmuch as one is grateful there isn’t much other stuff like it.) Posters can be art, but they’re accidental art. I imagine Saul Bass thought of his Vertigo or The Shining posters as just gigs, and gigs with a high level of influence by powerful directors at that. But they endure as masterpieces of the form. The culture that produced the masters, however, is gone, and in their place we have eager, sometimes exceptional students genuflecting mainly at fanboy franchises, comics, action, horror, etc. Where are the grown-ups?

All the Rage: Saved by Sarno

June 19, 2017

all_the_rage_-_key_image-h_2016As a reader of Dr. John Sarno’s book Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection, I was eager to see the documentary about him, All the Rage: Saved by Sarno. The diminutive, gravelly-voiced physician (who retired in 2012) is noted for his theory that a lot of pain, specifically back pain, derives not from structural causes — say, a slipped disc or a small crack in the spine — but from suppressed emotion. According to Dr. Sarno, such aches and pains are our mind’s way of distracting us from disturbing feelings we’d rather not have; these feelings usually have to do with buried anger due to childhood trauma.

As All the Rage establishes fairly early, such non-hippie, blunt-talking skeptics as Howard Stern, Larry David, and John Stossel (who ran a 20/20 piece on Sarno in 1999 that he still hears about years later) swear by Sarno’s teachings. (Other Sarno fans not present in the film: Anne Bancroft and director Terry Zwigoff.) The movie, directed by Michael Galinsky (Horns & Halos), is partly autobiographical: Galinsky, who acknowledges a great deal of stress and anger in his life, is struck down repeatedly by agony in his back, to the point where he spends days at a time on the floor in his office. Stern and Stossel were once floor-dwellers, too; now they take any opportunity to “spread the word.” Sarno is the man who took away their pain without surgery or drugs.

Galinsky would like to believe. His approach is to show various people vouching glowingly for Sarno, and then Sarno himself deflecting praise and wanting only to relieve people’s pain. We do, however, spend a little more time with Galinsky and his family (including wife and co-director Suki Hawley) than is probably necessary to get the point. The movie lacks a from-skeptic-to-believer narrative, and we might begin to feel impatient with Galinsky, who keeps going back to Sarno for consultations and seems to conclude that the key is giving himself permission to feel things. Sarno, a tough old cookie (he didn’t retire until he was 89), might counter that it doesn’t matter what you do with your emotions as long as you know they’re there.

Mention is made of Sarno’s lectures, but more people talk about his book, which can be borrowed through interlibrary loan. I imagine his lecture DVD, which goes for $49.95 on his website, is available for library lending as well. I bring up something so gauche as cost because a lot of the people in All the Rage who benefit from Sarno’s methods are white, well-to-do urban creatives. Sarno is shown at a senate hearing, where he discusses the epidemic of pain among the poor, pain caused by their suppressed rage at the brutality of income inequity. One of the senators, Bernie Sanders, presumably agrees, at least with the part about inequity. Another, Tom Harkin, takes the occasion to share his own story. His back, he says, used to hurt so much he had to rest on a cot in his office. Now, years after reading Sarno’s book, he is pain-free.

There will, no doubt, be people who dismiss Sarno and the movie on the basis that the idea — “Your pain is all in your head” — is dismissive and insulting. Sarno’s point, though, is that the pain is very real; the mind and the body are intricately linked, and who would deny ever feeling tension in one’s muscles or an ache in one’s stomach in times of stress? Pain caused by emotion, whether physical pain or mental, is thought of by many as “fake,” which sounds like how the old sexist doctors used to handwave such “women’s problems” as depression and anxiety. No, Dr. Sarno is not saying that the reason for your particular medical situation is insufficient venting of pique. What he does do is to move the conversation a little further away from invasive procedures or painkillers. The movie succeeds to the extent that it spreads the word, though it’s a microbudget documentary unlikely to be seen by many; if 20/20 and Howard Stern couldn’t get it done, it’s hard to know what could.

Cameraperson

January 8, 2017

film_853_cameraperson_originalThere’s no clearcut, conventional narrative in Kirsten Johnson’s frequently moving Cameraperson. Johnson, who has worked as a cinematographer or camera operator on many documentaries (including Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11), has assembled a quilt of outtakes from some of those films and presents it here as a sort of visual memoir. Shortlisted as a possible Best Documentary Oscar nominee, Cameraperson comes to DVD and Blu-ray in February via Criterion, and it’s worth watching for anyone interested in this art form and the people who have to capture life and shape it.

It is also undeniably, serenely and triumphantly female. We always feel, somehow, even if we don’t hear Johnson’s voice behind the camera, that we are seeing through the eyes of a compassionate woman. And since the subject of many of the films she works on is trauma, specifically female trauma, that matters; it matters that the women on-camera feel listened to, feel safe. Whether the speaker is a Bosnian rape survivor, an unexpectedly pregnant young woman agonizing over her decision to abort, or Johnson’s own Alzheimer’s-stricken mother, Johnson seems able to create a warm bubble in which they can breathe and tell their stories. This works even on men: a Fahrenheit 9/11 outtake expands on Corporal Abdul Henderson’s pained choice not to return to Iraq even if it gets him in deep trouble. Henderson’s hesitations when talking — something that would be edited out of a conventional documentary like Fahrenheit 9/11 that has so much else on its plate — speak volumes here.

As it goes on, Cameraperson reveals a sort of supernarrative tied to the humanity and responsibility of what we’ll call, for want of a more precise term, “the media.” At one point, the camera watches two Bosnian kids, one only a toddler, playing with a small but sharp axe, and though we figure the footage wouldn’t be here if it ended with an accident, we feel tension anyway, and Johnson sounds a bit tense too, hoping someone notices the kids with the axe, yet probably feeling it isn’t the white American’s place to step in. She’s just there to record. Yet whose place is it to help the Bosnians — or the Syrians?

Johnson can help to report on global pain, but obviously the traumatized people have stayed with her. They’re all pieces of her own story, and in Cameraperson she makes a movie out of the pieces. The editor, Nels Bangerter, shuffles it all together into an organic visual poem, with certain magic tricks only cinema can perform — Johnson’s mother is dead one minute, then alive again, a Tralfamadorian temporal irony (it’s been done before, of course, but in the context of this film it feels fresh). The movie is personal, yet seems to expand its purview to take in life and cinema and how one impacts the other. It’s also the portrait of an artist using the artist’s own art — we get a sense of Johnson’s compositional superego, her hands pulling away blades of grass until the image feels right to her; at other times, the imperfection of a shot is its point, such as when she films a furious documentarian (Kathy Leichter) flinging bits of her deceased mother’s belongings around the room.

You don’t want a pristine image there; you want a reflection of chaotic reality, same as when Johnson catches an enraged boxer after he has lost a fight. In the instances of the Bosnian rape survivor and the young pregnant woman, Johnson films them from the chest down, keeping their faces out of frame but focusing on their hands, twisting in torment. Johnson knows when to go for a painterly effect and when to wing it, and it always comes back to expressing life as it is for the subject — a Bosnian sheepherder, a Nigerian midwife. One nearly abstract image from Citizenfour, the Oscar-winning Edward Snowden documentary, seems to stand in for that entire movie and the experience of making it. The title almost invites a comma — Camera, Person — but it’s one word, one concept indistinct from the other. The person doesn’t stop where the camera starts.

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.