Archive for the ‘documentary’ category

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?

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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.

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?