Archive for the ‘documentary’ category

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.

Exposed

January 31, 2015

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The enduringly popular old-school nudie performer Bettie Page was a devout Christian who reportedly had no problem disrobing for strange men. Her reasoning was that God had made her body to please men, and so there was nothing wrong with using her body for its God-given purpose. I thought of that while watching Exposed, the longtime underground filmmaker Beth B’s tribute to the women, men and unclassifiables who have affably hijacked New York burlesque and bent it to their avant-garde political will. Bettie Page might have felt kinship with some of the performers profiled here, if only because they, like her, know no shame or guilt in nude self-expression. There’s an innocence, a sense of riotous play, in even the most transgressive and in-your-face shows here.

Before anything else, though, I feel the need to object to the audiences for the performances. In a weirdly moving sequence, an entertainer called Bambi the Mermaid comes out bedecked in lobster claws and shells, cracking open and eating bits of “herself” while looking near tears. As someone who pities the lobsters in the tank at the supermarket, and whose philosophy on eating them can best be encapsulated by David Foster Wallace’s famous essay “Consider the Lobster,” I felt saddened and disturbed by the performance, but the downtown hipsters in the club chortled hiply at it. I felt like saying “You’re annoying; shut up. She’s doing something beyond comedy here. Respect.”

Indeed, most of the performers do move beyond comedy, and the audiences do sometimes rise to it as it deserves. There’s a good amount of gender-bending, from the likes of transgressive drag queen Rose Wood (whose breast augmentation surgery is sort of the movie’s climax) or the “boy-lesque” artist Tigger! or the genetically female World Famous “Bob,” who spent some years thinking she was a gay man trapped in a woman’s body (shades of Margaret Cho) before learning to accept what she was born with. Such self-acceptance is a key motif here, as many of the women are full-figured and one of the male performers, Mat Fraser of American Horror Story: Freak Show, was born with what he calls “flippers” instead of arms after his mother took Thalidomide while pregnant with him.

Most of the people on view here hail from what Rose Wood terms “the Island of Misfit Toys,” psychologically if not physically. Women like Bunny Love and Dirty Martini have taken a form of entertainment long considered sexist and degrading (or, at best, goofy and archaic) and refurbished it to speak wordlessly but eloquently in a feminist language. It’s hard to argue that these non-mainstream artists aren’t doing exactly what they want to do, how they want to do it. The moves, the tassels, the striptease, all the elements are there, but the performers use burlesque as a found object, or found medium, to get their points across in a sensual, attention-grabbing manner.

I would also like to take this opportunity to nod gladly at Beth B, who was instrumental in the “No Wave” filmmaking movement of the late ’70s and who has worked in documentaries, some for TV, over the last decade or so. Though I can’t say she ever really left her artistic New York roots, the candy-colored, sex-positive Exposed feels like both a homecoming for her and a fine way to bring newcomers into her fold. (She turns sixty this year. I can’t even.) To put it in crass marketing terms, fans of John Waters and of John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and Shortbus should give this quick, often touching documentary a spin, and then maybe look up her early work like Vortex. This is not someone who will be offered a Marvel movie, or would accept if offered, and is to be cherished as such.

To Be Takei

August 31, 2014

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Of all the original Star Trek cast members living or dead, George Takei has undoubtedly led the most fraught and compelling life. Yet that life, full of drama and pain, has birthed a relatively fluffy profile, To Be Takei, a documentary in the form of what journalists (back when there was journalism) used to call a puff piece. To be fair, the movie seems to hew close to Takei’s own personality, one that compartmentalizes past traumas and disappointments. Takei lives in the now while giving his history its due; he appears to have an eminently healthy outlook, which may make for a happy man but also a portrait without edges.

Takei spent three years of his early childhood in various Japanese-American internment camps during World War II; he went into acting at a time when there were vanishingly few inoffensive roles for Asians; he was closeted for decades until, in 2005, in response to opposition to gay marriage in his home state of California, he came out. Takei says he stayed in the closet to protect his career, though coming out seems to have had an effect the exact opposite of what he feared — he’s been highly visible and beloved ever since, followed by millions on Facebook, lending his honeyed and insinuating baritone to commercials, cameo appearances, and Howard Stern’s show, where he’s been a fixture since 1990. Takei turned out to be the hippest Trek veteran since Wil Wheaton (seen here when Takei gets a dig in at him about his weight) learned to stop worrying and love the Enterprise.

To Be Takei throws together the expected clips, along with some rarely-seen early TV work that probably only the most die-hard Trekkies have laid eyes on in decades. Takei, like Nichelle Nichols, stood for something on Star Trek: Gene Roddenberry’s ideal of a color-blind meritocracy. Actors John Cho (who assumed Takei’s role of Sulu for the new reboot movies) and B.D. Wong talk about how empowering it was to see a vital, passionate Asian actor on TV, not playing a clown but someone with rank and agency. A lot of the present-day footage follows Takei and his husband Brad, a fretful, vaguely resentful type who organizes Takei’s many gigs. Scenes of Takei interacting happily with often emotional fans lose a bit of heartwarmth when we find that Takei, like many other glad-handers on the nerd-nostalgia convention circuit, charges $35 an autograph.

Director Jennifer Kroot, who previously made the documentary It Came from Kuchar about the underground-filmmaker Kuchar brothers, is obviously simpatico with the outsider, and she tries to jazz up To Be Takei visually with a motif of blue pulpy patterns. Unavoidably, though, most of it is talking-heads footage. Kroot follows Takei and spouse to the remnants of one of the internment camps, but the passage is over with fast, presumably on the grounds that it would bum us out. More time is devoted to the folly known as Allegiance, a musical loosely based on Takei’s experiences in those camps. To be honest, from what we see of it, it looks kind of awful, but Takei calls it his “legacy work.”

As seriously as he may take that musical, though, it would seem that Takei’s real legacy will be as an avatar of cool in the “It gets better” era — a double minority whose story has had a storybook final act. I like George Takei. I don’t see how anyone couldn’t. He’s funny, avuncular, on the side of the angels (well, except when he recently posted a joke image on his Facebook page that offended disabled fans, and then blew off their objections). He’s a cult figure among l’internetoisie and possibly a continuing inspiration to young gays and aspiring Asian actors. I’ll feel a sad twinge when he goes (may he outlive William Shatner, who comes off in the movie as a supreme douchebag). To Be Takei celebrates him but blithely neglects to probe for any complexity in a man who has surely suffered much. Maybe what we see today — a septuagenarian amiably adjusted, basking in acceptance after decades of suppressing himself — is all we get and what the movie offers.

Life Itself

June 29, 2014

roger-ebert-gives-a-thumbs-up-after-receiving-a-star-on-the-hollywood-walk-of-fame-in-hollywood-inWell, Roger, you made it. You’re in a movie. Not only that, you’re its star and focus. Life Itself is based partly on your memoir of the same name. Readers who are not you will no doubt wonder why I’m addressing this review to you, who are not here, and not to them. Well, it’s because you had a knack for writing reviews seemingly addressed to me and me only, and millions of other readers likely felt and feel the same way. You didn’t bother much with film theory or ten-dollar words. You wanted everyone to understand you: the film buff, the folks at the bar, the kid who was just starting to develop critical thinking. The movie about you is likewise straightforward. It doesn’t exclude anyone. It doesn’t get fancy. It just tells your story.

The documentarian Steve James, whose great film Hoop Dreams you tirelessly promoted, has directed Life Itself with open eyes and no fear of showing you in your least glamorous moments. You allowed James to film you undergoing an undignified throat-suction procedure, and then you emailed him that you were glad his movie would show what is seldom seen in a movie. You always respected that in a movie: something you hadn’t seen before, and something that told the truth. That suction bit, hard as it is for the rest of us to watch, is almost the defining moment of the movie, since we know it’s there because you wanted it there. You also wanted the movie to tell the truth about your lost years as an alcoholic, when you would kill hours in bars and take home women who were bad for you.

Finally you met, and married, a woman who was good for you: Chaz Hammelsmith Ebert, whom you called “the great fact of my life.” You would no doubt be grateful to know that Chaz comes off beautifully in the movie, yet still human, someone who could get frustrated with you when you didn’t feel up to doing things you needed to do. There is a scene where you don’t want to climb some stairs, and Chaz says you have to, and eventually you do it. Many of us have lived this scene in one or both of the roles. We can all be annoying and stubborn at times, and you were no exception. You would have respected a movie that touches on realities of human relationships that Hollywood usually ignores.

Many of your friends, some famous (Scorsese, Herzog) and some only known in Chicago newspaper circles, speak movingly on your behalf. One friend, of course, is absent: Gene Siskel, who died in 1999. Gene’s widow, Marlene, says at your funeral in the movie that when you were still alive she felt as though she still had a piece of Gene left. Life Itself devotes a chunk of time to your prickly partnership with Gene, with many amusing outtakes of you two roasting each other. But Marlene reads aloud a letter you sent her in your later years, saying that as you got older and sicker you thought more and more about him. You soldiered on without him, first with other critics and then as a solo act, something Gene might have snippily said would never and should never happen. But in the end he probably would have been proud that, just as you were losing your ability to speak, you gained a new voice on Twitter and in your blog. You were both tough Chicago newspapermen who wanted to keep going no matter what.

As Life Itself goes on it becomes more cinematic, as if your fading life force were naturally resolving itself into the movie it would become. It is difficult for those of us who were fond of you to see you so frail and to see the increasingly depressed-sounding emails you were sending Steve James. You sensed the movie was nearing its conclusion. You wanted to see more; you wanted to see what happened next. You didn’t want to leave Chaz and your stepchildren and stepgrandchildren. For all that, Life Itself doesn’t milk your death for cheap tears. Chaz soldiers on without you, as we all must do when bereaved, and carries on your website and your life passion. She’s sad, Roger — we all are — but she’s going to be okay, and the movie notes that. Beyond all that, your life has made for a sharp, intimate, honest and compelling film. Congratulations, Roger. Thumbs up.


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