Archive for the ‘documentary’ category

They Shall Not Grow Old

May 19, 2019

theyshall Near the end of the immersive World War I documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, director/assembler Peter Jackson gives us perhaps the most breathtaking sound in the whole film: silence. Before that, we have heard the staccato of rifle fire, the grunts and creaks of tank treads, the death-dealing bass of artillery shells. But here, Jackson lets us hear something close to what Kurt Vonnegut described as the voice of God. “When I was a boy,” Vonnegut wrote in Breakfast of Champions, “all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month. It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.”

We don’t have them any more, of course — veterans of the War to End All Wars are long dead now, and those of WWII and Korea aren’t far behind. What Jackson has done, aided by firsthand accounts on the soundtrack from men who fought in the trenches, is to capture and modernize a period when Satan walked the earth, when weapons of mass destruction — machine guns, mustard gas, flame throwers, shrapnel — came into wide use. World War I was a bloody, filthy, diseased, maggot-ridden experience, repulsive in almost every way, and Jackson does his best to make it vivid for current audiences, using technology to slow and smooth the stuttery, farcical Keystone Kops effect you always get from early-20th-century newsreels, so that the filmed record of these muddy, exhausted men takes its place alongside footage of later wars.

They Shall Not Grow Old is probably the finest thing Peter Jackson has had his hand in since Heavenly Creatures. In both, he kicks off with deceptive old-timey footage; here, it goes on for about 25 minutes, at which point we arrive at the front and the film opens out to widescreen and blossoms into (subdued) color. After the war has ended, Jackson constricts the image back to squarish black-and-white. In a way, the film is something of a cheeky riposte to Christopher Nolan’s you-are-there WWII epic Dunkirk; Jackson could be saying “Good job, mate, but you had the luxury of stars and re-enactment, didn’t you?” As the (disembodied) voices continue on the soundtrack, our imaginations fill in a lot, and, as with many WWI accounts, we may wonder how anyone could have survived. A plague seems to have descended among men; Satan walks and God, until 11/11/18, is conspicuous in His absence.

We see many bodies reduced to ghostless meat, pale and torn apart, consigned to the mud and becoming part of the muck that drowned other soldiers who unluckily fell into it. Hell on Earth! Some of the voices are chipper or matter-of-fact — that incomparable British get-on-with-it attitude — others haunted or choked with trauma. Jackson takes his cue from the veterans’ accounts, indulging in neither rabble-rousing nor the modern privilege of hindsight. These were men who were born around the turn of the 20th century, and were not our idea of enlightened. (Jackson plays a popular bawdy song of the period, “Mademoiselle from Armentières,” under the end credits.) Still, though, there is room for compassion and even kinship between the English and the Germans. They have been trained to slaughter each other without hesitation, but near the finish, when it looks as though more killing would be beside the point, the adversaries sit and talk and eat together.            

Until then, though, the mood is dread-ridden — when it doesn’t give way to nervous giggles. They Shall Not Grow Old is as much about how men function under fire as about the fire itself. Many weren’t even men yet; many died still boys. WWI birthed the concept of “shell shock,” which became “combat stress reaction,” which became “post-traumatic stress disorder.” The constant of war — the thousand-yard stare coveted by an unwise combat photographer in Full Metal Jacket — is everywhere present in this film. In that first half hour or so, voice after voice tells us he joined because it was the thing to do, you stood up and fought for your country, et cetera. They had no idea of the infernal meat grinder they were signing up for, which would pulverize them into machinery or into parts.

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Life After Flash

February 17, 2019

lifeafterflash As a child of the ‘80s, I found one thing in particular (aside from the obvious two or three dozen) galling about the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody: There was no mention of the band’s pop-transcendent score for Flash Gordon. It was the ideal meeting of hyperbolic sound and hyperbolic image. In Life After Flash, an otherwise run-of-the-mill documentary of the sort you might find as a special feature on a Blu-ray, we see Brian May talking about his and Freddie Mercury’s contributions to the soundtrack; then, sitting at his piano, he pecks out some notes from “Flash’s Theme,” and the whole campy, cocaine-dusty, LSD-colorful movie came rushing back at me on a silver surfboard of nostalgia. Flash! Aah-aaah! He’ll save every one of us!

I am not a big enough fan (of Flash Gordon or of most anything else) to be one of the people seen at conventions in Life After Flash waiting in line to get things signed by Sam J. Jones, who played Flash in the 1980 film and who serves here as the documentary’s sometime focus (and, let’s note, one of its producers). But the movie occupies a large, awkward part of my heart, and it’s warm in there. And I stand with these fans in spirit. They respond to the film’s lavish design, its straight-faced embrace of its own wide-eyed all-American-boy ethos, its loudness in all aspects. There’s something glittery and Studio Fifty-Foursy about its glamorous, De Mille-on-poppers aesthetic, and it takes a certain taste to be attuned to that. I can imagine some (not all) Star Wars fans, the humorless ones, considering Flash Gordon in its efflorescent peacock feathers “stupid” or “gay.”

Our nominal subject, Sam J. Jones, is seen getting up early in the morning to go to some convention or another. As an actor whose career flatlined in the early ‘90s, Jones went through a dark night of the soul, alluded to here (adultery, drugs), and came out the other side humbled and thankful to Jesus. (The movie presents Jones’ re-commitment to his faith as something that helped him, but it doesn’t feel like a recruitment film.) A former Marine and current CEO of a security company that helps VIPs safely across the border from the U.S. to Mexico, Jones has pretty solid authority in his voice, even when he’s fine-tuning his displays at conventions with volunteers. Famously, that voice was dubbed in Flash Gordon by another actor, but not because, as some (like me) thought, Jones’ line delivery was bad — it was because he got into it with the film’s producer Dino De Laurentiis, who essentially kicked Jones off the movie before Jones could record his lines in ADR.

The documentary, though, never stays with Jones for very long; it keeps drifting off to talk to Melody Anderson (Dale Arden), or Richard O’Brien, or, predictably hilariously, Brian Blessed, as well as various fans or fans-turned-professionals. This is when the movie most feels like a special feature (perhaps on a 40th-anniversary Blu-ray next year). The frequent anecdotes about the film’s production make it seem that a better title would be Life During Flash, and a good deal of the talking heads seem to be filmed at conventions — many at the same convention, the Alamo City Comic Con. You can almost hear the camera people as they browse the semi-famous or geek-famous faces on the convention floor: “Hey, there’s Jason Mewes! Let’s see if we can get him to say anything about Flash Gordon!”

Ultimately, Life After Flash isn’t enough about Jones to pass muster as a portrait of him, and not enough about the production to be an engaging making-of film. I don’t begrudge the interviews with Anderson, Topol, or any of the other Flash Gordon participants (Max von Sydow would’ve been a great “get,” though) — perhaps the most freely entertaining footage is just Anderson (now a therapist specializing in trauma), Blessed, and Flash director Mike Hodges shooting the breeze and laughing. But their presence also steals Jones’ thunder in what structurally seems to want to be his movie. Then again, Jones talks a lot about humility and the importance of the it’s-not-all-about-you ethos, so maybe sharing the spotlight was his idea. He is, after all, just a man. With a man’s courage.

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.

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.

rogersdalai

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.