Documentary Spotlight

Documentary Spotlight: Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1959)

This summer, bereft of the outdoor music concerts so beloved at this time of year, is the perfect time to catch up with the classic festival films. So what better time to begin at the beginning and discover (or rediscover) the one that started it all. Famed New York commercial/fashion photographer Bert Stern came to Newport in 1958, with a somewhat different project in mind. According to film critic in his Boston Sunday Globe documentary page, “Stern initially planned to have the festival serve as a backdrop for a fictional narrative.” Apparently, he found the 1958 edition of the Newport Jazz Fest was far more interesting as a primary subject. How could it not with a line-up that included Louis Armstrong Mahalia Jackson, Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan, Dinah Washington, Chuck Berry and other greats?


Louis Armstrong in full flight.

With its scene-establishing prologue, exciting close-up views of the performers and scanning shots of distinctive audience members, Stern’s film would be a table-setter for several notable rock festival documentaries to come: Woodstock, Monterrey Pop and Gimme Shelter being the most famous. It not only captures the giants of their genre in a live setting but also serve as sociological snapshots of their era. In the era that preceded those big rock music events, it was the annual Newport Jazz Festival that was the place to be for city hipsters and savvy suburbanites alike. While Jazz on a Summer’s Day doesn’t have the momentous vibe of those three rock films, Bert Stern’s work is a star-studded look back to a time when postwar jazz was at the height of its popularity and a partying youth culture was starting to butt up against the genteel high society of this Rhode Island resort.


Shades of summer: Fans at Newport ’58

Stern quickly establishes the breezy carnival atmosphere of the 1958 edition of the festival as a moderately rebellious beatnik crowd blends into the gauzy, Eisenhower-era comfort zone with relative ease. There’s some wild carousing at an oceanfront rental and a recurring theme where a roving Dixieland combo promotes the festival by showing up all over town, blaring from the back of an antique car or serenading on a moonlit beach. (This may be leftover footage from the aborted feature-film idea). The actual concert footage starts with Anita O’Day entertaining an afternoon crowd of more-formally dressed folks with some wild scat singing during her elaborate deconstructions of “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Tea for Two.” Be-bop, the preeminent branch of the jazz tree back then, is represented with fine segments featuring Sonny Stitt and Thelonious Monk. Unfortunately, the intercutting of yachting footage (that season’s America’s Cup trial runs were also taking place) proves to be a considerable distraction during Monk’s number.

Saxophonist Gerry Mulligan is on stage as the nighttime segment starts and things begin to loosen up with a younger and more integrated crowd taking over. A few of them even look like they’re on drugs (the very idea!). Bluesy belters Dinah Washington and Big Maybelle wow an audience that’s all about dancing and singing along, and the good vibes peak with a sublime medley from the immortal Louis Armstrong. He starts with a tender “Lazy River” and finishes with a rollicking “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and along the way there’s at least one of Pop’s stratospheric trumpet solos. The only miscue in the performance clips is Chuck Berry doing a rather lackluster version of “Sweet Little Sixteen.” It hints at a tendency the Newport promoters would later develop when tastes changed and non-jazz performers became less of an exception.

But all is set right as Saturday night passes into Sunday morning, when Mahalia Jackson closes the film with a rousing gospel set. The ritual of a cross-section of people enjoying music al-fresco on a summer’s weekend would become a lot more common in the decades to come, but here it still seems new, which makes Stern’s idea of filming the fans as intimately as he does the performers feel prophetic. It’s something we’re all missing now and for maybe some time to come. The audience here at Newport—-the ones in cat’s-eyes glasses and plaid pants mixing with those in berets and turtlenecks—-didn’t “change the world” like those at the ballyhooed rock mega-festivals a decade later. But they and the musicians fed off each other in a communal rapture of the type that may feel new all over again once we ever get back to it.

For more info on the virtual re-release of the digitally restored Jazz on a Summer’s Day go to kinomarquee.com

You can check out the excerpt of my book “Rock Docs: A fifty-Year Cinematic Jorney” at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html or by clicking on the book cover image above. If interested in purchasing, you can also contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick.
rick.ouellette@verizon.net

Documentary Spotlight: “What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael”

The late superstar film critic Pauline Kael has left a complicated legacy. She could be both admirably thoughtful and witlessly cruel. She helped boost the careers of Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese and others who needed a break when they were trying to create a new and original American cinema at the start of the Seventies. Conversely (and perversely), she ripped others to shreds if for no other reason than she wanted to be a contrarian and/or more clever than anyone else. Sure, she crashed the boy’s club of professional movie reviewing when she landed the plum job of New Yorker film columnist in 1968. But their “ivory tower” was no where near as elitist as she perceived it and barely justified her bewildering personal attacks against establishment colleagues like Andrew Sarris. Suffice to say, that Kael is the type of person who is lauded by her own daughter as someone who “turned her lack of self-awareness into a triumph.” Um, OK. Not to bring politics into this too soon, but in an election year where we may faced with a choice of two bellowing absolutists (hello, Bernie and The Donald), Pauline looks like another disheartening early indicator of the distressingly coarse society we live in now. While “What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael” is a reasonably engaging documentary about an influential person, and recommended to film buffs and those who have followed the once-rambunctious world of cinematic analysis, the person herself earns a qualified thumbs-down.


Pauline Kael (center): The smartest person in the room, according to herself.

Kael grew up on a chicken ranch in rural California. The independent streak and no-nonsense attitude that helped her break away from Smallville USA is evident in the voiceover of her review of the similarly-sited “Hud.” An early affair produced a daughter named Gina James; Kael raised her as a single mom at a time when that was noticeably uncommon. She worked her way up inexorably, starting in the film scene at Berkeley (where she attended college), writing program notes and doing unpaid radio commentary. Eventually, she got a job reviewing movies for the woman’s magazine McCall’s, at one point gleefully skewering the super-popular “The Sound of Music,” esp. skewering the “sexless, inhumanely happy” Julie Andrews character and wondering (someone had to say it) why not even one Von Trapp kid rebelled against the rigidly enforced positivity. She moved on to the New Republic, which wasn’t keen on her positive take on the then-controversial, seeing it as an exciting and necessary catharsis that reflected the tumultuous late Sixties. Instead, the New Yorker took it and in 1968 hired Kael who would work there, with brief interruptions, until 1991.

Director Rob Garver spices up this bio with many, many film clips. They start in the late silent era (when Kael first started going to the picture shows) and are interspersed throughout to illustrate, sometimes confusingly, her life events. When they are joined to voiceover excerpts from memorable reviews, they work much better. But they can also serve to point out Kael’s often perverse inconsistencies. Much is made of Kael’s populism, of being tuned into more everyday tastes than were the “elitists” that she always overestimated. Yet her strong distaste for David Lean’s blockbuster “Lawrence of Arabia” stemmed from her disillusion in Peter O’Toole’s screen depiction of the historical figure she read about in highbrow books. That’s her prerogative of course, but hardly excuses her ripping Lean to shreds in a public forum they both attended. Elsewhere, her vaunted “populism” just seems silly; ripping almost everything Stanley Kubrick ever did (and with a strangely personalized venom) while praising such things as Cheech and Chong’s “Up in Smoke.”

As usual, “What She Said” is dotted with many of the expected interview snippets of celebs and colleagues, though my favorite talking head was Gina James, the mild-mannered daughter whose love and admiration for an often difficult person to live with blends with a matter-of-fact honesty that her mother often forfeited in the name of self-serving arrogance. Most of the others do fine, whether its filmmakers both pro and con (Ridley Scott, David O. Russell, Tarantino), cultural commentators like Camille Paglia or aging colleagues like Joe Morgenstern. Things can get a bit daft as when critic David Edelstein feels it necessary to inform us he’s not a “Paulette” (a Kael acolyte) but instead a “Paulinista.” Oy.

While I get that Garver wants to reserve the right to end up on the side of its subjects undeniable brilliance, something still seems lacking here. To wit, one can be feisty without being mean and one can also be confident without being self-aggrandizing. Indeed, one should be but things have gotten so out of hand in the digital DYI age. As reviewer Ty Burr noted in the Boston Globe, today “Kael’s voice fills every self-satisfied corner of the Internet.” Sorry, but there’s no “art” in that.

“Going Attractions” and Coming Distractions: The Coney Island Film Festival

Outside of the biggies like Sundance, Toronto and Cannes—with their star power and acquisition deals—film festivals are usually fun but rather sedate affairs. You go and see an indie movie or shorts collection, be supportive during the Q&A afterwards, maybe go to a wine and cheese reception and hobnob a bit. This is the kind of film fest I go to and there are plenty to choose from. But the one I attended in mid-September in Coney Island was a breed apart. It’s even smaller than most; situated in one building on Surf Ave. (parallel to the boardwalk) and run by the non-profit arts organization Coney Island USA. Inside they have two venues: bleacher seating downstairs at Sideshows-by-the-Seashore performance space and upstairs at the Coney Island Museum with seating set up in the main room.


Upstairs at the Coney Island Museum (All photos by author)

The Coney Island Festival emphasizes local filmmakers and this year’s program had many works that took place in the immediate vicinity of the venue itself. Moreover, Coney Island USA integrates the screenings with the larger subculture promoted in their mission statement. That is, to extol and carry on many traditional forms of popular entertainment (as we will see in a minute). It was fitting then that the opening night film was “Going Attractions:The Definitive Story of the Movie Palace.” This documentary is an engaging and thorough look (past, present and future) at the classic American “picture palace” which, at the height of their success in the Twenties and Thirties, were among the most opulent buildings ever constructed for a clientele of the average person coming in off the street.


Click to see the trailer!

These theaters, many of them extraordinary in their scale and richness of architectural detail, once crowded together in the entertainment districts of major urban centers and, in a more solitary fashion, graced the main streets of medium-sized cities and even small towns. Director April Wright has steered this project, obviously a labor of love, with a sure hand. The backstory is presented clearly but not ponderously, with most commentators (from star movie critic Leonard Matlin on down) beginning with personal anecdotes of their first visits to one of these amazing venues. Of course, times change and eventually the movie palace business model declined, post-WW2. Suburbanization and the rise of TV were two big reasons and the scale of these theaters were a big problem, they required big staffs and upkeep costs proved prohibitive.


Renovation or more neglect?: The Everett Sq. Theater in Boston is one of hundreds old movie theaters in limbo.

“Going Attractions” gives significant space to those who have played major roles in saving these now-treasured buildings from neglect and maybe a date with the wrecking ball, several of these good folks can be see in the trailer. Probably the most astounding rescue tale is told by former ballerina turned activist and author Rosemary Novellino-Mearns. It is hard to imagine that Radio City Music Hall, the exquisite Art Deco landmark known for the Rockettes and its stupendously popular holiday shows, was threatened with demolition in 1978. In an inspiring David-and-Goliath story, Rosemary and her future husband started a save-Radio-City campaign with their fellow employees. They attracted publicity and powerful allies in what ended up being a major embarrassment for the Rockefellers, who had to cancel plans for a lucrative office skyscraper on the family-owned site. Novellino-Means was blackballed out of her job as a full-time dancer within a year but in the Q&A afterward unsurprisingly told us she had no regrets.


Rosemary Novellino-Mearns, second from left, standing next to director April Wright after the screening of “Going Attractions.”


Another featured commentator for “Going Attractions” is photographer Matt Lambros. His book “After the Final Curtain: The Fall of the American Movie Theater” is a must-have for anybody with an abiding interest in this subject. Lambros has criss-crossed the country photographing the current, usually abandoned, state of these magnificent venues. Their beauty is typically still evident despite years of neglect, via Lambros’ vivid large-format photography. A new volume of “After the Final Curtain” is due out this fall. See his website for more details: https://afterthefinalcurtain.net/books/

Radio City Music Hall had been known for their elaborate dance numbers performed on its enormous stage before the movie. This inter-disciplinary spirit continues in film palaces that were saved (which often double as performing-arts centers) and was also on display at this festival. Vaudeville acts were also popular attractions at the old movie palaces and Coney Island USA has for years fostered this spirit. They put on the crowd-favorite Mermaid Parade on Surf Ave. every June and stage many sideshow-type events, including at the opening night party. For a reasonable fee, you got an open bar (topped by almost topless dancers) a generous buffet and a real live revivalist show, featuring an MC who doubled as a cigarette-swallower, a contortionist, and a few burlesque dancers before I was obliged to catch the Q train back to my Manhattan hotel.


This ain’t your granny’s cine club: Opening night party at the Coney Island Film Fest.


I had to head back to Boston on Sunday that weekend so I couldn’t catch the block of animation shorts. The festival’s local flavor continued here with this half-minute clip of the delightful-looking “Brooklyn Breeze”

The following night, inspired by the film, I took a stroll down that once-notorious stretch of West 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues. The dense concentration of movie houses and theaters there were mostly pornos before being condemned and transformed into the “Disneyfied” Times Square that people like to complain about today. I’m not sure who really misses those places: I’m not a big fan of the Harry Potter plays, tip-seeking Elmos and distracted/compulsive selfie-takers that dominate now, but the danger and seediness are not exactly to be mourned. I wandered into a couple of multiplexes to see if there were any remnants of the glorious past. At the Regal Cinema, on the old site of the infamous XXX Harem Theater, the new decor features a beautiful retro-Deco mural, a nice surprise. (See detail below).

Across the street I hit the jackpot at the AMC Empire. Over the voluminous lobby of a multiplex, where escalators zipped you up to the latest blockbuster, was a gorgeous old-time dome where Egyptian and classical Greek themes intermingled. People don’t know what they have, it was only after some of them noticed me pointing my Nikon up at the ceiling that they looked themselves. Baby steps. I found out later that the original Empire Theater was located a little further up the street and that the entire cinema was moved 170 feet to its present location, with giant balloon figures of Abbott and Costello made to look like they were tugging it along (the duo performed at the old Empire). The the main part of the theater was pushed up towards the street to be the lobby while the modern multiple screens were built behind. Hey, whatever it takes! I love American ingenuity and American movie palaces. Find out where there is one close to you and support them, keep the tradition alive.
—Rick Ouellette

AMC Empire theater lobby, two details below.


Rock Docs spotlight: “Woodstock” (1970)

The Woodstock Music and Art Fair, held fifty years ago this month in upstate New York, was such a monumental event that there is little that hasn’t been said about it at this late date. Each significant anniversary has seen the media gorging on remembrances, reissues and reponderings of history’s most famous rock music festival and its relevance to the social sea change it brought on, or at least reflected. But still, now 50 years later, they have nothing over Michael Wadleigh’s sprawling, indispensable filmed record—a project that almost never got off the ground. Festival promoters Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld initially had no luck finding an investor to fund a camera crew to cover an event that no one thought would draw more than fifty thousand people. The only one willing to take a chance was newly minted Warner Brothers studio executive Fred Weintraub, a New York hipster who had owned the famed Bottom Line nightclub. Over the objections of others at WB, Weintraub advanced one hundred thousand dollars to finance the filming. When the humble “Aquarian Exposition” turned into an epic long weekend that attracted nearly half a million young folks, the demand for the finished film went through the roof. The only rock documentary to ever win an Academy Award (until 2012’s “Searching for Sugar Man” and the following year’s “Twenty Feet from Stardom”), “Woodstock” eventually grossed over fifty million dollars in its theatrical release and has enjoyed a long afterlife on home video, especially in the expanded 230-minute director’s cut introduced in 1994.


Premiering nationally on PBS is the excellent “Woodstock: 3 Days That Defined a Generation.” This trailer may lapse into cliche but this new documentary is a fresh look at the long ago events in upstate NY from a more sociological angle, with all the visuals being archival footage from the event, matched with the voices of those who were there (along with a smattering of key musical moments).

Wadleigh and his hastily assembled seventy-man crew, organized by a young assistant director named Martin Scorsese, spread out over the vast scene, diligently covering every aspect of that long weekend. The music and the hippie idealism are in great supply, of course, but as part of a microcosm of a time that sees past the expected clichés that have long since taken hold. Ironically, a lot of those clichés stem from this very film as well as from the soundtrack album with which it often overlaps. It starts with the warning about the brown LSD that’s “not specifically too good” and goes from there. “New York State Thruway is closed, man!” “If you sing really hard, maybe we can stop this rain!” “There’s always a little bit of heaven in a disaster area.”


“Blind Faith is a groovy group.” A popular clip in the Internet age is the “Emotional Colors” girl, later identified as the late Jeanette McCurdy of Buffalo, NY.

The frequent use of split-screen images showed the multiple perspectives of a situation that the crew saw as an unfolding story that could turn out either way. The “Biblical/epochal” scene described by a joint-rolling Jerry Garcia is established in a twenty-minute prologue before Richie Havens wows the first day crowd with his improvised-on-the-spot anthem “Freedom.” What follows is a steady stream of outstanding (and often career-making) musical performances by the likes of Santana, Sly and the Family Stone, Ten Years After, Joe Cocker, the Who, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and others.

The logistical and crowd scenes that pop up after every three or four songs are every bit as interesting, especially the bravura ten-minute sequence depicting the famous Sunday thunderstorm. It drenched a crowd that had just been galvanized by Cocker’s dramatic recasting of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends,” and thrust the stage crew into the role of reassuring the sea of humanity while simultaneously fretting over the fate of their vulnerable light towers and staving off the possibility of electrocution. When the crowd comes out the other end of this mud-covered crucible with their good spirits intact, their reputation is made.

What is just as impressive is the tolerant, even admiring, attitudes towards the crowd from many “straights” in the surrounding area, especially considering the whole county was brought to a virtual standstill because of the event. There’s the genial portable-toilet cleaning man (“glad to do it for these kids”) speaking fondly of both his son at the festival and the other one in Vietnam; the chief of police pronouncing that the hippies “can’t be questioned as good American citizens;” the visibly moved Max Yasgur proclaiming that the legions camped on his farm “have proven something to the world;” and the middle-aged gentleman who suggests to another that he should care more about the kids dying in ’Nam and lay off criticizing the ones smoking pot and sleeping in the field. These people suggest there was too much emphasis on the generation gap back then and too little on the value of good character, regardless of demographics.

Michael Wadleigh would eventually become disillusioned with the film business, making only one more movie (1981’s Wolfen) and eventually turning to environmental activism. Sensing that these “3 Days of Peace & Music” were destined to be the high water mark of the counterculture, the director picked up a camera on Monday morning and filmed scenes of the muddy, garbage-strewn aftermath that he has said were directly influenced by T. S. Eliot’s poem The Wasteland. Because of the weekend’s many delays, the music was not over: When headliner Jimi Hendrix hits a cataclysmic guitar chord that introduces his decade-defining deconstruction of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the camera pulls back to reveal that the cheering audience now numbers around thirty thousand.

In an artfully presented sequence, Wadleigh first stays close to Hendrix as he transforms the national anthem into an implied antiwar protest with an astounding series of explosions, shrieks, and moans coaxed out of his white Stratocaster. He sticks with him as he roars through his monster hit “Purple Haze” (“Is it tomorrow or just the end of time?”) then switches to the dazed stragglers picking through the debris for the odd scrap of food or a pair of discarded sneakers. Hendrix finishes with an elegiac guitar solo that gives the film its soft landing. This thoughtful and somewhat sober ending underlines the feeling that if Woodstock the music festival was the brightest point of light for the ideals of the 1960s youth generation, Woodstock the film was the greatest advocate of those ideals.

Portions of this post were taken from my book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey. Click on the book cover above, or the link below, to see a 30-page excerpt. Thanks, Rick
https://booklocker.com/books/8905.html

Documentary Spotlight: “My Generation” (2018)

I am fated to go to my grave as an unreconstructed Anglophile and that’s OK. From seeing the Beatles and Stones on TV at an impressionable age, to Dickens’ “Christmas Carol” inspiring me to try writing, to Monty python, to the early punk years to my later incarnation as an English Premier League nut, it’s never let up. Not even now, at the height of the whole Brexit fiasco—with its echo of the same disturbing societal trends that gave us Trump on this side of the Atlantic—has it wavered much.

So it’s not a big surprise that I’m giving a big Reel and Rock recommendation for last year’s nostalgic “My Generation,” co-produced and hosted by Michael Caine and now available online and on DVD. This is not strictly a music documentary, but you can’t make a film about Britain’s post-war generation without rock & roll being a huge part of it. Just in the introductory section you get two Kink Klassics (“Dead End Street” and “Waterloo Sunset”) and the Who’s titular anthem. The soundtrack is a continual parade of classic Brit rock, from the Beatles and Stones to the Small Faces and Thunderclap Newman.


This “My Generation” trailer is followed by a short clip from the film.

But it’s also about fashion, film, photography, pop art and even hairdressing (Vidal Sassoon got his start in Swinging London). Caine, a veritable rock star among actors, is a great host with his everlasting Cockney charm. When the music takes a break, he’s doing new, audio-only interviews with Twiggy, Paul McCartney, David Bailey, Roger Daltrey, Marianne Faithfull and mini-skirt inventor Mary Quant. while the intoxicating period footage plays over it. This is not a particularly in-depth social study (if you want to do deep-diving on this subject check out Shawn Levy’s excellent book “Ready Steady Go”) but it’s a highly entertaining primer and a valuable one too as its subjects are well into their seventies by now.


Twiggy, Twiggy, Twiggy: A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

Director David Batty does not play the “Debbie Downer” card; there is a bit about the era’s social divides and a sidebar towards the end about how the drug scene got a bit out of control (a section on Brian Jones’ death and funeral strikes a brief minor chord). But overall the tone doesn’t stray much from “wasn’t it all so great?” But for here, that’s OK. Let’s put away he uneasy thoughts about the unfocused grievances, latent (or blatant) bigotry and foreign-agent manipulation that has left us in such a precarious state that it makes us nostalgic not just for “My Generation” but for the highly-imperfect but reasonably-stable systems of government that we were rebelling against at the time.

You can check out the excerpt of my book “Rock Docs: A fifty-Year Cinematic Jorney” at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html or by clicking on the book cover image above. If interested in purchasing, you can contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick.
rick.ouellette@verizon.net

“American Dharma” Bum: The New Errol Morris Film on Steve Bannon Gets a Cold Shoulder

Lock him in! Lock him in! The Quonset hut at the closed South Weymouth Naval Air Station in Massachusetts. Photo by Rick Ouellette

I took the photographs in this post on January 2, 2017—after the election but before the inauguration of Donald Trump as U.S. president. The building in the picture above was one of the sites where Academy Award-winning documentarian Errol Morris interviewed former top Trump adviser Steve Bannon, the subject of his new film called “American Dharma.” It was a sort of stage set up for Bannon, who first rose to prominence (or infamy, as many of us would have it) as the executive chairman of Breitbart News, the alt-right, conspiracy-mongering website that is a favorite of the gullible current occupant of the White House.

A feature story in the arts section of the January 25th Boston Globe pointed out that the much-celebrated Morris has not found a distributor for the film, which has yet to see the light of day since it debuted at the Venice Film Festival last year. (There will be a screening at Harvard University’s Carpenter Center on Feb. 1st, just down the way from where Morris has his office). Part of the problem, might be in the blasé attitude that would let Morris indulge the highly controversial Bannon by having him blab away in the hut which resembles the one in his favorite World War II movie, “Twelve O’Clock High.” For Morris, the WW2 film title that probably best sums up his problems with his new documentary is “A Bridge Too Far.”


When I posted this photo of abandoned housing in early January of 2017, a friend wondered if it were a preview of “post-Trump America.”

That’s because “American Dharma” can be seen as the third entry in a loose trilogy of Errol Morris films about contentious men who were Presidential advisers or Cabinet secretaries: and they can also be seen as offering diminishing returns on the director’s artistic investment. (Like most people, I haven’t seen “American Dharma” and this post is about the idea of doing it in the first place). The first, 2003’s “The Fog of War,” was about Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense in the 1960s under Presidents Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Ten years later, Morris came out with “The Unknown Known” about the longtime Republican operator Donald Rumsfeld, who first came to the national spotlight as chief of staff and defense secretary in the mid-1970s under President Gerald Ford and, of course, held that latter position under George W. Bush during the calamitous invasion of Iraq in the early 2000s.

“The Fog of War” was an exceptional, riveting film that deservedly won Morris an Oscar for best feature documentary, an award that many thought he should have received fifteen years earlier for “The Thin Blue Line.” Robert McNamara was born in 1916 and in an early scene he tells of his first memory, watching victorious American soldiers in a parade after the end of World War I. Morris makes the film so much more than a filmed profile of the man who had recently published a book that was a semi-mea culpa about his role in escalating the disastrous Vietnam War. It expands into an incisive examination into nearly a hundred years of an increasingly mechanized and brutal evolution of warfare (McNamara used his exceptional analytical skills to increase the efficiency of the Air Force’s firebombing of Japan near the end of WW2). At the end, McNamara is dodgy when Morris presses him as to why he didn’t voice his grave misgivings about Vietnam policy to Johnson but, aesthetically anyway, he is not let off the hook. As we hear audio of a phone interview of McNamara declining a last chance to come clean, we see the now elderly man driving around Washington in inclement weather, the hard rain of history beating down on his windshield.

“The Fog of War” was one of the first projects on which Morris use his patented “Interrotron” which (Wikipedia definition) “projects images of interviewer and interviewee on two-way mirrors in front of their respective cameras so each appears to be talking directly to the other.” And by extension, it makes it look like the interviewee is making eye contact with the viewer. But if one thinks this method will necessarily out the truth, that notion is quickly dispelled by the ceaselessly obstructionist style of Rumsfeld in “The Unknown Known.” If you can get past his weasly double-talk (naturally, the film’s title is his own phrase) and the shit-eating grin, you might get something out of this film. But if you were someone outraged at Rumsfeld’s key role in the simplistic invasion plan in Iraq (“intellectually bankrupt” in the words of one general) that left the country in tatters and was based on a flimsy premise (the evidence-free accusation of Saddam Hussein’s involvement in the 9/11 attacks), or were upset at the policy of U.S. troops standing by during the wholesale cultural destruction of the Iraq Museum looting (“stuff happens,” said Donny) or revulsed at his enabling of the heinous treatment of detainees, many of them innocent, which devolved into the torture scandal at Abu Ghraib prison (aka “enhanced interrogation techniques”), the film will leave you cold. Rumsfeld doesn’t feel exposed, he is allowed to go on and on in the current fashion of unaccountable yammering. To him and us, it’s just another day in the grinding machinery of the media-industrial complex.


America’s favorite slovenly sociopath? Steve Bannon in 2010.

Can you blame potential distributors for thinking that “American Dharma” is more of the same, esp. in view of Bannon’s “toxic reputation” (in the words of the Boston Globe)? Breitbart is now all but the communications arm of a mindset that is not out of step with the Klu Klux Klan and neo-Nazism. I have no problem with Bannon having his say, but for God’s sake wasn’t he a top White House advisor, feeding his xenophobic notions to the already unscrupulous, spiteful and easily-manipulated Trump? That’s say enough. Any further exposure is just fodder for the ever-spinning media merry-go-round. But if you need further confirmation of what you already know, “American Dharma” will likely see the light of day in some form or the other. In the Globe article, Morris says “I think as the country becomes less angry, particularly the left, then it would be possible to look at the movie as a movie.” After Morris confirmed that Steve Bannon had seen the film and was asked what he thought, the director said “He likes it” and, according to reporter Mark Feeney, “barked out a laugh.” Forgive me if I’m not amused.

Documentary Spotlight: “Comic Book Confidential”

For a film that was released thirty years ago, this Ron Mann documentary remains a pretty great primer on the eventual rise of comics from a folded-and-stapled version of the Sunday funnies to the “permanent art form” it has grown into. It moves briskly from the squeaky-clean heroics of early Superman and Captain America comics to the rise of underground “comix” and up to the modern insecurities of Lynda Barry’s post-feminist preteen girls and the age of esteemed graphic novels like Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust-themed graphic novel Maus. “Comic Book Confidential” is a candid and quirky overview, clocking in at an economical 85 minutes. Mann’s sly, subversive style fits the subject matter well and he features entertaining interviews and profiles of over twenty artists. Most valuable nowadays is the presence of four comic-book pioneers that have since passed away: Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, William Gaines and Harvey Kurtzman.

“Comic Book Confidential” chronologically follows one of the most beloved (and at one time most reviled) of popular art forms. This strict timeline format helps in charting the social continuum in which comic art developed. During the Depression and WW2, superheroes made sense. After the war, their appeal lessened and stronger creative lights like Eisner sought to free themselves from the assembly-line mindset of most comic-book publishers. This led to a more literary form, but also encouraged risk-taking and a drift towards lurid subject matter. There is an especially strong segment revealing lesser-known aspects of cartoon culture like the major censorship battle waged on envelope-pushing series like Weird Science and Tales from the Crypt by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Juvenile Delinquency in 1954. Mann, the long-time pop culture maven who also made the marijuana doc “Grass,” digs up a Reefer Madness-style propaganda clip where a group of boys become “a mass of tangled nerves” after glancing at a couple of violent titles and quickly get busy weaponizing knives and rocks.

Another good get is a snippet of the fearless testimony in front of the Senate panel by eventual Mad magazine founder William Gaines. In an interview for the film, “Big Bill” tells with wry detachment an anecdote about how he defied the Comics Code Authority when they told him to remove the beads of perspiration from the face of a black astronaut in one of his books, threatening to sue the CCA in return. The censorious influence of that organization started to fade and soon the film is detailing the rise of radicalized Sixties artist like R. Crumb, Dan O’Neill and Shary Fleniken.


William Gaines holding court in his office.

From the beginnings of that underground scene in San Francisco circa the late 60s, “CBC” advances about twenty years on (it was released in 1988). The indie comics scene has exploded since then (maybe time for a sequel?) so you won’t be getting anything on prominent later practitioners like Chris Ware or Alison Bechdel. But what you do get are several sequences from artists and writers who are still working today or whose work extended well into the new century (as in the case of Harvey Pekar, who died in 2010). Scenes of Jaime Hernandez (“Love and Rockets”) and Charles Burns (“Big Baby”) explaining the genesis of an episode, then reading it while we watch the finished panels, are a highlight of the film. Not everything works here—I could have done without the silly live-action music video featuring a guy dressed up (badly) as Zippy the Pinhead—and in retrospect, assertions like the one predicting the demise of the superhero make “Comic Book Confidential” look a bit dated. Yet minor quibbles like that pale next to the film’s prescient presentation of contemporary comics as an eminent (but still happily incorrigible) literary form.


This brief trailer has uses a bit of the Dr. John song “Diggin’ on Comix” which played over the film’s opening credits. Great tune but sadly has not popped up anywhere else.

Documentary Spotlight: “Generation Wealth”

If you just can’t get enough of gold-plated toilet seats, garish mansions, stretch limos with hot tubs and even a helipad, and Wall Street guys lighting cigars with $100 bills, you’ll probably want to give the new documentary “Generation Wealth” a look: these are just a few of the conspicuous-consumption visuals on display in this film. Of course, if that kind of thing makes your blood boil like it does mine, you still should have a look. This is ostensibly a cautionary tale about America being the latest example of how, like the Roman Empire, “a society accrues its greatest wealth at the moment that they face death.”


Lauren Greenfield at work in the bathrooms of the filthy rich.

Given the seriousness of that supposition, you might expect “Generation Wealth” to adopt a somewhat more urgent tone: especially considering that the man who exemplifies the ugliest aspects of this pathology of greed is currently the U.S. president. Photojournalist/filmmaker Lauren Greenfield, whose previous doc was 2012’s excellent (and similarly-themed) “The Queen of Versailles,” begin documenting the offspring of the L.A. rich and famous back in the 90s. She grew up in Venice, California and her upper middle-class parents sprung for her to attend the tony Crossroads high school in Santa Monica that many of these kids attended. Greenfield has inserted herself into this work to an extent that rather surprised me. She ends up comparing her obsession with her work projects, and the time it takes away from connecting with her children, with her subjects’ infatuation with wealth and status. This diverts from what I thought should be the main theme: how this American preoccupation with the 1% is helping to shred the social and civic fabric of the nation.

There is a lot more to this topic than just the obvious fall-of-Rome optics in abundance here. Very early on we spend some time with the inappropriately glamorous Eden Wood (as the six year-old star of the notorious TV show “Toddlers and Tiaras”) and her dubious mother. That does lead to some talk about how unfettered capitalism ultimately leads to the “commodification of everything,” including the human body (cue the sex-trade workers and prepare the chamber-of-horrors operating rooms of the body augmenters). Likewise, a little sit-down with former hedge-fund crook Florian Hamm, he of the giant cigar and punchable face, does segue into an exposition about how America’s abandonment of the gold standard (followed closely by the Reagan Revolution) led to the country transforming from an empire of production to an empire of consumption in a few short decades—with all the income inequality that goes with it.


When we used to say “this country is going to the dogs” this wasn’t what we had in mind.

“Generation Wealth” may be an engaging film but at the end of the day this is something less than a full accounting of the issue it’s supposedly confronting. Too often these exasperating and borderline pathetic people are allowed to explain away their nonsensical over-indulgence with little or no counterpoint. Real estate semi-mogul David Siegel, whose stymied effort to build an insanely vulgar 90,000 square-foot home was the subject of “Queen of Versailles,” returns here to inform us that in America if you’re not rich you can at least feel rich and if you don’t want to feel rich, “you’re dead.”

Few people who begrudge anyone making a fortune off their own ingenuity and hard work. But Siegel’s condescending and ridiculous declaration speaks a lot to why the U.S. has approached a state of near-oligarchy. Whether it be the ubiquitous media and public fixation on wealth and stardom, or the Republican Party’s cynical assertion that future tax cuts for the uppermost income brackets will benefit the Average Joe once they magically become rich, this mindset has undercut the importance of maintaining a strong middle class as a check on those who would misuse political or monetary power. We’ve been played for a nation of suckers. “Keeping up with the Joneses” may have been daunting but “Keeping up with the Kardashians” is all but impossible


Sorry, but that won’t be nearly enough to buy you’re way out of hell.

“Generation Wealth” really only offers a couple of voices-of-reason and one of them, incredibly, is the problematic Brett Easton Ellis, author of the infamous “American Pyscho.” Sure, there is lip service to the notion that we are losing a sense of our “authentic culture” along with our critical faculties, and have been left to dream that the world owes us a living. Yet by the last reel, Lauren Greenfield’s workaholic/absentee mom issues seem to have been worked out. We see her new deluxe coffee-table photo book (also called “Generation Wealth”) being printed up and watch as she meets up with some of her subjects at the related art gallery opening. While some of these folks have shown some personal growth, the larger societal problem continues apace. Most tellingly, one of them looks at his younger self, partying in a hot tub with the other spoiled kids, and remarks: “Not much has changed.” How true.
–Rick Ouellette

Documentary Spotlight: Once in a Lifetime, The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos

Soccer may be the world’s most popular spectator sport, but it always had a dickens of a time establishing itself as more than a niche attraction in the United States. In recent years that has changed a bit with the localized success of many Major League Soccer franchises. But for a brief shining moment in the mid to late 1970s, it seemed like the sport was set to go gangbusters. In maneuverings that reached all the way to the White House, the New York Cosmos of the struggling North American Soccer League secured the services of Pele, the world’s reigning futbol superstar, for a reported (and then-unheard-of) $5 million for three years. A gaggle of top international players soon followed, and for the next few years the Cosmos were the toast of the city, selling out Giants Stadium, hobnobbing with stars of stage and screen, and achieving VIP status at Studio 54 at the height of the freewheeling disco era. The fact that the team’s towering success soon collapsed under the weight of its own excesses and mismanagement gives it a classic story arc that should appeal to a larger audience than its core constituency of soccer fans. Once in a Lifetime is as light on its feet as the great man himself: moving this tall tale forward with zippy editing and bemused good humor, providing some classic game highlights, and setting it all to an ingeniously chosen soundtrack of period R&B, rock, and dance music.

All this would not have been possible if not for the curious devotion to soccer of Warner Communications CEO Steve Ross. With a plate already filled with his company’s movie, music, and TV interests, Ross in 1971 threw himself headlong into the role of team owner and had Atlantic Records legend Ahmet Ertegun and his brother running day-to-day operations. In an amusing call-and-response of competing recollections, the since-deceased Ertegun, Warner VP Jay Emmett, Cosmos general manager Clive Toye, and others rehash the tactics used to try and cajole the semi-retired Pele away from Brazil to play for a team that couldn’t claim a permanent home venue. The Brazilian government had by that time designated Pele as a “national treasure,” and the Cosmos ended up needing the help of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who had played the game as a youngster back in his native Germany, to convince officials in Brasilia that it would be a boon for relations between the two countries.

The directors spend close to a third of the film on the pursuit and eventual arrival of Pele in 1975, but it is time well spent as it’s impossible to imagine anything as loosey-goosey happening with today’s media-savvy sports franchises. Before Pele, the most press “exposure” the Cosmos got was when goalkeeper Shep Messing posed nude for Viva magazine; now the international spotlight was suddenly thrust upon this ragtag group of semi-pros. Recovered period footage reveals the strange sight of history’s most famous soccer player, star of three winning World Cup teams, being escorted to Randall’s Island in the East River, where bald patches on the field of ramshackle Downey Stadium had been covered with green spray paint. But Pele played the part of the good trooper, and Steve Ross’s checkbook remained open to import a bevy of overseas stars. Other teams followed suit, leading to a league top-heavy with talent that was able to draw big crowds—for a time, anyway.


Pele lining up in front of his teammate/nemesis Giorgio Chinaglia.

Pele, who declined to be interviewed, remains a legendary presence in Once in a Lifetime. But Crowder and Dower bag a lot of the Cosmos’ big names: Franz Beckenbauer, the stolid captain of a West German World Cup winner; Pele’s Brazilian national side teammate Carlos Alberto; and the flamboyant, high-scoring Italian striker Giorgio Chinaglia. It is Chinaglia who nearly steals the film (a montage of his vainglorious goal celebrations is one of the best things in it) and is unapologetic as the ingratiating schemer who got under the skin of the emotional Pele. When the Brazilian left after his three-year contract—characteristically, he went out as a champion—Chinaglia nearly hijacked the franchise, attaching himself to Steve Ross, getting coaches fired, and nearly running the club from his locker, where he kept his ever-present bottle of Chivas Regal.


Chinaglia celebrates the wonder of himself after scoring in inclement weather.

Although this Wild West atmosphere played a part in the league’s ignominious folding in 1984, the directors take pains to show that the groundwork had been laid for future successes. Although the free-flowing, low-scoring game remains a tough sell with many Americans, they point to the U.S. hosting the World Cup in 1994 (a dream of Ross’, though he died in 1992) and the establishment of the NASL’s better-adjusted successor, Major League Soccer. Of course, the glittery temptations of yore have not been totally denied—witness the MSL’s spike in attendance when modern-day icon David Beckham signed with their Los Angeles team in 2007.

(True-blue soccer buffs will want to get the DVD version that as an extra feature shows extended highlights of three matches broadcast by ABC Sports. The first is Pele’s 1977 farewell game where he scores on a howitzer of a free kick after backing up about eight paces. The other two are championship games featuring the post-Pele Cosmos: the 1980 and ’81 Soccer Bowl ).

Documentary Spotlight: “Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life”

The United States today is a house divided and the ghost of Ayn Rand has driven a bulldozer through the middle of it as a finishing touch. If that seems a bit unfair to say of a writer-philosopher who has been dead since 1982, it isn’t. Rand was fond of saying that “philosophy moves the world” and in her case it’s certainly true. Her two most famous novels—“The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged”—have been deliriously influential with everyone from impressionable teenagers to top-ranking Republican lawmakers and right-wing commentators. Rand’s theory of “Objectivism” held that “man’s right to live for his own sake” was so absolute that selfishness was a virtue (her phrase) and altruism became a dirty word.

It was twenty years ago that this 145-minute filibuster of a film was nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar. This was an “authorized” (i.e. uncritical) profile and while writer-director Michael Paxton does a creditable job scoping out Rand’s personal story, anyone not already converted to her world view may sense that “A Sense of Life” has only a black hole where its soul should be. After two and a half hours spent in witness to the glorification of self-centeredness, it’s easy to feel that way.

Rand’s belief system was inexorably tied to her biography (probably too much so) and the film delineates this quite well for its own purposes. She was born as Alisa Rosenbaum in 1905 St. Petersburg as Russia was about to go through a series of convulsive political conflicts. Some of these she and her upper middle-class family watched from the windows of their apartment that looked down on the city’s main square. The Rosenbaum clan did not fare well when Lenin’s Bolsheviks eventually seized power; they had to temporarily flee St. Petersburg and Ayn’s beloved father lost his pharmacy to the state. If the headstrong teenager didn’t care for the “hopeless, mystical and obedient” life under the czar, she disliked the iron-handed statism of the Communists even less and dreamt of escaping to America, specifically to California as she had fallen under the spell of glamorous early Hollywood.


You say you want a revolution? St. Petersburg 1917

Right from these opening segments—with its period film clips, family photos and early intellectual musings—there is no doubt of the film’s professionalism. Rand’s story arc has a parallel historical context that serves it well. But after Rand manages her escape to America in 1926 (her first glimpse of glittering Lower Manhattan high-rises in a lifting fog cemented her lifelong skyscraper fetish) the biography goes full speed ahead while the film’s raison d’etre stays stuck in neutral. So for a documentary junkie like me, it was engaging to get some background on Rand’s early days as a Hollywood extra and aspiring screenwriter, like how a chance meeting with famed director Cecil B. DeMille got her a needed career boost.

Rand’s screenplay dreams were never quite fulfilled and she eventually soured of Tinseltown, though not before meeting her future husband (Frank O’Connor, a DeMille B-actor) and securing U.S. citizenship. Having come of age in the early days of Soviet rule, nobody can begrudge her love of America’s “optimistic, can-do” spirit. The other qualities of her adopted country, its “benevolence and common sense”, were soon dropped from her repertoire, starting with her first novel “We the Living”, published in 1936 (“Who can tell me why I should live for anything but for that which I want?”). An ideological love triangle that takes place in post-revolutionary Russia, it takes dead aim at Soviet extremism, but treats it like an absolute evil that sprung up with no context. This tack was continued two years later in her next book “Anthem.” Sure, the draconian application by the Bolsheviks of the communal Marxist idea was an historical cruelty. But did that make it necessary to believe that “the word ‘we’ must never be placed first in my soul (or) it becomes a monster.” And just in case you still thought that pronoun wasn’t so bad, Rand begins the next paragraph by declaring, “’We’ is as lime poured over men, which sets and hardens to stone, and crushes all beneath it.”

I mean, WTF??? Continue down this road of thinking and pretty soon there is no difference between Mother Theresa and Josef Stalin. Of course, the interviewees in “A Sense of Life” don’t see it that way. The subject’s brilliance is a given according to talking heads like Leonard Peikoff and Harry Binswanger, who are not only Randian scholars but former associates of her as well. Seldom is heard a discouraging word and the value of Objectivism is blindly held up as a paragon of the human race while its alleged polar opposite, Collectivism, is so bad that the use of the word is proof enough. All this despite the fact that a close reading of Rand would lead a truly “objective” person to conclude that she believes the evils of the “C” word range from a Communist re-education camp to the donation of gently-used Clothing to a homeless shelter.

Instead, the documentary focuses on her bio and the success of her 1943 novel “The Fountainhead.” There are several clips from the film version made six years later and starring Gary Cooper as Howard Roark, the vainglorious modern architect who blows up a nearly-completed housing project because “second-handers” altered his design with conventional modifications. This gives the producers a way to let enabling experts hash out Roark’s rapey seduction scene (Cooper’s co-star was Patricia Neal) and glorify his brain-freeze courtroom speech which has got to be history’s most tortured defense of property destruction. (“I came here to say that I do not recognize anyone’s right to one minute of my life” etc.)

It then moves on to Rand’s magnum opus “Atlas Shrugged,” that giant millstone of 20th century literature that the filmmakers point out was named the second most influential book after the Bible by a 1991 Library of Congress survey. In this tome, all the poor-little rich kid industrialists and innovators of the world, convinced that the human race doesn’t deserve their genius, go on strike. There is a wee step off the pedestal here as the film shows the viciously negative reviews the book got in the days before the “mainstream media” became a dirty word to many on the right. But not all critics came from the left side of the divide. William F. Buckley, in later years, discussed his magazine’s infamous panning of the book with TV host Charlie Rose. The conservative icon said that while he found “The Fountainhead” engaging he thought that “Atlas” was “a thousand pages of ideological fabulism” and added, “I had to flog myself to read it.” By the time the novel ends, with subversive alpha-male inventor John Galt’s skull-imploding 75-page global radio broadcast, you can almost hear the jackboots in the background. But still, millions of people have swallowed this whole. And Rand’s numerous TV appearances in later life didn’t stem the tide of her widespread acceptance. The film shows segments of her sparing with the likes of Phil Donahue, Mike Wallace and Tom Snyder. Sample exchange on the idea of helping others: Donahue: “What’s wrong with that?” Rand: “What’s wrong with suicide?”


Answer: John Oliver’s original “douchebag.”

That is why Buckley’s comment is so telling. He wasn’t afraid at least to see that this magical-thinking mindset was a dead-end street. Rand’s rigorous ideas, though they may have often been short-sighted, did not include any great love for Republicans like Ronald Reagan. But what she begat is even worse: a controlling cabal of GOP leaders (and fanboys) like Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz whose lily-livered opportunism led to obscene tax cuts for “persecuted” billionaires and profound disregard for anyone lesser than that. They stood down in the face of the new President (and ultimate Randian monster) Donald Trump, the tawdry narcissist and duplicitous hate-monger of bottomless greed who scammed millions of Americans into voting against their interests. How do I know this? Because Ayn Rand told me so. She warned about the rise of demagogues in a society where many folks have weakened themselves to the point of mental infirmity, saying they “would be anxious to follow anyone because they don’t trust themselves.” You said it, girl.


Soon-to be-ex House Speaker Paul Ryan: the type of man produced after decades of devolved Rand worship

There’s nothing wrong with prosperity, personal confidence, enlightened self-interest or admiring the work of bold architects. But if any human quality gets taken to its extreme end point it is corrupted. And if those faults are intrinsic to any person of great power or influence, chaos and misery follow for everyone, infecting even the perpetrator (Trump gives off the appearance of a hellishly unhappy man). Even the Rand-inspired website The Atlas Society notes that Ayn was “an intelligent, creative woman embittered by circumstances, stand-offish by nature and raised unconnected to any wider community or tradition.” I wished this rubber-stamp documentary had had the guts to likewise challenge itself instead of perpetuating the myth of her assumed greatness. Despite what she may have had us believe Other People Matter and if we start thinking they don’t it is a long downhill slide for the world and one that I fear has already begun, judging from the increase in authoritarian states and weakened democracies. It’s way too late to change Rand’s mind but We The Living should reject her overall philosophy while there is still time.

Rick Ouellette is the author of Documentary 101: A Viewer’s Guide to Non-Fiction Film and Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey.