Documentary Spotlight

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.

Documentary Spotlight: No Place for “Big Charity” in the age of none

Big Charity
Directed by Alex Glustrom–2015–63 minutes

The French Quarter may have survived the 2005 devastation brought on by Hurricane Katrina, but some of New Orleans’ poorer neighborhoods, like the Lower Ninth Ward, were not so lucky and never fully recovered. The greatest institutional loss for the city, especially for those sections of town, had to be the historic Mercy Hospital. Its last iteration was the handsome and hulking Art Deco behemoth that was located downtown just two blocks from the Superdome. The hospital’s forced closing after sustaining relatively minor damage during Katrina, and the larger social implications of the shutdown, is the story of this thoughtful and quietly indignant film.

A lot can be known about Charity Hospital simply by looking at its name. The 1940 building that now stands abandoned was preceded by several others, dating back to 1736. It was founded by a French shipbuilder who stipulated a beneficent institution for the poor in his will. It kept up that model straight into the early 21st century in the giant 1939 building raised by taxpayer money and operated by the Daughters of Charity in their distinctive cornettes. With its crazy-quilt egalitarian alliances and 2700 beds, Big Charity (as it was commonly known) was not only an invaluable local resource, but the safety net hospital for the whole state of Louisiana. The building featured inspirational phrases inscribed in the lobby (“Where the Unusual Occurs, Miracles Happen”) and idealistic New Deal friezes; even it’s layout, with two extensive projecting wings resembling arms in an embrace, seemed to suggest its ages-old benevolence.

But the ad hoc coalition of community goodwill, government largesse and the nunnery was bound to be strained over a long period of shifting economics and the gradual gentrification of health care. Big Charity was eventually subsumed by the nearby Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center. The hospital that stayed afloat through the Antebellum era, the Reconstruction and the advent of modern inner-city poverty, would get sunk by the notion that such places now need to be “destination facilities.” The catalyst for Charity’s demise was Katrina. Director Alex Glustrom excels in mapping out the discouraging chain of events at the hospital during the late August ’05 hurricane and the suspicious aftermath. Katrina was strong enough to shake the gargantuan building but aside from a severely flooded basement it seemingly escaped the worst.

But while Charity may have survived a Category 5 cyclone, it was no match for the institutional power play that came next. While caregivers scrambled to provide critical services without power, evacuation helicopters bypassed Charity, in more ways than one. By alternating the recollections of doctors, nurses and support staff with news footage and home video shot on the scene, Glustrom re-constructs a distressing portrait of the hospital’s sudden and shocking marginalization. Even more saddening, in the bigger picture, is the on-camera testimony of military officers whose men and women then came in and helped with evacuation, pumped out the basement and did a fix-up job on the facilities post-haste. But when they reported to LSU that the building was all ready to be re-booted they were flatly told there were no plans to reopen it.

Charity was shut up tight and its critical services unceremoniously moved to a tent city inside a closed shopping mall (the archival footage making it seem, depressingly, like a Third World scenario). Meanwhile, the old building was mysteriously infiltrated by a group of people who methodically “scuttled” the facilities. When the federal disaster relief payoff came it was a half-billion bucks for a new mega-health center, even though a modern rehab of Mercy Hospital would have cost a fraction of that. And so it goes.

Of course, reasonable people could disagree on whether or not a state-of-the-art new facility would be a better value in the long run. The more crucial issue is the overbearing influence of mega-institutions of the 21st century getting their way in every situation. The contrast between the quiet compassion of the Charity caregivers vs. the bloodless bottom-line certainties of the LSU administration is chilling. At the top of this too-big-too-fail pyramid is the Health Sciences Center chancellor, Dr. Larry Hollier. In a USA drifting towards a you’re-on-your-own default mindset, with a president well-known for his personal perversions and general heartlessness, this is the “nice” face of a screw-you philosophy.

Hollier politely tells us the LSU center is “moving away from indigent care.” as if that will solve the problem of indigence. The bulldozing of several blocks of the adjacent Mid-City neighborhood, to make way for the new complex, is termed an “inconvenience.” (This includes the demolition of many homes rebuilt post-Katrina). While Mercy Hospital remains a giant ghost shell of a building with many tales to tell, its walled-off impersonal replacement is now in place and there was no way it was going to carry over the old name. The word charity nowadays is seen by people as a “stigma” declares Dr. Hollier. Based on what I’ve seen in this moving documentary, I think a clear majority of New Orleans residents would disagree. If the doctor wants to find a person who believes that statement, he can start with a look in the mirror.

Documentary Spotlight: Albert Maysle’s “In Transit”

On Labor Day weekend, at the end of a summer season that was among the most divisive in modern American history, I slipped into the Brattle Theater in Harvard Square for a well-attended screening of Albert Maysles’ final film, In Transit. The nominal subject is Amtrak’s popular Empire Builder route between Chicago and Seattle. But it’s more about the human connections made possible by the relaxed close proximity of passengers and staff on a train moving over great distances. I came out of it more hopeful about the future than I probably had the right to be, considering the rise of racial extremism, political putrefaction and the torturous first months in office of a president whose every waking hour seems dedicated to narcissism and ill will.

Albert Maysles, who died at age 88 in March of 2015, will always be remembered for the great documentaries of the Sixties and Seventies he made with his brother David, who passed away in 1987. Chief among these, of course, was Salesman, Grey Gardens and Gimme Shelter. The brothers were also instrumental in the advent of the rock film when they were the first to film the Beatles on their First U.S. Visit (as it was later known on DVD). To find out more on this story, see the review in the excerpt of my book ROCK DOCS, by clicking on the cover image in the right hand column.

The Maysles were known for being in the right place at the right time and this is also the case with Albert’s last work, made with co-directors Lynn True, David Usul, Nelson Walker III and Benjamin Wu. Trump may not have president yet when the film was produced (it debuted in 2015 and is only in limited release even now) but America’s deep socio-political fault lines were already a much covered subject by then. In Transit is a compact (only 76 minutes long) and very welcome update on the idea that the cause of human diplomacy, and the betterment of the human condition, is best achieved when conditions are optimal.


A great fatherly pronouncement: “There’s part of the human spirit that will not be snuffed out.”

So it is here. As opposed to the isolation of car trips, or the increasingly frustrating and cramped nature of air travel, unhurried long-distance train rides lend themselves to both contemplation aided by passing scenery and social mingling by passengers free to roam the aisles. And this is what happens, in a style that could be called enhanced cinema verite. The subjects know they are being filmed but Maysles’ trademark unobtrusive style keeps them at their ease. A look at the trailer below will give you a good idea of the film’s thoughtful tone. People are trying to find themselves or lose themselves, others are coming from or going to meet-ups with relatives, friends and potential partners with various degrees of optimism or apprehension. Some are living out old-fashioned notions of romantic travel while still others are looking for better employment opportunities, in this case mostly in the North Dakota oil fields. Everybody is “in transit” in more ways than one.

What you don’t get in this exceptionally serene film is any sense of the distressing breakdown of civility that has been exacerbated by the anonymity and callousness that so often defines our frazzled online age. The fleeting friendship between an older white ex-soldier with PTSD and a young and very pregnant black woman fleeing a bad relationship to deliver her baby near her family in Minneapolis is one of several touching encounters that. It unpretentiously shows the value of empathetic conversation and self-reflection that otherwise may have turned to fodder for the free-ranging resentments of social media’s darker forces. The Empire Builder may start and end in the blue states of Illinois and the Pacific Northwest while travelling thru several very red states, but here at least the rips in the social fabric seem to have the potential to be sewn back together a bit by nothing so revolutionary as a face-to-face coming to terms, both with your fellow citizen-passengers and the face that’s reflected back to you when looking out at the wide open spaces of the world we inhabit. What a wonderful parting gift from Mr. Maysles

Documentary Spotlight: “Citizen Jane: Battle for the City”

Director Matt Trynauer’s new documentary “Citizen Jane” is both a welcome film bio of the late author-activist-urban theorist Jane Jacobs and a fortifying reminder of how committed and creative “people power” can be more than a match against monolithic government and business interests when they have negated any sense of human decency. Jacobs was a writer and magazine editor living in Manhattan’s West Village who developed a homegrown value system about what makes cities work best, an ideal of people-centric short blocks with mixed usage and a vital network of safe and productive interconnectedness among a diverse population. This was spelled out in her first book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” first published in 1961 and a work that is still influential to this day.

“Death and Life” was both a celebration of spontaneous urban vitality and an unabashed assault on the doctrinal city planning theories of the day, which centered on the construction of endless rows of monolithic housing towers cut through with multi-lane expressways. All this would be accomplished by first enabling the wholesale demolition of the “slum” neighborhoods that Jacobs saw as vital communities. As per the film’s subtitle, a large chunk of “Citizen Jane” concerns the high-profile contest of wills between her and the imperious Robert Moses, New York City’s powerful city-planning czar.


Not the best of friends: Jacobs and Moses.

Moses in his earlier days was known as an enlightened master builder. His first major project was the populist and popular Jones Beach State Park, opened in 1929. By the Fifties and early Sixties, however, he was firmly aligned with the visionary but abstracted Modernist dictates most associated with Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier. Jacobs thought these ideas were poisonous and was pretty blunt about it (the first sentence “The Death and Life” is “This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding”). In the trailer below, you can get a taste for Moses’ arrogance. He refers to certain neighborhoods as “cancerous” and insists that his projects will be bulled through at whatever the cost. It was a typical urban renewal attitude at the time and one that Jacobs said made people feel as no more than “subjects of a conquering power.”

That all began to change when Moses wanted to build a road straight through the historic and well-loved Washington Square park in Greenwich Village, for no other discernible reason other than he thought he could and perhaps to extend fashionably expensive Fifth Avenue. Jacobs sprang into action. File footage, period newscasts and TV appearances show a blunt but savvy organizer who could marshal great support (future NYC mayor Ed Koch was one of her early allies) and counteract elitist and sexist belittlement with attention-grabbing tactics (concerned citizens crowding city hall meetings, baby-carriage blockades). When the Washington Sq. road plan was nixed, it was the first setback for Robert Moses, who saw himself as an embodiment of the “Great Man” theory but whom Jacobs breezily derided as being “scared of life.”

There would be other battles to follow and Trynaeur does a pretty fair job of hashing these out for a general audience, with help from interviewees like Anthony Flint (who wrote the book “Wrestling with Moses” on this subject), architect Robert A.M. Stern, architecture critic Paul Goldberger and others. While the presentation here tends to be one-sided, the film does well to trace the gradual ascendancy of Jacobs’ ideas and Moses’ concurrent (and also gradual) fall from grace, with examples like his failure to raze 16 square blocks of her beloved West Village in the name of urban renewal.

For me, the most vivid case history in “Citizen Jane” is the saga of the would-be Lower Manhattan Expressway (LOMEX), a double-pronged Ayn Randian nightmare of a ten-lane highway topped with a Space Age ziggurat on one end. This would have obliterated large chunks of Soho, Little Italy and the Cast Iron district while presumably letting the oligarchs look down on those left behind in the exhaust and neglect, many of them crammed into the long-discredited housing projects that are a prime part of the legacy for Robert Moses and his ilk.


Fountainhead Folly? This proposal for LOMEX dwarfs even the Manhattan Bridge.

New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller finally shelved the LOMEX project in 1971 and for good measure accepted the last in a long line of Moses’ fit-of-pique resignation letters. Today, Jacobs’ insistence that people need to shape cities for themselves is pretty well embedded. Community input in urban planning is much more prevalent and the public realm in New York and other big cities is often safer and more welcoming for residents and visitors alike. Huge problems remain of course with gentrification and income disparity and the same authoritarian attitudes prevalent in America in the 50s and 60s have been exported: one talking head here describes city planning in China today as “Robert Moses on steroids.” But Jane Jacobs’ idea that our cities are an ecosystem that needs to be understood and cared for to be truly successful can also be exported, and reinforced here at home, and a viewing of “Citizen Jane” would be a good place to start.

Documentary Spotlight: “Karl Marx City”

What was it like to grow up in the most surveillanced society in history? And just what are the possible after-effects when that heavy-handed system of secret police and informers all comes apart in a matter of weeks? Petra Epperlein grew up in the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and was a very young woman at the time of its rather sudden collapse in 1989. In the fascinating new film that bears the title of her hometown, Epperlein (who co-directed the film along with her husband-partner Michael Tucker) explains that there was nothing that extraordinary about her childhood where she, along with her family and millions of other East German citizens, played the “go along to get along” game as well as possible. But when her seemingly well-adjusted father commits suicide a decade after re-unification, the questions that arise would eventually lead to this documentary. What the couple came up with is a work that combines elements of a personal film essay with an engrossing retrospective deep dive into the history of the GDR’s infamous secret police (known as the Stasi) with some relevant cautionary signposts for our society along the way.

“Karl Marx City” does start out a bit slowly, with Epperlein’s cautious buildup of the narrative of her family’s fairly normal life within the context of a repressive Eastern Bloc nation. Or was it all as unremarkable as it seemed. When it’s discovered that her father was receiving anonymous and vaguely threatening letters prior to taking his own life, it becomes imperative to probe deeper and eventually led Epperlein back to city where she grew up, which is notable for having a bust of Karl Marx’s head that is so colossal that they didn’t even bother trying to knock it down when most symbols of the old regime (most notably the Berlin Wall) met a similar fate in late 1989 and early 1990.

Petra Epperlein has produced several films with her husband, the most well known probably being “Gunner Palace” from 2004, about young American soldiers stationed at one of Saddam Hussein’s palatial compounds during the Iraq War. Here, Petra goes before the camera in many scenes, more often than not holding her boom mic, interviewing her former neighbors or experts in the field of Iron Curtain dirty dealings. And what a business it was. East Germany was a country with a population of about 17 million but with 92,000 secret police officers aided by some 200,000 informers.

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Karl Mark City, with 12,000 snitches all to itself, is presented as a microcosm of the country, with constant snooping and a population permanently divided by mistrust—the real Orwellian 1984. In a land where it’s said if three people are sitting at a table, one is an informer, Epperlein has to at least speculate that maybe her dad was one of those informers.
In the dual pursuit of personal closure and historical reporting, the directors spend a good chunk of the film’s middle third inside the mammoth vaults of the Stasi’s former headquarters, where former GDR citizens can view the files of themselves and family. Here among the 111 kilometers of aisles are some 41 million index cards (!!) of gathered personal information. This is where “KMC” really gains some heft, as we begin to feel the mind-boggling end result of the state’s pathological pursuit of “conspiratorial objectives” (in the memorable phrase of an ex-Stasi agent). Epperlein and Tucker also make great use of old surveillance camera footage, blending it in with their own stark B&W imagery, and making for a beguiling re-creation of a place where “the enemy is everyone.”

In the case of Epperlein’s father, some of those old dictates seems to have carried over. And although there is some closure and a measure of redemption here for Epperlein and her family, there is no skirting the issue of the long psychic hangover after the fall of the GDR. The former socialist state has had significant problems with de-population as people (esp. younger women) have fled to the former West Germany and elsewhere: it’s asserted that Karl Marx City (which quickly reverted to its historical name of Chemnitz) had the lowest birth rate in the world soon after re-unification, while whole neighborhoods were left deserted, waiting for demolition. The use of “conspirative objectives” to gain political advantage is a problem not confined to former police states, as the recent U.S. election has shown us. At the recent screening of “Karl Marx City” at the Salem (MA) Film Fest where I saw this, Epperlein stressed the needed “responsibility to be vigilant of a democratic state.” These are words that should be well-heeded from someone who grew up in a place that was “stuck between an abandoned past and an unredeemed future.”

Documentary Spotlight: Jaco

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JACO
Directed by Paul Marchand & Stephen Kijak—2015—117 minutes

While viewing and reviewing the more than 150 films that are the subject of my upcoming book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey (available this fall), I came across several sad tales of musicians who have struggled with mental health issues while trying to make it in the hothouse business of touring and recording. This documentary about acclaimed jazz-fusion bassist Jaco Pastorius arrived a little late (2015) to fit into the book’s timeline, which is 1964-2014. Yet it follows a trajectory that is somewhat familiar—a talented but sometimes unpredictable person whose illness is slow to develop and hard to reconcile with when fully manifested.

Other musical bios of this ilk—What Happened, Miss Simone? and You’re Going to Miss Me: A Film about Roky Erickson jump to mind—seem to have this hurt and confusion built into their titles. Though this doc is simply called Jaco and is made with the protective approval of his family, it does not totally hide the pain in what is basically a straight tribute to a man who died in 1987. It’s produced by Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo, who’s also one of the many musicians testifying here for a man much-loved by fans and contemporaries alike. Aside from the praise, Jaco’s story is interesting in and of itself. He grew up in south Florida, a super-energetic kid who played sports and loved music. Like his vocalist father, Pastorius was soon making the rounds as a player on the Ft. Lauderdale-Miami club circuit, first as a drummer then on the electric bass guitar.

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This lesser-known geographical scene is described as a place “with no musical prejudice” and it’s a compelling notion borne out with the recollections of family members and old bandmates telling of an absorption in styles like jazz, rock, Afro-Caribbean and even a little country. From there, two distinct life trajectories take hold. First, Jaco was married and a first-time (but not last time) father while still of high school age. He would be married twice and often described as a family man. There are numerous home videos and snapshots of him with spouse and kids, frolicking on the beach, cartwheeling, playing football or Frisbee. Yet his prodigious talent did not go unnoticed or unexploited. So by age 21, he was in New York working with the likes of Lenny White and Herbie Hancock, even getting some session work on an early solo LP by ex-Mott the Hoople frontman Ian Hunter. This exuberant young man was a curious mixture of innocence and arrogance and he casually advertised himself as the “greatest bass player ever.”

Many fans and colleagues would soon agree. His playing style—elastic, expressive and often fierce—proved very popular outside the margins of the more traditional jazz fan base. The tendency to play fleet-fingered runs on his instrument’s upper register and his innate showmanship started drawing rock-audience crowds in 1975 after he joined the fusion band Weather Report with two Miles Davis alumni: keyboardist Josef Zawinul and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. This electric atmosphere is seen in late 70s concert footage, both in WR band numbers like their signature “Birdland” or in his solo spotlights where both his unique approach to fretless harmonics and his Pete Townshend-like theatrics were given free reign.

But though Pastorius was a key member of Weather Report for seven years (while also releasing a couple of well-received solo records) the informed viewer just knows that there’s trouble a-brewing and it arrives in due course. Jaco and Zawinul are described as “two cobras inside a very small cage” and the bassist as someone who “respected his jazz elders but wasn’t above ruffling their feathers” (Zawinul was almost twenty years older). Likewise, Joni Mitchell, on the lookout for “originals” to help define her widening musical horizons in the late Seventies, says she found a kindred soul in Pastorius but also soon found he could be a bit much to handle. And when you lose that jazz-player balance between individual expression and teamwork, things can go sour in a hurry. Jaco found this out at the Havana Jam in 1979 when he we into “self-destruct mode” for what should have been a sure-thing fusion power-trio jam with drummer Tony Williams and guitarist John McLaughlin.

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Though Pastorius kept up his end for several years in the spotlight—living frugally on the road and sending money home to the family—substance abuse and extremely erratic behavior brought on by lingering mental health issues caught up with him in a big way. He was diagnosed as bipolar in 1982 and spent several weeks at NYC’s Bellevue Hospital. But without much of a support system (at least from reading between the lines here) he was soon busking for spare change in Washington Square and eventually landed back in south Florida, one and off his meds and sleeping in a park. His demise could hardly have been sadder: he died days after being severely beaten by a bouncer for trying to kick his way into a nightclub that his volatile behavior got him banned from. The culprit ended up doing four months in jail.

I’m not suggesting that Trujillo and his two directors should have dwelled on all this overmuch, after all this is a tribute film and a fine one at that. But in the end, the short shrift given to Jaco’s troubled later years is a bit baffling. Maybe after all this time it just seems inevitable that he was one of those destined to leave us early. Pastorius told a friend once that he expected to die at age 34 and ended up being only a year off. So while the testimonials come early and often here (Herbie Hancock, Carlos Santana, Joni, Flea, Sting etc.) the full recognition of the mental health issue here seems lacking. His long-time bandmate Wayne Shorter grapples with this the most of anyone here, rhetorically asking “who’s to say that a chemical imbalance is a fault of nature” and suggesting it “ushers into action” a certain greatness otherwise unattainable. That has proven to be sometimes true but many fans may have traded a little less greatness for a longer life, and much more music-making, from Jaco the man. The legend could wait.

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Documentary Spotlight: You’ve Been Trumped

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You’ve Been Trumped
Directed by Anthony Baxter–2011–95 minutes

We are obliged to live in a world with a multitude of political opinions, social attitudes and lifestyle choices. This naturally causes all sorts of random discontents when different values knock against each other. But I always thought there was one thing people all across the spectrum could agree on: that the junior sociopaths that roamed the hallways and recess yards of elementary schools everywhere—calling you humiliating nicknames with no provocation, ridiculing you for being in the bathroom too long, pushing you down in gym class when the teacher had his back turned—would recede from your life by high school at the latest and be recalled with the utmost disdain in adult life if even thought of at all. Boy, am I naïve. Just give this same asshole a trust fund and a tawdry reality TV show and, in an age of celebrity overlords and toxic conservative talk shows, you get people voting for (and even worshipping) the same pathologically insecure bully that would have once pummeled them for the milk money. And for President of the United States!! I don’t believe there’s nearly enough bamboozled voters to elect Donald Trump. But I was also wrong in thinking that nobody would ever pull a lever for a candidate that calls them “stupid” to their face, just like he would have if he knew them in 5th grade.

So the title You’ve Been Trumped neatly sums up this blood-boiling 2011 documentary directed by Anthony Baxter and produced and co-written by Richard Phinney. It’s a gritty, ground-level film witness to Trump’s vulgar tactics on a smaller scale (but blessedly without the misdirected popular support we now see in the States) as we experience Trump pushing through plans to build an enormous jet-set golf resort near a pristine stretch of coastline north of Aberdeen, Scotland. The filmmaker’s sympathies are clear as a group of local residents, who have the audacity to own humble properties in the path of the tycoon’s grandiose scheme, refuse to budge—even in the face of a government Compulsory Purchase Order (eminent domain). The starry-eyed deferment to fame and fortune in its modern media-age manifestation provides the film’s rich subtext.

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The Aberdeenshire regional council at first rejects the plan but after the Scottish Parliament “calls in” that decision, the project is approved, despite the site’s official designation as a grade-one conservation area. Baxter shoots a scene at a Trump-attended groundbreaking event, where fawning local officials and business people realize that their lives are being touched by an actual Celebrity, and one ready to throw a lot of money around. A nearby college, not to be outdone, desperately bestows Trump with an honorary degree even as credible experts warn of the steep environmental cost.

Throughout You’ve Been Trumped Baxter inserts scenes from Bill Forsyth’s amiable (and analogous) 1983 fiction film Local Hero. There, the plans of an American oil baron (Burt Lancaster) to buy out a coastal enclave on Scotland’s west coast and replace it with a refinery are complicated when the hotshot executive he sends there as an advance party (Peter Riegert) is lured by the charms of the village’s slow-lane lifestyle. How quaint. Nowadays, a guy like “The Donald” doesn’t have to waste his time courting skeptical residents. According to him, the property of Michael Forbes, the flinty old-school farmer who’s at the forefront of local resistance, is “slum-like and disgusting” and the man “lives like a pig.” Trump has always liked to come on like a streetwise New Yorker (despite his silver spoon) and his blustering reputation precedes him by a country mile. This kick-out-the-poor attitude is less objectionable nowadays where (notably in the U.S.) a certain obsessive fixation on wealth and fame has elevated the likes of him to an iconic status that often “trumps” any solidarity one may have once felt with the general population.

With the skids greased by the city fathers, who seem to have imported this mindset, Trump quickly moves in. His earthmovers are soon moving “biblical” amounts of sand to make way for the two 18-hole golf courses, depositing one of Britain’s largest sand dune systems next to the homes of those who don’t like him and encroaching on their property lines. In one of the film’s more telling scenes, the local police arrest Baxter (and rather roughly at that) for filming an interview with project opponent Susan Munro, in her own driveway.

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It’s true that for certain socio-political types (like those partial to muckraking documentaries) a figure like Trump will remain an easy target of scorn. He’s the conceited blowhard whose bloated, self-titled building projects blight the old majesty of Manhattan, the condescending candidate whose first (short-lived) run for the American presidency rested on the despicable “birther” platform, the TV host of “Celebrity Apprentice” who gets his jollies watching washed-up stars like Gary Busey and Meatloaf grovel from the other side of a mahogany conference table. To a person like Susan Munro, Trump is no more than someone “with a few pounds in his pocket and a bit of a name.” The question coursing through the film is whether her outlook, serving as a great leveler when multiplied across the body politic, will win out or will more people imagine that they are just a lottery win or reality-show appearance or viral video away from joining Donald in the gentrified ranks of the 1%.

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While the intrepid Baxter is tracking down Trump at press conferences and parliamentary hearings, the opponents attract a group of sympathizers who flock to a protest march and to a Trump-mocking art show held in a barn on Forbes’ farm. One of them is Mickey Foote, who in another lifetime was producer of the Clash’s first album. Now living near-by, Foote speaks knowingly about the limits of Forbes’ newfound local celebrity vs. Trump’s international stature and to what’s being lost in the deal (“a fantastic open space within reach of ordinary people.”) These scenes of citizen camaraderie may be seen as gratifying but one can only be left thinking what the future holds in an age of gaping income inequality that forms the broader background of this theme. While Trump gloats about the few hundred service-sector positions available at his resort, we’re seemingly left with an untouchable upper class run amuck in a return to a medieval-style oligarchy, with government and law enforcement in their pocket. You’ve Been Trumped smartly played out this disheartening scenario in miniature, now a more frightening version is being played out on a much bigger scale.

Documentary Spotlight: Hands on a Hard Body

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Hands on a Hard Body
Directed by S.R. Bindler—1997—94 minutes

It’s hard not to enjoy an earnest indie doc about aspirational Americans and I would be hard pressed to find anything objectionable on the surface of 1997’s “Hands on a Hard Body.” This film about an East Texas endurance contest, in which the last person standing with one hand on a Nissan pickup truck wins the vehicle, won an audience award at the L.A. Film Festival the year it came out and was later made into a musical co-written by Trey Anatasio. That play eventually made it onto Broadway for a month and garnered three Tony nominations.

I had long been interested in this cult film, whose scant availability on home video kept it from inclusion in my reference book “Documentary 101.” I recently chanced upon a DVD of it for a dollar at a library book sale, making me glad I was far too sensible to ever shell out they $84 they were asking on Amazon. I must admit to a bit of an inner smirk when I saw the printed legend on the box that read “You lose the contest when you lose your mind,” presumably a quote from one of the competitors. My initial reaction to an event I would consider inherently demeaning would be more like “You lose your mind when you enter the contest.” Below that quote, critic Todd McCarthy enthused “A classic piece of Americana… produces gales of laughter.” While I don’t remember laughing once, I did come away from the film with much respect for the contestants while still bemoaning the chronic fragility of an American economic system that would make such a contest viable.

Movie fans of a certain age may well recall Sydney Pollack’s 1969 feature “The Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” based on the 1935 novel by Horace McCoy. It depicts a particularly humiliating Depression-era dance marathon as dramatized by McCoy, who had worked as a bouncer at such events. Flash forward six decades later and while there may not be a widespread depression, there are still people who will go to great lengths either to win badly-needed money or a commodity they could otherwise not afford. Gone are the up-front exploitations of the callous marathon MC played by Gig Young in “They Shoot Horses.” In fact, the folks at the Jack Long Nissan dealership in Longview, Texas couldn’t be any nicer and the co-sponsoring radio station plays it up as a wholesome community event.

And it gives every indication of being so. The contestants don’t feel they are being played and it would be an ungenerous viewer who would begrudge them for being there. It’s easy for me to be all high-minded and say to myself that I would rather walk to work for the next hundred years than to be there. But many for the 22 people lined up around the pickup at the start, this here is for real. Not having to make payments on a vehicle can mean the difference of not having to get a second job or whether or not you can afford night classes. Moreover, in workaday East Texas, “cars don’t make money, trucks make money” a worthy observation that is fleshed out in the video clip from the musical at the end of the post.

So the willing participants gamely join in for a few days of sleep deprivation, boredom, back strain, mosquitoes and, eventually, contagious laughter and delirium. But through it all, they keep their spirits positive and graciously answer the questions of the filmmakers, while either at the truck or during the breaks (five minutes an hour, thirty minutes every six hours). An intrepid few keep their stamina up to last past the 75-hour mark. By this time, whoever is left has earned much respect and those who had to drop out are not bitter but have found a valuable takeaway. Paul, one of the older entrants for whom this can be particularly difficult says the contest showed him that “you don’t pay attention to who’s right beside you (in life) and that they could be your good friend.” After a recuperative sleep, he’s back the next day to support the remaining standers.

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It’s too bad that this magnanimous outlook can’t extend to the greater economic and social framework, as the hardbody contest betrays a harsher reality where everyone “wants the same thing but only one can have it.” Instead, that system only seems to abide to an increasingly dumbed-down blame game full of “welfare cheats” and “one-percenters.” This is a worthy film but it doesn’t really drill down to the deeper implications at hand. Interestingly, no less a director than Robert Altman had plans to make “Hands on a Hard Body” into a feature film before his death in 2006. With his great skill at ensemble casts and keen sense of American discontents, that would have been a highly interesting project. Instead we are left with a likable document and an appreciation of its persevering subjects. I still wouldn’t enter the contest, though.