Documentary Spotlight

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.

Documentary Spotlight: “Best of Enemies”

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Best of Enemies
Directed by Robert Gordon & Morgan Neville—2015—88 minutes

Amid hurled epithets like “crypto-Nazi” and “queer”, William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal dragged TV-talk politics kicking and screaming into the modern age with a series of ten live debates on ABC during the 1968 Republican and Democratic conventions. Sharp-tongued scions of a now-faded Eastern Establishment, the conservative stalwart Buckley and the left-leaning author Vidal were playing for keeps in an age where “the fault lines of the country were split open.”

The absorbing new documentary “Best of Enemies” is a vivid look back at the pivotal 1968 election cycle. ABC News was a distant third in the ratings behind CBS (with the esteemed Walter Cronkite as anchor) and NBC (with the successful teaming of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley). With the conventions approaching, ABC figured they would need a little more than the genteel but unexciting Howard K. Smith and the still-green Sam Donaldson.

Back then the three networks, without cable competition or the Internet, were usually in the business of hewing to the great American middle ground but that was blown open at ABC when they came up with the idea of staging these one-on-one debates (five at each convention) between Buckley and Gore. They were both intellectually self-assured patricians, but that’s about where the similarities ended. The two men were well acquainted and detested each other. Buckley, as editor of the National Review and host of the PBS show Firing Line, was an unapologetic and archly witty defender of old money and an overlord business class, as well as a spearhead in the nascent culture wars. Vidal was certain that what Buckley stood for was the perpetuation of power for those who already held it at the expense of a growing underclass and the suppression of new freedoms. Buckley in turn saw Vidal, who had recently published the bestselling novel “Myra Breckenridge” with its transgender protagonist, as a dangerous precursor of a non-religious society full of moral compromises.

“Best of Enemies” zips by in succession of clips from the combustible head-to-head encounters and adds contemporary commentators on media history as well as those who can breakdown debating as a “blood sport.” The recent assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, race riots in several major cities and escalating protests of a disastrous war in Vietnam were all on the front burner. Both men were more than willing to hash out the issues from their side of the schism in a debate that one talking head contends boiled down to a contest to prove “who was the better person” in a proxy war over two ways of life in an increasingly divided America.

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Their aristocratic accents and erudite point-scoring can’t disguise the philosophical loathing each had for the other. The suave and unflappable Vidal, who came better prepared for the opening rounds at the Republican confab in Miami, is incredulous that Buckley won’t see a problem with the so-what assertion that “Freedom breeds inequality” and pins him down with certifiable quotes that Buckley advocated using nuclear weapons against North Vietnam. Buckley was a supporter of the law-and-order ways of eventual GOP nominee Richard Nixon as well as Ronald Reagan (in his first presidential run) and extends that to include screenwriter Vidal’s alliance with a new libertine Hollywood industry leading the country astray. The bad blood between them really came to a boil in the last debate during the rancorous Democratic convention in Chicago, where Mayor Daley’s brutish police force was indiscriminately clubbing anti-war demonstrators in the street. With some ten million viewers looking on, Vidal calmly played his ace in the hole. Not taking kindly to Buckley’s assertion that the protestors were asking for it, he called his counterpart “a pro- or crypto-Nazi.” Buckley’s face contorted as he half-rose from his seat, calling Vidal a “queer” and threatening to punch his lights out. (Vidal’s homosexuality was not quite an open secret at the time). Howard K. Smith quickly cut in from his booth to end it.

Although they don’t overplay the angle, co-directors and writers Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville (the latter won an Oscar for his film “20 Feet from Stardom”) tie all this in to the relentless partisan rhetoric and bickering we see on cable news and the Internet nowadays, not to mention the often-stalemated state of affairs in Washington and the general red-state-blue-state fissure. But 1968 was still an age where intellect counted for something (even on TV!) and things were much less monolithic. It would hard to imagine an opportunistic blowhard like Rush Limbaugh engaging with Woody Allen and Mohamed Ali, like we see Buckley doing here on old Firing Line clips. (Buckley could also break with Republican orthodoxy, supporting President Carter on the Panama Canal Treaty). He and Vidal knew they were playing the mass media game (Gore once quipped that the two things you should never pass up is sex and a television appearance) but also held out that the marketplace of ideas were real and meant something. I have a feeling that we won’t be seeing a whole lot of that in this current election cycle so it may be a good time to take a break from the partisan echo chambers and see “Best of Enemies” to re-visit an age before (as Buckley later put it) what is “highly viewable” overwhelmed that which is “highly illuminating.”

“Archie’s Betty”: In search of the real Riverdale

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Archie’s Betty
Written and directed by Gerald Peary–2015–69 minutes

Love of popular culture runs deep and a great example is this fun and ultimately moving new documentary. Boston-area journalist, critic and film-studies professor Gerald Peary seeks out the possible and probable real-life inspirations for the characters of the ever-popular “Archie” comic books. In the process, he reveals a hidden human dimension behind the iconic faces of Archie Andrews, his dueling love interests Betty and Veronica, and others like Jughead, Reggie and Moose.

This is a project that actually dates back to 1988 when Peary, who had been a big Archie fan since his boyhood in West Virginia, wrote an article in the Boston Globe Sunday magazine that positioned Haverhill, MA as the inspiration for the comic’s fictional Riverdale. Archie’s original artist, Bob Montana, had attended Haverhill High School in the 1930s and Geary’s scrutinizing of early issues (the first Archie appeared in 1941) reveals named local landmarks were later fictionalized, like the gang’s beloved Chock’lit Shoppe. Geary tracked down several of Montana’s old classmates that could have been prototypes for the major characters and had himself a nice feature story.

But an urge to further explore this subject eventually led Peary to make this, his second film (the first was the 2009 doc about the art of film criticism called “For the Love of Movies”). He revisits many of the Haverhill classmates and locations while partnering with amateur comics historian Shaun Clancy, who became the film’s co-producer. It was Clancy who suggests that Betty—the blonde girl-next-door who’s always playing second fiddle to affluent Veronica for Archie’s affections—was not based on Montana’s Haverhill prom date but an actual woman named Betty that he dated in his twenties after he had moved to New York City and was already a working cartoonist. The film sweetly concludes with the two of them visiting the 90 year-old Betty at her assisted living facility in New Jersey where she proves to be every bit as plucky and personable as her illustrated namesake.

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The eyes have it: The world’s favorite love triangle

“Archie’s Betty” is an engaging blend of archival visuals, firsthand recollections, expert viewpoints and Peary’s own personal angle. His empathy for the inner connections people make with fictional characters and settings, and how they can develop from simple childhood escapism to something more profound with the passage of time, is the thread that will make his film appeal to viewers far beyond the ranks of Archie fanatics.

(“Archie’s Betty” had its premiere at a film festival in Buenos Aires, South America being a hotbed for all things Archie, according to Mr. Peary. For area readers, it will have two more showings at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art on June 14th. Other than that, I’m not sure though it was suggested that it may soon be available on DVD. More at the Archie’s Betty Facebook page and at bigsleepfilms.com)

Review: “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock & Roll”

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Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock & Roll
Directed by John Pirozzi—2015—105 minutes

The freedom to live out a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, taken for granted by several decades worth of young people in Western nations, may never be regarded so lightly again after viewing John Pirozzi’s mesmerizing documentary. Whether or not the viewer realizes beforehand that Cambodia had a vibrant pop music scene in the 60s and early 70s will hardly matter once he or she is drawn into the film’s orbit. What most will know going in is that this thriving youth movement was destined to be crushed, along with all else, when the homicidal Khmer Rouge forces took over the country in a terrible offshoot of the Vietnam War. Using interviews with survivors, evocative period footage and vintage vinyl, Pirozzi conjures up a regenerative tale despite the historical horrors. It’s a case of mankind’s better nature, here in the form of musical enrichment, persevering even in the face of the worst fanatical impulses this sorry world has to offer.

The story starts soon after Cambodia peacefully gains its independence from France in 1953. A period of relative economic success follows under the restored monarchy, led by Prince Norodom Sihanouk. The prince was a patron of the arts and a bit of a singer himself, and music and traditional culture thrived. Pop songs soon became all the rage, with vocalists both male (Sinn Sisamouth) and female (Ros Serey Sothea) becoming idols across all age groups. At first, the tunes are reminiscent of French and Afro-Cuban styles; as we get into the Sixties, the British and American rock influences seep in. There is a certain lulling appeal to this first part of the film. The capital Phnom Penh is a vision of blossoming trees and bright boulevards, towering temples and lively clubs. Especially when the soundtrack features the keening, ethereal tones of the woman singers, the sights and sounds float by like an exotic dream.

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“When we were young, we loved to be modern,” one of the participants says right at the start. It is a simple as it is heartbreaking, knowing the nightmare that this dream will morph into. Still, it is fun to learn of the different musical artists and their evolution through the better part of twenty years. News that the war in neighboring Vietnam is spilling across their border comes at first in brief segments. Prince Sihanouk tries to remain neutral, even in the face of President Nixon’s bombing of his country to try and stymie the North Vietnamese communists. Still, the happy teens congregate and the music plays on into the late 60s and early 70s. Guitar bands like Baksey Cham Krong and mildly rebellious artists like troubadour Yol Aularong and sassy-girl singer Pen Ran are readily identifiable in the global pop canon.

It all starts coming apart in 1970 when the prince is deposed in a right-wing coup and naively allies himself with the Khmer Rogue. Far from being “modern,” the Khmer Rouge were pathological ideologues who, upon taking power in April of 1975, emptied Phnom Penh and other cities with the demented idea of creating a pre-industrial agrarian society—in effect turning the whole country into a big prison farm. A quarter of Cambodia’s population would not survive the regime’s four year rule, and as many as two million died from hunger, disease and summary execution in the world’s worst such event since the Holocaust. Pirozzi, as befits his subject, keys in on the Khmer Rouge’s particular contempt of artists, a group who are “close to the people” and thus deemed a dangerous challenge to their dogma. Singer Sieng Vanthy recalls how her life was saved because she convinced authorities that she had been a banana seller before the takeover.

At the end of “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten” Pirozzi shows the present-day (and once again sparkling) Phnom Penh, with its easeful citizens, pop talent shows and stores with racks of CDs, some of them re-issues of those old albums we almost feel we know by now. Things aren’t perfect. Much like Prince Sihanouk (who was good on the arts but stymied political dissent with his secret police), Cambodia is today ruled by Hun Sen, a long-reigning strongman (and Khmer Rouge defector) who can make life very uncomfortable for his opponents. On the plus side… well, he has managed not to kill two million people.

The grace and dignity of the film’s subjects will make an even greater impression when held up against the depravity of the perpetrators. The inspiration and uplift of culture is one of the great counterweights we have against the dark impulses that lead to the violence, greed and exploitation that seems to have half the globe in a stranglehold at any one time. Like in this film, we always seem outnumbered but never give up.

My new book, Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey will be released in late 2015.
Copyright 2015, Rick Ouellette. All rights reserved.

“The Case of the 3-Sided Dream” and a Musical Life Well-Lived

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The Case of the Three-Sided Dream
Directed by Adam Kahan–2014–88 minutes

I’m not exactly sure when jazz became such an object of penny-ante scorn. Most recently, there was the witless “satire” of Sonny Rollins that made news after appearing on the blog of New Yorker magazine. It was a fake first-person confession of a man once touted as the “Saxophone Colossus” who admits that “I hate music. I wasted my life” and concedes that the Library of Congress should be burned to the ground because it contains a few of his records. Written by Django Gold, it is so devoid of authorial effort that it could not possibly have taken more time to write than it does to read. More generally, the name itself has become a by-word for a passé genre best ignored, even to the point where Jay Leno’s “who buys jazz?” tagline was accentuated by his showing cutout-bin CD covers of his own band leader, Kevin Eubanks.

So it is at least a bit heartening to see “America’s native art form” (per Dizzy Gillespie) enjoying a bit of a renaissance on film. This includes the highly-touted 2014 documentary “Keep on Keepin’ On” where Clark Terry, the much-honored trumpet player whose career dates back to Count Basie, helps a blind 23 year-old piano protégé prepare for an international competition while he himself is pushing 90. (Terry died last month). Also, John Coltrane’s masterpiece ballad “Naima” played a key part in this year’s foreign-film Oscar winner, “Ida.” Now add to that “The Case of the Three-Sided Dream”, Adam Kahan’s dazzling documentary about Rahsaan Roland Kirk that I saw in its Massachusetts premier this week at the great all-doc Salem Film Fest.

Kirk, who died way back in 1977, was certainly one of his era’s wildest innovators. The blind saxophonist built on the great leap forward of bebop pioneers like Coltrane and Charlie Parker, referring to himself as a “journey agent” exploring any and all avenues of sound with no “self-imposed barriers.” Rahsaan, as he wanted to be known, would show up on stage with several saxophones (some of his own invention) strapped on, as well as flutes, piccolos, whistles and who knows what all. Blowing on several reed instruments at one time was his trademark (some said “gimmick”) a sign of restless creativity that could hardly be contained.

Especially in the 70s footage, by which time he was dressing in African clothes and incorporating everything from gongs to smashed furniture into his performance, Kirk was a natural as a musician that benefited from being seen as well as heard and Kahan includes much live (and largely uninterrupted) footage. The viewer is treated to him doing his signature “Serenade to a Cuckoo” on the BBC in 1964, a titanic rendition of “Volunteered Slavery” at the 1972 Montreux Jazz Festival and a spot on the Ed Sullivan Show that came about after he and some colleagues creatively protested the lack of “black classical music” on the airwaves. Kirk assembled an all-star ten-piece outfit (including Archie Shepp, Charles Mingus and Roy Haynes) and did a bang-up job on “Haitian Fight Song” even though the producers requested they do “My Cherie Amour.”

Kahan includes some playful pop-art animation sequences to play along with Kirk’s recorded spoken-word pieces, which show his advocacy of populist self-realization and his puckish sense of humor as well. The affecting interview segments are with family, friends and musical collaborators—academic talking heads and celebrities are absent. Since most everything Rahsaan did seemed geared towards “connection to community” this all seems to the good.

During the Q&A time with Kahan that followed, many older viewers (several of whom had seen Kirk in concert back in the day) seemed impressed that a young guy like himself would be drawn to a subject that died around the same time period he was born. The director’s answer was interesting and one I could relate to. He reached a certain age in young adulthood and decided he would buy some jazz records because he felt it was something he should know. That this curiosity and openness to join into the larger cultural heritage would lead to something special—a national treasure like Rahsaan Roland Kirk getting his documentary day in the sun—is not surprising. Some 15 years after being captivated by a Kirk album he found at a yard sale, Kahan has paid it forward with a great film but for so many others I’m afraid this won’t be the case. Perhaps at the root of this easy-way-out dismissal of music genres like jazz is the fear of commitment to work for (or even bothering to understand) an aesthetic greater good. If you’re into music today why bother to master an instrument when you may be able to take the short-cut to the top by over-vocalizing a boilerplate pop song on “The Voice.” That mindset has largely replaced virtuosic and collaborative musical forms with a quest for personal celebrity that is hollow at its core. Now we can start talking about “a wasted life.”

2015 Oscar-nominated Documentary Shorts in review

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In a brief pause between two snowstorms here in the half-buried Boston area, I managed to make it out to a theater that was screening the five Oscar-nominated documentary shorts. It is gratifying to see that more moviehouses (esp. in big cities or college towns) are showing nominee packages in the Academy’s three short-film categories, the others being for Animation and Live Action. Seeing them up on the big screen for full impact fives filmgoers a chance to experience (and maybe develop a rooting interest for) the work of dedicated and talented artists whose Oscar night notoriety is fleeting and too often forgotten.

Joanna—Directed by Aneta Kopacz
This looked like the front-runner to me. Joanna Salyga was a thirtysomething mother of a young son who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer when this poignant parting-note of a film was made. Joanna (the woman and the film) is stoical and philosophical, avoiding the two extremes of resignation and 10K-walk bravado. It is beautifully photographed with a feature-film quality to it. The contemplative tone, completely free of any pretension, will be familiar to anyone who followed Salyga’s blog posts.

Also from Poland, and with a similar scenario, is “Our Curse” (directed by Tmasz Sliwinski and Maciej Slesicki) except this time it’s an infant son with a rare breathing disorder, and the overwhelmed parents trying to make sense of it. As you can see, the documentary field is often a tough road to hoe.

Aside from “Joanna” the next most likely winner in this category is probably the HBO-produced “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1” (directed by Ellen Goosenberg Kent and Dana Perry). Saying “we support our veterans” or “thank you for your service” is the easy part when it comes to those Americans who were embroiled in the far-flung wars of recent decades. The hard part is following up on returning combat veterans when so many have been traumatized by their experience. This 46-second trailer will give you a pretty good idea of the noble work done by those manning a suicide-prevention hotline in upstate New York. First-rate stuff.

“White Earth”-Directed by J. Christian Jensen
The shortest of these films at a quick 20 minutes, the often-heartless economic system of 21st century America is more-or-less examined via the transient (and bleak) “boomtown” of the title, an oil-drilling hamlet in North Dakota. But seeing that only the workers’ kids (and one spouse) are interviewed you feel this could have dug a little deeper, no pun intended.

“The Reaper” (La Parka)-directed by Gabriel Serra Arguello

Vegetarians should steer clear of this stark profile of a Mexican slaughterhouse. Many meat-eaters will likely avert their eyes as well, but I found the medieval-level machinery rather fascinating (and artfully photographed). The quiet and thoughtful worker who’s given the sinister nickname of the title is a good family man who nevertheless seems a little spooked when he gets home from work. An admirable piece, though I doubt I would watch it again.

I fully expect all the above filmmakers to be respectfully interviewed on the red carpet come the Big Night. Yeah, right.

Coney Island: Dreams for Sale

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The smiles inspired by simple pleasures are under threat in “Coney Island: Dreams for Sale” seen this last weekend at the Newburyport Documentary Film Festival. Director Alessandra Giordano has made an appealing and incisive film about the more recent struggles concerning the ultimate fate of America’s archetypal oceanside amusement district. The area has had more downs than ups over the last 50 years or so and now faces the final knockout punch from rampant real estate speculation and bureaucratic bait-and-switch from the New York City government. Giordano focuses on the colorful entrepreneurs that make up a lot of the small boardwalk businesses that have kept Coney Island going through its various rough patches, whether they are old school (like Anthony the Cigar Man) or artsy newcomers like Dianna Carlin (aka Lola Star).

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Photo by Jason Sferlazza

They do battle against various powerful forces reared up against them: a greedy capitalist on a charm offensive, tactical demolition, rent spikes, superstorm Sandy, Mayor Bloomberg in a bad mood, etc. Helped along by neighborhood protests and new interest in the area by the emerging twee subculture, some significant slice of this “working man’s paradise” may yet be saved and “Dreams for Sale” does a great job at framing this David vs. Goliath showdown.

In Celebration of Non-Fiction Filmmakers
Speaking of underdog comparisons, an intimate event like the Newburyport Film Fest, really lets attendees get to know the community of documentary filmmakers through receptions, Q&A and panel discussions. Most are working in semi-anonymity, on long-evolving and labor-intensive projects that usually cannot be financed on any pretense of returning a profit—even if it eventually does. They do it all to expose an injustice, reveal lesser-known but important topical issues, or to reveal ennobling personal stories that make us all want to be better people. These qualities, which seem to swim against the tide of so much of modern society, are ones that I tried to champion in my book “Documentary 101” and is a feeling re-enforced each time I attend an event like this.

Review and B&W photo of Coney Island’s Astroland by Rick Ouellette

Pearls of Irregular Shape

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Review by Rick Ouellette

Daniel Jamous’ first film, “Pearls of Irregular Shape,” should be an inspiration and a model for local cultural councils everywhere for the way it gracefully shows the enriching effect of the arts in community life. This 55-minute documentary follows seven projects funded in 2011 by the Massachusetts Cultural Council in the town of Brookline where Jamous resides. He alternates between the seven during the hour, often showing the progress of the project throughout the year.

Collaboration and inclusiveness are the key elements. A new mural and garden for the Lawrence School involves the participation of all the students. The Coolidge Corner Community Chorus has a welcoming “no audition” policy. Dance Caliente brings social dancing (and a bit of its history) to a senior center while the Roland Hayes Project takes a similar tack, taking its young adult singers beyond music education by involving them in the story of Hayes, the barrier-breaking African-American lyric tenor who came to live and perform in the Boston area. Other projects include oil painting, electronic music and outdoor environmental sculpture. At a time when operating budgets are stressed at every level of government, a work like “Pearls of Irregular Shape” stands as a great example of how diverse arts funding can have a positive and lasting role in civic life.

See more at: https://www.facebook.com/pearlsofirregularshape

Rick Ouellette is the author of Documentary 101: A Viewer’s Guide to Non-Fiction Film
More info and excerpt at http://booklocker.com/books/6965.html

Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (Now in Exciting VHS Format!)

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A great recent find to kick off my hypothetical $1 VHS Film Festival, as over the summer I’ll be going through the stack of videotapes that I’ve picked up for short money at various library book sales and thrift stores over the last couple of years. Although clips from the Pythons’ celebrated four-night stand at the iconic venue in 1980 have shown up in compilations, documentaries and online, the full 78-minute film (briefly released theatrically in ’82) has had a history on home video that has been sketchy at best, no pun intended.

Live at the Hollywood Bowl was a treat to watch all the way through for the first time, to get a fuller sense of the event that was the visceral highpoint of Monty Python’s popularity in the States. The troupe was met with rock-star adoration by the extremely enthusiastic southern California audience and many fans dressed the part as well—lots of them are seen sporting the handkerchief headgear of the show’s dim-witted Gumby men and one is even done up as the Pantomime Princess Margaret.

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A pensive Python group shot from back in the salad days (no, not the one directed by Sam Peckinpah). From left, Terry Jones, the late Graham Chapman and his famous pipe, John Cleese, a squished-in Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin.

Another plus is that they had released a few records since the TV show had ended in 1974 so there was material that was new to me or that was only vaguely familiar. Sure, you get your Silly Walks, your Argument Clinic and your Lumberjack Song. But they also perform a pair of naughty tunes from their then-current Contractual Obligation Album (“Never Be Rude to an Arab” and “Sit on My Face”) and skits where John Cleese’s pope chastises Eric Idle’s Michelangelo for a muck-up on The Last Supper (he’s painted twenty-eight disciples, three Christs and a kangaroo) and that great bit where self-made millionaires sit around with cigars and champagne trying to outdo each other on who had the toughest upbringing (“A cardboard box? You were lucky; we lived in a rolled-up newspaper inside a septic tank”).

There are also several fun segments where the group takes their act out into the audience, as when Cleese’s roving waitress tries to peddle seabird-flavored snacks during intermission.

Considering Python’s enduring popularity, maybe this concert flick will eventually get a proper release for the digital age. Does anyone out there have a copy of the short-released DVD “Live at Hollywood Bowl and Aspen”? That may be the original film plus some extra bits from the same era, because after 1980 the guys (which here also included Carol Cleveland and Neil Innes) wouldn’t get together for a proper string of live shows until (wait for it)… next month!

Their recently announced ten-night run of shows coming up in July at London’s O2 Arena will be the last time the legendary troupe will perform together (according to themselves) before they all eventually “bring down the curtain and join the Choir Invisible.” A live simulcast in over two thousand movie theaters worldwide is planned for the last of these ten shows, scheduled for July 20th. Keep a look out for details, sounds like a must-see event for us diehards.

Man of Aran at 80, plus British Sea Power and the Ostrich Oblivion

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It will be 80 years ago this August that Robert Flaherty’s docu-fable Man of Aran won the prize for Best Foreign Film at the third Venice Film Festival. In a world where certain market psychologies would have you think that something a year old is passé, a documentary that’s been eight decades in the rearview mirror could be assumed to interest only academics and deep-diving film buffs. But Flaherty’s piece, which vividly evoked (somewhat anachronistically) the rugged lives of Aran Islanders, seems to resonate from around the margins of present popular culture. Daniel Radcliffe is currently starring on Broadway as “The Cripple of Inishman” a drama based around the production of the film, a 2010 feature-length retrospective on Flaherty (“A Boatload of Wild Irishmen”) references Aran in its title and a recent DVD release of this semi-silent film features a new soundtrack by the iconographic indie-rock group British Sea Power. On their regular albums, BSP’s poetical topics often revolve around the natural world and geographical/environmental themes that are simpatico with Flaherty’s work. Samplings of their lyrics are in bold face throughout.

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“I headed for the coastalry/Regions of mind, to see what I’d find”

Robert Flaherty had considerable difficulty duplicating the great achievement of Nanook of the North, his 1922 Eskimo epic that is widely considered to be the mother of all narrative documentaries and also helped popularize awareness of indigenous populations. It would not be until 1934, twelve years after Nanook, that Flaherty would recapture his winning formula for success with Man of Aran. It is a film filled with stark beauty and authentic admiration for the stalwart people of these islands off the west coast of Ireland, a place where “the peculiar shelving of the coastline piles up into one of the most gigantic seas in the world”. As in Nanook, Flaherty went beyond straight documentary; he also convinced fishermen and their families to collaborate with him in conjuring up a nearly pre-industrial lost age, making for a unique film experience but one that has come in for a certain amount of criticism over the years.

“Hoopoes and herring gulls over chalky cliffs/It’s all that’s left you know, carbonate and myth”

Initially, Flaherty had mixed results gaining the islanders’ cooperation but eventually recruited enough residents to make the production possible and was assisted at times by members of England’s famed EMB Film Unit, the groundbreaking organization run by John Grierson, the man who coined the term documentary after seeing Nanook of the North. Yet the film was financed as a “real-life drama” by the Gaumont British studio. It was just as well. Flaherty, who was born in 1884, had “one foot in the age of innocence” according to photographer Walker Evans and was a filmmaker who was as enthralled with the spirit of truth as he was with the letter of it. Several recent documentaries, like Surviving Progress or Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World, have noted a particular aspect of our current ecological crisis stems from the notion that mankind sees itself as separate and superior from the very planet that it is part of. Man of Aran by contrast is a vivid re-imagination of man as sublimely co-existent with nature and even if this ideal is archaic or unrealistic, it still remains a quiet but powerful corrective.

(Or copy this link in separate tab: http://youtu.be/AjfVmJhkt-s

In this arcadian sequence above, boy protagonist Michael Dillane interrupts his fishing to climb partway down a craggy bluff when he spies a basking shark lolling just below the water’s surface (at the end of the clip which is 5:10 not 1:34 as listed). The song that British Sea Power chose to go along with this scene is a lovely instrumental re-working of the song “North Hanging Rock” from their 2005 album Open Season.

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The local practice of hunting these whale-like creatures with harpoons died out a half-century earlier but Flaherty’s enthusiasm and persuasion won the day and soon the men, especially his closest Irish collaborator Pat Mullen, were brushing up on the subject and getting new harpoons forged. This centerpiece of the film, and one of the great prototypical scenes Flaherty would ever commit to film, shows Mullen and the “Man” of the title (Colman “Tiger” King) as they lead the crew through the daunting surf in their modest curraghs then meticulously track down and harpoon the beast—but not before it repeatedly slaps at the boat with its tail and nearly tows it out into the open sea. This led to rebukes that his film almost led to the drowning of a “boatload of wild Irishmen.”

“I don’t know what I’m made of or where from I came/Don’t even seem to remember my name or why the ghost’s alive in this cave”

Although Flaherty did not pretend that he was making anything more than a “picture” that used real islanders, Man of Aran can seem disingenuous when the purpose of the hunt is said to be to gain “shark oil for their lamps”. Electricity had been available on the Aran Islands for some time. Contemporary critics pointed out that, in the midst of the Great Depression, the poverty and absentee-landlord system that existed on the Arans at least deserved a mention. The headstrong Flaherty felt entitled to his own agenda and his tribute to his leading man (“In this desperate environment the Man of Aran, because his independence is the most precious privilege he can win from life, fights for his existence, bare though it may be”) can and probably did resonate back then as well as any more literal recognition of economic inequality.
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British Sea Power is based in Brighton on England’s cliff-lined southern coast and is known for their melodic indie rock and poetic lyrics that veer from personal and romantic concerns into themes that suggest astute ecological and historical awareness and that celebrate the overarching domain of nature. There are not too many bands out there inventing words like “coastalry” and writing a paean to “Larsen B” their “favourite foremost coastal Antartic shelf” that disintegrated in 2002. When the band addresses Larsen with the acknowledgment “you had 12,000 years and now it’s all over” the bittersweet observation seems turned on mankind itself, esp. with the recent escalation of dire warnings about catastrophic climate change and the Ostrich Oblivion of denial and resignation that exists alongside it.

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“Daisy chains of light surround the city now/They glow but never quite illuminate/Hell and high water won’t stop us now/The future’s twisted, righteousness is coming back around/And we fall like sparks from a muzzle”

In Flaherty’s 1948 Louisiana Story, his last major film, benign oil riggers treaded lightly on the primeval Cajun bayou and indulged its inhabitants (the film was commissioned by Standard Oil though R.H. had free creative reign). Flaherty tried to see his way clear to a world where industry and nature could indefinitely co-exist. Were it only so. When British Sea Power advocated “Lights Out for Darker Skies” on their 2008 CD, Do You Like Rock Music?, it reminded me of a couple of things—the ethereal late-night radio ads from a skywatcher’s advocacy group I used to hear in the Eighties and the idea that the true meaning of the word “understanding” is nearly literal with the idea of letting oneself stand under something in order to fully comprehend it. BSP’s brand of bracing anthemic rock comes from that same imperative, devoid of the overly self-conscious type of uplift you get from bands with similar attributes. (Not to mention any names, but one has the initials A.F. and another has the initials U.2.) If you like rock music pick up one of their CDs, you won’t be sorry.

Official video for British Sea Power’s “It Ended on an Oily Stage.”
All rights to video, music and re-printed lyrics go to BSP and their publishers