Documentary Spotlight

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

don't think

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.

dont_think_ive_forgotten_store

“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

img216

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

white_earth

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

img001

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).

img005
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

img968

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!)

Python_hollywood

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.

python2-420x0

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

aran cover

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.

Man_Of_Aran_front_cover

“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.

bask shark

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.
^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

220px-OpenSeasonCover

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.

British_Sea_Power_Rock_Music

“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

All the Docs Fit to Watch

tim

I’ve just posted my fourth article on James Curnow’s great film site Curnblog, an article on art world-related documentaries centered around the recently released Penn & Teller film, “Tim’s Vermeer.” You can click on the link below if you’re interested. While you’re there you can also check out some of the many entertaining and enlightening pieces on this Australian-based site.

http://curnblog.com/2014/04/29/art-movies-shadow-perfection/

Up above in the header, we end National Poetry Month with another dice roll half-haiku from words picked pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey style from a poetry-magnet website. May is right around the corner and hopefully springtime is as well…

img695

The excellent PBS documentary series “Independent Lens” continues with two more notable selections the next two Mondays at 10:00 PM. On May 5th, they’re showing “A Fragile Trust” about the New York Times plagiarism scandal centered around Jayson Blair. Definitely worth watching. Back in March (when it was warm, go figure), I saw it at the Salem Film Fest here in Massachusetts. On May 12th, I greatly anticipate seeing “Let the Fire Burn” which has received a lot of praise on the festival circuit. It examines the still hard-to-believe 1985 Philadelphia Police Dept. bombing of the compound occupied by the black liberation group MOVE, killing all but two of its members and obliterating 60 nearby houses in the process.

img778

Knuckleball! — Life in the Slow Lane

knuck dvd

Knuckleball!
Directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg—2012—85 minutes

It’s nearly a lost calling, like a shoe repair shop or a pen-and-stationery store hanging on in a world otherwise dominated by Apple and Wal-Mart. A patient craft that is difficult to master in an age of instant gratification and performance-enhancing drugs. The confounding knuckler, like the hidden ball trick or stealing home, is almost gone from baseball. This pitch, delivered at a velocity some 20-30 miles per hour slower than standard-setting fastball, flutters and floats in on the batter. If swung on and missed, he’ll look ridiculous, if he connects he could hit it into the next time zone.

America’s oldest professional team sport may be losing this eccentric part of its legacy, but not many players and managers are mourning the near demise of the knuckleball. The pitch infuriates many habit-obsessed hitters and knuckleball throwers usually require special coaches and catchers. So in celebration of baseball’s opening week, let’s take a look at the recent DVD release of Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg’s winsome 2012 documentary on the small and misunderstood cult of the knuckleball, referred to by non-believers as “fraudulent” or “a freak pitch.” It’s a celebration of non-conformity and persistent humility now fleshed out with almost two hours of featurettes.

As a fan of my hometown Boston Red Sox, I got to see one of the filmmakers’ two primary subjects up close. Tim Wakefield started out as a first baseman in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization but developed the knuckleball pitch after being told he would likely never make the Major Leagues as a position player. After a sensational first season with the Pirates, the knuckleball magic abandoned him (walking ten men in a game at one point) and he was cut loose, surfacing next year in Boston for a 17-year career where fans would become intimately familiar with fickle fortunes of one who depends on such an unusual skill.

Tim Wakefield

Tim Wakefield and the unorthodox fingernail grip

Wakefield was 45 years old and already a member of two World Series champion Red Sox teams when seen here playing in his last year; much of the focus here is on his protracted efforts to secure his 200th career win before the season ends. The only other current knuckleballer, the much younger R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets, is also profiled and the usual slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that come with his craft are compounded with a health issue that threatens his livelihood. The filmmakers cut back and forth between these parallel tracks during the 2011 season, often blending in the players’ personal stories and putting the lie to the easy notion that all pro players are spoiled and overpaid. Dickey, for instance, bounced around the minors for a long time making $1800 a month (summers only) and sometimes moving his young family two or three times a year, trying to keep the faith that his big-league dream would pay off in the end. On the verge of making it to “The Show”, a medical review found a congenital anomaly in Dickey’s pitching elbow, but in a gutsy move he took a drastically reduced contract offer instead of cashing in a million-dollar insurance policy.

RA Dickey

Battle Cry of the Knuckler: R.A. Dickey in action

Elsewhere, Stern and Sundberg review of a bit of the knuckleball’s mystery history (no one’s sure who started it and it’s only had 70 or 80 true practitioners in the last century plus) and emphasizing its true outsider status: Wakefield unpretentiously declares that a knuckler is “on a little island by yourself.” Never has that been truer than in the 2003 American League playoffs. Wakefield had dominated the Red Sox’ age-old rivals, the New York Yankees, in two of the series’ previous games and would have been the hero had the Sox won and gone on to the World Series with a good chance to win it for the first time since World War I. But he was called in from the bullpen late in the deciding seventh game because the Sox manager had left their starting pitcher in too long, allowing the Yankees to tie the game. When Wake gave up a game-winning home run, it was one of the most ignominious defeats in the team’s history and the film makes the viewer live the pain of an athlete (and a person) who has quietly done all that’s been asked of him, including being put into an untenable position. When the Red Sox went on to win a championship the next year they had to beat the Yankees in another epic 7-game series (winning four in a row after losing the first three)along the way. Wakefield played a crucial role in the second of those victories, the winning pitcher in a six-hour game that helped pave the way for Boston’s first World Series win in 86 years (you’re welcome!). Tim’s redemption was almost biblical in it’s serendipity, though the directors curiously underplay it (unlike me).

Tim Wakefield has the Yankees “turning Japanese” as they try in vain to fathom the elliptical flight path of an in-form knuckleball during the 2003 playoffs while the Boston fans eat it up.

The knuckleball pitch, being both unpredictable and easy on the arm, destines these pitchers to be used either too often or too seldom or treated unfairly: being shuttled between a starting role and the bullpen, being brought into games when the score is lopsided, dropped from playoff rosters. Little wonder that one of the more enjoyable parts of “Knuckleball!” is the get together of Wakefield and Dickey with two old-timer practitioners, Charlie Hough and the incomparable Phil Niekro. Hall of Famer Niekro won an amazing 318 games as a knuckleballer and pitched in the pros until the age of 48. The self-deprecating camaraderie of knuckleballers and the way this fraternity helps each other (Niekro tutored Wakfield who in turn offered advice to Dickey) will appeal to viewers jaded by the media over-hype that so often dominates sports coverage.

Maybe it’s not surprising, given their built-in status as sporting underdogs, that many of these guys would be doing good works outside of their profession. Yankee knuckleballer Jim Bouton, best known for his classic expose bestseller “Ball Four”, was also a liberal activist who protested the South Africa’s apartheid government way back at the 1968 Summer Olympics. Both Wakefield and Phil Niekro are past winners of the Roberto Clemente Award, named after the Pirates’ superstar who lost his life in a plane crash on the way to delivering supplies to victims of the 1973 Nicaraguan earthquake. R.A. Dickey is involved in the Bombay Teen Challenge, which aids victims of overseas human trafficking. The good karma seems to be paying off for Dickey the way it did for Wakefield in 2004: the season after this doc was filmed R.A. won twenty games and became the first knuckleballer to win the Cy Young award as his league’s best pitcher.

Salem Film Fest: So many docs, so little time

img695

The weeklong all-documentary Salem Film Fest, running from March 6-13, has a great and remarkably diverse line-up of films, with 37 features and almost as many short subjects. I was able to see several of them last week and even if I can’t get back there in its last two days, will have a sizable checklist for future viewing choices.

I feel a little silly that before this year I was largely unaware of this supercool event that takes place in my hometown of Salem, Mass. and that is barely a half-hour’s drive from where I live now. It’s been gong on for seven years and during that whole time I was writing a book called “Documentary 101.” Actually, considering the 420-page ordeal, maybe it’s not that surprising. In conjunction with the festival I took a “Discovering Documentary” class taught by Erin Trahan, co-editor and publisher of the online film magazine, The Independent. An all-day class (at the Montserrat College of Art in neighboring Beverly) the week before was followed by an inclusive SFF full day pass on a Saturday accompanied by panel discussions etc. Any non-fiction film buffs in my neck of the woods take notice for next year, it was great! And as for the Salem Film Fest, what a first rate program, accompanied by a welcoming vibe, all centered on the town’s historic Essex St. pedestrian mall. Looks like March may be the new October for the Witch City when it comes to attracting attention…

Of the film’s I did see, the opening night presentation of “A Fragile Trust,” profiling the plagiarizing New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, was a treat. Filmmaker Samantha Grant was in attendance (as were most directors of the selected films, it seemed) and during the Q&A, one person compared it to Errol Moris’ Oscar-winning “The Fog of War” as a mea culpa coup of sorts. Robert McNamara’s defensive testimony in “Fog” of his dubious high-level role in escalating the Vietnam War may have more gravity. But Blair’s high-profile case, which caused an erosion of confidence in journalism at a time when traditional news could least afford it, is no small potatoes. Blair’s rampant ego, blended in with lingering mental health issues and substance abuse, led to a prominent scandal and his presence in the film as a less-than-reliable interviewee was fascinating stuff. (“Where does the illness stop and the gaming begin?” wondered one of the talking heads). A show of hands at the Q&A revealed about half thought the film made them at least somewhat sympathetic of Blair, while the other half were left with disdain. Another example of the engaging power of the documentary form, although I have to agree with my sister Pam, who I watched it with it with, Grant should tone down that cue-happy soundtrack music. If you get a chance, check out “A Fragile Trust” when it airs on PBS on May 5th.

On Saturday, I saw the charming “Tokyo Waka” by John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson, about the 20,000+ jungle crows that inhabit one of the world’s biggest cities. The poetic flow of this work reflected both the natural world’s interaction with the built environment and the Japanese people’s philosophy of everyday life as seen in relation to this enigmatic, iconic bird. Also got to check out the vibrant “Everybody Street” (directed by photojournalist-filmmaker Cheryl Dunn) about notable photographers who have worked the streets of New York City through the decades. Tellingly, most of the folks behind the camera (like Joel Meyerowitz, Jill Freedman, Bruce Davidson and the Serbian-born Boogie) are as least as fascinating as the diverse multitudes they take pictures of, and that’s saying something. Like “Waka” this is a sidelong portrait of a great city as a whole.

img696

Among the entries I circled in the program for future viewing: “Dear Mr. Watterson” about the creator of the beloved Calvin and Hobbes comic strip; “Rich Hill”, a look at the de-population of large swatches of heartland America thru the example of one Missouri town; and relatedly, “The Human Scale”, Andreas Dalsgaard’s new film on the urban challenges facing a world where 80% of the population will be living in large cities by 2050. And as a fan of music docs, I hope to soon be seeing “Elektro Moskava” (pictured above) and it’s tale of Russia’s vital historical role in the development of electronic music. Sounds like it would make a great double feature with 1995’s “Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey” about Russian-born Leon Theremin who invented the self-named first electronic instrument. Theremin, who was the toast of Manhattan in the pre-war years, mysteriously disappeared (and rumored to be a kidnap victim of the KGB) before turning up a half-century later in Moscow, making a trip to NYC in his last years to be re-united with his protégé Clara Rockwell. I always sensed there were other stories where that came from.

You can still see the entire festival line-up at salemfilmfest.com. Happy viewing!

“Documentary 101: A Viewer’s Guide to Non-Fiction Film” is now available as an e-book in all formats for only $4.99, more details in next post.