“Documentary 101” now available as e-book


Happy to announce that my book, “Documentary 101: A Viewer’s Guide to Non-Fiction Film”, previously available only in paperback, has now been released as an e-book in all formats—in most cases selling for the low low price of only $4.99. All these sites allow you to “look inside” at the first 40 pages. See below for the links.

My publisher has done a great job on the e-book conversion, allowing readers to land on any of the over 300 reviews by clicking on the title in the table of contents.

In my Categories list to the right, the “Documentary 101 Samplers” offer highlights from a more varied cross-section of the book, along with film stills only seen there.

Cheers, Rick Ouellette
(Reel and Rock readers: I am now on Facebook if you’d like to connect with me there)






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.


“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.

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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.


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.


“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

Room 237 (Doc of the Week #6)

Directed by Rodney Ascher–2012–102 minutes

There has been a fair amount of buzz surrounding “Room 237” and being a longtime Stanley Kubrick fan, I jumped at the chance to see this compilation of conspiracy theories that have grown up around his 1980 film, “The Shining”. Leaving my local art house a couple hours later, I felt sufficiently entertained (if a bit bewildered) and also a tad envious: where do these people get the time to come up with this stuff? According to the half-dozen interviewees here, Kubrick’s adaptation of the Stephen King horror novel is really one or more of the following things.

A) The veiled confession of a man who feels remorse for helping fake the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969.
B) An encyclopedic film essay about sexual repression
C) A coded allegory of the Nazi holocaust
D) A connect-the-dots method of decrying the violent disenfranchisement of Native Americans

The director, Rodney Ascher, never shows onscreen the six conspiracy buffs that are heard expounding their obsessive ideas. This molecular-level investigation of details from “The Shining” runs the gamut from thought-provoking to barking mad. Yes, mainstream critics have kicked around aspects of theories “B” and “D” since the film’s original release. It didn’t take me long after pulling down my copy of “The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick” to find a section where author Norman Kagan quotes writers who spotted the Oedipal implications in the script. The tale of struggling author Jack Torrance (played by Jack Nicholson of course), slowly going crazy over a long winter as caretaker of the snowbound Overlook Hotel, eventually menacing his wife (Shelley Duvall) and his physic young son played by Danny Lloyd, is well-known for its domestic abuse angle. The clues on offer here, though, can get a little outlandish. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a letter tray is just a letter tray. See it and decide for yourself.

The Native American supposition is also not far-fetched, as early on in the film the hotel’s manager reveals that the Overlook was likely built on a tribal burial ground and that the builders were engaged in a few skirmishes during its construction. Kagan details how writers like “History of Narrative Film” author David A. Cook see this “as a film metaphor for a society built on exploitation and even murder.” In “Room 237” one commentator can barely contain his excitement over the prevalence of stacked cans of Calumet Baking Powder (with its Indian logo) in the kitchen scenes. But a more convincing interpretation has to do with the film’s most iconic image. The stationary shot of double elevator doors, from behind which a torrent of blood is unleashed, is all the more powerful when the viewer is reminded that the elevator doors never open, that the genocidal truth will be uncovered even when access to evidence is closed out. It is also intriguing to think that the Jewish, Bronx-bred Kubrick, who never got past the pre-production stages of a planned Holocaust-themed film, may have inserted some below-radar clues that dovetailed with the other secret theme of Indian genocide. But details like the fact that Jack used a German-made typewriter are circumstantial at best.

By here in the land where astonishing revelations lurk behind every continuity error, by far the most eye-rolling of all the theories here is “A”. How did we not know that Kubrick, who set the standard for sci-fi visual magnificence in his 1968 epic “2001”, was somehow recruited by NASA to create on a soundstage what everyone thought they were watching on TV for real when the first men walked on the moon a year later? The old fake-moon-landing gambit has been around forever (remember “Capricorn One” starring O.J. Simpson?) and I doubt that Neil Armstrong would give featured conspirator Jay Weidner the satisfaction of rolling over in his grave. But this part of the film works as well (Ascher is on record as not endorsing his subjects’ opinions) because sometimes it’s just fun to let these people come in from the margins and air it out.


If you can’t tell that Kubrick faked the historic Apollo 11 mission from looking at this still from “The Shining” then you’re simply not trying hard enough.

Weidner is an admirer of Kubrick and in this legit documentary (as opposed to the self-produced ones he hawks on his website) he hedges his bets by stating that he’s not denying those astronauts landed on the moon, only that what we saw on the tube was not all that is seemed. But to use Where’s Waldo methodology to cast doubts on one of mankind’s greatest technological achievements is plain irritating. True, there are eleven cars in the front row of the Overlook Hotel parking lot, and the forbidden Room 217 of the Stephen King novel was changed to 237 for the film, signifying (of course) the approximate distance from Earth to moon in thousands of miles. But that may say more about OCD than it does about the possible secret motives of even a meticulous filmmaker like Stanley Kubrick. Still, some of this does leave you wondering:


So, yes, there’s a lot of intriguing stuff here and dedicated movie buffs all over will be tipping their caps to Mr. Ascher for this sensory feast. He adds in bits of all the other Kubrick films into the stew and at one point shows us the handiwork of an offbeat film club who project “The Shining” both forward and backward simultaneously, the resulting overlay offers a tantalizing glimpse of thin-air serendipity, comparable to the uncanny sync-up of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” with “The Wizard of Oz.” But Kubrick’s profile in the clouds during the film’s opening aerial shot? I’m just not seeing it. It is possible, as one “Room 237” interviewee suggests, that Kubrick’s 1975 Georgian-period drama “Barry Lyndon” shows a bored artist who came out of the experience with a determination to formulate a new secret language of film. (While we’re at it, let me put in another vote for the reclamation of “Lyndon”, which not only features some of the greatest cinematography ever but also stands tall as an indictment of the economic and class cruelties that dog us to this day).

But whether or not this assumed “secret language” was Kubrick’s intention is a mystery that he took to his grave in 1999. Since conspiracies are hard to prove and too interesting too ignore, they persist over time, whether it’s the “Paul is dead” hoax, the JFK assassination, devil-worshipping messages in heavy metal songs, etc. It lends us a sense of wonder, that there’s a clandestine layer of existence just underneath our everyday world. It’s a fun source of speculation and rumination, although be careful not to let your interest level get you to the point where people cross the street when they see you coming. It may be a bit too late for some of the interviewees of “Room 237.”

The Art of the Steal (Doc of the Week #2)

“As through this world I wander, I see lots of funny men,” Woody Guthrie sang back in 1939, “Some will rob you with a six-gun and some with a fountain pen.” Although Guthrie wrote those lines for the song “Pretty Boy Floyd” their relevance echoes far beyond the world of bank robbers and foreclosure-happy branch managers during the Great Depression. An interesting modern manifestation of his bon mot is in the field of art thievery. Here in the Boston area, there’s been much in the news lately about the FBI being close to solving the infamous 1990 heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. This is a case where old-school bad guys gained entrance by posing as cops, tied up the guards in the basement and made off with a half a billion dollars worth of Rembrandts, Vermeers and Manets. But now there seems to be a more genteel way of relieving museums of their collections and the public of their cultural heritage. The newly-expanded Gardner Museum, like the Barnes Foundation depicted in the film below, was the quirky end product of a maverick art collector, places that (despite the last will and testament of their founders) can be tampered with in an age where top cultural institutions are beginning to look as monolithic as the too-big-to-fail banks.

art of the steal

The Art of the Steal
(Directed by Don Argott—2009—101 minutes)

In “The Art of the Steal”, the corporatization of culture is seen as an invasive, extra-legal force trampling the legacy of the eccentric and combative inventor/art collector Albert C. Barnes, whose extraordinary inventory of early modern paintings were displayed at his semi-private foundation in a Philadelphia suburb. Argott meticulously traces the battle that began after Barnes’ death in 1951 between his foundation and the cultural/political establishment over ultimate control of a collection that came to be valued at around $25 billion. Barnes was born to working-class parents, worked his way through college, and made a fortune inventing an anti-syphilis drug in the days before antibiotics. He was a passionate and prescient art lover and in the depths of the Depression bought up hundreds of canvasses by the likes Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, Renoir and Van Gogh. These works were ridiculed by Philadelphia’s cultural elite as “primitive” and “debased”, cementing Barnes’ disdain for high-society and causing him to decamp to nearby Merion (a mere five miles away from the detested Philadelphia Museum of Art) where he hung the works in quirky galleries and ran an egalitarian art school.

Argott deftly works this story along two parallel tracks: first as a parlor mystery that traces the subtle chipping away at Barnes’ will (which stated in no uncertain terms that the paintings were never to leave the Merion location) by elements both inside and outside of his foundation; and secondly to the greater question of what is the correct dispensation of world culture in an era when individual works of art can easily sell for tens or even hundreds of millions. As the controversy came to a head in the first decade of the 21st century, Argott was there as the institutional powers that be (the successors of those who once belittled Barnes’ tastes) slowly asserted themselves in the idea that the collection was now too great to be left so inaccessible—-and while an opposing protest movement started calling it the greatest art theft since World War II. This elegantly paced and visually striking documentary seems to be a staunch defense of the Barnes Foundation as a “handmade thing in a machine world”, a populist outpost against the relentless commodification of modern life. Others have perceived “The Art of the Steal” as being one-sided (probably a lot of the same people that Argott lists as declining to be interviewed) as the articulate group of talking heads seem to concur more with Barnes’ rebellious worldview, as impractical as it is, than with those who he saw as putting themselves on a “pedestal… to pose as patrons of the arts.” Argott is in effect holding accountable those who are going to get their way in the end anyhow, as good a reason as any for a non-fiction film. It certainly has struck a nerve as Q&A sessions after film festival showings have repeatedly turned into shouting matches, pointing out the strong emotions behind a contentious issue that Argott has brought so memorably to light.

(Those interested in this subject should look into the case of the Seward House Historic Museum in upstate New York. The painting “Portage Falls on the Genesee”, by Hudson River School founder Thomas Cole, hung in the house for over 100 years before being summarily removed by museum’s overseer foundation. The canvas, recently appraised for a cool $18 million, was removed under police escort after the foundation’s unilateral decision that it was too valuable to hang in just any old historic home and needed to be sold off to a private collector at auction instead. The shocked museum operators may find only cold comfort in the promise that they will share in the proceeds.)