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“Documentary 101: A Viewer’s Guide to Non-Fiction Film” is a first-of-its-kind anthology, covering the entire spectrum of non-fiction film from 1895 to the present day. There are 101 full-length reviews of documentaries chosen for their aesthetic prominence and/or historical significance, followed by briefer entries on related titles. There are 325 total reviews and an informational appendix in its 418 pages.
Below are four new excerpts from the book, accompanied by film stills only seen here. Click on images for a larger view.
“In the Year of the Pig” was the first major documentary in protest of American involvement in Vietnam and it’s admirable that director Emile de Antonio rejected the era’s fashionable agitprop to instead carefully delineate the war’s trajectory from a post-war French colonial issue, to a regional political struggle to a suddenly important outpost in the international fight against communism. A thought-provoking stew of vital interviews and ground-level footage, this is perhaps the first film of the radical left to ever receive an Oscar nomination in the documentary category.
(In the Year of the Pig, 1968)
The Rolling Stones hired the Maysles brothers, along with their frequent collaborator Charlotte Zwerin, to document their 1969 American tour, the first where they were introduced as “the Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World.” Right from the film’s first musical number, a turbo-charged version of “Satisfaction” from a Madison Square Garden show, the Stones do their best to live up to that hype. Times have changed since the Beatles invented the modern rock concert a half-decade earlier. Witness the communal hero-worship, the sophisticated sound system, the druggy ambience. Certainly, the sexually-charged appeal of singer Mick Jagger is a far cry from the schoolgirl crushes inspired by the Fab Four in the mid-6os. But the Stones had missed out on Woodstock, which had happened a few months before their arrival. They were already looking ahead to staging a one-day free festival in California at the end of the tour, hoping to create their own “microcosmic society,” a memorable decade-ending event. That it certainly was…
(Gimme Shelter, 1970)
The film begins in Chelmno, Poland, where some of the earliest exterminations of prisoners first took place (starting in December 1941), and where hundreds of thousand were eventually put to death in its infamous gassing vans. By the end of the war, with Soviet forces closing in, the German guards set out to kill all those still alive. Fifteen-year-old Simon Srebnik was one of the less than five people to survive this desperate massacre. After recovering from his wounds (a bullet had grazed his head) he moved to Israel, but he is persuaded by Lanzmann to return to Chelmno thirty-four years later. After walking down a country road with a haunted look on his face—-as if he’s half-expecting to be apprehended—-Srebnik identifies the sight of the concentration camp where the foundation of the vast crematorium is still visible. “No one can re-create what happened here,” he says. “Impossible! And no one can understand it.”
(Shoah, 1985. Pictured is Simon Srebnik with residents of Chelmno, likely in the late 1970s)
The subject of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s first film are the “Ward boys,” four elderly bachelor brothers who run a small dairy farm in upstate New York. They lead a hermitlike existence centered around their squalid farmhouse; aside from daily trips to the market, they have very little to do with the outside world, and vice versa. Their quiet lives change drastically when one of the brothers dies in bed and another, Delbert, is charged with his murder. Soon after the arrest, the Wards learn they have a lot to both fear and appreciate from the society they have closed themselves off from. The state police and the district attorney show about as much concern for common decency as the brothers do for personal hygiene. The police manage to wrangle a confession out of an unrepresented Delbert Ward, a man of low IQ—-a “triumph” they and the DA’s office follow up with a series of ever-more-questionable tactics that culminate in a desperate attempt to turn the whole thing into an incestuous sex crime when their case seems to be faltering. The townspeople of Munnsville, on the other hand, rally around the Wards with a surprising show of support and affection.
(Brother’s Keeper, 1992)