Archive for the ‘Documentary’ Category

How could I dance with another?

March 28, 2012

Speaking of the genesis of The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit, Albert Maysles says that one day the phone rang and it was Granada TV on the other end of the line, announcing that the band was landing at Idlewild in two hours, and, oh, did the brothers want to make a film about them? Albert, who was into classical music, was at a loss, so he kindly put the phone down and asked his brother David “Are they any good?” The result, after the filmmakers had followed the band around New York, Washington and Miami for three weeks, was this terrific 84-minute film. It’s fortunate, though, that both the Beatles and the Maysles were so good at what they did because, really, they could make it awfully hard to love them much as people. Albert Maysles is one of the greatest documentary filmmakers to ever walk the earth, but he can also be a pompous ass, and even if their every tenth joke is fall-on-the-floor funny, The Beatles couldn’t stop acting out all the worst scenes from Help!

That leaves the music, which is a gas. The band’s energy noticeably drops off in the last Sullivan show (the one in which Ed threw the Fab Four by relaying Richard Rodgers’ congrats to them), but the first Sullivan show and especially the show in D.C. were just killer. (Don’t believe me? Just check out the clip below.) Its innocence comes from it getting under the door in time to still be just about the music—not the war or the drugs or any of that other stuff—a still pure youth happening before it gelled into a Movement. The concerts also made for the best audience reaction shots this side of Jazz on a Summer’s Day. The shriekers and criers top the bill, of course, but there are also the Anthropologists—the girls (and certain of the guys) who only sit, chin in hand, soberly studying the scene even as it explodes all around them—as well as the Lost Souls (almost all guys), who look as if they showed up only because they were given tickets to what they thought was going to be a car show. In any case, you can’t help but love the two girls in the matching checked shirts.


February 21, 2012

Finally saw Generation Kill, which somehow managed to live up to its reputation. Like The Wire, it’s marked by such an even distribution of mood and energy across its episodes that it’s impossible to settle on just one as a favorite. Part of this is thanks to the wall-to-wall military jargon (it’s even more unapologetically jargon-intensive than Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange), but mostly it earns its stripes the old-fashioned way, through solid direction and writing that’s tighter than J-Lo’s kootch. (Just to be clear, that’s a reference to something in the script, and not yours truly being a foul-mouthed fucker just for the shits and giggles it gives him.)

I’m amused by the counterintuitive casting decision that made macho pinup boy Alexander Skarsgård a subordinate to the girlish (and much shorter) Starks Sands, and by the fortitude David Simon and Ed Burns showed by including, and then summarily forgetting about, an off-color running joke revolving around a picture of the reporter’s girlfriend. (Any other production in the history of entertainment would’ve made it the focal point of his goodbye scene.) And yet another raft full of good actors comes out of nowhere? Just how many great actors can possibly be hiding out there? Seriously, they should just all come on out now, from whatever school or shitty job they’re holding down, just to give us some idea of just how many scripts it’s gonna take to keep them all working. (I by no means begrudge him the paycheck, but Skarsgård deserves a lot, lot more than teen vampire flicks.) I especially loved James Ransone in this fucking thing, and the fact that he benefited the most from the writing also worked to our advantage: Ray Person’s ephedra-fueled monologues could have made Ziggy Sobotka’s numbskull perorations sound like the wartime Churchill if they weren’t truly funny.

That said, my biggest grumble about the show involves the scribe’s exit interview with Godfather, the battalion C.O.; it’s a joyless, unworthy scene that resuscitated all of the didactic impulses one hoped Simon had laid to rest in The Wire’s farewell tour. For better or worse, Generation spurts out all of its bullshit in its closing installment as well, its other notable lapses being the chain-yanking close-ups of the incompetent “Captain America” every time he suffers a crisis of confidence and, more generally, a too heavy beating of Simon’s “institutional corruption” theme, which, no matter how legitimate a cause for outrage, has already become a hobby-horse in his hands.

But apart from that it’s a hell of a ride, one which individualizes its characters much as The Wire allowed us observe its characters on their own terms, without preconceptions clouding our gaze—quite an accomplishment given their respective milieus. Much of the humor in Generation Kill derives not from punchlines but from some very droll camera moves, e.g., the slow push-in from an indolent Ransone to a quartet of Marines a mere few yards away as they give some suspicious locals an intense once-over. And the action scenes run absolute circles around all the soft-headed handheld quick-cut bullshit that passes for action filmmaking nowadays: think about The Hurt Locker and then think about the ambush at the bridge in episode 6, and tell me which one looks like Gladiator and which one looks like The Wild Bunch. At its core, though, Generation Kill is a Howard Hawks work for our time.

Claude Chabrol’s The Eye of Vichy provides insight into a different type of military order.  A mix-tape of primary sources, Vichy consists of two hours of newsreel and propaganda shorts—though the two forms are indistinguishable much of the time—which are only occasionally broken up by a narrator who sketches in some rough historical context for what we’re looking at. The material is ordered chronologically so we can feel both the peak and then the long decline of Vichy and its chief of state Philippe Pétain, around whom the Reich and its French minions created one of the shabbiest, most unseemly personality cults the world has ever known. The ancient warrior had been made prime minister just as history was casting about for a dupe, and in that role he was both a manipulator and nakedly manipulated. We see him meeting with Hitler (who kept him waiting) and with Franco (who couldn’t have looked more bored), but he spent most of his time implementing laws designed to curry favor with Berlin (when they didn’t actually originate there) and making appearances designed to swell the hearts of France’s pepperpots and schoolchildren. The Eye of Vichy also contains some interesting cultural sidebars: ads for powdered soap and Scandale girdles; the rats sequence from The Eternal Jew; middleweight Marcel Cerdan giving an opponent a thorough drudging; and various propaganda efforts, some of which came in unexpected forms.

But it mostly observes official functions—rallies, conferences, visits from Reich big shots, all the while tracking one of the most important components of Franco-German relations in those years, the work programs by which French POWs and civilians “volunteered” to leave home and provide labor for the German war machine. (Cue clip of many tight-lipped smiles at the Gare du Nord.) But the real face of Vichy is clearest in the speeches given by such ugly-souled functionaries as Jacques Doriot and Philippe Henriot, men who in any other time would be dismissed as the thick-necked bullies they were. Chabrol closes his film with a clip from the famous speech that Charles De Gaulle delivered after the liberation—the speech in which he uttered the words “Paris outraged, Paris broken, Paris martyred, but Paris liberated! By herself, liberated by her people, with the help of the whole of France!” Whether he meant them to or not, De Gaulle’s words helped lay the groundwork for a generation of denial; by laying down such clear divisions, he reduced the moral complexity of the war in general, and the Occupation in particular, to an Indiana Jones adventure, and France would pay the price for decades to come.

“A Dry Place in the Swamp with Trees”

October 11, 2007

It’s a slow-ass day today, so much so that I was a little irked when the mail trolley didn’t bring me that copy of The Crime of Monsieur Lange I’ve been pining for, and instead dropped off the latest issue of one of my company’s in-house magazines. I was flipping through the various urban renewal stories inside it when the words “Opa-Locka, Florida” caught my eye—I hadn’t known before today that we’ve been working on some revitalization projects there. Opa-Locka is, of course, the hell on Earth into which the bible drummer Paul Brennan falls during the Maysles Brothers’ and Charlotte Zwerin’s great film Salesman. It’s one of those nutty little communities that adopted a “theme” when it sprang up during the land boom that Groucho took an axe to in Cocoanuts, and its choice of motifs—the Arabian Nights—seems stranger still now that we’ve entered the 21st Century. In one of Salesman’s most memorable passages an exasperated Brennan tries to make sense of the city’s whimsically named and plotted streets, including Sinbad Avenue, Sharazad Boulevard and, yes, Sesame Street. The town’s founders, not content with laying out their city as a pack of five-year olds might, went on to line its avenues with buildings done up in a faux Moorish style, with a City Hall festooned in golden domes and pointed arches and minarets so laughably fakey that Walt Disney’s version of Mad Ludwig’s Castle looks authentically medieval by comparison. And if you thought the name “Opa-Locka” was coined by some tin-eared booster, you wouldn’t be wrong: it’s a land developer’s abbreviation for the region’s unwieldy Indian name. A true linguistic curiosity, it’s a word that physically pains the eye that takes it in.

What civic nuttiness couldn’t take care of, geopolitics would do its best to finish off. When I was a kid my family drove down Route 66 to my grandparents’ place in the Ozarks every summer, a trip that took us through the tiny burg of Cuba, Missouri, whose denizens, perhaps too aware of how much that name stood out in the early 1960s, mounted a billboard at the city limits that read WE MAY BE NAMED CUBA BUT WE DON’T LIKE CASTRO. I can’t help but think that in late 2001 Opa-Locka’s civic leaders felt even more pricklish and on the defensive, especially when it came to light that the some of the 9/11 hijackers, perhaps at home amongst the papier-mâché towers and play-tot street names, had taken their flying lessons there.

Now, you’d think that its links to Salesman—one of the most ferocious assaults on American capitalism ever put to celluloid—and the WTC attacks would create enough bad vibes for any city in the world, but Opa-Locka had yet to win the saddest prize of all. In 2003 and 2004 it led all of America’s cities in violent crime—and not by a little, but by a lot. In 2005 its murder rate dropped to second, after East St. Louis, but it was still something to behold: where the killing fields of Oakland reported 23.2 murders for every 100,000 citizens, Opa-Locka—with a population slightly south of 16,000—racked up 51, while the number of its assaults and robberies dwarfed the national averages. Most of the violence could be traced to “the Triangle,” a tiny warren of streets just a short hop up Ali Baba Avenue from where Paul Brennan got lost in 1968, and home to some truly vicious drug wars.

In Salesman’s closing shot a sere and withered Paul Brennan gazes out of his motel room, and his thousand-yard stare looks like it’s taking in the abyss rather than some choice Floridian real estate—the poor old guy was seeing his hopes and dreams evaporate before his eyes. It was the end of a long process but one that starts easily enough. This morning the mailroom guy plopped a magazine down on my desk and I happened to glance at its thirteenth page, and in less than an hour I was up to my eyes in Opa-Locka.

%d bloggers like this: