Show #314 of Reeling: The Movie Review Show
with Robin & Laura Clifford
September 24, 2003

Robin Clifford of Reeling: the Movie Review Show
Robin Clifford
A  special edition of Reeling!

Laura Clifford of Reeling: the Movie Review Show
Laura Clifford

Interest in documentaries has been on an upswing and this year, 2003, should become
known as the year of the documentary film.  While we've been recommending theatrically
released documentaries on Reeling since our second show in 1991, we thought that now,
with interest at an all time high, we'd go back and recommend some documentaries from
past years that are available for purchase and rental.

A Personal Journey With Martin Scorcese Through American Film
A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese
Through American Film

Hollywood and the movie industry has always been a popular subject for documentary movies and last year produced the popular visualization of producer Robert Evans' biography, "The Kid Stays in the Picture."  One of the best film historians around is American director Martin Scorsese, an expert film historian in his own right who, last year,  made a document about the Italian films which helped shape his chosen vocation.  Back  in 1995, he created the almost four hour epic film compendium, "A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Film ," a fascinating study that should be required viewing for any serious film student.

Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen's
Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen's
This year's Sundance Grand Jury winner, "American Splendor," is being lauded for its innovative melding of fiction and documentary to tell the story of comic book author Harvey Pekar.  A few years back, the popular doc "Crumb" showcased the underground illustrator who was Pekar's friend and sometime collaborator.  "American Splendor's" husband and wife directing team of Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer came from a documentary background and their first film, "Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen's" is a fond look at Hollywood lore via one of its legendary
restaurant hangouts.

Leaving Hollywood behind, we'll turn to seminal German director Werner Herzog, who began his career making such landmark documentaries as 1974's "The Great Ecstasy of  Woodcarver Steiner," about a champion skier, and 1977's "La Soufrière," where he flew a helicopter into a volcano that was about to erupt!  He's returned to the documentary genre throughout his career with such films as 1997's "Little Dieter Needs to Fly."   Herzog's collaborations with the notoriously nutty and eccentric actor Klaus Kinski, such as "Nosferatu," "Aguirre: the Wrath of God" and "Fitzcarraldo" are his masterpieces and in 1999's "My Best Fiend," he takes a fond look at their often stormy relationship
Lessons of Darkness
Lessons of Darkness
Kinski's got quite a cult following, not only for his Herzog films but for the schlock horror and spaghetti Westerns he churned out over the years. "Fiend" is essential for Herzog/Kinski buffs, as are director Les Blank's account of the making of "Fitzcarraldo," "Burden of Dreams" and his amusing short documenting Herzog's loss of a bet with Errol Morris, "Werner Herzog Eats his Shoe."

Of course, Germany has been the location of hundreds of documentaries because of WWII and the Holocaust, subjects which many believe have been exhausted. However, this year alone has seen the release of "Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary," "Bonhoeffer,"  "Secret Lives: Hidden Children During WWII" and "The Nazi Officer's Wife."  We'll go right back to Herzog for a more unusual war-time doc that doesn't take place in Germany.  His "Lessons of Darkness" is a stunning and eerily beautiful document of the aftermath of the first Gulf War.  It became available on DVD last year, paired with the 1971 "Fata Morgana," Herzog's Saharan mirage doc. It's a very nice documentary package from Anchor Bay.  Currently Herzog is in Scotland making a doc about the Loch Ness Monster phenomenon and we're sure looking forward to that one.
The odd beauty of manmade disaster in "Lessons of Darkness" is countered with the natural
splendor of this year's hit French doc that travels around the world with "Winged Migration."  The same filmmaking team produced something that is the polar opposite in scale to "Migration" back in 1996 - their amazing look at the insect world on a couple of acres of French countryside in "Microcosmos."

Cane Toads
Cane Toads
"Microsmos" is well worth looking for if you haven't seen it. It's every bit as technically astounding as "Winged Migration."

Now that we're in nature mode, one of the first commercially successful documentaries from back when the independent film movement began to rise is Australia's hilariously entertaining "Cane Toads."  Like a number of documentaries of late, the makers of "Cane Toads" give you all the
information and let you decide if the toads are a threat to Australia or just another benign beast - and it does it with tongue in cheek good humor.
Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns
Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns
And while we're speaking of quirky, last year an unusual music doc based on a band with local roots, They Might Be Giants, began making the film festivals rounds. The interesting and entertaining "Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns" was Laura's favorite documentary of 2002.  It's just about to come out on DVD from Cowboy Pictures so keep an eye out for it - even if you know little about the band (they're the guys who do the "Malcolm in the Middle" theme song or you may know "Birdhouse in Your Soul"), you will find yourself engrossed.

I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
Music is always a rich subject for documentaries - I can rattle off recent releases like "Genghis Blues" and classics like the Maysles Brothers "Gimme Shelter," D.A. Pennebaker's "Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars," Scorsese's "The Last Waltz" and "The Compleat Beatles."  Another film just released on DVD from Cowboy Pictures is last year's gripping look at the creation of the album "Yankee Foxtrot Hotel" as its band, Wilco, went through rocky changes in "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart."

The Great Rock 'n Roll Swindle            
The Great Rock 'n Roll Swindle
One of the most ground breaking bands in rock history, the Sex Pistols, have had their story documented twice, twenty years apart, with very different results by British director Julien Temple.  The vintage 1980 doc "The Great Rock 'n Roll Swindle," featured animation and music videos to tell the tale of the Pistols' marketing by their manager Malcolm McLaren and their enormously lucrative break from their record label, EMI. In 2000, Temple revisited his subject in  "The Filth and the Fury" to establish the group's place in British music and social history.  This more traditional documentary has a melancholy air as John Lydon regrets the fate of his friend and band-mate, Sid Vicious.
Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills
Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills
Laura's favorite documentary of all time and  #1 movie pick of 1996 was also given the sequel treatment by directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinosfky.  The "Brother's Keeper" makers went to Arkansas to film what they thought would be the trial of three Satanists who murdered three young boys, but what they captured instead was one of the greatest failures of the American justice system.  "Paradise Lost:  The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills" is two and a half hours long and she's watched it ten times. This tale of the West Memphis Three, whose history is available at the website, is so involving and infuriating, its characters so complex, its story so outrageous, that the filmmakers followed it up with "Revelations: Paradise Lost 2."  This story of judicial and social injustice is so compelling that a dramatic fictional account, "The West Memphis Three" starring Michael Pitt and Rikki Lake, is filming now for release in 2004.
This year "Spellbound" delighted audiences watching eight 12-year old kids prepare for the National Spelling Bee and make it through the actual event.  Last year brought a similarly structured film with two subjects - superstar Jerry Seinfeld and his opening act, Bostonian standup Orny Adams, as they worked to shape their acts leading up to a huge comedy show for a national audience in "Comedian."
Mr. Death
Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred Leuchter, Jr.
Locally, the Boston area has a rich history with the documentary genre, beginning back with M.I.T.'s Ricky Leacock, who made 1963's "A Happy Mother's Day" about America's first quintuplets and still working septuagenarian Frederick Wiseman, best known for his first film, 1967's groundbreaking expose on the State Prison for the Criminally Insane in Bridgewater, "Titicutt Follies."  Cambridge's Errol Morris, whose "Thin Blue Line" was responsible for the release of a man on death row, is getting huge advance buzz for his upcoming doc on Robert McNamara, "The Fog of War."  Getting closer to home, though, is his strange journey with Maldonean Fred Leuchter, Jr., a man who perverted his expertise in execution techniques into fame as a Holocaust denier in "Mr. Death: The Rise And Fall Of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr."

Other recommendations:
In the Mirror of Maya Deren (available Spring 2004 from Zeitgeist)
Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale
Sick: The Life and Death of Supermasochist Bob Flanagan
When We Were Kings
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