A special edition of Reeling!
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
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
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
|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."
|"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
|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
|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
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
|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 www.mw3.org 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: 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."
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