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Basically a nerd, basically a film blog.


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Posts tagged "documentary"
Documentary claims to have this privileged purchase on a truthful version of reality – it’s not fiction, this is the real – but most documentaries’ representation of the real is so attenuated and so discourse-based and language-based. We lie and we mystify ourselves with words. Words can only take us so far.

Samsara (2011) Ron Fricke

While undeniably beautiful, this film left a bad taste in my mouth. Samsara is a series of images, cut together in fairly rapid succession, taking the viewer on a “global” tour of the “cultures of the world”. Some images are meant to be purely aesthetically beautiful (which they are), some images are meant to be confrontational. But as these are just images, without context, and in the absence of any explicit narrative, the meaning comes from montage, and I did not care for that meaning.

Yes, there is confrontation, but there is also exploitation and exoticization. Unlike (from what I hear) Baraka, Samsara concerns itself mainly with humans. The near absence of white people, except for a few shots from the American south (there are probably others, but not many) tells me that Fricke is not so much focused on painting a full portrait of humanity, but on painting an exotic portrait of the Other for art-consumers (rich, white) to experience (with that experience ending in the theatre). I am still interested in seeing Baraka, but Samsara rubbed me the wrong way. 

#190 - 9/16/2012

Edited to add - some additional thoughts

6 Days to Air: The Making of South Park (2011) Arthur Bradford

A fun, brief, behind-the-scenes. It’s heartening to see that these guys haven’t really changed. 

#180 - 8/30/2012

The Ambassador (2011) Mads Brügger

I don’t normally like this type of documentary that seems like a stunt, but I did like The Ambassador, very much.

The Ambassador is a documentary by Danish filmmaker Mads Brügger, in which he buys diplomatic credentials to become Liberia’s ambassador to the Central African Republic, and goes about setting up a match factory as a front for his efforts to buy blood diamonds. Much of the film is footage from hidden cameras, showing conversations held with various high-level government officials, and the owner of a diamond mine.

I think a key to whether or not you like this film is how fully you buy into the reality of his situation, and whether you think he really would have been in mortal peril if discovered. I, for one, wholeheartedly bought into it; my jaw was dropped throughout with just the wild notion of it all.

As an on-screen presence, Brügger somehow manages to convey the absurdity of the situation while still staying in character. You never forget the precariousness of his situation. There were scenes that were hilarious and also frightening, at the same time.

And as a documentary, it had a lot of ground to cover - a history of the Central African Republic, the business of selling diplomatic credentials, Brügger’s journeys to actually get to the CAR, his experience while there. While it didn’t always succeed (I left with a ton of unanswered questions), I thought it did admirably well. And while the narrative structure didn’t always work, and the temporal switches not always made clear, I chose to read that as mimicking the disorientation of that actual experience.

One of the most interesting things to me, which was really only touched on the surface, was the exploration of what post-colonialism in Africa really looks like today. I would like to watch a whole documentary just exploring that topic.

In a Q&A after the film, Brügger said that putting on that costume every day for two and a half months helped him to stay in character, because he needed to be in character at every moment. And that he thought, what better way to hide than by being overly ostentatious? No one would expect someone dressed so crazy and sticking out like a sore thumb to be doing something like he was. Although I obviously noticed his flashy style, it hadn’t really clicked with me how different and out of place it was, something I’m glad I learned.

#179 - 8/28/2012

Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present (2012) Matthew Akers, Jeff Dupre

I have a hard time with documentaries. I do appreciate the form, but I bristle at the belief, held by some, that documentaries speak truth in a way that fiction films don’t (same goes for books). There is no such thing as an unbiased documentary, but some filmmakers do try more than others, or at least acknowledge the bias. In that respect, I think that Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present is at least somewhat honest; one of Marina’s assistants talks about the careful marketing of Marina, and this is just one piece of that. Still, I am very glad I watched it.

Marina stated that she wanted to make this film to show the administration of art, and everything that goes into the performances. It isn’t something that’s seen often, and I think it helps to shed some light on the commercial art world.

And it allows me to come as close as I can to experiencing the performance, without having to be there. It’s so incredibly snobbish of me, but I really hate crowded museums. I want my experience of art to feel private. I don’t want to be surrounded by someone who loudly asks, “which one is she?” or fucking James Franco flailing about to make some profound statement about art, or someone who walks past making a face, shrugging. It’s fine, those questions are fine, that attitude is fine (James Franco is not fine), but I don’t want to fucking see it, it hurts.

To experience great art is something that approaches sanctity to me, and I really do find Marina’s art to be some of the most intensely moving work that I know of. The film also shows videos of earlier performances that I had only read about before, especially her work with her partner Ulay. That stuff absolutely slayed me, I was pretty much weeping throughout. Her medium is her body, time, and space, and her concepts are clear, bold, and uncompromising.

But it’s interesting - between my adoration of Marina and my quasi-religious feelings about art, I found myself thinking about cults. What is that line? There is a superficial similarity between the training she required her artists to go through, and the environment of a cult (the big difference is that Marina was trying to teach them how to create their own charismatic space). But the cult of personality is another idea that I think is raised through the nature of the piece itself, as well as the hype surrounding the exhibit. I saw the film as trying to address this in a way, and Marina wanting to transcend this.

A while ago, when discussing her work and performance art in general, I was having a hard time figuring out just what I don’t like about most performance art; at the time, I said that much of it feels like spectacle to me. In the film, they talk about the difference between performance and theatrics, and I really think that’s it.

#162 - 7/15/2012

Knuckle (2011) Ian Palmer

Every family has secrets and a certain unwillingness to talk about certain issues with outsiders, but the Irish traveler clans profiled in <i>Knuckle</i> take this to a whole other level.

While videotaping a McDonagh wedding in 1997, Ian Palmer met James, a leader of the McDonagh clan and a champion bare-knuckle fighter. From there, he spent twelve years chronicling the family’s feuds with other clans, and their fights. 

The subject is fascinating and astonishing. I think it was something like ten years before he really began to get any sort of answer as to how the fighting began. 

I liked that Palmer recognizes the aspects of documentary filmmaking that are problematic; I wish he took it even further.

#111 - 5/31/2012

The Interrupters (2011) Steve James

The Interrupters is a documentary that profiles three people working for the Cease-Fire organization in Chicago as ”violence interrupters”, a job title that barely scratches the surface of what they actually do. Cease-Fire takes an epidemiologist’s approach to crime - it tries to get at “patient zero” and stop the violence incident-by-incident, before it can spread through that chain of escalating retaliations. The violence interrupters get in the middle of altercations, but they also attend funerals, comfort families, and counsel people in need.

The organization takes issue with the common thought that most of the violence is gang-related, and states that most of the violence is interpersonal (I believe the film states that 80% is interpersonal, but I can’t find that stat on the internet so I’m not sure). 

The violence interrupters all have violent pasts and a real understanding of the daily circumstances of the people who they try to help. This is important - in a small moment that I particularly liked, a scene shows Eddie visiting an elementary school where he helps children express themselves through art. He asks the kids what’s happened since the last time he visited, and one of the boys tells him about a shooting. The young teacher, a Teach for America placement perhaps, says that she’s glad Eddie is here but of course, they can always feel free to tell her anything. She does this in a perfect way, she seems approachable, she’s caring. But nah, miss. It’s just not the same.

I did come across some criticism of the organization for not taking a broader stance and trying to solve other problems that can lead to violence (education, job creation, family violence, etc.), but this seems like an unfair criticism. Yes, these institutionalized problems create a system that leads to violence, but that doesn’t mean that an organization should not try to do something to stop violence without having to try to fix every other issue. There are other organizations working on those problems, and violence still occurs. Cease-Fire has one focus and I don’t think it can be criticized for that.

An incredibly important documentary profiling some amazing people who are doing incredibly important work, I highly highly highly recommend watching. 

#72 - 4/8/2012

I am Comic (2010) Jordan Brady
Half a talking heads documentary about what it means to be a stand-up, half a documentary about an old stand-up trying to get back on the horse, I think I might have preferred to see a whole documentary about one or the other. Still, it&#8217;s overall pretty good and worth a watch. I enjoyed the diversity of comics included, even Carlos Mencia, worst person in the world.
#69 - 3/31/2012

I am Comic (2010) Jordan Brady

Half a talking heads documentary about what it means to be a stand-up, half a documentary about an old stand-up trying to get back on the horse, I think I might have preferred to see a whole documentary about one or the other. Still, it’s overall pretty good and worth a watch. I enjoyed the diversity of comics included, even Carlos Mencia, worst person in the world.

#69 - 3/31/2012

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey (2011) Constance Marks

I loved this documentary. The waterworks started well before the footage from Jim Henson’s funeral. It’s impossible to feel cynical or unmoved by Kevin Clash’s story - it’s so fucking nice, his story of personal passion, parental support, and championed talent. It’s also an absolutely horrifying moment, hearing Elmo’s original voice.

#58 - 3/17/2012

Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (2008) Marina Zenovich

This was a difficult one to watch. There’s no doubt that Roman Polanski is a brilliant artist. There’s no doubt that Roman Polanski did a horrible, unforgivable thing, any way you look at it. There’s no doubt that Roman Polanski had a horrible life, which is still no excuse for the horrible, unforgivable thing he did. And there’s no doubt that the legal system broke down in getting justice for the victim or for fairly bringing justice to Roman Polanski. 

And still, as with the best documentaries, I was left unsure of how to feel. I highly recommend this film.

#57 - 3/15/2012

I Am Trying to Break Your Heart (2002) Dir. Sam Jones
Sometimes Shawn gets to pick the movies.
#3 - 1/5/2012

I Am Trying to Break Your Heart (2002) Dir. Sam Jones

Sometimes Shawn gets to pick the movies.

#3 - 1/5/2012