Movies - Documentaries postsSunday January 13, 2013
The Original Gangster Squad
This weekend, as “Gangster Squad” was opening to poor reviews and poorer box office, I watched a documentary called “Public Enemies: The Golden Age of the Gangster Film.” I'd never heard of it but there it was on Netflix. For, like, free. Narrated by Alec Baldwin. You worry you're going to wind up with some AMC Biography crap but this thing was decent.
It is what it says it is. Its focus is on the 1930s Warner Bros. gangsters: Robinson and Cagney in the 1930s, then Bogart's work from the 1940s. It includes Martin Scorsese as talking head and some of his films. But it never mentions “The Godfather,” at least not so as I remembered, and pretty much ignores the 1950s on. It ends more or less with Cody Jarett. Top of the world, ma.
But the best part of the doc for me was the first 20 minutes when we got clips from silent gangster movies. Not just “The Musketeers of Pig Alley” (1913), which Scorsese talked up in “A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American movies,” but a 1906 silent film called “The Black Hand.” Any “Godfather” fan immediately perks up. “The Black Hand” at the time of Vito Corleone's battle with the Black Hand? Sign me up.
Turns out it's one of about a half-dozen silents with “black hand” in the title. We don't get the others. But we do get these:
Some of “Regeneration” was apparently filmed in Five Points, only 50 years removed from when Martin Scorses would set it in “Gangs of New York.” He watched it as preparation.
There's also a great, short appreciation for Lon Chaney, the man of a thousand faces, who projects powerful ones here. It makes me want to see more of his work.
Why did gangster movies prosper with talkies? Some say it was the sounds, such as machine guns, but you could get those in war movies, too. Others mention the patois, the accents, from the various neighborhoods in New York. Wise guy, see? There's Prohibition, during which most of us became criminals and criminals became powerful, and the Great Depression, when many Americans realized what a scam it all was, and a man making his rise by any means necessary, and in the face of the real criminals, the Wall Street types, was a comforting 90-minute wish-fulfillment fantasy for many Americans.
Plus the movie stars who showed up: Cagney, Bogart, Edward G. Robinson:
By the way, and appropos of nothing, doesn't this actor in “Musketeers of Pig Alley” remind you of Mark Strong?
History written with lightning has simply become history. The backgrounds alone in these early silents, filmed in various locations in New York in the 1910s, make them worth watching.
Idiot of the Day: Dinesh DíSouza
“I want to thank the Academy for not nominating our film. By ignoring ’2016,’ the top-performing box-office hit of 2012, and pretending that films like ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ and ‘This Is Not a Film’ are more deserving of an Oscar, our friends in Hollywood have removed any doubt average Americans may have had that liberal political ideology, not excellence, is the true standard of what receives awards.”
-- Dinesh D’Souza, writer and director, with John Sullivan, of the documentary “2016: Obama's America.”
A few pointers, Dinesh:
- The Academy isn't about box office. Since 2000, how many No. 1 box-office hits have been nominated best picture? Three: “Return of the King” in 2003, “Avatar” in 2009, and “Toy Story 3” in 2010. How many won? One. “Return of the King.” This is true in the documentary-feature category as well. The No. 1 doc last year? Justin Bieber's concert film. Not nominated. In 2010? “Oceans.” Nada. In 2009 it was “Earth,” and in 2008 “Religulous.” Bupkis. The last No. 1 box-office doc to get nom'ed was Michael Moore's “Sicko” in 2007 but it lost the award to Alex Gibney's “Taxi to the Dark Side.” Which barely made any money at the box office.
- The Academy has never really been about excellence, either. Or to put another way: Excellence is in the eye of the beholder. In this list from Sasha Stone on the best pictures chosen by the Academy's and the New York Film Critics Circle, there aren't many years, when the two bodies disagree, when I wouldn't rather watch the NYFCC's choice. Those films are more excellent to me. Which doesn't mean that members of the Academy don't strive for excellence. It's just that other things get in the way.
- But if you're looking for a way to quantify quality, or excellence, then the Rotten Tomatoes site isn't a bad place to go. And the top critics there gave “Searching for Sugar Man” a 97% rating, and “This is Not a Film” a 100% rating. Your film? 14%. “The film flutters to the ground like so much GOP convention confetti,” writes critic Roger Moore of McClatchy-Tribune News Service; “all assertions, few facts and little substance other than the conspiratorial right wing talking points that are D'Souza's bread and butter.”
- Which is pretty much the consenus of your film. It sucks. The fact that you seem to have expected a nomination, and have attributed the lack of to liberal Hollywood bias, indicates how far gone you are. It's like expecting a documentary about 9/11 truthers to be short-listed for an Oscar.
Here are the 15 docs that did make the Academy's short list:
- “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” Never Sorry LLC
- “Bully,” The Bully Project LLC
- “Chasing Ice,” Exposure
- “Detropia,” Loki Films
- “Ethel,” Moxie Firecracker Films
- “5 Broken Cameras,” Guy DVD Films
- “The Gatekeepers,” Les Films du Poisson, Dror Moreh Productions, Cinephil
- “The House I Live In,” Charlotte Street Films, LLC
- “How to Survive a Plague,” How to Survive a Plague LLC
- “The Imposter,” Imposter Pictures Ltd.
- “The Invisible War,” Chain Camera Pictures
- “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God,” Jigsaw Productions in association with Wider Film Projects and Below the Radar Films
- “Searching for Sugar Man,” Red Box Films
- “This Is Not a Film,” Wide Management
- “The Waiting Room,” Open’hood, Inc.
The Bravest Man of the 20th Century?
Rustin was the civil rights movement before the civil rights movement. He was advocating a non-violent confrontational approach in the 1940s, more than a decade before the lunch-counter sit-ins in Greensboro and Nashville. He was engaged in freedom rides more than a decade before “the Freedom Rides” of 1961. He also organized a little thing called the March on Washington in August 1963.
So why isn't he better known? Look at the Times' obit. The piece is 41 paragraphs but this isn't mentioned until the 40th paragraph:
In an interview published in The Village Voice on June 30, Mr. Rustin was quoted as saying he was homosexual. Asked in the interview how this and his 1953 arrest and subsequent sentence of 60 days in Pasadena, Calif., on a morals charge had affected his civil rights work, he said that ''there was considerable prejudice amongst a number of people I worked with,'' although they would not admit it.
Born in 1912, Rustin was both black and openly gay, and his homosexuality was used against him several times during the civil right movement. It marginalized him—an early, dynamic leader—and yet, even with this marginalization, he still did what he did.
I'm curious: Did Rustin ever meet up with James Baldwin, who was both black and openly gay? What was that meeting like? Could someone write a play about it?
“Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin” isn't a great doc, but its subject, Rustin, is a great subject. Someday someone will get it right.
Rustin, with glasses, behind Martin Luther King during the “I Have a Dream” speech. Unfortunately, King wasn't always behind Rustin.
No No Nanette; Yes Yes Ken Burns
Did anyone watch Ken Burns' “Prohibiton” doc on PBS last week? It's good stuff. I like the overview of the types of movements we had, and have, in this country: what inspires them, what drives them, what ultimately causes them to succeed. You could argue that Prohibition succeeded, or at least was passed into law, for three reasons: 1) the creation of the U.S. income tax in the 1910s (meaning the U.S. government no longer needed to rely on taxes on the sale of liquor); 2) anti-German sentiment during and after WWI (since the big breweries were all German-American); and 3) the usual feelings about human perfectability. Plus misconceptions about what the Volstead Act entailed. Many didn't think prohibition would apply to beer, for example.
There's a good section on Seattle, too, which I never knew was a bootlegging hub. But it makes sense. There's proximity to Canada, with all its booze, and the islands and coves of Puget Sound, with all its places to hide.
There's good stuff on Assistant Attorney General Mabel Walker Willebrandt, the most famous woman outside of Hollywood in the 1920s, and the rise and fall of George Remus, perhaps the biggest bootlegger in the country, who was done in by, of all things, a dame. Plus Al Capone.
But I was most amused by this shot. You could argue it's merely a generic shot of New York City in the 1920s. But there's no way that Ken Burns, official documentarian of Major League Baseball, doesn't know the true meaning of “No No Nanette.”
Bye-Bye Tabloid; Hello “Tabloid”
Errol Morris is one lucky bastard. His most recent documentary, “Tabloid,” played the Seattle Interntional Film Festival last month. Here's its synopsis:
Morris’ latest mind-boggling study of boundless obsession takes as its jumping-off point the notorious 1978 kidnapping in the U.K. of a Mormon missionary by former Wyoming beauty queen Joyce Kinney. The lurid details made headlines across the world and turned her into a one-woman media circus. ... Moving beyond the sick, sad, and smirk-inducing aspects of the film, director Morris makes some serious points about the power of the yellow press to shape and destroy lives ...
“Headlines all over the world?” I remember thinking. “I was around in the 1970s. I like stories about sex. How come I don't remember it?”
Then I saw the film and realized, “Ohhh, because it happened in England, with the British tabloid press. Yeah. No wonder I didn't know about it.”
Then I thought, “Too bad for Morris. Probably no market for it. Americans just aren't as interested in British tabloid stuff.”
The doc opens in limited release in the U.S. tomorrow.
Tim Hetherington, Co-Director of Restrepo, Dies in Libya
I just heard the news about Tim Hetherington.
A year ago I saw him at the Harvard Exit in Seattle, tall and thin and British, a photojournalist mostly, standing next to Sebastian Junger, short and broad and American, an author mostly, and his co-director on the documentary we'd all just watched: “Restrepo.” Both calmly answered questions from the partisan Seattle International Film Festival crowd about the politics of war and the politics of documentary. A few in the crowd, like Jeff Wells later, wanted “Restrepo” to be more political: the how and the why we're in Afghanistan. They felt “Restrepo” somehow lacked. I was stunned. I was stunned by the stupidity of the questions and by the power of the film. I've urged it on everyone since. I doubt there's a movie I mentioned more in the last year. I was a broken record.
- I posted my “Restrepo” review at the end of May 2010.
- From early June: Me, I've only been seeing SIFF (Seattle International Film Festival) movies the past two weeks. Thus far? “Restrepo.” Repeat: “Restrepo.”
- In late June, I talked about how it was the best of SIFF.
- Still in June, in a lengthy post, I slammed Jeff Wells for his take on “Restrepo,” and, in the process, sharpened my own.
- In early July: a link to a New York Times Q&A with Junger.
- From August: There are still good movies to see, people. Restrepo is still playing in 44 theaters, and two new docs, “The Tillman Story” and “A Film Unfinished,” just opened in NY and LA. One hopes they go wider.
- From September: Have you seen 'Restrepo'? DO! It's playing in 37 theaters around the U.S., has grossed $1.2 million, and is one of the best movies of the year.
- From October: Somebody, in this case “The Independent,” likes “Restrepo,” the Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington documentary about a platoon in Afghanistan in 2007-08, as much as I did. Hell, they go further. They ask: Is it the greatest war movie ever made?
- From January 2011: Michael Cieply writes of the strong slate of documentaries in 2010 without once mentioning the best of the lot: “Restrepo.”
- More from January: The Producers Guild of America announces its 2010 nominees. Six documentaries and no “Restrepo.” The world gets dumber by the day.
- Even more from January: I celebrated “Restrepo”'s Oscar nomination.
- In February, I finally get around to posting my list of the top 10 movies of 2010. “Restrepo”? No. 2.
- From Live-blogging the Oscars: The main one I want to win apparently has no shot: “Restrepo.” Maybe someday people will know.
Maybe someday they will.
Rest in peace, Mr. Hetherington. Emphasis on peace.
Junger, left, and Hetherington during the filming of “Restrepo”
Movie Review: “Oswald's Ghost” (2007)
WARNING: MAGIC SPOILERS
Norman Mailer gives us the title. “Oswald is the ghost that lays over American life,” he says, with his usual twinkle, near the end of this well-made documentary. “What is abominable and maddening about ghosts is you never know the answer. Is it this or is it that? You can’t know because the ghost isn’t telling you.”
Yet “Oswald’s Ghost” tells us plenty—because it’s less conspiracy theory, or conspiracy debunker, than conspiracy history. It takes us chronologically, and cleanly, through events, and delves into why we began to believe there was a cover-up, and what it means that we now believe there was a cover-up, and how we now act as a result. It sees the Kennedy assassination as the great dividing point of the American century, the break from which we never recovered. John F. Kennedy began his administration with the pro-government rhetoric of his inaugural—“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”—and yet the mystery surrounding his assassination, along with the lies of Vietnam and Watergate, set the stage for the anti-government rhetoric of Ronald Reagan and all of his acolytes, from which we still haven’t recovered.
Is there a story of the last 50 years that’s been told more often than the Kennedy assassination? Yet filmmaker Robert Stone, working for PBS and “The American Experience,” finds footage, and photos, I’ve never seen before. Here’s Oswald in the Dallas police station professing his innocence so matter-of-factly that I began to believe him:
Oswald (in glare of TV lights): I'd like some legal representation, but these police officers have not allowed me to have any. I don't know what this is all about.
Reporter: Did you kill the president?
Oswald: No, sir, I didn't. People keep asking me that. ... They are taking me in because of the fact that I lived in the Soviet Union. I'm just a patsy.
One suddenly wonders: Hey, how did they trace him to the murder of Officer Tippit? How did they find him in that Dallas movie theater? How did they make him the focal point of the worst American murder of the 20th century?
Newsman: Was this the man that you believed killed President Kennedy?
Dallas police: I think we have the right man.
Dan Rather: Confusion reigned inside the Dallas police station.
Abraham Zapruder didn’t help. Instead of showing his film to the American people, he hired a lawyer and sold the rights to Life magazine, which printed individual frames. The film itself wouldn’t be shown on television until 1975.
Oswald’s mother didn’t help. She said her son was being framed, which one expects, but she also said her son was a government agent, which raised spectres.
Jack Ruby certainly didn’t help.
Did Mark Lane? The New York lawyer became the first man to openly question whether Oswald acted alone, in a December 1963 article in The National Guardian entitled “Lane’s defense brief for Oswald.”
Did the Warren Commission? Shouldn’t its hearings have been public? Shouldn’t we have taken our time with the matter instead of rushing out a verdict before the 1964 elections?
Yet, at the time, most Americans accepted the lone-gunman theory. That would quickly change as conspiracy books began appearing, then proliferating, two and three years later: First Lane’s “Rush to Judgment,” then Edward Jay Epstein’s “Inquest: The Warren Commission and the Establishment of Truth.” Then it was off to the races.
Initially outsiders were blamed. It was Castro or the KGB. It was the South Vietnamese government, responding to the Diem assassination. Eventually we began blaming ourselves. It was some rogue CIA element. It was some right-wing element that wanted to stay in Vietnam just as JFK was getting ready to pull us out. “And like all those theories,” Mailer says, “it had a certainly plausibility and a depressing lack of proof.”
That didn’t stop New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison, wild-eyed and bug-eyed, and the worst of the conpiratorialists, who went after Clay Shaw, a prominent, closeted businessman. Stone (Robert, not Oliver) includes a fascinating 1967 news report critical of Garrison:
Garrison’s investigation has seemed to concentrate on homosexuals. That of course is an old police trick, and homosexuals have been a particular target of Garrison’s over the years. Even members of his staff have been privately critical of his emphasis on men whose deviation makes them vulnerable.
1968 didn’t help. Both MLK and RFK were assassinated by “lone gunmen.” Both were progressives. How could it not be conspiracy? (But did it have to lead to the inaninities of “The Parallax View”?)
Post-Watergate, the Church Committee detailed all of those early 1960s CIA assassinations of foreign leaders. Was Malcolm X more right than he knew? Was the JFK assassination a case of the chickens coming home to roost?
It’s the Ruby factor that’s always bugged me. He had mob ties. He was a strip-club owner. Yet he killed Oswald, effectively silencing him, out of respect for Jackie? Out of sudden anger? Tie that with the difficulty of Oswald's shot, of squeezing three bullets out of the 6.5 mm Carcano rifle in the time allotted, and of the whole back-and-to-the-left thing, with that final shot, the kill shot, looking, in the Zapruder film, like it’s blasting him from the front, well, you know, maybe there was something to it.
It's Jack Ruby's dog who pushes us back from the brink. Oswald was scheduled to be moved at 10:00 a.m. that Sunday morning. Here’s Hugh Aynesworth, a Dallas reporter:
Ruby slept 'til probably 9:30 or 9:20 something of that sort, and then he drives with his dog down to the Western Union and sent a telegram at 11:17 that morning. Came out and he looked one block up and he saw the crowd there at the police department. Jack Ruby was always on the scene of action, whether it be a fire, whether it be a raid, whether it be a parade, whatever. He had to be there. And he knew some of those cops. The fact that he left the dog in the car indicates to me that he thought he was going down to send a telegram and go back home. He took that little dog everywhere with him.
Few have assumed conspiracy longer and more vocally than Norman Mailer—yet even he comes around. “The internal evidence just wasn't there,” he says. “There were too many odd moments that just didn't add up.” Instead he focuses on Oswald’s mindset:
I think what Oswald saw was that if he committed the crime, if he assassinated Kennedy and he got away with it, then he would have an inner power that no one could ever come near. And, if he was caught, well then, he was quite articulate, he would have one of the greatest trials in America's history, if not the greatest, and he would explain all of his political ideas. He would become world famous and might have an immense effect upon history ...
When he shot Tippit, I think at that point he knew he was doomed because he could no longer make the great speech. If you shoot a policeman forget it, you're a punk. And so after he was caught he did nothing but protest his innocence and say, “I'm a patsy.”
“If you shoot a policeman, forget it, you're a punk.”
“This is not a whodunnit,” says Stone (Robert, not Oliver) in a DVD special features interview. “This is what a whodunnit has done to us.” He adds: “Conspiracy theory is part of the human condition; and it always will be.” Think of the doc as one Stone to correct another.
Is conspiracy the new American religion? The notion that we exist as small nothings for a short span of time in a cosmic eternity is unbearable, and thus we construct meaning out of it. The notion that this small nothing brought down the most powerful, glamorous man in the world is unbearable, and thus we construct meaning out of it. It was our enemies—foreign or domestic. It was the left or right. It was anything—please, God, let it be anything—other than little Lee Harvey Oswald.
The PGA Got It Wrong
The Producers Guild of America released their short list for best documentary feature yesterday. Thus:
- CLIENT 9: THE RISE AND FALL OF ELIOT SPITZER
- EARTH MADE OF GLASS
- INSIDE JOB
- SMASH HIS CAMERA
- THE TILLMAN STORY
- WAITING FOR ‘SUPERMAN’
Hopefully the Academy won't make the same mistake.
Review: “Inside Job” (2010)
WARNING: SPOILERS...IF YOU'VE BEEN LIVING IN A HOLE FOR THE LAST THREE YEARS
I know little about business and economics but I knew a lot of the information in “Inside Job,” Charles Ferguson’s documentary about the global financial meltdown of ... 2008? Just two years ago? Wow.
Ferguson puts together all of the pieces familiar to me, then adds a couple I don’t know. He clarifies and reminds.
Oh yeah, there’s Pres. Reagan deregulating the S&Ls overnight in 1982, which Ward B. Coe III and I talked about during our Q&A for Maryland Super Lawyers magazine in 2009. Oh right, Brooksley Born, the head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, whose attempts to regulate derivatives during the Clinton years were shot down by Larry Summers , and who became the subject of that “Frontline” special I streamed off of Netflix earlier this year. Oh god, there’s Joe Cassano, the idiot head of A.I.G. F.P., and the bete noir in Michael Lewis’ Vanity Fair piece in July 2009. Oh lord, there’s Alan fucking Greenspan and Henry fucking Paulson and Phil fucking Gramm and Richard fucking Fuld and Larry fucking Summers. It’s old home week. They got the gang back together again.
Except they didn’t. None of the big, bad boys (Greenspan, Summers) agreed to sit for “Inside Job,” just as none of the big, bad boys (Bush, Cheney) agreed to sit for Ferguson’s previous documentary, “No End in Sight,” about our missteps in Iraq after March 2003.
What sticks out in that earlier doc, though, is the he said/he said between Col. Paul Hughes, who worked for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), and who seemed to have a sense of what Iraq was and what we should do there, and Walter B. Slocombe, the Senior Advisor for Security and Defense to the CPA, who arrived for a week in May, got his boots a little dusty, and helped make all the wrong decisions. Hughes seems insistent and exasperated, while Slocombe starts off almost jaunty; then, as he is questioned about (held accountable for) his actions and policies, his eyes retreat, his voice turns tinny, he reveals himself a hollow man. One wonders what lies he tells himself to make it through the day.
The Walt Slocombe of “Inside Job” is the aptly named Fred Mishkin, an American economist who was one of six members of the Board of Governors for the Federal Reserve from 2006 to 2008. Another talking head, Robert Gnaizda, general counsel for the Greenlining Institute (a non-profit working for the disenfranchised in local communities), was aware of the problems with subprime mortgages, with predatory lending practices, with defaults and foreclosures, and he had semiannual meetings with Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, to attempt to address these issues. But only in 2009 did Bernanke admit there were problems that needed addressing.
Of course Bernanke didn’t agree to be interviewed. He’s insulated and unaccountable. Ah, but there’s Mishkin, tanned beyond recognition, proudly admitting he was at the semiannual meetings between Gnaizda and Bernanke. He’s expecting softballs. Instead, Ferguson, off camera, states that Bernanke was warned and did nothing. Mishkin’s response? He collapses. He evaporates into nonsense:
Yeah. So, uh, again, I, I don't know the details, in terms of, of, uh, of, um – uh, in fact, I, I just don't – I, I – eh, eh, whatever information he provide, I'm not sure exactly, I, eh, uh – it's, it's actually, to be honest with you, I can't remember the, the, this kind of discussion.
One almost feels sorry for him, this little Don Segretti of the Global Financial Meltdown, until later in the doc, when Ferguson gets into the conflicts of interest between economics departments and industry: How industry often pays prominent academics to present viewpoints industry wants. Mishkin did this in 2006. He was paid $125,000 by the Icelandic Chamber of Commerce to coauthor a study of Iceland’s financial system and found it stable “with prudent regulation and supervision.” But “Inside Job” actually begins in Iceland, where we’re informed of the deregulation that occurred in Iceland’s banking industry in 2000, leading to insane loans, and, currently, a debt 10 times its GDP. Mishkin owns up to that. “It turns out that the prudential regulation and supervision was not strong in Iceland,” he says. So Ferguson asks the obvious follow-up: What led you to think that it was? Mishkin’s stuttering response? He seeks refuge in the passive voice and second-person point-of-view. He says all of the following:
- “You’re going with the information you have.”
- “The view was that Iceland had very good institutions.”
- “It was an advanced country.”
- “You talk to people.”
- “You have faith in the Central Bank.”
Suddenly you’re disgusted all over again. These are charlatans in prominent positions. They are hollow men. Mishkin was paid more than twice as much as I’ve ever made in an entire year to simply co-author a study...and he couldn’t be bothered with independent research. He said what they wanted him to say.
The little Don Segretti of the Global Financial Meltdown
But that’s not even the worst part of the incident. The worst part is when Ferguson asks him why the title of this study, “Financial Stability in Iceland,” has been changed, in Mishkin’s current CV, to “Financial Instability in Iceland.” As if he foresaw and warned against a crisis whose hand he held all the way to the precipice:
Well, I don't know, if, whatever it is, is, the, uh, the thing – if it's a typo, there's a typo.
But again: this is little Freddy Mishkin. In “All the President’s Men,” Deep Throat notices that Bob Woodward is focusing too much on the ratfucking activities of Donald Segretti, and reminds him of the deeper issue: “They cancelled Democratic campaign rallies. They investigated Democratic private lives. They planted spies, stole documents, and on and on. Now don’t tell me you think this is all the work of little Don Segretti?”
So while it’s fun to watch Mishkin hemming and hawing on camera, it’s less important than: How we got there, what happened, where we are now.
Rep. Barney Frank talks up the old borrower-lender dynamic—a dynamic that, even three years ago, I thought was still in place. A person borrowed, a bank lent, and the borrower paid back to the lender; and because it usually required decades to pay back, the lender was careful about who was doing the borrowing. That’s the way the world worked.
The world changed in the 1980s when brokers at Salomon Brothers, a Wall Street investment bank, created complex mortgage derivatives called collateral debt obligations, or CDOs. Per my limited understanding: The mortgages were sold from banks to investment banks, who cut them up, bundled slices with hundreds of slices from other mortgages—to spread and thus minimize the risk—and sold them to investors.
So now when you pay your mortgage, you pay, not the bank, but these investors. Of course, since banks sold the mortgages, banks could be less careful about who they loaned to; and since, with all of that bundling and slicing, risk was minimized, risk could be increased. As it was. Which is how you got subprime mortgages: loans being given to people who had no collateral and couldn’t afford the payments, and who would ultimately default. Their entry into the system drove up prices, and their exit from the system collapsed the prices. The exit almost collapsed the system.
We get some back-and-forth on who foresaw the crisis (Allan Sloan) and who didn’t (Alan Greenspan). We get a little on who began to bet against all of the subprime mortgage loans (Goldman Sachs, chiefly), and who didn’t (A.I.G., chiefly).
One of the most telling incidents, about which you could make a good HBO movie, occurred at the 2005 Jackson Hole Symposium, at which you had the usual suspects: Greenspan, Bernanke, Summers, Geithner, and where an IMF economist, Raghuram Ragan, delivering a paper, less on the nitty-gritty of subprime mortgages and CDOs, than on the larger topic of incentives and risk. Here’s narrator Matt Damon:
Rajan's paper focused on incentive structures that generated huge cash bonuses based on short-term profits, but which imposed no penalties for later losses. Rajan argued that these incentives encouraged bankers to take risks that might eventually destroy their own firms, or even the entire financial system.
Prof. Kenneth Rogoff of Harvard:
Rajan hit the nail on the head. What he particularly said was: “You guys have claimed you have found a way to make more profits with less risk. I say you've found a way to make more profits with more risk.”
The reaction to his paper? Larry Summers attacked. He accused Ragan of being a Luddite. “He wanted to make sure that we didn’t bring a whole new set of regulations to the financial sector at this point,” Ragan says.
“Inside Job” is divided into five parts—“How We Got Here”; “The Bubble”; “The Crisis”; “Accountability”; “Where We Are Now”—and should be required viewing for every man, woman and child in the United States. It won’t be, of course. So far it’s grossed $1.8 million, which works out to about 180,000 people. Out of a nation of 308 million. It's barely being seen.
I could've used more on the history of deregulation (the who and how) and on what reforms have been enacted since Sept. 2008 (if any). I also would’ve liked something on the way the crisis has been spun by the anti-regulation right. It’s doing the shit it always does: blaming the opposition for its own crimes. In this scenario, the crisis was caused by government, not the private sector. In this scenario, government is still the problem and the financial industry can regulate itself—give or take a multi-trillion-dollar bailout from the federal government. I wanted Ferguson to take these guys down. (Though he does have a nice back-and-forth with Glenn Hubbard, Chief Economic Advisor during the Bush Administration, current Dean of the Columbia University Business School, and a nasty piece of work.)
The poster for “Inside Job” shows a suited man crossing his fingers atop a pile of money. This is a key metaphor for me. I don’t know much about business and economics, but, to me, here’s what life feels like in a fairly well-off, post-industrial society.
Most of us struggle to find something we’re good at, and for which we can get paid, and, if we’re lucky, we do this thing for 40 to 50 years until we can hopefully retire with a bit of comfort. And while we’re doing this thing, we’re putting our money, bit by bit, into a room, which is where other people, bit by bit, are putting their money, too. So there’s a huge pile of money in this room. Now there’s another group of people who are attracted to this room for the pile of money. They see the pile of money and say, “That’s what I want to do.” They believe they can take that pile of money, our money, and turn it into a bigger pile of money, which will be mostly their money. But while they’re doing this magic act, they don’t want anyone to watch. Because we can trust them. Because they are self-regulating. Because what could possibly go wrong?
Review: “A Film Unfinished” (2010)
I had a moment of regret when this documentary started. “Why am I watching this?” I wondered. “What’s it going to tell me that I don’t already know? That conditions there were horrific? That evil is banal?”
Here’s the background. At the end of World War II, a 60-minute, silent documentary was found in the German archives on Jewish life in the Warsaw ghetto in the months before the ghetto was liquidated and its inhabitants shipped off to the extermination camps of Treblinka. For 45 years, the footage, among the only known footage of life in the Warsaw ghetto, was treated as fact, as documentary fact, until a fourth reel was found indicating that many of the scenes were staged by the Nazis.
“A Film Unfinished” is Yael Hersonski’s 90-minute documentary on that 60-minute propaganda film.
Thus the moment of regret. “How,” I thought, “can Hersonski make this silent film interesting?”
It’s no longer silent. She adds her own narration as well as readings from various diaries, including those of Adam Czerniaków, head of the Warsaw Judenrat (Jewish Council), and Heinz Auerswald, the Nazi commissioner of the ghetto. The victims, along with the perpetrators, have voices again.
Two. She appreciates the power of the human face. She shows us not only the haunting faces in the silent propaganda film but the haunted faces of Warsaw ghetto survivors, “witnesses” she calls them in the credits, whom she films watching the silent propaganda film for the first time. There are five of them: four women and one man. The man has a slight smile on his face at odds with the heaviness of his sigh. The women simply looked pained. “Oh God,” one says, “what if I see someone I know?” Another: “I keep thinking I might see my mother walking.” There’s this tension between wanting to see and not wanting to see, between recovering this past and burying it forever. Will seeing her mother make things better? Or will it make the pain unbearable?
Finally, there’s the mystery. In the opening narration, Hersonski says the Third Reich was “that empire that knew so well to document its own evil,” but one still wonders why they filmed this particular piece of propaganda. What purpose did it serve? The staged scenes tend to feature better-off Jews going about their day: a woman putting on lipstick in her vanity mirror, another woman buying goods at the butcher, couples dining out. The witnesses refute each of these instances. “Most had sold everything.” “They were waiting to die.” “You woke up to find a corpse every 100 meters.”
Czerniaków’s diary details what was being filmed that day, the subterfuge that went into the filming, and then we see the footage. This bris, that ball, this show. The Jews in the show’s audience were held there all day, without food, without bathroom breaks, and ordered to laugh for the cameras.
Initially one thinks the Nazis are doing the obvious: showcasing comfortable people to refute claims of horrible conditions. Except they also showcase the horrible conditions.
We see piles of garbage. People were too weak to go downstairs, one witness says, so they simply threw garbage out the window. “I was 10 years old at the time,” another witness says, “and I was the dominant figure in my family.” She escaped the ghetto several times a week, risking her life, to get food for her family.
We see emaciated people with shaved heads. We see children in rags. We see a corpse every 100 meters. The Nazis filmed it all.
The point of the filming was, in fact, this juxtaposition. Here’s take 1, take 2, take 3 of a well-off woman buying meat at the butcher while children in rags starve outside. Here’s take 1, take 2, take 3 of sated couples leaving a restaurant and ignoring the emaciated woman in rags begging for a handout.
Much of the footage was taken by Willy Wist, a German cameraman who testified during the war-crime tribunals in West Germany in the 1960s, and whose words, read by German actor Rüdiger Vogler, constitute less the banality of evil than the shrug of it. He didn’t know the ultimate purpose of the film; he just filmed it. He says, at one point, “I recall I had to film a mass grave,” and then we see that footage. A makeshift slide was created to deliver the corpses into the pit outside Warsaw. One lifeless, naked body after another slides down and lies crumpled at the bottom. It’s the final solution foreshadowed, and Wist filmed it all because it was his job to film it all. If this seems unforgivable it’s because it reminds us of us. We see a line, we thank the stars we’re on this side of it, and we continue to do what we do.
It may be obvious, as you read this, why the Nazis staged what they staged—the ultimate purpose of their silent propaganda film—but it wasn’t to me watching Hersonski’s doc until about three-quarters of the way in. Was it explained outright? Was it implied? I forget. Hersonski’s narration tends to be quiet and even, and she presents most of the material without editorial comment. In this restraint she shows her artistry. “You’ve got to hold something back for pressure,” Robert Frost once wrote, and she does, and that pressure builds, and eventually, either nudged by her or by some spark in my brain, it hit me, the answer, and I felt a fresh horror wash over me.
The juxtaposition between rich and poor Jews was justification. The Nazis were documenting a race of people so indifferent to the suffering of others that they didn’t deserve to live. They were documenting an excuse for extermination.
In that moment of horror, of revelation, one understands the true meaning of propaganda.
It is the powerful blaming the powerless for the crimes of the powerful. The Nazis herded 600,000 Jews into a single zone of Warsaw. They gave them no way to live. They let them starve. They let them die by the hundreds of thousands. Then they staged scenes of Jewish indifference to the suffering of others.
I sat down for “A Film Unfinished” almost regretting sitting down. What else could I learn about the Holocaust that I didn’t already know? But there’s always fresh horror. The redemption, if there is any, is that the Nazis created a document of lies, and, from this, Yael Hersonski created a document of truth. She restores voices, and faces, and meaning.
Review: “Exit Through the Gift Shop” (2010)
“Exit Through the Gift Shop” could be an ironic twist on the documentary form, in which the subject is forced to become the documentarian because the original documentarian turns out to be incompetent, and in which the celebration of art (in its street form) becomes a condemnation of the art world (in its gallery form).
Or it could be a hoax. In which case... what? The laugh, rather than being on the art world, is on us? We are the suckers we thought we were watching.
And if the latter, does this make the doc more meaningful or ultimately meaningless?
Let me begin by saying I don’t know from art, let alone street art. I knew of Shepard Fairey through the Obama “Hope” poster and its subsequent AP lawsuit, (and from articles that mentioned his original famous work: the Andre the Giant “OBEY” graffito), but I’d never heard of the others: Monsieur Andre, with his flowing, friendly stick figure drawings; Space Invader, who tucks his Atari-inspired glyphs in out-of-the-way places around Paris; Zeus, painting shadows on the streets. Most of this stuff is fun. I laughed out loud at the chicken-or-egg humor to this graffito: “SORRY ABOUT YOUR WALL —Borf.”
Then there’s Banksy, whose name flashed by during the opening credits. Isn’t the whole thing called “A Banksy Film”? He’s interviewed early, his voice altered, his entire hooded form in silhouette, and lays it all out: “The film is the story of what happened when this guy tried to make a documentary about me... [but] the film is now kinda about him.”
This guy is Thierry Guetta, a French, vintage-clothing store owner living in Los Angeles, who has the habit, possibly from childhood trauma, of filming most of the interactions in his life. In 1999, he was visiting family in Paris, including his cousin, Space Invader, and Thierry and his video camera went on his night rounds with him. The impermanence of street art was thus recorded for posterity. This was Thierry’s entrée into the street-art world.
Soon Thierry lands one of the biggees, Shepard Fairey, and follows him around for 10 months. Then he lands the other biggee, Britain’s super-secretive Banksy, “the Scarlet Pimpernel of the street art scene,” according to Cablestreet, who is famous, or infamous, for his stenciled rats, for putting up his own framed artwork in prestigious galleries, for painting a crack in Jerusalem’s wailing wall through which one can view a Caribbean paradise. When Banksy heads to L.A. and needs a tour guide, Fairey hooks him up with Thierry and his camera.
Thierry’s there, filming, when Banksy stages an intervention into Bush-era America. He blows up an orange-suited Gitmo doll and places it in full view of a roller-coaster ride at Disneyland. Banksy is able to make his getaway but Thierry is grabbed by Disney security and interrogated for four hours. The absurdity of that situation—the heavy hand of the Happiest Place on Earth, along with the obvious Disney/Gitmo connection—is both creepy and hilarious. It’s as if Banksy (and Thierry) get their antagonists to dot the i’s and cross the t’s of the very point they’re making.
All the while, though, there’s something off about the narration from British actor Rhys Ifans. It’s telling us a story, this story, but Ifans, sounding a bit like Malcolm McDowell’s Alex in “A Clockwork Orange,” reads it like he doesn’t believe it. There’s an ironic, sarcastic layer to everything he says. There's something off, too, about Thierry, who, in recent talking-head interviews, wears Civil War-era muttonchops and never seems particularly bright. Halfway through, the bomb is dropped. The doc he's making? He's not making it. He simply puts the videotapes in shoe boxes and never reviews it. It’s not until Banksy asks him to create the doc he’s been talking about that he tries to create the doc he’s been talking about.
And it’s shite: like a caffeinated man flipping through 900 TV channels for 90 minutes. (Or so we’re told: we only get a snippet.)
So Banksy, like some latter-day David O. Selznik, takes over. He’ll put together the doc, based on Thierry’s footage. And what should Thierry do? “Make some art,” Banksy tells him.
He does. “I didn’t want to disappoint Banksy,” he says.
Earlier, Banksy had put together a successful show in L.A.—which included a spray-painted elephant, the so-called elephant in the room of modern society, which led to PETA protests—and it was a hit. Thierry wanted to do something similar. He decided that all street art, from Shepard Fairey's OBEY to Ron English's creepy Ronald McDonald, was really a reaction to the brainwashing of modern society, so he renames himself Mr. Brain Wash, and creates a show, “Life is Beautiful.” It keeps growing and growing. He hires people to help. He sinks more and more of his own money into it. He’s the street artist without the street, and possibly without the art, and one watches horrified that he’s going to bankrupt himself and his family on this whim. Then he gets positive blurbs from Shepard Fairey and Banksy, and his show winds up on the cover of LA Weekly, and one becomes more horrified that his show may actually succeed. And it does. Thierry, now Mr. Brain Wash, and a celebrity in his own right, makes over $1 million selling his not-very-good artwork to not-very-discriminating patrons. He winds up creating the cover art for Madonna’s 2009 CD “Celebration.” We cut to Banksy, apparently interviewing himself, saying, “I used to encourage everyone I knew to make art; I don't do that so much anymore.”
So tables were turned and lessons were learned. The fake had supplanted the real and no one could tell the difference. We are revealed as a society without taste. Gore Vidal once called Tennessee Williams “someone to laugh at the squares with,” and that’s what these patrons are, squares, as is, ha!, Madonna, as is our whole culture. But you and I and the other theatergoers? We know. We’re with Banksy.
Except is the story true?
When the doc screened at Sundance in January, a letter from Banksy was read, which included the line, “Everything you are about to see is true, especially the bit where we all lie.”
So what’s the lie? That Mr. Brain Wash (as opposed to, say, Banksy) created his crap art? That gallery patrons bought it? That a guy named Thierry had a predilection for filming? That a guy named Thierry exists?
And if it is a lie, what’s the point of it? Most of Banksy’s art has a point. Think of that stencil of Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald, skipping hand-in-hand with the naked, napalmed Vietnamese girl from 1972—an image both hilarious and sickening. The best of Banksy’s art puts the blunt reality in the midst of the corporate or government fantasy. But if most of the doc is a lie? It's blurring the lines between fantasy and reality in a way that feels like a giggle rather than a point.
Or is the point of Banksy's art to subvert comfortable norms—from Queen Victoria to art galleries—and the movie theater is one more comfortable norm he’s subverting? His art is designed to wake people up from believing everything they hear, and that includes, in the end, what they hear from him. He's now the man he's warning us about.
When the doc screened at the Berlin Festival in February, Banksy seemed to backtrack on the “lies” issue:
Essentially, I thought it was important to start recording the global phenomenon of street art, because I felt if we didn’t get it on tape a lot of people wouldn’t believe some of the things that were going on. As it turns out, some of the people don’t believe it anyway and they think the film is some kind of spoof. This is ironic because ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ is one of the most honest films you’ll ever see. There was no plan, there was no script and we didn’t even realize we were making a film until about halfway through.”
But even this backtrack raises questions. He started recording the global phenomenon of street art? Wasn’t it Thierry?
For me, it’s a little sad if the story is a lie. We already have enough lies in our lives.
Review: “The Tillman Story” (2010)
WARNING: REDACTED SPOILERS
As someone who just lived through the 2000s I can honestly say that W.H. Auden didn’t know from low dishonest decades.
Auden used the phrase in his poem, “September 1, 1939,” about the 1930s:
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade...
His low dishonest decade ended with war, ours began with it. The dishonesty of his decade was the enemy’s, masterminded by Nazi Minister of Propaganda Josef Goebels, which played on our hopes for peace. The dishonesty of our decade was our own, the Bush administration’s, masterminded by Karl Rove, which played on our fears, as well as our corresponding need for heroes. The administration that couldn’t stop attacking Hollywood kept using the tropes of Hollywood to gather power and silence opposition.
Pat Tillman was a minor figure in all of this, a pawn in the Bush administration’s game, and “The Tillman Story,” a documentary written by Mark Monroe and directed by Amir Bar-Lev, is his family’s attempt to set the record straight.
Most of us are familiar with some part of the story. On Sept. 10, 2001, Pat Tillman was a an All-Pro safety with the Arizona Cardinals of the National Football League, happily married and making millions of dollars. Eight months later he joined the U.S. Army Rangers. He served a tour in Iraq in 2003. In his second tour, in Afghanistan, on April 22, 2004, he was killed. He was posthumously promoted to corporal and awarded the Silver Star, the Army’s third-highest award for combat valor, because of “gallantry on the battlefield for leading his Army Rangers unit to the rescue of comrades caught in an ambush,” according to the New York Times. A memorial service was held in San Jose, Cal., and Tillman was eulogized by the Pentagon, by politicians, and throughout the media as a patriotic hero-soldier who died selflessly for his country and for his fellow soldiers.
Except it was a lie. During an ambush by enemy forces near the village of Sperah, close to the Pakistan border, yes, Tillman led several men to higher ground; but they were subsequently mistaken for the enemy and fired upon by their own troops. Tillman and a member of the Afghanistan Military Police were killed by friendly fire.
Everyone on the ground knew this. There was no mistaking it. But the lie got out quickly.
Reading the first, heroic press accounts, with details provided by the Pentagon, is to be steeped in Bush-era bullshit. From USA Today:
When the rear section of their convoy became pinned down in rough terrain, Tillman ordered his team out of its vehicles “to take the fight to the enemy forces” on the higher ground.
As Tillman and other soldiers neared the hill's crest, he directed his team into firing positions, the Army said. As he sprayed the enemy positions with fire from his automatic rifle, he was shot and killed. The Army said his actions helped the trapped soldiers maneuver to safety “without taking a single casualty”...
A month later, the truth seeped out, but it wasn’t well-covered. As the saying goes: the mistake is always on page 1, the retraction on page 14. From the May 30th New York Times:
Ex-Player's Death Reviewed
Pat Tillman, the former Arizona Cardinals football player, was probably killed by allied fire as he led his team of Army Rangers up a hill during a firefight in Afghanistan last month, the Army said.
Sometimes there’s no retraction at all. The following is every USA Today news headline about Tillman from 2004. Notice how they fed on him until they didn't:
- Tillman killed in Afghanistan (April 23, 2004)
- Moment of silence at NFL draft (April 24, 2004)
- Tillman's legacy of virtue (April 25, 2004)
- Body returns to U.S. (April 26, 2004)
- Army promotes Tillman to corporal (April 29, 2004)
- Tillman posthumously awarded Silver Star (April 30, 2004)
- Items related to Tillman sold on E-bay (May 2, 2004)
- Tillman mourned by hometown (May 2, 2004)
- Tillman memorial service held in San Jose (May 3, 2004)
- Arizona salutes Tillman (May 8, 2004)
- Report details Tillman's last minutes (Dec. 5, 2004)
Not only did Tillman not die the way they said, he didn’t live the way they said, either. “He didn’t really fit into that box they would’ve liked,” Tillman’s mother, Mary, mentions in the doc.
He joined the Rangers to fight al Qaeda but wound up in Iraq and wasn’t happy. “This war is so fucking illegal,” one of his brothers quotes him saying. He had an open curious mind at odds with the incurious absolutism of the time. There’s hilarious footage of Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity refusing to believe that Tillman read linguist and conservative bete noire Noam Chomsky. (Because it didn’t fit into their notions of a football player? A soldier? A conservative hero? All of the above?) Fellow Ranger Bryan O’Neal, a Mormon, talks about coming across Tillman, a religious skeptic, possibly an atheist, reading “The Book of Mormon.” He wanted to see what was what.
He swore like a truck driver and loved risking his life. He jumped from high places and climbed to higher places. He was that rare tough guy who didn’t need to show how tough he was. He never hazed recruits. He didn’t yell and get into the face of men who screwed up—as is the Army way. O’Neal recounts how, when he screwed up, Tillman took him aside and told him how disappointed he was. That was it. According to O’Neal, that was enough.
This is straight out of his father’s vocabulary, by the way. In the doc, Patrick Tillman says he’s “disappointed” in Pfc. Russell Baer, Tillman’s fellow Ranger, who was the first to lie to the family about the incident. He tells the Army in 2005 that he’s “disappointed” in them, too. The mother is lauded in the doc but the father dominates it. Thinner than his son, with the same lantern jaw, he seethes with rage. Still. He wants the answer to a simple question: Who lied about his son’s death? Eventually he tells the Army, in writing, “fuck you,” and this—and a Washington Post editorial—got their attention. In August 2005, the Pentagon launched an internal investigation into the incorrect reports of Tillman’s death. In March 2007, the report pinned the blame on a lieutenant general who had already retired. They took away one of his stars. There were some congressional hearings, and joint chiefs and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld denied knowledge of blah blah blah, and had no recollection of yadda yadda. It all petered out.
“The Tillman Story” is a sad story but it’s not a great doc. It focuses too much attention on the Tillman family rather than on Tillman himself. Like the family, it can’t accept the military’s non-answer, and, panning up the command flowchart to Pres. George W. Bush, spends too much time insinuating who might’ve ordered the falsification of Tillman’s death. At the same time, it’s so vague in describing Tillman’s actual death that a friend, who saw the doc the same time I did, assumed Tillman had been “fragged” rather than killed by friendly fire.
For all the attempts to release Tillman from his box, too, its portrait isn’t as complete as in Jon Krakauer’s book “Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman.” In particular it ignores an incident during his senior year of high school, when Tillman, thinking he was defending a friend from an ass-whooping, put an innocent kid into the hospital. His life was nearly derailed by this—he served jail time and came close to losing his scholarship to Arizona State—but he came out of it, according to Krakauer, more contemplative and slower to temper. He came out closer to the man he would become. The doc would’ve benefited from this story.
But it’s a good reminder. Just six years ago we were all living through this: Jessica Lynch, WMDs, smoking gun/mushroom cloud, Video News Releases (VNRs), fake White House correspondents, the firing of U.S. attorneys, the outing of Valerie Plame, “greeted with flowers,” “Mission Accomplished,” “a few bad apples,” “last throes.” And Pat Tillman. What company to keep. If I were his family, I’d be enraged, too.
Review: “Restrepo” (2010)
“Restrepo” is the best thing I’ve seen or read about our presence in Afghanistan, and it’s not really about our presence in Afghanistan. It’s about, as the tagline says, one platoon, in one valley, for one year. It goes deep into these soldiers’ lives without telling us much about their actual lives (where they’re from, why they signed up, etc.). It’s an emotional movie precisely because its emotions are restrained. It’s artistic without being artistic. It’s artistic in the Dedalean sense. It doesn’t inspire kinetic emotions but static emotions. The mind is arrested. In this sense maybe Afghanistan itself is artistic. Our mind has been arrested there for almost 10 years.
The directors, author Sebastian Junger (“The Perfect Storm”; “War”) and documentarian Timothy Hetherington (“Liberia: An Uncivil War”), were embedded with Second Platoon, Battle Company, 173rd US Airborne, for parts of a year, from May 2007 to July 2008, and an early scene lets us know just how embedded they were. We’re inside a HUMVEE on patrol when an IED goes off, rocking the vehicle. The men stumble out, including the camera, which is our point-of-view. It’s still filming, shakily, while the men engage in a firefight, but it’s crackling, and there’s no sound. You think of war scenes where a soldier gets shelled and the sound goes out because he’s deafened or in shock. Same here. Our equipment is us.
We first see the men of Second Platoon goofing around and trash talking aboard a train before deployment. Then they ride Chinook helicopters into the dangerous Korengal valley, a beautifully mountainous but militarily indefensible region that stretches six miles along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and the trash talking stops. In post-deployment interviews, they fess up to their initial thoughts. Specialist Sterling Jones: “What are we doing?” Sgt. Aron Hijar: “We are not ready for this.” Specialist Miguel Cortez: “I’m going to die here.”
Sgt. Joshua McDonough tells the camera, “They’re gathering intel on how to deal with us,” and you think he’s talking about the Taliban, who are trying to kill them, but he’s actually talking about the post-deployment medical personnel in Italy, who are trying to help them. This confusion, this thin line, is what the soldiers deal with every day. Who among the villagers is trying to help? Who is trying to hurt? How do you tell?
The doc keeps doing this. The thing you think we’re talking about isn’t the thing we’re talking about. Information is slowly widened. Clarity, if it comes, comes by and by.
Take the title. “Restrepo”? What the hell's that? Then on that pre-deployment train we discover that the biggest trash talker with the biggest smile is a guy named Juan S. “Doc” Restrepo. “Oh,” we think. “So Restrepo’s a guy. This is a documentary about a guy.” A few minutes later, we find out Restrepo was killed a month into deployment. “Oh,” we think. “So this is a doc about how these guys deal with the loss of this guy.” Then the company moves deeper into the Korengal valley, establish an outpost there, and name it Restrepo, O.P. Restrepo, in honor of their fallen friend. “Oh,” we think. “So this is... Well, this is about all of it, isn’t it?” Our information is slowly widened. Clarity comes by and by.
O.P. Restrepo is deeper into the Korengal Valley than the U.S. has ever pushed before, and four or five times a day, for weeks and months, Second Platoon engages in firefights with the unseen Taliban in the woods. “They’d ambush us from 360 degrees,” Specialist Bemble Pelkin says. “I felt like a fish in a barrel,” Capt. Dan Kearney says. When there are no firefights, there’s digging and fortifying the outpost; and when there’s no digging and fortifying, there’s goofing around to relieve the boredom. Pemble draws and writes. Specialist Angel Toves plays guitar. The men wrestle, or get newbies to wrestle, or goof around with the ‘80s song “Touch Me (I Want to Feel Your Body).” They show off photos of their kids. They hit golf balls into the valley.
The incident with the cow starts out as a joke. A daily briefing, a smile, “we’ll talk about the cow incident later,” laughter from the men. It’s a funny thing. Later, a soldier talks up the day they got fresh cow to eat, saying, “That was a good day.” Later still, three Afghani village elders, with their long beards and taut skin over high cheekbones. enter O.P. Restropo, and it’s seen as a positive step. Hearts and minds are being won. But the elders have come about the cow. It was one of theirs and they want to be repaid. Now it’s a serious thing. The soldiers are apologetic—it got caught in the wire, it had to be killed (then eaten)—but the elders want US$400, which the U.S. higher-ups refuse to give. We’re spending billions on wars but we can’t get US$400 to replace a cow. Instead the owner gets the equivalent in rations: rice and beans. The elders leave. Are we being too tough? Not tough enough? Our information is widened but not enough. Clarity doesn’t come.
This hearts and minds struggle is fascinating to watch. We see Capt. Kearney, with the best of intentions, having regular sitdowns, or shura, with the village elders, but there’s something Business 101 about him. Support us, he tells the elders, and we’ll “make you guys richer.” What about the killing of civilians? the elders want to know. The Captain says it’s all in the past, on another captain’s watch, and insists that everyone needs to put the past behind them. Does this translate? In a later meeting, frustrated beyond measure, he says to the elders, “You are not understanding that I don’t fucking care.” Is this translated? With all of the specialists we have, one wonders why we have no diplomatic specialists. Why aren’t diplomats embedded with soldiers? Why don’t our head honchos speak rudiments of the language? Why, in the soldiers’ down time, don’t they learn rudiments of the language? Why aren’t we adapting?
“Restrepo” is never not fascinating, which is odd, because we know answers to most of the questions that traditionally drive storytelling. We know who survives (anyone interviewed post-deployment), and we know O.P. Restrepo won’t be the turning point of the war (we’re in 2010 and we read the newspaper), so what keeps us glued to our seats? I think the short answer is we begin to care. And we want to know what happens to these people we begin to care about.
Why do we begin to care? John Ford once said the most interesting thing in the world to film is the human face, and that’s what Hetherington and Junger keep filming. Three faces stand out.
First, there’s Pemble, who’s got a calm, bemused way about him, like he’s holding onto an inner joke, and who’s a warning to every parent who thinks restricted access will diminish lifelong interest. His mom, he tells us, “was a fucking hippy” (he says it nicely) who didn’t allow him toy guns, or violent movies, or violent video games. And yet here he is—a soldier in Afghanistan. To mom’s credit, he seems the least likely of soldiers. There’s little that’s gung ho about him. He feels like he should be in a punk bar somewhere.
Then there’s Hijar, who’s got huge, tattooed arms in the footage, and an intense, haunted face in the post-deployment interviews. He and the others are talking about Operation Rock Avalanche, a three-day tactical walk-though in a Taliban stronghold, which all agree was the toughest part of the deployment. During the operation, Staff Sergeant Kevin Rice was injured and Staff Sergeant Larry Rougle, generally considered the platoon’s best soldier, was killed, and trying to describe it all, Hijar disconnects. His eyes get lost and he stops talking, and after 10 seconds of silence he looks at the cameraman: “Timeout, alright?” Later he talks about needing a different way to process everything that’s happened. He doesn’t want to forget it, he says; he just needs to process it differently.
Finally, there’s Cortez, who’s smiling, always smiling in the post-deployment interviews. One wonders: “Why is this dude smiling?” Then you realize there’s a disconnect between the look on his face and what he’s saying. Near the end, he talks about how he can’t sleep.
I’ve been on four or five different types of sleeping pills and none of them help. That’s how bad the nightmares are. I prefer not to sleep, and not dream about it, than sleep and see the pictures in my head. It’s...pretty bad.
The smile never leaves his face.
“Restrepo” should get nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary feature, and, unless it’s a helluva year, it should win. It’s already got my early vote for one of the best films of the year. There’s not a false moment in it, not a dull moment in it, and in a serious country it would be released into over 4,000 theaters and everyone would see it. But we’re not a serious country. We haven’t been a serious country for decades. A Roman helmet is painted on a wall at O.P. Restrepo, because it’s cool, I suppose, to remind the men of gladiators, I suppose, but it merely reminded me of the fall of the Roman empire, of the fall of all empires, and it made me wonder where we are in that fall.
“Restrepo” won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and played the Seattle International Film Festival in May. It will get a wider release June 25. It's re-scheduled for Seattle on July 2.
Review: “The Horse Boy” (2009)
How far would you go to help your child? To grasp at a final straw that may help your child? How far would you go?
“The Horse Boy,” a documentary by Michel O. Scott about a couple living in Texas with their autistic four-year-old boy, gives one answer: Mongolia.
Actually that’s not even the real question-and-answer. The real one is this: How far would you go in your mind to help him with his? Would you go so far as to believe that a visit to shamans in Mongolia, and to the reindeer people in upper Mongolia near the Russian border, would help him with his autism? As uncommon as “The Horse Boy” is, in other words, it’s still a common story. When life throws us a gigantic curveball, and western society/medicine shrugs its shoulders, what cure won’t we try?
Rupert Isaacson, a long-haired Brit, met his future wife, Kristin Neff, a down-to-earth Californian, in India in 1994. For seven years they traveled together before getting married and settling down near Austin, Texas, where she was a professor and he was a travel writer. A son, Rowan, was born in December 2001. A few years later he was diagnosed with autism. It was, says Rupert, narrating the film, “like being hit across the face by a baseball bat.
“We tried everything,” he adds, but the child couldn’t or wouldn’t speak. He had tantrums, inconsolable tantrums, several times a day, some lasting for hours. We watch footage of some of these tantrums, and we both sympathize with the parents and want to get away from the child. And if we, watching one meltdown for 10 to 15 seconds, feel such a tension between sympathy (which moves toward) and flight (which moves away), imagine how the parents, who had to deal with this 24/7, feel. It’s a wonder they didn’t break.
Then one day Rowan ran onto a neighbor’s property and up to a horse named Betsy. Rupert was a horseman himself, a good rider, but he kept Rowan away from horses for obvious reasons. The child is small and fragile and doesn’t know it, and the horse, big and strong, doesn’t know the fragility and importance of the child. Both beings are potentially volatile.
But there was an immediate connection between the two. Betsy’s reaction to the boy was gentle and submissive, and Rowan, on Betsy’s back, calmed down and actually began talking. “This is a nice horse,” he says. Rowan, it turned out, had an affinity with animals, particularly horses, particularly Betsy.
And this is when Rupert makes a giant leap of faith. In his travels, he’d encountered shamans in different parts of the world, and he searches for a place that combines healing and horses. It’s the area of the world where horse-riding began: Mongolia. And off they go.
No easy task. A trip with Rowan to the local supermarket can easily turn into a disaster and now they’re taking him across the world? It doesn’t help that the Mongolian city they land in, far from Rupert’s expectations, is a depressed post-Soviet city; an urban slum.
With a van they soon trek to nearby mountains and visit nine shamans there, who examine the three, and chant, and declare that the problem is an ancestor on Kristin’s side, her mother’s mother, who is clinging to Rowan. They say a black energy had entered Kristin’s womb during Rowan’s birth. Meanwhile, Rowan is crying and crying, Rupert expresses his doubts. “Did I really have his best interests at heart here?” he wonders. Then both parents are lashed by a shaman to release evil spirits.
The whole thing seems insane.
“And then something happened,” Rupert reports. There’s a lot of this. Something is always happening in the doc, and this time it’s Rowan laughing and playing with another boy, the son of their guide, across the steppes of Mongolia. He had never played with other children before. To the parents, it’s a giant step forward.
But for every step forward... The plan is to trek across Mongolia by horse to upper Mongolia, and the reindeer people there, but, on a horse with his father, Rowan throws tantrums in a way he never has on a horse, shouting “Car! Car! Car!,” and much of the trip has to be made by van, where Rowan is consoled by the plastic animals—his horses and cows and pigs—he’s brought along. By the familiar.
Talking heads throughout the doc try to explain to us what autism is (a disorder of neural development), how it manifests itself (obsessive, repetitive, uncommunicative behavior), and what advantages it may have (the ability to focus). It’s posited that some of our most brilliant minds may have been mildly autistic. It’s posited that shamans may be mildly autistic. One of the talking heads, a professor, turns out to be autistic herself, and says she wouldn’t trade it, and the clarity of its focus, for what other folks supposedly have. Another talking head states that we need to move in the direction of viewing autism not as something other than normal but simply as another way of being.
Whatever loftier goals Rupert and Kristin had at the outset—i.e., possibly “curing” Rowan of his autism—are, halfway through the trip, simpler: Rupert wants Rowan to ride a horse by himself; and Kristin wants Rowan to poop properly. There are autistic adults who still shit in their pants, and that’s one of her great fears: cleaning up shit every day for the rest of her life. At bottom is the great fear of the parents of all autistic children: If the child doesn’t learn to function in society, if he can’t interact with others, what will happen when they, the parents, die? Who will care for him then?
Emotions careen with Rowan’s moods. At one point Rupert says, “Don’t put the camera on me. I just want to cry.” The final trek is made, up grassy mountains, and Kristin has a harder time of it than Rowan. The Reindeer people are found. The shamans are visited. Rituals are performed.
The takeaway is this: By the end of the doc, both parents get their wish, and Kristin, back in Texas, says the difference between Rowan before the adventure and after is night and day. Now he poops by himself. Now he plays with other children. So was it the adventure? Was it the shamans? I have a touch of Hamlet in me—There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio... —but ultimately I’m a cynical man who knows people will believe what they want or need to believe. Kristin, down-to-earth, leans toward the adventure; Rupert, always vaguely hippyish, leans towards the shamanism. Both agree the why isn’t so important as the progress Rowan made.
The importance of the doc for the viewer, meanwhile, is, yes, this dichotomy between what we don’t know from science and what we don’t know from religion, and the ways we fill the gaps—the chasms—between the two. The unknowability of what Rowan is helps us reflect upon the unknowability of what we all are.
But its true importance is simpler. We spend 90 minutes with an autistic boy. We watch him at his worst. And in the end, we see him riding Betsy, bareback. by himself. Smiling.
Review: “This Is It” (2009)
WARNING: INCOMPLETE SPOILERS
“This Is It” was going to be the title of Michael Jackson’s fourth and final world concert tour and instead it became the title of a documentary featuring rehearsal footage from that fourth and final concert tour, but the folks at Meridian 16 in downtown Seattle didn’t even bother with it. On the tickets, on the internal marquees, they stuck to the essential. They called it “Michael.”
The doc starts out reminiscent of “A Chorus Line,” with back-up dancers telling us their brief histories and what Michael means to them. They often get teary; they can’t believe their good luck. “I’m from Australia,” one dancer says, and that’s enough to break him down. Another begins, “Life’s hard, right?,” then he talks about how he’s looking for something to shake him up and—cue title—“This is it.” We even get the classic “Chorus Line” shot of a stage full of dancers being whittled down to a handful. Then the announcement: “And the Michael Jackson principle dancers are...” Silence. No names. If the point of “A Chorus Line” was to draw out all the nameless people in the chorus line, the point here is to keep them nameless. Only one name matters.
Michael, 50, more painfully thin that ever, with a face more wrecked than ever, doesn’t always sing or dance his heart out here. He can still do it—we see and hear him do it—but he’s obviously pacing himself. “I’m trying to warm up my voice,” he says at one point, apologetically. He’s the anti-Elvis: way too thin rather than way too fat; too much the perfectionist rather than the doped-up Vegas performer stumbling over his lyrics. We watch him coach his musicians, dancers, producers. “You gotta let it simmer,” he says of the music for “The Way You Make Me Feel.” When there’s not enough funk in one song, Michael has this back-and-forth with the keyboardist:
Michael: It’s not there.
Keyboardist: It’s getting there.
Michael: Well, get there.
He says it kindly enough, in his usual falsetto, but there’s a bit of steel in his voice, too, that’s surprising and welcome. He wants it how he wants it.
All of this footage was meant for Michael’s private library, which raises two questions: 1) Why does someone need hundreds of hours of rehearsal footage for their own private viewing?; and 2) What would he think of his private footage becoming this very public documentary? Wasn’t Michael too much of a perfectionist to let the process of perfecting the product become the product? AEG Live and Sony sure didn’t let this one simmer, did they? There was money to be made and they’re making it—over $100 million worldwide opening weekend. But even as you’re feeling badly that Michael no longer has a say in which of his products gets used, you watch, on the screen, the making of a short film that would’ve accompanied the “Smooth Criminal” number, in which Michael, all gangstered-up 1940s style, interacts with Rita Hayworth, Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson. The dead, particularly the famous dead, never have a say.
The outpouring of affection when Michael died on June 25, 2009, was immediate and, to me, a little sickening. We’re such necrophiliacs. We appreciate nothing until it’s gone, even though things are always going, and so there’s always the opportunity to pause and appreciate the things that are still here—while we’re still here. Only the wisest do this and I’m hardly among the wisest, but I do have an aversion to the pile-on. Part of why I never wrote about Michael until now.
He was always part of my landscape. Me and my brother, Chris, watched him and his brothers, Jackie, Jermaine, Tito and Marlon, every Saturday morning on their early '70s cartoon show. We watched the Jacksons pitch Alpha Bits cereal during the commercials. I even bought a box of Alpha Bits because there was a Jackson 5 single on the back. Unschooled in patience, I poured all the cereal into a big bowl, cut the record out and tried to play it on our small, kiddie turntable. But it was made of thin cardboard, with only a veneer of vinyl, and it played warped: slow and deep. The cereal got stale. An early lesson in waste.
I doubt we saw the famous “Ed Sullivan” performance, but we certainly saw the brothers on “The Flip Wilson Show” and “The Carol Burnett Show,” and performing lame skits on “The Rich Little Show.” I remember those. I remember the thrill of watching Michael dance, so slippery it was like liquid, and trying to move like him, and imagining I was coming close. He brought the funk to a south Minneapolis basement. In a way I wanted to be like him, but in another way, a sadder way, he wanted to be like me. An argument can be made that Michael was the most representative American figure in the second half of the 20th century. In a country finally dealing with its racism, and its history of white performers stealing from black performers, a black singer finally emerged as the most popular singer in the world. Then he slowly turned white. If you made this shit up no one would believe it.
I missed “Off the Wall” when it first came around, but like everyone I was there for “Billie Jean.” And, yes, I watched “Motown 25” when it first aired. I was 20 and still thrilled by his slippery, seemingly effortless movements. “Beat It” and “Thriller,” and their accompanying videos, broke him wider, and got him on the cover of Time magazine (a big deal back then, kids), but they didn’t do much for me. I didn’t care for the whole Broadway-style dance number; I wanted Michael dancing alone. By himself he was electric. Others, I felt, hemmed him in.
Curious: Did he ever dance the way Fred Astaire danced, with a partner, where the point was give-and-take, push-and-pull, male and female? Instead he went solo or—with his brothers or back-up dancers—fronted multiple echoes of his own movements. Somehow that feels significant.
People think it’s sad that he left us at 50 but I think it’s sad he left us at 30. Sure, he seemed bizarre in the mid-‘80s—one white glove and the epaulets and the huge sunglasses—but no more bizarre, sartorially, than Prince or Bowie or Elton John. But around “Bad” you really began to wonder what he was doing to his face. Fans can talk all they want about the vitiligo and the lupus but they can’t argue past the plastic surgery: the disappearing nose and lips; the widening and painted eyes; the long, straight, scraggly hair. By the time of “Black and White,” I winced looking at him. By the mid-‘90s I had to turn away. And not just because of the child molestation charges.
His persona in videos became the way he combated the rumors. Too weak? He played gang- or gangster-tough in “Bad” and “Smooth Criminal.” Too asexual? He kept grabbing his crotch near a pretty girl in “The Way You Make Me Feel.” It all felt hollow. He kept trying to be what he wasn’t—“Bad” and “Dangerous”—while his anger felt real but misdirected. He shouted at the world to no or amused effect. Why was he angry? What did he want? World peace? Get in line. The pretty baby with the high heels on? Then kiss her already! You’re Michael Jackson! His marriages in the ‘90s seemed shams. As a child he sang of a “baby” and a “darling” (“Oh, baby, give me one more chance”/”Oh, darling, I was blind to let you go”), but as an adult did he ever have a baby or a darling? One hopes. In the doc, he talks a lot about love but without much heat or light. It’s a word people use.
“This Is It” is supposed to be a celebration but to me it’s just sad sad sad. How did so much talent go so horribly awry? It’s also inevitably incomplete. In these types of docs, rehearsals lead to final shows, and the absence of a final show here is deafening.
Michael spoke of the tour as his final curtain call, so one assumes he meant the double meaning in the title. “This is it” can be used to revel in the now—what we’re living through here is what we’ve waited for: this is it—and to anticipate departure. No more. That’s all. This is it.
The documentary makes lies of both of these meanings. It doesn’t revel in the now but in a past in which Michael lives; and as long as anything connected with Michael makes money, we know this won’t be it. They’ll keep it coming.
Review: “More Than a Game” (2008)
WARNING: DRAINING 3-POINT SPOILERS FROM THE LINE
“More Than a Game,” Kristopher Belman’s documentary about five friends, including a hanger-on named LeBron James, who become high school basketball stars at St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron, Ohio in the early 2000s, should appeal to fans not only of basketbal and LeBron, and not only to coaches everywhere, but to anyone who has to create a Superman story. The dramatic problem with Superman has always been his invincibility. Who can possibly stop him? The dramatic problem halfway through this documentary, as St. V’s Fightin' Irish regularly demolish teams by 40 or 50 points, is the same. Who can possibly stop them?
This question is answered twice. The first answer is indicative of human nature. The second answer is indicative of a sadder, tawdrier aspect of American culture.
They were the “Fab Four” of Akron basketball—LeBron, Sian Cotton, Willie McGee and Dru James III—who first came to national attention in 1997 when, in junior high, they played at the AAU “Shooting Stars” Boys Basketball Tournament in Florida. “We were a team from Akron nobody’d ever heard of,” LeBron remembers. They wound up in the finals but lost, 68-66, to the previous year’s champs from southern California, when LeBron’s half-court shot at the buzzer bounced off the rim. He’s interviewed about it in the doc. He still looks pissed.
By this time LeBron was already distinguishing himself from the others, and everyone assumed he would play for John R. Buchtel High School, a mostly black public school with a powerhouse basketball program; but he didn’t even decide. Dru did. Entering ninth grade, Dru was still under five feet tall and Buchtel wouldn’t have him so he wouldn’t have them, and his friends, loyal to a fault, followed him to St. Vincent, a mostly white, Catholic school without much of a basketball program. With the help of Coach Keith Dambrot and assistant coach Dru James, Little Dru’s father, who had coached the boys in “Shooting Stars,” they gave it one.
That’s what this doc is about, really: loyalty; teamwork. One may rise above, he may even get on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high school junior, but he can’t win a team sport without a team.
It’s also about disloyalty, or perceived disloyalty. After the “fab four“—and, with the addition of Romeo Travis, the “fab five”—win state titles in their freshman and sophomore years, going 23-1 and 27-0 respectively, Coach Dambrot, forgetting promises made to the boys, puts his career or family first, and takes a job with the University of Akron. “I never even talked to him again,” LeBron says. Coach Dru became their head coach.
The doc, too, is no one-man show. It draws out the others. Willie is the quiet, mature one; Sian the funny, fat one. Romeo doesn’t really fit in at first. He’s selfish and angry, but I like his admission that, “I never thought basketball would be my future. I just wanted to play because it’d get you girls.” My guy, no surprise, is Little Dru, all 4’ 11” freshman year, but determined to overcome what he couldn’t control, sinking threes the way other guys sink layups. His dad was also the coach, and tougher on him for that reason, which led to issues of its own—despite the fact that the dad only became coach for the son. Coach Dru was actually a football guy. He had to learn basketball.
So halfway through the doc, St. V becomes a Divsion II school, and Coach Dru puts the boys on a national traveling schedule. Keep in mind: These are five guys from the same neighborhood competing against high school powerhouses that draw talent from all over the nation. And they’re winning games 100-50. One reporter calls them the greatest team in high school history.
So what can possibly stop them? Hubris. That’s our first answer. They don’t practice as hard. (Why should they? They're not going to lose.) They don’t listen to Coach Dru as much. (What does he know that they don't?) Their games are so popular they have to play at the local university arena, and the games are still sold out, and tickets are scalped. They’re like a rock band: Groupies follow them and parties anticipate them. And in the finals of the state championship their junior year, they lose, stunningly, 66-63. Everyone blames the first-year coach, who couldn’t win a state championship with juniors who won it as freshman. It’s unfair but in a way he agrees. “I got caught up in the winning and losing,” Coach Dru says. “My job wasn’t about basketball. It was about helping them become men.”
The next year he does. Plus LeBron, who can’t stand losing, is now more determined than ever. Can you imagine? A team that routinely wins 100-50 is now more determined? The amazing thing, truly, given the media attention, the girls and the talent, isn’t that hubris stopped them once; it’s that it didn’t keep stopping them. It’s that they, and particularly LeBron, didn’t let their good fortune lead to bad. He kept a level head. The doc makes it clear that this happened, in part, because of his early bad fortune. He was born to a teenage mom and never knew his dad. “We probably moved 12 times,” he says. “The hardest thing for me was meeting new friends, [and] I wanted to have some brothers I could be loyal to.” He found them. He kept his friends close and his enemies at bay.
Of course enemies always gather. We build up to tear down in this country—buildings and people—and after the build-up of LeBron came the tear-down. Wait, why was this high school kid driving around in an $80K Hummer? Turns out his mom bought it for him via bank loan based upon her son’s future earnings. That’s icky but legal. But wait! LeBron accepted two retro jerseys (Wes Unseld and Gale Sayers) for appearing on the wall of a sporting goods store? We can’t have that. And with only a handful of games left in the season, and the team climbing the national rankings—from 23 to 19 to 16 to 11 to 9—the Ohio High School Athletic Assocation stripped LeBron of his eligibility.
That’s the second answer to what can stop them. File it under the smallness of people. At the same time the doc needed this dilemma to give its story drama. Every hero needs a villain, and sometimes the villains don’t show until the hero does. Wasn’t that what “The Dark Knight” was all about?
St. Vincent did play one game without LeBron. They still won, 63-62. Then LeBron went to court (the other kind) and the judge reinstated him. And that’s the last thing that stopped them.
Comparisons will inevitably be made to “Hoop Dreams,” the 1994 documentary about two inner-city high school basketball players, William Gates and Arthur Agee, and how injuries and circumstances kept them from their dreams; but the two docs couldn't be more different. Should I trot out Roger Kahn again? You may glory in a team triumphant (“More Than a Game”) but you fall in love with a team in defeat (“Hoop Dreams”). What stopped William Gates in “Hoop Dreams”—injuries—isn’t even an issue in “More Than a Game“—any more than a knee injury would be an issue to Superman. We glory in LeBron but he came from another planet. We also know how he ends (well), so we watch knowing the ultimate end, as we watch most Hollywood blockbusters knowing the ultimate end. “Hoop Dreams,” in comparison, is a small, indy character study. Gates and Agee? We don’t even know if they live.
”More Than a Game" skirts issues that might have proven interesting—including questions of race and religion at St. Vincent. Were any of the “fab four” Catholic in ninth grade? Were any in 12th grade? It also tries to exalt Coach Dru, who seems like a decent man, but whose halftime pep talks are hardly out of “Knute Rockne: All American.”
But it’s fun and it ends right. For 90 minutes we’ve watched these kids grow from not-bad “shooting stars” to incredibly talented, between-the-leg-dunking, on-the-verge-of-the-NBA superstars. At the very end, though, we see Dru coaching a new batch of kids. Sixth graders? Younger? They’re doing lay-up drills, and missing, and they’re small and clumsy, and that basketball is so big in their hands. And it begins again.
Review: “Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” (2009)
YOO HOO! SPOILERS!
I’m a big fan of “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” documentarian Aviva Kempner’s unabashed love letter to the 1930s Detroit Tigers’ slugger, so I thought “Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg,” Ms. Kempner’s unabashed love letter to radio and television pioneer Gertrude Berg, “the Oprah of the 1930s,” would be right up my alley.
I left wondering if maybe Kempner wasn’t too close to a subject I knew too little about.
“The Goldbergs,” a daily radio show created by Berg (nee Tilly Edelstein) from old skits she performed at her father’s Catskills Mountain resort in Fleischmanns, NY, debuted on NBC radio the week after the October 1929 stock market crash. It concerned the comings and goings of a Jewish family—mother Molly (Berg), father Jake, children Sammy and Rosalie, and Uncle David—in a Lower East Side tenement, as they tried to both assimilate in America and not lose old world values.
Verisimilitude was big with Berg. She often visited the Lower East Side for ideas and dialogue, and out of this came Molly’s habit of calling up the airshafts to her neighbor: “Yoo hoo, Mrs. Bloo-oo-oom!” If Molly cooked eggs in her kitchen, Berg cooked eggs in the studio. During the Seder after Kristalnacht, a rock was thrown through the Goldbergs’ window. During World War II, families often referenced boys off fighting or relatives left behind in Nazi-occupied Europe.
It was a hit. The show became the second-most-popular show on the radio, after “Amos n’ Andy,” while Berg was voted the second-most-respected woman in America, after Eleanor Roosevelt. At the same time, the doc reminds us of the anti-Semitic touchstones of the period: Kristalnacht, Father Coughlin, bund rallies in Madison Square Garden.
This shouldn’t be a disconnect—Rush Limbaugh has the most popular radio show in an America that still elected Barack Obama—but it’s enough of one to raise questions. “The Goldbergs” was the second-most-popular show...in all of America? Including the South? What year or years? And what year or years was Berg voted the second-most-respected woman in America, and by whom?
Basically Kempner shows us this square peg but doesn’t tell us how it fit into the round hole of 1930s America. She posits “The Goldbergs” as unique—the first family sitcom; the only ethnic show where creative control was held by that ethnicity—but doesn’t tell us what it was unique against. I’m sorry but I'm blank on 1930s radio. The talking heads, mostly Jewish, mostly female, give a ton of love but not much perspective. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, for example, says everyone she knew growing up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn listened to “The Goldbergs,” but that hardly feels like news. How did it do in Wisconsin? That’s what I want to know.
Eventually, the show was cancelled, in 1945, but was reborn in the new medium, television, on January 17, 1949. Was it the first TV sitcom? The first domestic TV sitcom? Did Berg introduce the nosy neighbor? That’s what people who love the show imply. Do we believe them? Ehh. By surrounding us with fans of the show, Kempner is actually shortchanging the show.
The episodes themselves, which ran live, are fascinating to see. Each began with Molly (Berg again) talking directly to the camera as to a neighbor, welcoming us in. “Greetings from our family to your family,” she says. She pitches corporate sponsor Sanka, and, via window-conversation with her neighbors, introduces the episode’s conflict. Then we go indoors and watch it all unfold.
But a conflict about the show—about America, really—turned out to be more compelling than any conflict on the show.
Broadway actor and union activist Philip Loeb, who played Molly’s husband, Jake, was one of the 151 entertainers listed in “Red Channels,” the 1950 anti-communist tract about supposed communist influence in the industry, and in Sept. 1950, General Foods, which sponsored “The Goldbergs,” told Berg, “You have two days to get rid of Philip Loeb.” Berg resisted, and the doc makes much of this resistance. But a few months later CBS cancelled “The Goldbergs.” When it returned, a year and a half later and on a different network, there was a new actor playing Jake. When he didn’t work out, a third actor replaced him. Three years, later, as “The Goldbergs” wound up its run, being filmed now rather than performed live, and with the family assimilated in the Connecticut suburbs rather than struggling on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Loeb took his own life in a New York hotel room. Twenty years later, he became the inspiration for Zero Mostel’s Hecky Brown in “The Front.”
These revelations are so stunning—to me anyway, a longtime fan of “The Front”—that they almost upend the documentary. One wonders: Should this have been the focus of the doc? Should “Red Channels”?
It doesn’t help that Berg, so innovative in the industry, hardly seems present in her own story. What do we learn about her? She dressed nice. Her father disapproved of her work and her mother wound up in a mental institution. She was a workaholic. But how she felt about Loeb? How she felt about anything? Who knows? There doesn’t seem to be much there there.
In terms of tone and structure, “Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” is similar to “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg," but it shouldn’t be. There was no Philip Loeb to sour Greenberg’s story. And if Greenberg’s personality wasn’t exactly dazzling, well, he was a ballplayer. He wasn't supposed to have personality. Besides, you still walked away from the doc with a sense you knew him. Not so with Berg.
Most important, Hank Greenberg is forever—people who know baseball will always know his name—but Gertrude Berg is not. That, in fact, is the doc’s raison d’etre: “The Most Famous Woman in America You've Never Heard Of,” reads the tagline. So why did Berg fade while contemporaries, such as Jack Benny and George Burns, did not? Were they funnier? More talented? More male? Less Jewish? It should be the doc’s main question yet it’s hardly asked at all.
Love letters are well and fine; but this one could’ve used a little more letter, a little less love.
Review: “Tyson” (2009)
WARNING: HEAVYWEIGHT SPOILERS
The most surprising admission in “Tyson,” James Toback’s documentary about former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, isn’t that Tyson was scared heading into the ring, nor that he wanted women to protect him—him, the baddest man on the planet. It’s this: When he was young, Mike Tyson was Woody Allen.
The revelation comes early in the doc, which consists almost exclusively of old fight footage and present-day Tyson interviews. Tyson, bald now, Maori warrior tattoo sweeping one side of his face, and dressed in a pressed, button-down shirt and slacks in a Hollywood mansion, tries to explain who he is by explaning where he came from: the Brownesville section of Brooklyn, where, he says, it was “kill or be killed.” He talks about getting picked on. He talks about getting money stolen from him—quarters and change—by neighborhood gangs. Then he talks about how someone once took his glasses and broke them. The image that comes to mind is Virgil Starkwell forever having his glasses stomped on by bullies in “Take the Money and Run.” Mike Tyson was Woody Allen? Who knew?
A second later you narrow your eyes. Wait a minute. Glasses? Did Tyson need them as a kid? Did he stop needing them as an adult? You believe Tyson when he says, of the man who lived with his mother: “He might have been my father... I believe he was my father... I was told he was my father”— a sequence that Toback splices together to great echoing effect. But the glasses thing?
Or was he talking about sunglasses?
That’s part of the challenge of “Tyson.” How much do you buy into what he’s saying? When is he bullshitting us? When is he bullshitting himself? And when is James Toback putting too personal a stamp on Tyson’s story? Half the film is rise and half is sad fall, and Toback ends the first part with Tyson saying, “Once I’m in the ring, I’m a god. No one can beat me.” Then we get a slow fade and a slow open on Robin Givens. The implication is that everything began to go wrong with her, but, truly everything began to go wrong with the “god” comment and the hubris it represents. Pride, as always, goeth.
Tyson was trained by Cus D’Amato—who deserves his own doc, and who died in November 1985, a year before Tyson knocked out Trevor Berbick in the second round to become heavyweight champion of the world. Then he was trained by Kevin Rooney, but Tyson fired him in late 1988. He was managed by Jim Jacobs and Bill Cayton. But Jacobs died in March 1988 and Don King suddenly insinuated himself into the picture, fighting and apparently beating Cayton over Tyson’s contract. Why did Tyson go along with this? What part did racial politics play? And why doesn’t the doc focus on it more? Toback blames the lack of training, the partying, the women, but all of this is related to a larger issue: Tyson stopped dancing with those who brung him.
Tyson is surprisingly kind to Givens. He calls her “this young lady.” He says “everyone was in our business.” He says “We were just kids, just kids, just kids.” He doesn’t know why she lied to Barbara Walters on national television—Givens, with Tyson hanging over her shoulder, tells Barbara, and the country, that Mike, the heavyweight champion of the world, is a manic depressive, that their marriage has been pure hell, that “it’s been worse than anyone could imagine”—but in this doc he more or less gives her a bye.
Not so with others. “When I was falsely accused of raping that wretched swine of a woman, Desiree Washington, it was the most horrible moment in my life,” he says. He calls Don King “just a slimy, reptilian motherfucker” who would “kills his own mother for a dollar.”
He’s also hard on himself. He owns up to a lot. That he likes strong women whom he can sexually dominate. That when Cus D’Amato first takes him to his mansion, he’s thinking of robbing him: “I could rob this white guy,” he thinks.
He breaks down on camera talking about Cus. It seems the most important relationship in his life. At the same time he says, “I was like his dog. He broke me down. He broke me down and rebuilt me.” Cus also gave him speed, power, confidence. The doc is separated between those who built up Tyson’s confidence (D’Amato, mostly) and those who tore it down (Givens, Washington, King).
Remember how fierce he was? He had 15 fights in 1985 and won all of them by KO or TKO, 11 of them in the first round. He was built like a bullet and seemed just as unstoppable. He was so tough he inspired the toady in other men. Hell, I even felt it from afar, joking about his prowess in the ring, luxuriating in his power as if it were in any way related to my own (lack thereof). Or maybe I simply liked how much of a unifying concept he was in an increasingly fragmented world. He unified all the heavyweight belts that had been scattered to the four winds. For years no one argued over who the best boxer was. The only question was the question the announcer asked after Tyson destroyed Michael Spinks at 1:31 in the first round in a heavyweight bout in 1988: “Who in this world has any chance against this man?”
Himself. He was not a god. Gods don’t have to train, but he did, and he lost to Buster Douglas in 1990 in one of the greatest upsets in boxing history. We kept waiting for him to unify things again but he kept stumbling. First the rape charge, then the conviction. He lost three years. When he came out of prison, he was a Muslim. This too seemed sad, like it was part of someone else’s story, as it was. It was Malcolm’s and Muhammed Ali’s. Tyson was clinging to cliches.
I’d forgotten that he won the heavyweight championship again in the mid-1990s. I didn’t know, in the infamous ear-biting match with Evander Holyfied, that Tyson claimed Holyfield headbutted him first. I’m not a boxing fan so I didn’t know. But I knew so much else because Tyson seeped through to the general culture in a way no boxer has since. Who’s even the heavyweight champ now? I had to look it up. A Russian and two Ukranian brothers. Three Great White Hopes. Scattered to the four winds.
“Tyson” is an untraditional doc in that there are no other talking heads. Would it have been better with other voices? Maybe. Would it have been better without Tyson walking along a Malibu beach? Yes. That Hollywood home, it turns out, was rented by Toback. So where does Tyson live? Why didn’t they film there? Why this fake Hollywood backdrop?
It’s still effective. The former champ seems lost in the way of former champs. “Old too soon, smart too late,” he says. “”What I’ve done in the past is a history, what I’ll do in the future is a mystery,” he says. The final shot is a freezeframe on his battered, confused face. He once thought himself a god. Now he’s just another man who can’t make sense of his life.
Review of “Food, Inc.” (2009)
WARNING: ORGANIC SPOILERS
My girlfriend, Patricia, who can barely tolerate meanness let alone cruelty to animals, saw the documentary “Food, Inc.” with me last night, and there were moments when she had a rough go of it. Caring boyfriend that I am, I wish she’d had it rougher. I wish she’d run screaming from the theater. I wish we all had. Maybe we would have if we’d been able to get a closer view of those big factory farms and slaughterhouses. It’s astonishing, when you think about it, that we can’t. This is a public interest issue, a public health issue. What have they got to hide? Special sauce? Secret recipe? One of the farmers, selling to Tyson, says his chickens never see the light of day. In a way, neither do we.
Yes, I’m already the converted—I’ve read Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation,” reviewed Greg Critser’s “Fat Land,” saw “Super Size Me”—but I still need to be preached at. You begin to forget if you don’t take communion. Just the other day I had two cheeseburgers at Dick’s. I thought: Why not? Then last night I watched an industry executive bragging about the ammonia they put in meat filler, which is in 70 percent of meat sold in this country. I thought: Oh, right.
“Food, Inc.” doesn’t take cheap shots but I wanted it to hit harder. Sometimes it goes for the soft, lefty emotional appeal. Here’s the mother of a 2 1/2 year-old boy who was killed by E coli in 2001 and who now lobbies Congress (fruitlessly) for greater regulations in the meat industry. Here’s an immigrant family that can only afford the fast food that is making them sicker. Both stories are sad. So are billions of others. Give me facts. Show me footage. Make me throw up.
Filmmaker Robert Kenner got my attention right away. He strolled us down the clean aisles of a modern supermarket in haunting, dreamy fashion—like something out of a David Lynch movie—while the narrator (Eric Schlosser) said the following:
The way we eat has changed more in the last 50 years than in the previous 10,000.
That’s scary enough. Then I realized I’m 46. My entire lifetime encompasses this warped timeframe.
They give us facts. In 1970 the top five beef producers produced 20 percent of the nation’s beef. Now the top four produce 80 percent of it.
A chicken in 1950 took 90 days to reach maturity. Now it takes 49 days. And they’re twice the size. Some have grown so large so quickly they can’t even walk. We see them stumbling. It feels like we’re messing with the plan—Nature’s or God’s, take your pick.
Our government subsidizes corn, which is put into almost everything we eat, and which is shipped around the country to feed cattle. An organic farmer points to his cows in a field and talks about the natural cycles. The cows eat the grass, then shit on the grass, which fertilizes the grass, allowing the grass to grow so they can eat it again. We’re messing with this plan—Nature’s or God’s, take your pick. Now we truck in tons of corn to feed tons of fenced-in cattle and truck out tons of manure. Industry claims this is an efficient system, but it’s not as efficient as God’s or Nature’s. It also leads to disease.
We get footage of the E coli breakouts. Remember Jack in the Box in 1993? That was a big deal. Then, in rapid fashion, and for diminishing attention spans, we get breakouts in ’98, ’01, ’02, ’06. Unless we’re directly involved, we've stopped paying attention. It used to be just meat. Now it’s spinach. Runoff from factory slaughterhouses is making even our vegetables deadly.
Kenner has trouble focusing because the subject, like the runoff, gets into everything. So NAFTA legislation allows a flood of cheap, government-subsidized corn into Mexico, which puts 1.5 million Mexican farmers out of work, which forces many north, here, to work in our factory farms and slaughterhouses. Until of course the illegal-alien thing becomes hot. Then they’re rounded up and shipped back, in careful intervals, so as not to disturb production. The labor issue is definitely a consequence of the bigger subject—why and what we’re eating—but it still feels peripheral. It still feels softy lefty.
Here’s the focus. Industries are now cloning animals but they’re not required by the FDA to label the product “cloned meat.” The California legislature passed a resolution requiring the labeling but Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed it. Hasta la vista, baby.
Here’s the focus. Monsanto created and, in the 1980s, successfully patented a genetically-altered soybean called Roundup Ready, which is resistant to their herbicide Roundup. They own the seed. In 1996, 20 percent of soybeans in the U.S. were Monsanto’s; by 2008, 90 percent were. They sue any farmer who keeps one of their seeds, or onto whose farm a genetically altered seed is blown by the wind. Other soybean seeds are now disappearing (forever?) in favor of Roundup Ready. Monsanto is putting God out of business.
Here’s the focus. In 13 states, the food industry can sue people—such as Oprah in ‘96—who make disparaging comments about their products. It’s called veggie libel laws. To fight you need Oprah’s money. Imagine if the film industry could sue a critic who disparaged its product. The mind reels.
Here’s the focus. For much of the last 20 years, through both Democratic and Republican administrations, industry regulators (heads of the FDA, etc.) have been of the industry. They have ties to the Monsantos of the world. Their interests are not our interests. Military-industrial complex? Pikers.
That’s the kind of thing I wanted more of. I wanted a concentrated, close-up look at what our food is and why.
At the same time, maybe it’s better that Kenner didn’t hit too hard. “You’ve got to hold something back for pressure,” Robert Frost said of poetry. Kenner does. He leaves it to us to provide the pressure.
Here’s mine. Here’s me letting off steam. If a company like Monsanto can patent a genetically altered soybean, then force them to call it something besides a soybean. In all of their packaging, in all of their marketing, the term “soybean” cannot be used. Because a soybean is God’s product, Nature’s product, not Monsanto’s product. Let them call it a crapbean. Let’s pass that legislation.
The scariest people in the doc tend to be industry people who speak their mind, who have no broad overview. “Everything we’ve done in modern agriculture is to grow it faster, fatter, bigger, cheaper,” one says. This is how business people think, and should think, but there should be balance from elsewhere and we’re not getting it. Why we’re imbalanced.
The business of business is to speed up the assembly line, to push things through the system at a faster and faster rate, and in doing so, they’ve created a product that is not the product. This is everywhere, in all business. So rather than wait for homeowners to pay off their mortgages, we’ve turned mortgages into mortgage securities, which banks sell to investment banks, who then sell them to investors, which frees up the banks to lend again. Ad infinitum. Until infinitum comes calling. So with our food. We’re pushing chickens and soybeans through the system at a faster and faster rate, but what we’re pushing through is no longer chickens and soybeans. It’s something else. Ad infinitum. Until infinitum comes calling.
The doc ends with a plea for individual responsibility. Everything you buy and eat is a vote. Be careful how you vote. I agree. But more needs doing. Government needs to be on the side of consumers rather than just business. At the least, we need to be able to know what’s in our food. “Food, Inc.” is a start for those who need a start. It’s communion for those who don’t. Check it out. The situation is worse than you think.
Review: “Anvil: The Story of Anvil” (2008)
I’m not a fan of heavy-metal music. The opposite. I spent my teenage years trapped in a household with a heavy-metal-banging older brother, who, when no one was around, or only I was around, would close all the windows in our house, turn up the volume on the record player, and, with the rake we used for our lime-green shag carpet as his microphone, sing along to Zeppelin or Sabbath:
Generals gathered in their masses!
Just like witches at black masses!
I always gave him shit about those lyrics. “Nice rhyme,” I’d say.
So I wouldn’t seem the ideal audience for “Anvil! The Story of Anvil,” a documentary about the little heavy-metal band that couldn’t (break through).
And yet, as with Randy the Ram of “The Wrestler,” another dude with whom I have nothing in common, I wound up not only caring but identifying. The two original members of Anvil, Steve “Lips” Kudlow and Robb Reiner, are in their 50s now and still fighting the good fight. Actually that’s one of the unanswered questions in the doc: Is it still a good fight?
“Anvil” begins with footage from a 1984 heavy-metal tour of Japan, which featured bands such as Whitesnake, Bon Jovi and the Scorpions — all of whom would go on to sell millions of records — and Anvil, who would not. Various talking heads, from Lemmy of Motorhead to Slash of Guns N’ Roses, then talk quickly about Anvil’s antics on stage (Lips playing his guitar with a dildo), how influential they were, and what the hell happened. “Everyone sort of ripped them off,” Slash says, “then sort of left them for dead.”
Cut to: modern-day Toronto in winter. Lips, his thinning hair still long, his eyes wide with optimism, a half-smile on his face, is driving and matter-of-factly talking food — meatloaf and shepherd’s pie — and we’re wondering if he’s driving to where he eats or works. It’s the latter. He’s a delivery guy.
Reiner, with the irony-infused same name as the director of “This is Spinal Tap,” the irony-infused monster of all heavy-metal mockumentaries, works construction. He has a quality similar to U2’s Edge — like he’s the last guy in the world to get angry — and he and Lips are still friends, and still pal around Toronto. We see them play a gig at a sports bar for Lips' 50th birthday. A couple of longtime fans are there, headbanging and singing along.
They’ve had new bandmates since ’95 and ’96, and overall they’ve put out a total of 12 albums, but this is their life. It’s like most of our lives: Not bad, but full of What Ifs.
Then (even in documentaries there’s a “then”) Lips gets an e-mail from a female fan in Europe, Tiziani Arrigoni, who offers to manage the band for a European tour, and off they go. One hopes for success, one fears she’ll rip them off, but the reality is somewhere in between. She has a good heart but she’s not a professional. Things keep going wrong. They miss a train. They play dives for peanuts. Their fans are fervent but few. Late to one gig in the Czech Republic, they’re told the place is “jam fucking packed” but they get there and rock out before fewer than 10 fans; then the club owner refuses to pay them — because they were late — and we see the first of several eruptions from Lips, who quickly loses his half-smile and, spittle flying, nearly goes off on the dude. Their next gig should be a natural heavy-metal highlight — a rock show in Transylvania, with a 10,000-seat capacity — and as they make their way to the stage through narrow hallways, one bandmember, an obvious “Spinal Tap” fan, shouts “Hello, Cleveland!” Unlike Spinal Tap, Anvil finds its way to the stage. The crowd doesn’t. Only 174 show up. Cut to: Toronto in winter.
And so it goes. We learn more about the (Jewish) family history of each. Lips’ father was at odds with his career choice (everyone else in his family is a successful professional), while Robb’s father, who survived Auschwitz, was fine with whatever his son wanted to do. Robb also paints in the style of Edward Hopper, whom he likes for his sense of quiet. Apparently even heavy-metal drummers want quiet.
You get the feeling Robb could give it up, but Lips, eyes bugging with perpetual optimism, half-smile beginning to strain after all these years, keeps pushing. They’re going to put out a 13th album, this time with legendary producer Chris Tsangarides, but they need money. A scene where Lips tries telemarketing is painful to watch. Each hurdle jumped, or stumbled over, leads to another. Will they raise the money? Will they be able to stay together long enough to record the album? Will they be able to sell it to a record company? Will anyone listen?
All the while they wonder over what went wrong. Was it management? Was it production? Lips in particular embodies the schizophrenia of the semi- or un-successful artist. One moment he’s ready to swear off music-making completely; the next he’s telling himself that it’s the doing — the creative act — that matters, regardless of the response it engenders. Talk about hitting home. This internal dialogue is my own. Every day.
The doc, which zips along, will be compared to “Spinal Tap,” and, yes, there are funny moments in it, and, yes, even the title, with its conscious repetition, is funny. But filmmaker Sacha Gervasi, a fan and former Anvil roadie, who also wrote the screenplay for “The Terminal," does his subjects the courtesy of taking them seriously. He presents them in raw and real and complex fashion.
The blurbs in the poster above mention that the film is “inspirational” and “a hymn to the human spirit,” but for me its strength lies in its ambiguity. You walk away not knowing if these guys are inspirational, or delusional, or both. The answer to Lips’ internal dialogue, in other words, is as unanswerable as our own, and, finally, the answer may not be what matters. I keep going back to what Van Morrison sings in “Summertime in England”: It ain’t why why why why why why why. It just is. Same here. In both this doc and in this room where I’m writing about this doc.
I’m not a fan of heavy-metal music. The opposite. But “Anvil” floored me.
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