Documentary Spotlight

Documentary Spotlight: Albert Maysle’s “In Transit”

On Labor Day weekend, at the end of a summer season that was among the most divisive in modern American history, I slipped into the Brattle Theater in Harvard Square for a well-attended screening of Albert Maysles’ final film, In Transit. The nominal subject is Amtrak’s popular Empire Builder route between Chicago and Seattle. But it’s more about the human connections made possible by the relaxed close proximity of passengers and staff on a train moving over great distances. I came out of it more hopeful about the future than I probably had the right to be, considering the rise of racial extremism, political putrefaction and the torturous first months in office of a president whose every waking hour seems dedicated to narcissism and ill will.

Albert Maysles, who died at age 88 in March of 2015, will always be remembered for the great documentaries of the Sixties and Seventies he made with his brother David, who passed away in 1987. Chief among these, of course, was Salesman, Grey Gardens and Gimme Shelter. The brothers were also instrumental in the advent of the rock film when they were the first to film the Beatles on their First U.S. Visit (as it was later known on DVD). To find out more on this story, see the review in the excerpt of my book ROCK DOCS, by clicking on the cover image in the right hand column.

The Maysles were known for being in the right place at the right time and this is also the case with Albert’s last work, made with co-directors Lynn True, David Usul, Nelson Walker III and Benjamin Wu. Trump may not have president yet when the film was produced (it debuted in 2015 and is only in limited release even now) but America’s deep socio-political fault lines were already a much covered subject by then. In Transit is a compact (only 76 minutes long) and very welcome update on the idea that the cause of human diplomacy, and the betterment of the human condition, is best achieved when conditions are optimal.


A great fatherly pronouncement: “There’s part of the human spirit that will not be snuffed out.”

So it is here. As opposed to the isolation of car trips, or the increasingly frustrating and cramped nature of air travel, unhurried long-distance train rides lend themselves to both contemplation aided by passing scenery and social mingling by passengers free to roam the aisles. And this is what happens, in a style that could be called enhanced cinema verite. The subjects know they are being filmed but Maysles’ trademark unobtrusive style keeps them at their ease. A look at the trailer below will give you a good idea of the film’s thoughtful tone. People are trying to find themselves or lose themselves, others are coming from or going to meet-ups with relatives, friends and potential partners with various degrees of optimism or apprehension. Some are living out old-fashioned notions of romantic travel while still others are looking for better employment opportunities, in this case mostly in the North Dakota oil fields. Everybody is “in transit” in more ways than one.

What you don’t get in this exceptionally serene film is any sense of the distressing breakdown of civility that has been exacerbated by the anonymity and callousness that so often defines our frazzled online age. The fleeting friendship between an older white ex-soldier with PTSD and a young and very pregnant black woman fleeing a bad relationship to deliver her baby near her family in Minneapolis is one of several touching encounters that. It unpretentiously shows the value of empathetic conversation and self-reflection that otherwise may have turned to fodder for the free-ranging resentments of social media’s darker forces. The Empire Builder may start and end in the blue states of Illinois and the Pacific Northwest while travelling thru several very red states, but here at least the rips in the social fabric seem to have the potential to be sewn back together a bit by nothing so revolutionary as a face-to-face coming to terms, both with your fellow citizen-passengers and the face that’s reflected back to you when looking out at the wide open spaces of the world we inhabit. What a wonderful parting gift from Mr. Maysles

Documentary Spotlight: “Citizen Jane: Battle for the City”

Director Matt Trynauer’s new documentary “Citizen Jane” is both a welcome film bio of the late author-activist-urban theorist Jane Jacobs and a fortifying reminder of how committed and creative “people power” can be more than a match against monolithic government and business interests when they have negated any sense of human decency. Jacobs was a writer and magazine editor living in Manhattan’s West Village who developed a homegrown value system about what makes cities work best, an ideal of people-centric short blocks with mixed usage and a vital network of safe and productive interconnectedness among a diverse population. This was spelled out in her first book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” first published in 1961 and a work that is still influential to this day.

“Death and Life” was both a celebration of spontaneous urban vitality and an unabashed assault on the doctrinal city planning theories of the day, which centered on the construction of endless rows of monolithic housing towers cut through with multi-lane expressways. All this would be accomplished by first enabling the wholesale demolition of the “slum” neighborhoods that Jacobs saw as vital communities. As per the film’s subtitle, a large chunk of “Citizen Jane” concerns the high-profile contest of wills between her and the imperious Robert Moses, New York City’s powerful city-planning czar.


Not the best of friends: Jacobs and Moses.

Moses in his earlier days was known as an enlightened master builder. His first major project was the populist and popular Jones Beach State Park, opened in 1929. By the Fifties and early Sixties, however, he was firmly aligned with the visionary but abstracted Modernist dictates most associated with Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier. Jacobs thought these ideas were poisonous and was pretty blunt about it (the first sentence “The Death and Life” is “This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding”). In the trailer below, you can get a taste for Moses’ arrogance. He refers to certain neighborhoods as “cancerous” and insists that his projects will be bulled through at whatever the cost. It was a typical urban renewal attitude at the time and one that Jacobs said made people feel as no more than “subjects of a conquering power.”

That all began to change when Moses wanted to build a road straight through the historic and well-loved Washington Square park in Greenwich Village, for no other discernible reason other than he thought he could and perhaps to extend fashionably expensive Fifth Avenue. Jacobs sprang into action. File footage, period newscasts and TV appearances show a blunt but savvy organizer who could marshal great support (future NYC mayor Ed Koch was one of her early allies) and counteract elitist and sexist belittlement with attention-grabbing tactics (concerned citizens crowding city hall meetings, baby-carriage blockades). When the Washington Sq. road plan was nixed, it was the first setback for Robert Moses, who saw himself as an embodiment of the “Great Man” theory but whom Jacobs breezily derided as being “scared of life.”

There would be other battles to follow and Trynaeur does a pretty fair job of hashing these out for a general audience, with help from interviewees like Anthony Flint (who wrote the book “Wrestling with Moses” on this subject), architect Robert A.M. Stern, architecture critic Paul Goldberger and others. While the presentation here tends to be one-sided, the film does well to trace the gradual ascendancy of Jacobs’ ideas and Moses’ concurrent (and also gradual) fall from grace, with examples like his failure to raze 16 square blocks of her beloved West Village in the name of urban renewal.

For me, the most vivid case history in “Citizen Jane” is the saga of the would-be Lower Manhattan Expressway (LOMEX), a double-pronged Ayn Randian nightmare of a ten-lane highway topped with a Space Age ziggurat on one end. This would have obliterated large chunks of Soho, Little Italy and the Cast Iron district while presumably letting the oligarchs look down on those left behind in the exhaust and neglect, many of them crammed into the long-discredited housing projects that are a prime part of the legacy for Robert Moses and his ilk.


Fountainhead Folly? This proposal for LOMEX dwarfs even the Manhattan Bridge.

New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller finally shelved the LOMEX project in 1971 and for good measure accepted the last in a long line of Moses’ fit-of-pique resignation letters. Today, Jacobs’ insistence that people need to shape cities for themselves is pretty well embedded. Community input in urban planning is much more prevalent and the public realm in New York and other big cities is often safer and more welcoming for residents and visitors alike. Huge problems remain of course with gentrification and income disparity and the same authoritarian attitudes prevalent in America in the 50s and 60s have been exported: one talking head here describes city planning in China today as “Robert Moses on steroids.” But Jane Jacobs’ idea that our cities are an ecosystem that needs to be understood and cared for to be truly successful can also be exported, and reinforced here at home, and a viewing of “Citizen Jane” would be a good place to start.

Documentary Spotlight: “Karl Marx City”

What was it like to grow up in the most surveillanced society in history? And just what are the possible after-effects when that heavy-handed system of secret police and informers all comes apart in a matter of weeks? Petra Epperlein grew up in the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and was a very young woman at the time of its rather sudden collapse in 1989. In the fascinating new film that bears the title of her hometown, Epperlein (who co-directed the film along with her husband-partner Michael Tucker) explains that there was nothing that extraordinary about her childhood where she, along with her family and millions of other East German citizens, played the “go along to get along” game as well as possible. But when her seemingly well-adjusted father commits suicide a decade after re-unification, the questions that arise would eventually lead to this documentary. What the couple came up with is a work that combines elements of a personal film essay with an engrossing retrospective deep dive into the history of the GDR’s infamous secret police (known as the Stasi) with some relevant cautionary signposts for our society along the way.

“Karl Marx City” does start out a bit slowly, with Epperlein’s cautious buildup of the narrative of her family’s fairly normal life within the context of a repressive Eastern Bloc nation. Or was it all as unremarkable as it seemed. When it’s discovered that her father was receiving anonymous and vaguely threatening letters prior to taking his own life, it becomes imperative to probe deeper and eventually led Epperlein back to city where she grew up, which is notable for having a bust of Karl Marx’s head that is so colossal that they didn’t even bother trying to knock it down when most symbols of the old regime (most notably the Berlin Wall) met a similar fate in late 1989 and early 1990.

Petra Epperlein has produced several films with her husband, the most well known probably being “Gunner Palace” from 2004, about young American soldiers stationed at one of Saddam Hussein’s palatial compounds during the Iraq War. Here, Petra goes before the camera in many scenes, more often than not holding her boom mic, interviewing her former neighbors or experts in the field of Iron Curtain dirty dealings. And what a business it was. East Germany was a country with a population of about 17 million but with 92,000 secret police officers aided by some 200,000 informers.

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Karl Mark City, with 12,000 snitches all to itself, is presented as a microcosm of the country, with constant snooping and a population permanently divided by mistrust—the real Orwellian 1984. In a land where it’s said if three people are sitting at a table, one is an informer, Epperlein has to at least speculate that maybe her dad was one of those informers.
In the dual pursuit of personal closure and historical reporting, the directors spend a good chunk of the film’s middle third inside the mammoth vaults of the Stasi’s former headquarters, where former GDR citizens can view the files of themselves and family. Here among the 111 kilometers of aisles are some 41 million index cards (!!) of gathered personal information. This is where “KMC” really gains some heft, as we begin to feel the mind-boggling end result of the state’s pathological pursuit of “conspiratorial objectives” (in the memorable phrase of an ex-Stasi agent). Epperlein and Tucker also make great use of old surveillance camera footage, blending it in with their own stark B&W imagery, and making for a beguiling re-creation of a place where “the enemy is everyone.”

In the case of Epperlein’s father, some of those old dictates seems to have carried over. And although there is some closure and a measure of redemption here for Epperlein and her family, there is no skirting the issue of the long psychic hangover after the fall of the GDR. The former socialist state has had significant problems with de-population as people (esp. younger women) have fled to the former West Germany and elsewhere: it’s asserted that Karl Marx City (which quickly reverted to its historical name of Chemnitz) had the lowest birth rate in the world soon after re-unification, while whole neighborhoods were left deserted, waiting for demolition. The use of “conspirative objectives” to gain political advantage is a problem not confined to former police states, as the recent U.S. election has shown us. At the recent screening of “Karl Marx City” at the Salem (MA) Film Fest where I saw this, Epperlein stressed the needed “responsibility to be vigilant of a democratic state.” These are words that should be well-heeded from someone who grew up in a place that was “stuck between an abandoned past and an unredeemed future.”

Documentary Spotlight: Jaco

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JACO
Directed by Paul Marchand & Stephen Kijak—2015—117 minutes

While viewing and reviewing the more than 150 films that are the subject of my upcoming book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey (available this fall), I came across several sad tales of musicians who have struggled with mental health issues while trying to make it in the hothouse business of touring and recording. This documentary about acclaimed jazz-fusion bassist Jaco Pastorius arrived a little late (2015) to fit into the book’s timeline, which is 1964-2014. Yet it follows a trajectory that is somewhat familiar—a talented but sometimes unpredictable person whose illness is slow to develop and hard to reconcile with when fully manifested.

Other musical bios of this ilk—What Happened, Miss Simone? and You’re Going to Miss Me: A Film about Roky Erickson jump to mind—seem to have this hurt and confusion built into their titles. Though this doc is simply called Jaco and is made with the protective approval of his family, it does not totally hide the pain in what is basically a straight tribute to a man who died in 1987. It’s produced by Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo, who’s also one of the many musicians testifying here for a man much-loved by fans and contemporaries alike. Aside from the praise, Jaco’s story is interesting in and of itself. He grew up in south Florida, a super-energetic kid who played sports and loved music. Like his vocalist father, Pastorius was soon making the rounds as a player on the Ft. Lauderdale-Miami club circuit, first as a drummer then on the electric bass guitar.

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This lesser-known geographical scene is described as a place “with no musical prejudice” and it’s a compelling notion borne out with the recollections of family members and old bandmates telling of an absorption in styles like jazz, rock, Afro-Caribbean and even a little country. From there, two distinct life trajectories take hold. First, Jaco was married and a first-time (but not last time) father while still of high school age. He would be married twice and often described as a family man. There are numerous home videos and snapshots of him with spouse and kids, frolicking on the beach, cartwheeling, playing football or Frisbee. Yet his prodigious talent did not go unnoticed or unexploited. So by age 21, he was in New York working with the likes of Lenny White and Herbie Hancock, even getting some session work on an early solo LP by ex-Mott the Hoople frontman Ian Hunter. This exuberant young man was a curious mixture of innocence and arrogance and he casually advertised himself as the “greatest bass player ever.”

Many fans and colleagues would soon agree. His playing style—elastic, expressive and often fierce—proved very popular outside the margins of the more traditional jazz fan base. The tendency to play fleet-fingered runs on his instrument’s upper register and his innate showmanship started drawing rock-audience crowds in 1975 after he joined the fusion band Weather Report with two Miles Davis alumni: keyboardist Josef Zawinul and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. This electric atmosphere is seen in late 70s concert footage, both in WR band numbers like their signature “Birdland” or in his solo spotlights where both his unique approach to fretless harmonics and his Pete Townshend-like theatrics were given free reign.

But though Pastorius was a key member of Weather Report for seven years (while also releasing a couple of well-received solo records) the informed viewer just knows that there’s trouble a-brewing and it arrives in due course. Jaco and Zawinul are described as “two cobras inside a very small cage” and the bassist as someone who “respected his jazz elders but wasn’t above ruffling their feathers” (Zawinul was almost twenty years older). Likewise, Joni Mitchell, on the lookout for “originals” to help define her widening musical horizons in the late Seventies, says she found a kindred soul in Pastorius but also soon found he could be a bit much to handle. And when you lose that jazz-player balance between individual expression and teamwork, things can go sour in a hurry. Jaco found this out at the Havana Jam in 1979 when he we into “self-destruct mode” for what should have been a sure-thing fusion power-trio jam with drummer Tony Williams and guitarist John McLaughlin.

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Though Pastorius kept up his end for several years in the spotlight—living frugally on the road and sending money home to the family—substance abuse and extremely erratic behavior brought on by lingering mental health issues caught up with him in a big way. He was diagnosed as bipolar in 1982 and spent several weeks at NYC’s Bellevue Hospital. But without much of a support system (at least from reading between the lines here) he was soon busking for spare change in Washington Square and eventually landed back in south Florida, one and off his meds and sleeping in a park. His demise could hardly have been sadder: he died days after being severely beaten by a bouncer for trying to kick his way into a nightclub that his volatile behavior got him banned from. The culprit ended up doing four months in jail.

I’m not suggesting that Trujillo and his two directors should have dwelled on all this overmuch, after all this is a tribute film and a fine one at that. But in the end, the short shrift given to Jaco’s troubled later years is a bit baffling. Maybe after all this time it just seems inevitable that he was one of those destined to leave us early. Pastorius told a friend once that he expected to die at age 34 and ended up being only a year off. So while the testimonials come early and often here (Herbie Hancock, Carlos Santana, Joni, Flea, Sting etc.) the full recognition of the mental health issue here seems lacking. His long-time bandmate Wayne Shorter grapples with this the most of anyone here, rhetorically asking “who’s to say that a chemical imbalance is a fault of nature” and suggesting it “ushers into action” a certain greatness otherwise unattainable. That has proven to be sometimes true but many fans may have traded a little less greatness for a longer life, and much more music-making, from Jaco the man. The legend could wait.

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Documentary Spotlight: You’ve Been Trumped

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You’ve Been Trumped
Directed by Anthony Baxter–2011–95 minutes

We are obliged to live in a world with a multitude of political opinions, social attitudes and lifestyle choices. This naturally causes all sorts of random discontents when different values knock against each other. But I always thought there was one thing people all across the spectrum could agree on: that the junior sociopaths that roamed the hallways and recess yards of elementary schools everywhere—calling you humiliating nicknames with no provocation, ridiculing you for being in the bathroom too long, pushing you down in gym class when the teacher had his back turned—would recede from your life by high school at the latest and be recalled with the utmost disdain in adult life if even thought of at all. Boy, am I naïve. Just give this same asshole a trust fund and a tawdry reality TV show and, in an age of celebrity overlords and toxic conservative talk shows, you get people voting for (and even worshipping) the same pathologically insecure bully that would have once pummeled them for the milk money. And for President of the United States!! I don’t believe there’s nearly enough bamboozled voters to elect Donald Trump. But I was also wrong in thinking that nobody would ever pull a lever for a candidate that calls them “stupid” to their face, just like he would have if he knew them in 5th grade.

So the title You’ve Been Trumped neatly sums up this blood-boiling 2011 documentary directed by Anthony Baxter and produced and co-written by Richard Phinney. It’s a gritty, ground-level film witness to Trump’s vulgar tactics on a smaller scale (but blessedly without the misdirected popular support we now see in the States) as we experience Trump pushing through plans to build an enormous jet-set golf resort near a pristine stretch of coastline north of Aberdeen, Scotland. The filmmaker’s sympathies are clear as a group of local residents, who have the audacity to own humble properties in the path of the tycoon’s grandiose scheme, refuse to budge—even in the face of a government Compulsory Purchase Order (eminent domain). The starry-eyed deferment to fame and fortune in its modern media-age manifestation provides the film’s rich subtext.

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The Aberdeenshire regional council at first rejects the plan but after the Scottish Parliament “calls in” that decision, the project is approved, despite the site’s official designation as a grade-one conservation area. Baxter shoots a scene at a Trump-attended groundbreaking event, where fawning local officials and business people realize that their lives are being touched by an actual Celebrity, and one ready to throw a lot of money around. A nearby college, not to be outdone, desperately bestows Trump with an honorary degree even as credible experts warn of the steep environmental cost.

Throughout You’ve Been Trumped Baxter inserts scenes from Bill Forsyth’s amiable (and analogous) 1983 fiction film Local Hero. There, the plans of an American oil baron (Burt Lancaster) to buy out a coastal enclave on Scotland’s west coast and replace it with a refinery are complicated when the hotshot executive he sends there as an advance party (Peter Riegert) is lured by the charms of the village’s slow-lane lifestyle. How quaint. Nowadays, a guy like “The Donald” doesn’t have to waste his time courting skeptical residents. According to him, the property of Michael Forbes, the flinty old-school farmer who’s at the forefront of local resistance, is “slum-like and disgusting” and the man “lives like a pig.” Trump has always liked to come on like a streetwise New Yorker (despite his silver spoon) and his blustering reputation precedes him by a country mile. This kick-out-the-poor attitude is less objectionable nowadays where (notably in the U.S.) a certain obsessive fixation on wealth and fame has elevated the likes of him to an iconic status that often “trumps” any solidarity one may have once felt with the general population.

With the skids greased by the city fathers, who seem to have imported this mindset, Trump quickly moves in. His earthmovers are soon moving “biblical” amounts of sand to make way for the two 18-hole golf courses, depositing one of Britain’s largest sand dune systems next to the homes of those who don’t like him and encroaching on their property lines. In one of the film’s more telling scenes, the local police arrest Baxter (and rather roughly at that) for filming an interview with project opponent Susan Munro, in her own driveway.

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It’s true that for certain socio-political types (like those partial to muckraking documentaries) a figure like Trump will remain an easy target of scorn. He’s the conceited blowhard whose bloated, self-titled building projects blight the old majesty of Manhattan, the condescending candidate whose first (short-lived) run for the American presidency rested on the despicable “birther” platform, the TV host of “Celebrity Apprentice” who gets his jollies watching washed-up stars like Gary Busey and Meatloaf grovel from the other side of a mahogany conference table. To a person like Susan Munro, Trump is no more than someone “with a few pounds in his pocket and a bit of a name.” The question coursing through the film is whether her outlook, serving as a great leveler when multiplied across the body politic, will win out or will more people imagine that they are just a lottery win or reality-show appearance or viral video away from joining Donald in the gentrified ranks of the 1%.

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While the intrepid Baxter is tracking down Trump at press conferences and parliamentary hearings, the opponents attract a group of sympathizers who flock to a protest march and to a Trump-mocking art show held in a barn on Forbes’ farm. One of them is Mickey Foote, who in another lifetime was producer of the Clash’s first album. Now living near-by, Foote speaks knowingly about the limits of Forbes’ newfound local celebrity vs. Trump’s international stature and to what’s being lost in the deal (“a fantastic open space within reach of ordinary people.”) These scenes of citizen camaraderie may be seen as gratifying but one can only be left thinking what the future holds in an age of gaping income inequality that forms the broader background of this theme. While Trump gloats about the few hundred service-sector positions available at his resort, we’re seemingly left with an untouchable upper class run amuck in a return to a medieval-style oligarchy, with government and law enforcement in their pocket. You’ve Been Trumped smartly played out this disheartening scenario in miniature, now a more frightening version is being played out on a much bigger scale.

Documentary Spotlight: Hands on a Hard Body

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Hands on a Hard Body
Directed by S.R. Bindler—1997—94 minutes

It’s hard not to enjoy an earnest indie doc about aspirational Americans and I would be hard pressed to find anything objectionable on the surface of 1997’s “Hands on a Hard Body.” This film about an East Texas endurance contest, in which the last person standing with one hand on a Nissan pickup truck wins the vehicle, won an audience award at the L.A. Film Festival the year it came out and was later made into a musical co-written by Trey Anatasio. That play eventually made it onto Broadway for a month and garnered three Tony nominations.

I had long been interested in this cult film, whose scant availability on home video kept it from inclusion in my reference book “Documentary 101.” I recently chanced upon a DVD of it for a dollar at a library book sale, making me glad I was far too sensible to ever shell out they $84 they were asking on Amazon. I must admit to a bit of an inner smirk when I saw the printed legend on the box that read “You lose the contest when you lose your mind,” presumably a quote from one of the competitors. My initial reaction to an event I would consider inherently demeaning would be more like “You lose your mind when you enter the contest.” Below that quote, critic Todd McCarthy enthused “A classic piece of Americana… produces gales of laughter.” While I don’t remember laughing once, I did come away from the film with much respect for the contestants while still bemoaning the chronic fragility of an American economic system that would make such a contest viable.

Movie fans of a certain age may well recall Sydney Pollack’s 1969 feature “The Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” based on the 1935 novel by Horace McCoy. It depicts a particularly humiliating Depression-era dance marathon as dramatized by McCoy, who had worked as a bouncer at such events. Flash forward six decades later and while there may not be a widespread depression, there are still people who will go to great lengths either to win badly-needed money or a commodity they could otherwise not afford. Gone are the up-front exploitations of the callous marathon MC played by Gig Young in “They Shoot Horses.” In fact, the folks at the Jack Long Nissan dealership in Longview, Texas couldn’t be any nicer and the co-sponsoring radio station plays it up as a wholesome community event.

And it gives every indication of being so. The contestants don’t feel they are being played and it would be an ungenerous viewer who would begrudge them for being there. It’s easy for me to be all high-minded and say to myself that I would rather walk to work for the next hundred years than to be there. But many for the 22 people lined up around the pickup at the start, this here is for real. Not having to make payments on a vehicle can mean the difference of not having to get a second job or whether or not you can afford night classes. Moreover, in workaday East Texas, “cars don’t make money, trucks make money” a worthy observation that is fleshed out in the video clip from the musical at the end of the post.

So the willing participants gamely join in for a few days of sleep deprivation, boredom, back strain, mosquitoes and, eventually, contagious laughter and delirium. But through it all, they keep their spirits positive and graciously answer the questions of the filmmakers, while either at the truck or during the breaks (five minutes an hour, thirty minutes every six hours). An intrepid few keep their stamina up to last past the 75-hour mark. By this time, whoever is left has earned much respect and those who had to drop out are not bitter but have found a valuable takeaway. Paul, one of the older entrants for whom this can be particularly difficult says the contest showed him that “you don’t pay attention to who’s right beside you (in life) and that they could be your good friend.” After a recuperative sleep, he’s back the next day to support the remaining standers.

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It’s too bad that this magnanimous outlook can’t extend to the greater economic and social framework, as the hardbody contest betrays a harsher reality where everyone “wants the same thing but only one can have it.” Instead, that system only seems to abide to an increasingly dumbed-down blame game full of “welfare cheats” and “one-percenters.” This is a worthy film but it doesn’t really drill down to the deeper implications at hand. Interestingly, no less a director than Robert Altman had plans to make “Hands on a Hard Body” into a feature film before his death in 2006. With his great skill at ensemble casts and keen sense of American discontents, that would have been a highly interesting project. Instead we are left with a likable document and an appreciation of its persevering subjects. I still wouldn’t enter the contest, though.

Documentary Spotlight: “Best of Enemies”

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Best of Enemies
Directed by Robert Gordon & Morgan Neville—2015—88 minutes

Amid hurled epithets like “crypto-Nazi” and “queer”, William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal dragged TV-talk politics kicking and screaming into the modern age with a series of ten live debates on ABC during the 1968 Republican and Democratic conventions. Sharp-tongued scions of a now-faded Eastern Establishment, the conservative stalwart Buckley and the left-leaning author Vidal were playing for keeps in an age where “the fault lines of the country were split open.”

The absorbing new documentary “Best of Enemies” is a vivid look back at the pivotal 1968 election cycle. ABC News was a distant third in the ratings behind CBS (with the esteemed Walter Cronkite as anchor) and NBC (with the successful teaming of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley). With the conventions approaching, ABC figured they would need a little more than the genteel but unexciting Howard K. Smith and the still-green Sam Donaldson.

Back then the three networks, without cable competition or the Internet, were usually in the business of hewing to the great American middle ground but that was blown open at ABC when they came up with the idea of staging these one-on-one debates (five at each convention) between Buckley and Gore. They were both intellectually self-assured patricians, but that’s about where the similarities ended. The two men were well acquainted and detested each other. Buckley, as editor of the National Review and host of the PBS show Firing Line, was an unapologetic and archly witty defender of old money and an overlord business class, as well as a spearhead in the nascent culture wars. Vidal was certain that what Buckley stood for was the perpetuation of power for those who already held it at the expense of a growing underclass and the suppression of new freedoms. Buckley in turn saw Vidal, who had recently published the bestselling novel “Myra Breckenridge” with its transgender protagonist, as a dangerous precursor of a non-religious society full of moral compromises.

“Best of Enemies” zips by in succession of clips from the combustible head-to-head encounters and adds contemporary commentators on media history as well as those who can breakdown debating as a “blood sport.” The recent assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, race riots in several major cities and escalating protests of a disastrous war in Vietnam were all on the front burner. Both men were more than willing to hash out the issues from their side of the schism in a debate that one talking head contends boiled down to a contest to prove “who was the better person” in a proxy war over two ways of life in an increasingly divided America.

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Their aristocratic accents and erudite point-scoring can’t disguise the philosophical loathing each had for the other. The suave and unflappable Vidal, who came better prepared for the opening rounds at the Republican confab in Miami, is incredulous that Buckley won’t see a problem with the so-what assertion that “Freedom breeds inequality” and pins him down with certifiable quotes that Buckley advocated using nuclear weapons against North Vietnam. Buckley was a supporter of the law-and-order ways of eventual GOP nominee Richard Nixon as well as Ronald Reagan (in his first presidential run) and extends that to include screenwriter Vidal’s alliance with a new libertine Hollywood industry leading the country astray. The bad blood between them really came to a boil in the last debate during the rancorous Democratic convention in Chicago, where Mayor Daley’s brutish police force was indiscriminately clubbing anti-war demonstrators in the street. With some ten million viewers looking on, Vidal calmly played his ace in the hole. Not taking kindly to Buckley’s assertion that the protestors were asking for it, he called his counterpart “a pro- or crypto-Nazi.” Buckley’s face contorted as he half-rose from his seat, calling Vidal a “queer” and threatening to punch his lights out. (Vidal’s homosexuality was not quite an open secret at the time). Howard K. Smith quickly cut in from his booth to end it.

Although they don’t overplay the angle, co-directors and writers Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville (the latter won an Oscar for his film “20 Feet from Stardom”) tie all this in to the relentless partisan rhetoric and bickering we see on cable news and the Internet nowadays, not to mention the often-stalemated state of affairs in Washington and the general red-state-blue-state fissure. But 1968 was still an age where intellect counted for something (even on TV!) and things were much less monolithic. It would hard to imagine an opportunistic blowhard like Rush Limbaugh engaging with Woody Allen and Mohamed Ali, like we see Buckley doing here on old Firing Line clips. (Buckley could also break with Republican orthodoxy, supporting President Carter on the Panama Canal Treaty). He and Vidal knew they were playing the mass media game (Gore once quipped that the two things you should never pass up is sex and a television appearance) but also held out that the marketplace of ideas were real and meant something. I have a feeling that we won’t be seeing a whole lot of that in this current election cycle so it may be a good time to take a break from the partisan echo chambers and see “Best of Enemies” to re-visit an age before (as Buckley later put it) what is “highly viewable” overwhelmed that which is “highly illuminating.”

“Archie’s Betty”: In search of the real Riverdale

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Archie’s Betty
Written and directed by Gerald Peary–2015–69 minutes

Love of popular culture runs deep and a great example is this fun and ultimately moving new documentary. Boston-area journalist, critic and film-studies professor Gerald Peary seeks out the possible and probable real-life inspirations for the characters of the ever-popular “Archie” comic books. In the process, he reveals a hidden human dimension behind the iconic faces of Archie Andrews, his dueling love interests Betty and Veronica, and others like Jughead, Reggie and Moose.

This is a project that actually dates back to 1988 when Peary, who had been a big Archie fan since his boyhood in West Virginia, wrote an article in the Boston Globe Sunday magazine that positioned Haverhill, MA as the inspiration for the comic’s fictional Riverdale. Archie’s original artist, Bob Montana, had attended Haverhill High School in the 1930s and Geary’s scrutinizing of early issues (the first Archie appeared in 1941) reveals named local landmarks were later fictionalized, like the gang’s beloved Chock’lit Shoppe. Geary tracked down several of Montana’s old classmates that could have been prototypes for the major characters and had himself a nice feature story.

But an urge to further explore this subject eventually led Peary to make this, his second film (the first was the 2009 doc about the art of film criticism called “For the Love of Movies”). He revisits many of the Haverhill classmates and locations while partnering with amateur comics historian Shaun Clancy, who became the film’s co-producer. It was Clancy who suggests that Betty—the blonde girl-next-door who’s always playing second fiddle to affluent Veronica for Archie’s affections—was not based on Montana’s Haverhill prom date but an actual woman named Betty that he dated in his twenties after he had moved to New York City and was already a working cartoonist. The film sweetly concludes with the two of them visiting the 90 year-old Betty at her assisted living facility in New Jersey where she proves to be every bit as plucky and personable as her illustrated namesake.

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The eyes have it: The world’s favorite love triangle

“Archie’s Betty” is an engaging blend of archival visuals, firsthand recollections, expert viewpoints and Peary’s own personal angle. His empathy for the inner connections people make with fictional characters and settings, and how they can develop from simple childhood escapism to something more profound with the passage of time, is the thread that will make his film appeal to viewers far beyond the ranks of Archie fanatics.

(“Archie’s Betty” had its premiere at a film festival in Buenos Aires, South America being a hotbed for all things Archie, according to Mr. Peary. For area readers, it will have two more showings at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art on June 14th. Other than that, I’m not sure though it was suggested that it may soon be available on DVD. More at the Archie’s Betty Facebook page and at bigsleepfilms.com)

Review: “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock & Roll”

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Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock & Roll
Directed by John Pirozzi—2015—105 minutes

The freedom to live out a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, taken for granted by several decades worth of young people in Western nations, may never be regarded so lightly again after viewing John Pirozzi’s mesmerizing documentary. Whether or not the viewer realizes beforehand that Cambodia had a vibrant pop music scene in the 60s and early 70s will hardly matter once he or she is drawn into the film’s orbit. What most will know going in is that this thriving youth movement was destined to be crushed, along with all else, when the homicidal Khmer Rouge forces took over the country in a terrible offshoot of the Vietnam War. Using interviews with survivors, evocative period footage and vintage vinyl, Pirozzi conjures up a regenerative tale despite the historical horrors. It’s a case of mankind’s better nature, here in the form of musical enrichment, persevering even in the face of the worst fanatical impulses this sorry world has to offer.

The story starts soon after Cambodia peacefully gains its independence from France in 1953. A period of relative economic success follows under the restored monarchy, led by Prince Norodom Sihanouk. The prince was a patron of the arts and a bit of a singer himself, and music and traditional culture thrived. Pop songs soon became all the rage, with vocalists both male (Sinn Sisamouth) and female (Ros Serey Sothea) becoming idols across all age groups. At first, the tunes are reminiscent of French and Afro-Cuban styles; as we get into the Sixties, the British and American rock influences seep in. There is a certain lulling appeal to this first part of the film. The capital Phnom Penh is a vision of blossoming trees and bright boulevards, towering temples and lively clubs. Especially when the soundtrack features the keening, ethereal tones of the woman singers, the sights and sounds float by like an exotic dream.

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“When we were young, we loved to be modern,” one of the participants says right at the start. It is a simple as it is heartbreaking, knowing the nightmare that this dream will morph into. Still, it is fun to learn of the different musical artists and their evolution through the better part of twenty years. News that the war in neighboring Vietnam is spilling across their border comes at first in brief segments. Prince Sihanouk tries to remain neutral, even in the face of President Nixon’s bombing of his country to try and stymie the North Vietnamese communists. Still, the happy teens congregate and the music plays on into the late 60s and early 70s. Guitar bands like Baksey Cham Krong and mildly rebellious artists like troubadour Yol Aularong and sassy-girl singer Pen Ran are readily identifiable in the global pop canon.

It all starts coming apart in 1970 when the prince is deposed in a right-wing coup and naively allies himself with the Khmer Rogue. Far from being “modern,” the Khmer Rouge were pathological ideologues who, upon taking power in April of 1975, emptied Phnom Penh and other cities with the demented idea of creating a pre-industrial agrarian society—in effect turning the whole country into a big prison farm. A quarter of Cambodia’s population would not survive the regime’s four year rule, and as many as two million died from hunger, disease and summary execution in the world’s worst such event since the Holocaust. Pirozzi, as befits his subject, keys in on the Khmer Rouge’s particular contempt of artists, a group who are “close to the people” and thus deemed a dangerous challenge to their dogma. Singer Sieng Vanthy recalls how her life was saved because she convinced authorities that she had been a banana seller before the takeover.

At the end of “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten” Pirozzi shows the present-day (and once again sparkling) Phnom Penh, with its easeful citizens, pop talent shows and stores with racks of CDs, some of them re-issues of those old albums we almost feel we know by now. Things aren’t perfect. Much like Prince Sihanouk (who was good on the arts but stymied political dissent with his secret police), Cambodia is today ruled by Hun Sen, a long-reigning strongman (and Khmer Rouge defector) who can make life very uncomfortable for his opponents. On the plus side… well, he has managed not to kill two million people.

The grace and dignity of the film’s subjects will make an even greater impression when held up against the depravity of the perpetrators. The inspiration and uplift of culture is one of the great counterweights we have against the dark impulses that lead to the violence, greed and exploitation that seems to have half the globe in a stranglehold at any one time. Like in this film, we always seem outnumbered but never give up.

My new book, Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey will be released in late 2015.
Copyright 2015, Rick Ouellette. All rights reserved.

“The Case of the 3-Sided Dream” and a Musical Life Well-Lived

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The Case of the Three-Sided Dream
Directed by Adam Kahan–2014–88 minutes

I’m not exactly sure when jazz became such an object of penny-ante scorn. Most recently, there was the witless “satire” of Sonny Rollins that made news after appearing on the blog of New Yorker magazine. It was a fake first-person confession of a man once touted as the “Saxophone Colossus” who admits that “I hate music. I wasted my life” and concedes that the Library of Congress should be burned to the ground because it contains a few of his records. Written by Django Gold, it is so devoid of authorial effort that it could not possibly have taken more time to write than it does to read. More generally, the name itself has become a by-word for a passé genre best ignored, even to the point where Jay Leno’s “who buys jazz?” tagline was accentuated by his showing cutout-bin CD covers of his own band leader, Kevin Eubanks.

So it is at least a bit heartening to see “America’s native art form” (per Dizzy Gillespie) enjoying a bit of a renaissance on film. This includes the highly-touted 2014 documentary “Keep on Keepin’ On” where Clark Terry, the much-honored trumpet player whose career dates back to Count Basie, helps a blind 23 year-old piano protégé prepare for an international competition while he himself is pushing 90. (Terry died last month). Also, John Coltrane’s masterpiece ballad “Naima” played a key part in this year’s foreign-film Oscar winner, “Ida.” Now add to that “The Case of the Three-Sided Dream”, Adam Kahan’s dazzling documentary about Rahsaan Roland Kirk that I saw in its Massachusetts premier this week at the great all-doc Salem Film Fest.

Kirk, who died way back in 1977, was certainly one of his era’s wildest innovators. The blind saxophonist built on the great leap forward of bebop pioneers like Coltrane and Charlie Parker, referring to himself as a “journey agent” exploring any and all avenues of sound with no “self-imposed barriers.” Rahsaan, as he wanted to be known, would show up on stage with several saxophones (some of his own invention) strapped on, as well as flutes, piccolos, whistles and who knows what all. Blowing on several reed instruments at one time was his trademark (some said “gimmick”) a sign of restless creativity that could hardly be contained.

Especially in the 70s footage, by which time he was dressing in African clothes and incorporating everything from gongs to smashed furniture into his performance, Kirk was a natural as a musician that benefited from being seen as well as heard and Kahan includes much live (and largely uninterrupted) footage. The viewer is treated to him doing his signature “Serenade to a Cuckoo” on the BBC in 1964, a titanic rendition of “Volunteered Slavery” at the 1972 Montreux Jazz Festival and a spot on the Ed Sullivan Show that came about after he and some colleagues creatively protested the lack of “black classical music” on the airwaves. Kirk assembled an all-star ten-piece outfit (including Archie Shepp, Charles Mingus and Roy Haynes) and did a bang-up job on “Haitian Fight Song” even though the producers requested they do “My Cherie Amour.”

Kahan includes some playful pop-art animation sequences to play along with Kirk’s recorded spoken-word pieces, which show his advocacy of populist self-realization and his puckish sense of humor as well. The affecting interview segments are with family, friends and musical collaborators—academic talking heads and celebrities are absent. Since most everything Rahsaan did seemed geared towards “connection to community” this all seems to the good.

During the Q&A time with Kahan that followed, many older viewers (several of whom had seen Kirk in concert back in the day) seemed impressed that a young guy like himself would be drawn to a subject that died around the same time period he was born. The director’s answer was interesting and one I could relate to. He reached a certain age in young adulthood and decided he would buy some jazz records because he felt it was something he should know. That this curiosity and openness to join into the larger cultural heritage would lead to something special—a national treasure like Rahsaan Roland Kirk getting his documentary day in the sun—is not surprising. Some 15 years after being captivated by a Kirk album he found at a yard sale, Kahan has paid it forward with a great film but for so many others I’m afraid this won’t be the case. Perhaps at the root of this easy-way-out dismissal of music genres like jazz is the fear of commitment to work for (or even bothering to understand) an aesthetic greater good. If you’re into music today why bother to master an instrument when you may be able to take the short-cut to the top by over-vocalizing a boilerplate pop song on “The Voice.” That mindset has largely replaced virtuosic and collaborative musical forms with a quest for personal celebrity that is hollow at its core. Now we can start talking about “a wasted life.”