| November 26, 2020
Working my way through DOC NYC 2020 this last couple weeks, I realize the multiple factors that are setting reactions to documentaries.
First, there is content, and how each of us connects to that material. Something we didn’t know about something that fascinates us is always the “best” film. Something we know a bit about that is enhanced by a new film is excellent. Something that fits or refutes our personal and political interests is, depending on the viewer, fantastic or horrible.
Second, there is the filmmaking. Sometimes, a polished film loses high marks because it feels too clean. Sometimes, polish allows a complex subject to be seen more clearly than it has ever been before. Some love straight vérité while others are put to sleep by it. Shaky camerawork can make some go insane, while others see it as the most authentic style. Reenactment can be joy or a sin. And the other elements of these films, from music to editing to animation and more, are judged whether the viewer is conscious of it or not.
Third, there is context. Are you someone who is swimming in a sea of great content, like DOC NYC, or are you someone who watches 1 or 2 feature docs a year. Often, there can be quality in a big pool, but the mere experience of swimming in so many films makes what something that could be more tightly embraced seem, well… meh.
I am happy as the pig in the proverbial pen of excrement at DOC NYC this year. There are pitches coming in… some terrific films. There are films I am randomly picking as I wander through… some terrific films.
So here is my list of movies to check out at DOC NYC 2020. I’m not going to post any negative opinions because, what’s really the point? Documentaries mostly start at the bottom of the cinematic ocean, desperately swimming to the surface for air. Most won’t make it. I have no urge to contribute to any doc drowning.
(Note: There are films I have seen that I might not realize are part of DOC NYC yet. I will try to get those updated as I run into them. And there are certainly great films I have not seen yet. The election week probably cost be a dozen screenings in time… sorry. Trying to catch up.)
Influence – A documentary that played at Sundance and doesn’t have domestic distribution (as far as I know… this is a living document this week, so please, correct me), Influence is as important a documentary to view as any of the excellent political that have been about this moment in American history. It is, in its way, a sequel to the seminal doc, Adam Curtis’ The Century of Self. This film is built around Sir Tim Bell, an ad man who was a major part of building Saatchi & Saatchi from 1970, who then started down the path of political consulting, which was not attached to ad agency methods back then (even though The Century of Self takes the connection back to Nazi Germany). After being credited with the Thatcher win, he spread across the globe to the highest bidder. A remarkable piece of tight, entertaining filmmaking while also holding up a painful mirror to the current state of the world. (11/12)
The Meaning of Hitler – I first met Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein at the time of Gunner Palace (2004). The team has made nine feature docs since. They have always had a keen interest in subtext and how, usually by using amazing graphics, they can be both objective and subjective. In their new film, they come at it from the other direction. The subject is a solid and defined past and the documentary is really about the souls of nations as reflected in those pasts. For us Americans, it is about to be part of our future. Thoughtful stuff. (11/12)
Self-Portrait – I am putting this film in this special category, as I have never seen anything quite like it in subject or delivery. Lene Marie Fossen is a very high-functioning artist of great talent who also happens to be living with anorexia since the age of 10. She is shocking and painful and beautiful and brilliant and so many human contradictions in one person. For me, this film has left a mark, in both joy and sadness, that will never be forgotten. (11/12)
THE SIMPLE PLEASURES
Calendar Girl – If you aren’t in fashion, you have probably never heard of Ruth Finley, but she was a key player in the fashion world for decades. This film not only documents that history, but catches her at the end of her run of power. Truly inspirational piece about a woman who took power when it was not easy to be a woman taking power. But also, about a person committed to doing the job that she created and being the best (and only) person people could imagine in the role for decades. And it’s about getting old. Beautiful movie. (11/12)
Ronnie’s – One of those great documentaries about a place and a time and a person. In this case, it is a person that few Americans will know… but if you love jazz and you ever spent time in London, you know. Not the greatest piece of film wizardry, but the footage is spectacular. (11/12)
My Psychedelic Love Story – Errol Morris has a new film. His fourteenth doc feature. This one mixes classic Errolisms with unexpected distance. The focus is on Johanna Harcourt-Smith, who reflects on her life in the gravity of Timothy Leary. No one gets got… except for the audience. Errol is not always this much pure fun. There is still some room for reflection of how far we haven’t come. (11/12)
THE SINGULAR HUMAN STORIES
Blue Code of Silence – This film builds its way backwards from an aging Bob Leuci, who film lovers will remember as the basis of Bobby Cielo in Prince of the City. But it is hard to imagine that anyone who cares for that Sidney Lumet film or who is interested in that era of dirty cops and New York won’t find this to be a dark chocolate desert they want to gobble up. Too many recreations for my taste. But so much great file footage and the voice of the (con)man at the center of this complex tale of greed and disconnection from reality.
Crutch – Bill Shannon is one of those real-world characters that you really want to know and watch. He is inspirational, irritating, glorious, brilliant, arrogant, and truly one-of-a-kind. This is one of those films about a character who just won’t take “no” for an answer. And wherever you land on him as a person, you hunger for each piece of insight, which reflects right back at you. Ironically, Shannon was a video innovator, but the roughness of the early materials may put some audiences off. Power through, I say. It is not the platform the art is painted upon, it is the art of living that makes this film special.
Flower Punk – This is a 30 minute short by Alison Klayman about Azuma Makoto, who is an environmental artist and sculpturist using flowers as his material. I loved this little film. It reminds me of the docs on Andy Goldsworthy, especially the great Rivers & Tides. (11/13)
No Ordinary Man – Billy Tipton… what a story!!! This is one of those documentaries where you don’t want to spoil a single surprise or turn in the road. Suffice it to say that Billy Tipton, born in 1914, lived a life that is barely imaginable in the 1970s, much less back then. One of those stories you just don’t see very often, made all the better by being told by documentarians.
Tiny Tim: King For A Day – If you lived through the Tiny Tim era – I just barely did – than you need to see this film… or maybe not, if you just want to live with the surface of what you knew about him. He was truly one of the biggest stars in the world for a while… much bigger than any of the Instagram or Tik Tok stars of today. And he actually had talent. This film is acid-washed kitsch.
The Viewing Booth – A rather brilliant, heady look at how we view the world through our biases. If we already hold a belief, how much does it take for us to see beyond that belief, even to neutrality. It may see obvious from the outside, but again, you are showing your bias.
The Dilemma of Desire – I love this movie. It enlightened me. It made me embarrassed, as an adult male. And then it made me really uncomfortable when I tried to share the film with friends who I assumed would be all aboard. Men and women alike… not real anxious to talk about the clitoris or how we experience embrace and bias against sexual pleasure in women. I immediately bought some of Sophia Wallace’s jewelry (you’ll meet her in the film) and can’t get anyone to wear it. But if you want to know things, you should watch this film. It isn’t perfect filmmaking. But the content is mighty.
Origin Of The Species – Abigail Child’s movie about AI is… well, it can be a tough sit. But the content is utterly fascinating. It’s not a movie that is going to give you the answer. It’s not a movie that you can watch while flipping through your Facebook. But it does feel like someone opening the Pandora’s Box of the future, pulling out the nails slowly with a crowbar.
THE ALMOST INDESCRIBABLE
ALREADY AMONG FAVORITES THIS YEAR FROM OTHER FESTS (DP/30 Interviews)
Boys State – DP/30: Boys State, Amanda McBaine, Jesse Moss
On The Record – DP/30: On The Record, Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering
A Thousand Cuts – DP/30: Ramona Diaz, A Thousand Cuts
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Owen Gleiberman Takes A While To Approach A Point About All Writers, Which, To These Eyes, Is Perhaps That Even The Most Discursive And The Most Prolix And The Most Enervating Among Us (Close And, Yes, Also Far Away), Are Deserving Of An Editor, One Who Is Not A Friend, But One Who Is Still Kind And Stern: "But not really. Because even once you accept that Orson Welles did deserve the co-screenplay credit for Citizen Kane, there’s a question that lingers, and it’s the mystery that I think Kael tried (unsuccessfully) to poke at. Kael’s essay, among other things, was a kind of backhanded meditation on the inner meaning of what a screenplay is. And the reason that question creates such an endless conundrum when we think of Citizen Kane is that Kane was the Hollywood movie that changed the answer to it. If you believe, as I do, that Kane is the greatest movie to have come out of classic Hollywood, and maybe the greatest movie ever made, and then you ask, “Okay, but why is it the greatest movie?,” the answer is 50 reasons at once — the visionary excitement of it, the through-a-snow-globe-darkly gothic majesty of it, the joyous acting and grand brooding cinematography, the hypnotic structure, the playfulness, the doomy haunting mythology of Rosebud, and on and on and on. The pleasures and profundity of Kane are right there on the surface, and infinitely deep beneath the surface."
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