Handyfilm etc

Film reviews and other thoughts

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Location: New York, New York, United States

Sunday, September 24, 2006

When the Levees Broke and Andy Warhol: Two Extraordinary Documentaries

Last year, two documentaries that made their debuts on television had more impact on me and on many other viewers and critics than most movies in theaters. They were Adam Curtis’s The Power of Nightmares, which made its debut on the BBC and had limited distribution in the US at film festivals and a few theaters, and Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, which was released on DVD the same week it premiered on PBS last fall. These long (3 to 4 hours) films, directed and edited masterfully, covered fascinating subjects with depth and feeling only rarely achieved in fictional/dramatic features. They both ended up in the top 5 of my year-end best list.

We seem to be experiencing something similar this year: two 4-hour documentaries have premiered recently that far outshine anything I have seen in theaters in 2006: Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke began airing on HBO in August, and Ric Burns’s Andy Warhol was on this past week on PBS. Both are exhilaratingly well done.

Spike Lee’s monumental look at Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, subtitled A Requiem in Four Acts, should be seen by every thinking, feeling person – and a few unthinking, unfeeling governmental officials should be forced to watch it endlessly. You may think you don’t want to sit through four more hours about Katrina. You are wrong.

From the first few minutes, Lee recreates the terror, the tragedy, the anger, the gallows humor that surrounded those horrific days last year. And he does it primarily by just listening…just letting dozens of ordinary people tell their stories to the camera, along with additional interviews with historians and elected officials. The accompanying clips from news footage take on much more weight and meaning with the cumulative power of each of these stories.

The effect is an emotional mosaic, a rich and powerful picture of New Orleans and its citizens. It packs quite a wallop; you can expect to feel shaken afterward. Lee avoids political cheap shots for the most part. When he does edit one sequence so that President Bush repeats, over and over, to FEMA Director Michael Brown, “You’re doing a heckuva job, Brownie,” it seems like the perfect way to handle that regrettable line. The film could be faulted for letting Mayor Ray Nagin off too easily – his plain-spoken charm is not refuted directly by the other voices, even that of historian Douglas Brinkley, whose recent book on the subject makes it clear that he sees Nagin as self-serving and ineffective to a near-criminal degree.

Terence Blanchard, who is interviewed and shown in an emotional visit with his mother to their ruined family home, contributes a beautiful, elegiac score, as he has done for several of Lee’s dramatic features. The film also uses a considerable amount of both vintage and recent New Orleans music, to bittersweet effect.

Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film (all four of these fine films have colons and subtitles, and all could do without them, but this is surely the most redundant) is a very different type of work, but equally extraordinary. Like Scorsese’s Bob Dylan film, it takes a biographical approach to a cultural icon of the 1960s. There’s a great deal of footage available, and the subject is intrinsically very exciting visually – the story of a graphic artist who changed both art and society.

The film might benefit from some contrarian voices. It takes the point of view that Warhol was the greatest and most important artist of the second half of the 20th century (Picasso owns the first half), and it makes a good case for this. You actually begin to understand how it could be that paintings of Campbell’s Soup cans really were revolutionary. But there are critics, such as Hilton Kramer and others, who think Warhol ruined art, made it trivial and silly and shamelessly commercial. The filmmakers should have allowed this viewpoint to be expressed, even if only to refute it.

But the sweep of the film is amazing anyway. Warhol was a supremely odd person and a genius, and his story is fascinating. The paintings and later the experimental underground films (many with a homoeroticism that was viewed as pornographic at the time) give your eyes and your mind plenty to feast on. The freak-show atmosphere that developed in Warhol’s studio, The Factory, is skillfully evoked, as is Andy’s infamous indifference to the many drug casualties among his hangers-on. And the attempted assassination that transformed his last 20 years makes a powerful climax.

The only movie I’ve seen this year so far that comes near When the Levees Broke and Andy Warhol for sheer intensity and power is United 93, and it is more docudrama than drama. (If you are one of those people who avoided seeing United 93 in a theater, and if you have any interest in movies as art, you need to get over yourself and rent it right now. It’s an astonishing movie, period.)

When the Levees Broke and Andy Warhol continue to be repeated on HBO and PBS. The Warhol film is also available for pre-order from PBS on DVD. Don’t miss two of the very best movies of the year.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

The U.S. vs. John Lennon

I was about 14 or 15 when John Lennon and Yoko Ono became cultural heroes to me. Growing up in Tennessee, my main access to them, other than John’s albums of course, was the Dick Cavett Show. I was so entranced by the Cavett interviews that I taped them on my portable audio cassette recorder and transcribed them. (Yes, I was a media nerd even then. Luckily for all of us, those interviews are now available on DVD.)

The heady excitement that era conveyed, even to a teenager in the sticks like me, was brought back vividly by the new documentary The U.S. vs. John Lennon, written and directed by David Leaf and John Scheinfeld. The first half of the movie is especially exhilarating, powered by John’s irrepressible wit and by great footage from the art/media/political stunts the two of them carried out (strongly influenced by Yoko’s own innovative and provocative performance art), accompanied by generous excerpts from John’s music (36 songs are used, and they sound as fantastic as ever). Also very well told is the story of John and Yoko’s growing association with political radicals viewed by the U.S. establishment as much more alarming than their own gentle form of political theater – people like Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Angela Davis, and the Black Panthers’ Bobby Seale.

Yet once the film moves on to the government harassment that provides its title, it loses some steam. The attempts to tie the political situation of 1969-1972 to the present are not very convincing. Bush is not Nixon, Iraq is not Vietnam. (Of course, Iraq may, in fact, be much worse in some respects. But that doesn’t help this movie make its inapt comparison, which extends to its ad’s tag line: “War Is Over If You Want It.”) And the story of the harassment itself is just not as exciting or entertaining as, say, John and Yoko being interviewed while completely enclosed in a cloth bag, with wonderful Lennon tunes in the background.

The Nixon administration used the pretext of a marijuana conviction in England (framed, John said) to refuse to renew the Lennons’ visas and to try to deport them. But the film attempts to make this more ominous than it was. Of course we’re glad John and Yoko eventually won their court case, but even if they hadn’t, they would simply have had to move back to London and leave New York. There’s one brief recent interview clip in which Yoko claims they thought their lives were in danger, but there is very little if anything to back this up. (One aspect of the era that goes unmentioned is how all this may have affected John's career. He produced basically no new music between 1975 and 1979, concentrating instead on family life. His brief but shattering separation from Yoko is also passed over.)

Nonetheless, this movie serves as an entertaining and emotionally resonant biography of John Lennon, from his childhood to his still-shocking death. The photography, the editing, and the soundtrack are first-rate both technically and creatively – not every documentary is this pleasurable to watch and to listen to. At times during the wonderful first half, I felt like I was 14 again, flying high on music, idealism, and political performance art.

Saturday, September 02, 2006


Match Point was the evil twin of Woody Allen’s new Scoop. I thought Match Point was one of last year’s most overrated movies, rather skillfully engineered but irritatingly self-satisfied and vacuous – which also describes the badly miscalculated lead performance by Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

Scoop, on the other hand, is mildly entertaining. (It shares with Match Point a London setting, a plot about murder, and Scarlett Johansson.) Allen’s best movies are just a distant memory, but at least this newest comedy is not embarrassing, as Hollywood Ending was, to cite just one example from his more recent work. This one moves right along, with its silly but somewhat endearing plot and its lightweight but charming performances by Johansson and Hugh Jackman. It’s a comedy-mystery with supernatural overtones, a distant cousin of The Purple Rose of Cairo and some of Allen’s comic essays in The New Yorker.

In fact, the only part of Scoop that is really jarringly bad is Woody Allen himself, as a performer. He has given himself an annoying part with the worst lines in the script – really stale, sour one-liners. There were a few people in the audience when I saw it who guffawed delightedly at every one of these clinkers, but the laughter sounded mechanical to me, a reflex based on earlier, better jokes and movies.

The Illusionist

The Illusionist looks great, and it has a very good cast. But the skillful direction is unable to sustain the thin plotting. Based on a short story, it has the trappings of a fairy tale, but not nearly enough magic to sustain two hours. The intensity of both the story and the emotions dissipate by being overstretched.

Movies adapted from novels often seem overstuffed with plot and characters, and can give you the nagging feeling that much has been omitted, as of course it has been. The Illusionist has the opposite problem. I don’t know the story on which it is based, but the movie gives the impression of not having enough to say, and taking too long to say it.

Nonetheless, Edward Norton is excellent as always in the title role, mesmerizingly intense. And Paul Giamatti gets to demonstrate that he is just as good in a stylized costume role in a European setting as he is playing contemporary American neurotics. The two of them, along with the satisfyingly lush camerawork and production design, keep the movie alive longer than the story alone would.