Sunday, May 31, 2009

American Movie directed by Chris Smith


This documentary featured Mark Borchardt, a Milwaukee film maker, who is striving to make a horror film titled “Northwestern.” It has been his dream since he was young to make a horror film and Chris Smith and Sarah Price document some of his trials to do this starting in the year 1996. This film follows Mark as he writes the film and the slow process towards completion of his work. The film begins with “Northwestern” but changes to include more on Mark’s work on his shorter film “Coven” and his overall life and dreams for his film making. “American Movie” won the 1999 Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival.

It was not clear to me the intentions of the documentary film makers because they never indicated their goals through interviews and appeared to sit back and let Mark Borchardt tell his story. I was also unsure whether the documentary was a part of Mark Borchardt’s team or another group of people interested in Mark’s story at first. It turned out to be the latter, but I am curious as to how these film makers met Mark and decided to make a documentary about him. The interviews were all done on location with friends and family as well as with Mark Borchardt. This film did a great job of showing the process of making a feature film from the scriptwriting to recruiting cast and crew and the film maker’s agony during the process. It went in linear fashion following the process and added in clips of Mark’s other films. One scene shows Mark working with his mother to film him acting and the viewer sees the camera filming him and then the scene jumps to the film that is shot through Mark’s camera. The viewer sees Mark recording Uncle Bill for the film over and over again and then explaining the process of recording sound to his daughter. It was great to see the subject of the film explaining how a film works to another character in the story. Mark’s friend, Tom Schimmels, was a strong character in Mark’s work and the stories he told shed light on Mark’s childhood and lifestyle.
Besides the interviews there was footage from the film “Coven” that Mark was also working on and footage from “Northwestern” and earlier videos Mark had made when he was younger. The sound in this film was mainly the interviews but also included some music by Mike Schank.

Concerning the subject of the film, an average man’s journey to create a film, the style of the documentary was well chosen. The casual interviews paralleled Mark’s film process. I think the director’s agenda was to portray one American’s dream and show how it did not work out exactly the way Mark wanted it to. Mark was perseverant in the documentary with his goal to make a film as his friends acknowledged, and yet he was still scraping together to make the film and was working jobs he hated. This documentary showed the difficulty of making an independent film and all the details it comprises as well as showed how dreams can take longer than expected to come true.

Monday, May 25, 2009

War Dance directed by Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine


War Dance is an inspirational story about Acholi students at a northern Uganda primary school in a displacement camp who go to Kampoli to compete in the national music and dance competition. These students are living in a war zone and have survived horrendous rebel attacks from the Lord’s Resistance Army. The three stories of Nancy, Dominic and Rose are the foundation for the larger story about their hard work to compete in Kampala and the success of their group in the traditional dance competition. In this story music and dance help the children to forget their pain and strive for success.

This film strived to avoid acknowledging the crew or letting the viewer glimpse the equipment. There was only one scene where I saw a boom mike accidentally revealed in the corner of the screen. Other than that I saw no evidence of directors or crew. It was very smooth filming which gave it a more professional feeling than the previous films I have watched especially with the exclusion of the interviewer. The interviews were on scene and I never heard any questions asked but rather the interviewee told his or her story or talked about the competition and life in the war zone. There was natural lighting for much of the filming but a few scenes may have had artificial lighting. The film makers used text to give the viewer additional information such as to explain the war situation in the beginning of the film and also to elaborate on each child that the film focused on. When music was used in this film it was mainly the tribal music that the children were working on but there were also other soundtracks that would be heard once in a while.

The setting for the film in northern Uganda raised questions for how the film makers achieved some of their shots. There were a few high shots looking down at the villagers that may have come from a videographer climbing a tree. When the children perform their traditional dance at the competition there is a shot from inside of their circle as they dance and I would love to know how they did it. During this scene the film makers slow down the dance and have voiceovers of the children speaking about how when they dance the camp is gone and so are their problems. This was a gorgeous way to interlay the resilience of the children to their past horrors and the healing powers of the dance and music. When each child recounts their past and how they were affected by the rebels, they are filmed with their backs to the camera in the tall grass or in a school room. I thought this was a good way to portray a difficult topic and was stronger than a typical interview or a reenactment which would have detracted from the monologue. It was impressive that the film makers were given the privilege and trust to hear the horrific stories from the children. I highly recommend this film.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Derrida by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman


This film was about the French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) who is considered to be the founder of the theory of deconstruction. The film makers followed Derrida and interviewed him and his wife about his theories and his life. It was a unique look into the life of a modern philosopher and delve into it while he was still alive and working.

Mainly following him in the present, there were some clips of him being interviewed on a talk show as well as watching him teach in a classroom and answer questions after a lecture. There were also insertions of his earlier life events spoken by the interviewer over the filming of Derrida in the background. When this film was released in the United States, public screenings of the film broke attendance records. I found it interesting that a general audience would want to see a film about a philosopher, and in record numbers, since philosophers do not tend to be regarded as extremely popular.

The crew and film makers were seen in many shots either working or walking around and adjusting for the shoot and the film maker was heard asking questions and talking with Derrida. The viewer saw the interviewer but never actually saw the features of her face, but rather saw her from a distance. Some of the interviews were artificially lit while others were not. There didn’t seem to be a pattern for whether artificial lighting was used. There are many scenes when Jacques Derrida references the camera and crew being present. Derrida himself talks about one shot to the camera and how he can’t always answer the questions because he’s distracted by the crew having to adjust lighting and such. Jacques Derrida and his wife refuse to tell the crew about how they fell in love besides the facts of the situation such as where they met and when they were married. I felt that this was a gesture towards the editing of film and how editing can remove elements of a story that are integrative to it.

There were places where the film maker read from works of Derrida’s while the camera rolled filming Derrida muted in the background. The pieces were excerpts that related to what Derrida had been discussing with the camera. Besides the film maker speaking, the music was created by Ryuichi Sakamoto and used through out the film.

I enjoyed what appeared to be the candidness of Derrida. He was open with the film crew informing them when he couldn’t answer a question and whether a question was a good one. It was refreshing to have the subject of the film aware of the camera and not pretending that the equipment and crew do not exist. His reflections on the editing and lighting made the viewer more aware of the process and construction of the film. When asked what Derrida would like to hear past philosophers be questioned about, Derrida comments that he would like to hear what philosophers have to say about what they don’t talk about, such as their sex lives, however he admits that he doesn’t say he would answer the question if asked. It was humorous to listen to Derrida express his ideas about other philosophers and their work. The style of this documentary was much more revealing of the process of interviewing Derrida and I appreciated the conversations between the interviewer and the interviewee.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Grey Gardens (1975) by Albert and David Maysles


This documentary focuses on Edith Beale aged 79 and her daughter Edie Beale aged 56 who live at Grey Gardens in unsanitary conditions. Their story drew public attention since Edith was the aunt of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Edie her cousin. The house has decayed from neglect due to their poor income and is full of cats, fleas and raccoons. Both women love the cats and raccoons and Edie takes the time to feed the raccoons with Wonderbread and cat food. Their life is quite isolated from others in the community as they keep to themselves. A man delivers their groceries and leaves the box on the front steps without interacting with the women. Edie says, “I never know what time it is.” This portrays the separation between these eccentric women and the world which runs on a strict clock.

The film opens with newspaper clippings and pictures about the Beales and the condition of their house which has resulted in a threat of eviction from the government unless the house is thoroughly cleaned up. There are scenes were the women look through old photographs of themselves when they were younger and view a portrait leaning against a wall in the bedroom. As a viewer I felt these glimpses into their pasts helped create them as average people and make them not as eccentric. Interviews are done on location at Grey Gardens as the cameramen follow the Beale women around and converse with them. Edith and Edie sing and play records which provide the sound for the film. Other than the records there is no soundtrack which is good because Edie and Edith fill up the space with their words and do not leave much room for extra sounds.

Albert and David Maysles, the film makers, reveal their presence by speaking with the ladies, showing a boom mike in a few scenes, and appearing in others when their camera focuses on a mirror or when Edith takes a photograph of the brothers. They do not try to hide the fact that they are present at Grey Gardens. Albert and David did not comment upon the scenes that unfolded leading me to believe that this documentary was more objective than subjective. Throughout the film, the women chatter and give the viewer a sense that the film makers are letting the women tell the story and are not aiming for a certain depiction.

These women appeared eccentric to me with their clothing, isolation and decaying household, but the film showed a family. During the film, the women argue and complain just like a typical family. I wonder if the oddities about them were only present in my mind due to the early presentation of the newspaper clippings identifying the eviction situation. Edie repeatedly states that she is stuck at Grey Gardens and wishes she was anywhere else. She seems like a teenager rather than a 56 year old woman. The ending fits the story well in that it does not end with finality but rather the idea that their lives will continue the same way that they have been.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Sherman’s March directed by Ross McElwee


Sherman’s March (1986) is a film with the intentions of following Sherman’s route through the south during the civil war. Sherman is hated by the south for his actions during the war and not well liked by the north. However, the film quickly turns to McElwee’s contemplations on nuclear proliferation and his attempts to find love while on the journey.

McElwee funded this film through a grant that he mentioned receiving. He was completely involved in the writing, filming and editing of this film. In the beginning he had an agenda which was to follow Sherman’s march but he deviated slightly from his plan by including his personal relationships. At one point, McElwee talks to the camera stating that he has two options. He can continue with the originally planned route or stay where he is longer. McElwee chooses to continue with the original route but this shows us that his film has an element of impromptu which makes it different from the focused point of other films and leaves more room for inspiration. This film felt scattered in that I had no idea what was going to happen next and neither did the film maker. At the conclusion of the film, he decides to forgo relationships for a while but ends up asking his teacher out to a movie.

All of the interviews were very casual and in their natural locations with lighting that was available. The viewer is able to hear the director asking questions and chatting with the interviewee as well as hear him talking throughout the length of the film. McElwee appears periodically to do a monologue with the camera. He used his camera as a conversation piece and filmed his lady friends doing their everyday tasks and conversing with him. The sounds and music that were heard were part of the interviews and not put there on purpose by the film maker. If there was additional music I did not notice the music in this film. Content of the film was not affected by the choice or lack thereof of music.

There were three main times when he mentioned his nightmares about nuclear war while a moon was shown on the screen. Nuclear proliferation did not seem as big a theme as his search for a relationship or Sherman’s march, but it was present. He used some archival photographs and images of Sherman and his time, but the majority of the scenes were his shots of scenery, places where Sherman had been, and of the people in his life.

Out of the previous films I have watched and blogged about this one had the most recognizable subjectivity in that it was about the film maker’s own perspective and investigations on the topics of Sherman, women and nuclear war. Since the film maker is forward with his opinions and thoughts, the film does not try to hide the fact that it is subjective which I think gives it an edge to other films who try to appear objective.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Grizzly Man directed by Werner Herzog


Grizzly Man is the story of Timothy Treadwell (1957-2003) who lived with grizzlies in Alaska for thirteen summers. Timothy filmed his encounters with the bears and used the footage to encourage preservation of these bears. In 2003, Timothy and his girlfriend Aimee’s remains were found in Alaska after being killed and eaten by a bear.

The production companies involved in this film were Real Big Production and the Discovery Channel. Director Werner Herzog uses footage from and of Timothy, photographs and interviews of relatives, friends and authority figures to delve into the life of Treadwell. He portrays Timothy as a “deeply troubled” man whose actions on film reveal a man who is na├»ve, and has an almost innocent view of wildlife while his anger is evident against the Park Reserve Authorities and poachers. Timothy is repeatedly seen telling the bears and foxes that he loves them and is overcome with grief when a baby fox is killed by a wolf, which is contrasted with Treadwell ranting about the Park Reserve’s rules and telling them to f*** off. Treadwell’s personality is complex and double sided as we see in the documentary.

Herzog narrates the film and inserts his own opinions and blatantly states if he disagrees with what has been said or the actions of the character. The film maker briefly appears in the film while interviewing Jewel who is one of Timothy’s ex-girlfriends and a few times he is heard asking interview questions. Hearing the narrator of the story doing interviews made me aware of the film maker’s hand in crafting this film and choosing what to show the viewer. The interviews were done on location and would often feature places Treadwell had been with the person being interviewed. This kept the film in the wild like Timothy was, Treadwell spent his time in natural settings and now the interviews are being conducted in their natural environment. Sound in the film included music by Richard Thompson as well as the nature noises of Timothy Treadwell’s footage and the background noise of the interviews with loud buzzing of insects for the Kodiak Island pilot’s interview.

Treadwell captured gorgeous moments with his work which would be impossible to get on film in other circumstances. Using his footage in the film gave it a depth about Treadwell that would not have been achieved with just the use of photographs and was the main source of footage. Treadwell’s footage is primary source material for the documentary. One scene that sticks with me is of Treadwell standing in the Grizzly Maze talking to the camera about how he has survived with the grizzlies and as he moves a subtitle flashes saying that just behind Treadwell is where he would be killed in a few days. This is startling and then seeing from a plane the route Timothy and Aimee took to their final destination added to the finality of their expedition and work. The filming of the route struck me as a unique way to approach the tragedy since no one knows exactly what happened during the attack, seeing the route they took is as close to the truth of the attack as we can get.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Immortal Cupboard: In Search of Lorine Niedecker directed by Cathy Cook.


In the artistic documentary Immortal Cupboard: In Search of Lorine Niedecker, director Cathy Cook lets, “Poetry tell the story,” of Lorine’s life. Niedecker was an objectivist poet from Blackhawk Island, Wisconsin who has been positively compared to Emily Dickinson. She lived from 1903-1970. Immortal Cupboard flowed like poetry and was visually rich and full of nature imagery of where the poet once lived. The camera shots were mainly close-up and medium shots which placed the viewer in Lorine’s place as she wandered her woods or as the audience followed the character of Lorine or the film maker. It was overwhelming at first for me to experience the scenes in close proximity through the close-ups without the ability to focus on other things in the frame. One image was of following the legs of an actress portraying Lorine as she left her house and went on a walk. The viewer could only see her legs and the area that she walked through and never saw the entire actress’s body. The uniqueness wore off after a short while and I stopped thinking about the closeness of the shots. Footage consisted of present day areas of where she lived, photographs of the poet, a recording of Lorine reading her poems, and of Lorine’s letters and books that were kept by friends, relatives and a historical society. What struck me most about the film was the lack of on screen interviews. The interviews in this film were entirely done off screen and the viewer heard their voices while images and scenes were displayed. This use of interviews added a level of storytelling as if the voices were weaving the facts of Lorine’s life together. I associate documentaries with interviews so Cook’s use of the interview as narration rather than an on camera interview was creative. The score was nature sounds including bird twitters and some percussion. Except for the percussion, the music was diegetic with the nature sounds fitting the screen images. This use of diegetic sounds expanded the realm of the story immersing the viewer in this natural world from whence Lorine drew her inspiration.
I would consider this a poetry documentary in that, besides the subject matter, there was a considerable amount of poetry that the viewer needed to read on screen. At this screening the film maker commented that she believed people who did not like reading subtitles would not enjoy this film. This is probably true. She hits upon a good point that the high amount of reading, compared to other films, may discourage some viewers from seeing it. I felt it was refreshing to read the poems and it seemed natural to read them, since we normally read poems rather than hearing them. The film would have lost the poet’s layout of the words on a page if all of the poems had been read aloud.
Cathy Cook has funded this documentary through grants and is passionate about the topic. This artist is objective in her re-telling of the facts of Niedecker’s life but she is subjective in how she presents Lorine’s work and her interpretation of the poems. Cook geared this film towards poets, artists, and nature lovers and has found Mid-Westerners also enjoy it. As a Mid-Westerner I had never heard of Lorine Niedecker until this film and one scene expresses a similar experience. A boat floated on a lake in darkness and went in and out of the camera’s sight as an interviewee explained that she never knew Lorine even though they had lived in the same area. Through Immortal Cupboard, Cook guides the audience in getting to know a female poet whose work is unfamiliar.