Thursday, October 26, 2006


I opened up the “Calendar” section of the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday, and the question that Patrick Goldstein posed off the top of his “The Big Picture” column cut to my heart like an icy knife:

“Did you notice that there are suddenly a lot of good movies in town?

From early October until New Year's, the floodgates are open, with a stylish, daring or thought-provoking adult film arriving every week. This past weekend alone saw the arrival of a potential best picture candidate, Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers, along with two confections of classy entertainment, Christopher Nolan's The Prestige and Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, as well as Running With Scissors, a literary adaptation with a stellar cast.”

The premise of Goldstein’s article, if you weren’t able to guess it from that tantalizing question and opening paragraph is that (wait for it)… Hollywood seems to put out “virtually all of its best adult-oriented films in the last 12 weeks of the year.” (Sarcastic italics mine.)

His conclusion, reached after just over 1,500 words and God knows how many column inches, some of which actually attempt to challenge the studios’ self-imposed reasoning that adults only go to movies in the fall and winter? Get this: Hollywood loads up the end of the year with prestige films in order to court Oscar. (Even more sarcastic italics courtesy of me.)

This is cutting-edge entertainment journalism, to be sure.

To be fair to Goldstein, however, I opened up the Sunday “Calendar” section just two days before, and I said aloud pretty much the same thing: “Wow! There sure are a lot of good movies opening in town next weekend!” The difference is, I wasn’t thinking exclusively, or at all, actually, of the heavily marketed studio titles one might expect to hear about in a low-cal think piece about Oscar campaigns and the myth of the adult movie season. Instead, I was fairly astounded to note that, in addition to at least two documentaries of unusually high interest that were already playing-- Jesus Camp and Deliver Us from Evil-- four brand-new docs, each one with its own unique and compelling area of inquiry, would be bowing on Los Angeles screens on October 27, not to mention one faux documentary that has many potential viewers up in arms before they’ve even seen it. It was enough to make me think that the upcoming holiday wasn't that familiar pagan ritual of candy consumption and corny horror imagery, but instead one devoted to the complex joys of, of all things, the modern documentary.


That faux doc, by the way, would be Death of a President, which originated as a British television film, a curious investigation, through staged documentary framework, into the fictional assassination of George W. Bush and the possible repercussions of such an event. Many have found the movie as searing as did Noah Cowan, whose notes for the Toronto Film Festival, where the film was featured last month, revealed Cowan’s fascination with director Gabriel Range’s methodology:

“This is easily the most dangerous and breathtakingly original film I have encountered this year. Director Gabriel Range’s 2003 project The Day Britain Stopped – which asked what might happen if Britain’s transportation grid was suddenly halted – was his first experiment with this style. He assembles a vast array of media, manipulating and subtly altering it to act as a continuous background illustration of falsified history – and then employs the conventional, after-the-fact style of History Television and its ilk as narration.

But it’s a long leap from Britain’s trains to a gunned-down Commander-in-Chief. Range is up to the task: collaborating with some of the finest special effects wizards in the world, he inserts his characters seamlessly into existing footage. His narrative is also airtight. Cautionary tales are too often flights of fancy; as they push the envelope of credibility, the lessons gleaned from dark speculation become somehow tarnished. Not here. Every moment is completely believable, every comment is somehow appropriate – to the point of chilling, horrifying certainty.”

But not everyone has been similarly impressed. Stephanie Zacharek, the fine critic in the employ of the online magazine Salon, had serious reservations about DOAP’s approach and the depth of those conclusions, as well as the kind of intellectual engagement it encourages:

Death of a President offers nothing but predigested ideas, spouted not by people but by stereotypes. The movie doesn't make you think; it just confirms what you already think you know. The picture is clearly geared to liberal audiences, and it plays to its crowd like a preacher at a revival meeting. But instead of guiding us toward any nuanced thought or complicated moral issues, Range merely outlines the kind of clichéd possibilities that most reasonably intelligent, left-leaning individuals could scrawl on a cocktail napkin in three minutes.”


The gang of four actual documentaries opening this Friday in Los Angeles are led off by Marco Turro’s Excellent Cadavers, based on the 1995 book by Alexander Stille, which tours the scenes of crimes of the Italian Cosa Nostra and attempts to contextualize their causes. A.O. Scott, film critic for the New York Times, finds the cadavers well worth a cinematic autopsy:

Excellent Cadavers does not dwell on the Mafiosi themselves, refusing them the honor of being cast as larger-than-life movie protagonists once again. The leaders of the Sicilian Mafia and their henchmen tend to be shown either as corpses or prisoners, sprawled on blood-stained sidewalks or crowded into cages in a courtroom in Palermo, the Sicilian capital. The film’s designated heroes are the men who, at great risk and against long odds, put them in those cages: in particular, two brave Palermo prosecutors, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, who were murdered in separate bombings in 1992. Before their deaths, Mr. Falcone and Mr. Borsellino (whose names now grace the Palermo airport) helped to bring about the convictions of hundreds of Mafia soldiers and bosses in the unprecedented “maxi-trial” of the mid-1980’s.”


A new film chronicling both the horrors of Jim Jones’ Jonestown massacre and everyday life within the notorious cult compound is garnering a lot of attention as well. J. Hoberman in the Village Voice examines Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple:

“Ending with mass suicide in deepest Guyana, the story of Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple is both the death rattle of '60s utopianism and—predicated on the desire to found a New Jerusalem in the wilderness—a very American saga.
Incredible as this story is, it's been surprisingly under-leveraged. Back in 1979, the super-8 filmmakers Beth and Scott B made a chilling little item called
Letters to Dad, in which a dozen or so East Village bohos read excerpts from the fan mail sent Jones by his followers. Soon after, Powers Boothe played Jones in a suitably lurid made-for-TV movie; some 15 years after the journalistic accounts, Guyanese novelist Wilson Harris's phantasmagorical Jonestown subsumed the specificity of the massacre in a ‘dream book’ of Mesoamerican history.

Jonestown is an arrangement of facts and recollections; with no voiceover, it's almost all oral history. (Sociologist John R. Hall is one of the few who provides an overview.) The narrative is assembled from home movies, interviews, and the cult's own documentation—including the final tapes of Jones exhorting his followers to suicide. There is no way to represent Jonestown's denouement except with itself. The spectacle of a thousand dead bodies, many children, huddled together in a jungle clearing, trumps the horror of Conrad's Heart of Darkness. (Nearly as awful are the snapshots Nelson shows of Jonestown's happy—even ecstatic—campers.)”


Director Eric Steel mounted cameras on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge every day, 24 hours a day, for an entire year, and in the process captured several successful suicides and several more unsuccessful ones. His haunting, poetic documentary about the fatal attractiveness of this venerated, glorious and romantic steel-and-wire construction, The Bridge, has evoked similarly poetic and introspective reactions from those who have seen it. Here’s Jim Emerson:

“For me, as an American, a West Coaster and a cinephile, the Golden Gate Bridge has always loomed large in my consciousness. Today, as I attempt to digest this shattering film, I am moved and awed to offer… images, from Brueghel to the bridge -- visions not just of a magnificent structure or landmark, but of a place of mythic stature in the imagination.”

Jim goes on to quote in its entirety William Carlos Williams’ Landscape with the Fall of Icarus as accompaniment to a series of exceptional images comparing Brueghel’s painting of the same name with shots from Vertigo and The Bridge itself, and inviting comment from those who have seen it, all in anticipation of Jim’s actual review, which should be appearing soon. In the meantime, from the Chicago Sun-Times comes this interesting piece on director Eric Steel and questions of ethics that have arisen in the shadow of the film’s achievement.

UPDATE 10/27/2006 5:11 p.m.: Here's another post from Jim regarding The Bridge, which also includes a link to his full-length review as found in the Chicago Sun-Times and, of course, on


Finally, is disparaging the president, particularly President George W. Bush, the same thing as disparaging America? One would think the difference would be fairly clear to most people. But as the dawning of the war in Iraq inched ever closer a few years ago, Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines had the temerity to express her dissatisfaction with the direction the Bush administration was taking the country in the wake of 9/11, and she did it in public, on stage during a concert—she proclaimed that she and the Chicks were ashamed that Bush came from Texas. That one comment sent the Dixie Chicks into a career tailspin. Suddenly abandoned and vilified by country radio and the very fan base that had turned them into superstars, they were now fair game for character assassination, CD burnings and even death threats. Many who railed against Maines claimed that it was the fact that she made the comment on foreign soil (the group was in England at the time), and not the comment itself, that was so offensive. But that’s a paper-thin rationalization for jumping to the absurd conclusion that Maines was not exercising her right to free speech as an American citizen, on whatever soil she stood at the time, but instead condemning whole-hog the American system, the American way of life— for some, there is no difference between Bush-bashing and flat-out anti-American insurrection. (As I was writing this, KABC-TV “entertainment guru” George Pennachio, in a brief piece of the film during the 11:00 p.m. news broadcast, described Maines’ comment as “a sour concert occurrence.”)

Oscar-winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple (Harlan County U.S.A., American Dream), along with her longtime associate Cecilia Peck, followed the Dixie Chicks as they attempted to grapple with life in the ever-shifting political morass which has engulfed the free exchange of ideas in this country, and the result is the new documentary Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing, the last of the gang of four documentaries to open this weekend. The trailer seems to promise more of Kopple’s evenhanded observational approach to what is, for some of us (and certainly more of us than in 2003, now that the tide of public opinion has swung far more in Maines’ direction than Bush’s), a maddening, infuriating display of self-righteous hypocrisy on the part of the country music industry and those fickle, CD-burning fans. This hope is confirmed by Stephanie Zacharek, whose review of the film out of Toronto, was a wholehearted rave:

Shut Up and Sing is a shout of defiance, a chronicle of the price we have to be willing to pay to stand up for what we believe in. (In the Dixie Chicks' case, that price included death threats.) But the movie is politically potent precisely because it's not solely about politics. This isn't a picture filled with speechifying; it's a movie about people's lives. The Dixie Chicks are all working moms with jobs. Their husbands often handle much of the day-to-day childcare. (Of course, the Chicks are rich enough to have nannies, and so they do.) These women are clearly in an income bracket that means they don't exactly qualify as regular folk, but they don't fit into any traditional mold. They essentially live as millions of American working women do, balancing jobs and a family, trying to hold everything together even as the world seems to be falling apart around them. Their politics inform their lives and help shape who they are. They're engaged with the world in a way that defies facile red state/blue state divisions or, worse, apathy born of discouragement. They're true, old-fashioned liberals in the sense that they refuse to yield to hopelessness or lazy cynicism.”


Patrick Goldstein was right, of course. I did notice that there were an awful lot of good movies opening in town. My list of movies is just a whole lot different than the ones he chose to notice. While some of the studio films out now and scheduled for the coming weeks are undeniably tantalizing (Borat, Casino Royale, Pan’s Labyrinth, just to name a few), it’s mind-boggling to think that so much potentially excellent, or at least worthwhile, documentary work is on so many screens all at the same time, not only in Los Angeles, of course, but other cities as well.

And it’s rather sad, and a bit annoying, that a writer with a bully pulpit like Goldstein’s feels that it’s more important or interesting to rehash the same old Oscar-season questions, as if they’d never been posed before, or as if they held any real significance to anyone other than the studio executives whose jobs might be on the line if their big Oscar contenders this year turn out to be more Elizabethtown than The English Patient, than to talk about some of these much more vital, far less promoted films. But if one or more of these movies does find an audience, maybe they’ll get noticed later, in the inevitable Los Angeles Times think piece about the relevance of the Academy’s nominating process for documentary films. It’s truer than ever, it seems, than an industry town is getting not the paper of record that it deserves, but one that is more than ever willing to take on attributes of the star-maker machinery while still claiming standards of objective, relevant journalism regarding that industry.


Brian Darr said...

Well, there is a documentary feature Oscar too, which I'm sure the distributors of several of these films are campaigning for as well, in perhaps a somewhat less obnoxious way. (and why so many entertainment writers feel obligated to play dumb about the year-end awards process, while at the same time marching lockstep to the beat of the publicists trying to wrangle it, is bizarre to me.)

But I'm just as anxious as you to finally see the Bridge and Jonestown, two Frisco-centric docs that I ended up missing at the SFIFF earlier this year.

Brian Darr said...

I just reread your piece and noticed that you mentioned the documentary Oscar campaigning in your last paragraph! How did I not see that before?

Sometimes I guess I read faster than I think.

Thom McGregor said...

Dennis, right on, sister!